In his novel The Three Musketeers, Dumas describes Richelieu giving the following paper to Milady de Winter:

C'est par mon ordre et pour le bien de l'Etat que le porteur du present a fait ce qu'il a fait.

3 decembre 1627.


Translated into English:

Dec. 3, 1627

It is by my order and for the good of the state that the bearer of this has done what he has done.


So my two questions:

  1. Is it just a literature, or were these kinds of papers given in the real life of 17th century France?

  2. Does the author refer to a particular kind of official paper which could have been given by a cardinal or a first minister to a known set of people according to a law or a custom, or is this just a note?

  • Can we restrict this question to history, rather than to fiction? Are there examples of such a note in history?
    – MCW
    Aug 14 '14 at 11:13
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    It is pointless to argue based on clerical authority or theoretical state structure. First, this is a work of fiction, not a treatise on government, second much of the point of the book and of history is that France was a failed state; the ostensible form of government was completely ineffectual. Legal (de jure) governance had been replaced by effective (de facto) governance, led by an extra-legal authority.
    – MCW
    Aug 14 '14 at 11:16
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    @MCW is quite right. Even is a somewhat less failed state such as Tudor England a chief minister could upend the whole country with the King's backing. But if he lost that backing, he could lose his head over a parking ticket.
    – Mark Olson
    Jan 25 at 22:04

In 17th century France, the top of the judiciary hierarchy is the King, who is an absolute monarch. Therefore, only a direct order from the King himself would be "legally" allowed to bypass laws and judges; it is called a lettre de cachet. We can see, for instance, Louis XIV issuing a bunch of them during the affaire des poisons (1677 to 1682) as an attempt to quell the scandal when witness statements began to involve the King's principal mistress Madame de Montespan. Even Louis XIV, at the high tide of his personal absolute power and glory, found it difficult. (See this book for a solid relation of that affair; I don't know if it was translated to English.)

From this, we may infer that a note from Richelieu, who was not king (although he had the unfailing political support of Louis XIII), would hardly have had any legal statute, although it could have impressed a provincial guard for enough time to allow a skilled spy to escape. It is also doubtful that a political figure as astute and energetic as Richelieu would have signed such a highly compromising note; Dumas is here writing as a novelist, not as an historian.


I think the previous posters while correct on LEGAL authority are forgetting the influence that the Catholic church had on the populace. Crossing a Cardinal could result in excommunication and in their very antiquated views it would mean that their souls would be damned to hell with no hope of salvation.

It is not unrealistic to believe that the faithful of this time believed that they could have been influenced. The church was selling plenary indulgences and collected tithings. They were very wealthy and powerful. So just because they didn't have the authority to make such a statement. You'd definitely think twice about killing someone with a hall pass from Richelieu. Yeah, you could get away with it, but you'd suffer extreme consequences for it. So yeah, kinda sorta still holds water that it would have worked.

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    Richelieu gained status from his church position, but he gained power because the king backed him.
    – Mark Olson
    Jan 25 at 22:01

I see nothing special in that the cardinal could give such a letter to facilitate assistance to his envoy.

On the other hand, I am sure that such a letter would not have any legal force in case of trial or charges.

  • 3
    Do you have sources? Nov 9 '12 at 0:49
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    @Luke there is no need for sources to assert that Cardinal (as any other man) could write such paper. The signature of the cardinal could help the bearer receive assistance from the cardinal's subordinates and friends. This does not give any legal right though because Cardinal was not a sovereign and could not give exemptions from the law.
    – Anixx
    Nov 9 '12 at 0:52
  • In short it is just an accompanying letter addressed to those to whom his authority is important.
    – Anixx
    Nov 9 '12 at 0:54
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    It might not, or it might. We need a source here. Dec 2 '12 at 1:04
  • @Felix Goldberg of course he might, as anybody.
    – Anixx
    Dec 2 '12 at 10:17

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