meaning and origin of the term ‘éminence grise’

The French term éminence grise, literally meaning grey eminence, is used in English and French to designate a person who exercises power and influence in a certain sphere without holding an official position.

It was originally applied to François Leclerc du Tremblay (1577-1638), known as Père Joseph. A French Capuchin friar, he was the confidential agent of Cardinal Richelieu [note 1], who, as chief minister of Louis XIII [note 2] from 1624 to 1642, practically ruled France.

Because of the power and influence that Cardinal Richelieu and François Leclerc du Tremblay jointly wielded:
– Cardinal Richelieu became known as l’Éminence rouge, meaning the red Eminence, as Éminence is a title of honour given to a Roman Catholic cardinal [note 3], and red is the colour of his ecclesiastical dress;
– from the grey habit of the Capuchins, François Leclerc du Tremblay was nicknamed l’Éminence grise to distinguish him from, and to associate him with, Richelieu.

Both those appellations appear in the following satirical epitaph, quoted in the Second Tome of Memoires de M. Joly, Conseiller du Roy au Chatelet de Paris (Cologne, 1718), by Guy Joly (died 1678), a French magistrate:

Cy gît au Chœur de cette Eglise
La petite Eminence grise,
Et quand au Seigneur il plaira
L’Eminence rouge y gîra.
     translation:
Here lies in the Choir of this Church
The little grey Eminence,
And when the Lord it pleases,
The red Eminence will lie here.

The earliest recorded use of éminence grise in French is from Mercure Historique et Politique (The Hague) of August 1702, which contains the following about Père Joseph:

La vie du P. Joseph doit être curieuse parce qu’il fut employé à des negociations importantes par le Cardinal de Richelieu. C’étoit un Capucin distingué, fils d’un President au Parlement de Paris, qui étoit si consideré parce qu’il avoit la faveur de ce Cardinal, & en même tems si puissant, qu’on l’appelloit Son Eminence grise.
     translation:
P. Joseph’s life must be curious because he was employed for important negotiations by the Cardinal de Richelieu. He was a distinguished Capuchin, son to a President of the Parliament of Paris, who was so highly regarded because he was in favour with this Cardinal, and at the same time so powerful, that he was called His grey Eminence.

In English, éminence grise is first recorded in the review of Œuvres de Alfred de Vigny (Brussels, 1837), published in The London and Westminster Review (London) for April 1838. Summarising the novel Cinq-Mars ; ou, Une Conjuration sous Louis XIII (Cinq-Mars; or, A Conspiracy under Louis XIII – originally published in 1826), by the French poet, novelist and dramatist Alfred de Vigny (1797-1863), the reviewer wrote:

A man of sinister aspect, in the most austere dress of the Franciscan order, appeared at the door: the attendants instantly withdrew, and left Richelieu alone with his celebrated secret agent, known by the soubriquet of l’Eminence grise—Father Joseph, the capuchin friar.

The earliest generic use that I have found of éminence grise in English is from The Globe (London) of Saturday 16th June 1877, which gave an account of a reception given at Adolphe Thiers’s [note 4] mansion, place Saint-Georges, in Paris:

Prince Orloff, the Russian ambassador, was present at the reception of M. Thiers, and conversed for a few minutes with the host. He then took the arm of the eminence grise, as M. Barthélemy Saint Hilaire [note 5] is called by the habitués, and walking him off to a window way remained for some time in conversation with him […].

The earliest generic use that I have found of grey eminence, the English calque of French éminence grise, appears together with red eminence, the English calque of French éminence rouge, in the following from The Globe (London) of Monday 19th September 1904:

THE NEW GRAND LAMA.

Whether Europe will ever follow with as much interest the nomination, or “discovery,” of the Grand Lama as is elicited by the sacred conclave at Rome when a new Pontiff is chosen to sway most of the religious and much of the political life of Western Europe may be doubted; but nothing can be more calculated to set certain Chancelleries agog than the news which has just come from Thibet. For the Amban has reasserted the suzerainty of China; has posted a notice in Lhasa deposing the runaway Dalai Lama, and appointing in his place the Tashi Lama of Shigatse to the post of Grand Lama. The true significance of this may best be appreciated by recalling that while the Tashi Lama has been for twenty years and more distinctly “Anglophil,” the Dalai Lama has taken as the chosen companion of his flight the Buriat Lama, Dorjieff, whose sinister influence and position as Russian Agent, has possibly had more to do with making the present expedition necessary than any other factor in the game. Very good, the “Red Eminence” has had to give way for the moment; the “Grey Eminence” assumes command. The parallel is not perfect, but it may pass. However, we shall see. What chiefly affects this country is that the Chinese Empire has reasserted in no unmistakeable terms that authority whose substance, if not its shadow, had almost slipped away into the grasp of Russia, whose great White Czar was fast becoming the recognised Defender of the Buddhist Faith. And though the Mongolians and Buriats may be stirring, if we may trust that stormy, but not always veracious, petrel, the “Novoe Vremya,” yet for the moment we have a High Priest of Buddhism whose sympathy is British, his appointment Chinese, and his rival, in full flight, almost a Russian.

In L’Éminence Grise (1873), by the French painter and sculptor Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824-1904), François Leclerc du Tremblay is standing on the right-hand side—source: Wikimedia Commons:

minence Grise (1873), by Jean-Léon Gérôme

 

Titled His Gray Eminence, and published in The Brooklyn Daily Eagle (Brooklyn, New York) of Tuesday 2nd February 1904, this cartoon by Maybell is a parody of Gérôme’s painting. It depicts, in Chateau de G.O.P, figures of the Republican Party paying homage to the recently deceased American businessman and Republican politician Mark Hanna (1837-1904), Senator from Ohio, chairman of the Republican National Committee, and first president of the National Civic Federation (in the cartoon, Hanna is reading Reports of Civic Federation):

'His Gray Eminence' - The Brooklyn Daily Eagle (Brooklyn, New York) - 2 February 1904

 

 

Notes

 

1: Known as Cardinal Richelieu, Armand Jean du Plessis (1585-1642), Duc de Richelieu, was a French cardinal and statesman.

2: Louis XIII (1601-43), son of Henry IV of France, was the King of France from 1610 to 1643.

3: In 1630, Pope Urban VIII gave to the cardinals the title of Eminence, which was shared with them only by the grand master of the order of Malta and the ecclesiastical electors of the German or Roman Empire. The word eminence is from Latin eminentia, literally a standing out, hence figuratively pre-eminence, superiority, excellence. In Late Latin, eminentia was an honorific title given in particular to the bishops.

4: The French historian and statesman Adolphe Thiers (1797-1877) was the first President of the French Third Republic from 1871 to 1873.

5: Appointed senator for life in 1875, the French philosopher, journalist and statesman Jules Barthélemy-Saint-Hilaire (1805-95) acted as Secretary General of the Presidency of the French Republic under Adolphe Thiers.

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