Arnaud d'Ossat

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Arnaud d'Ossat

Arnaud d'Ossat (20 July 1537 – 13 March 1604) was a French diplomat and writer, and a Cardinal of the Roman Catholic Church, whose personal tact and diplomatic skill steered the perilous course of French diplomacy with the Papacy in the reign of Henry IV of France.[1]


Early life and studies[edit]

Arnaud d'Ossat was born at Larroque-Magnoac in Gascony, perhaps the natural son of the seigneur de Ramefort, and many of the important connections in his life were with other southerners, not excluding Henry IV himself. He was sent first to the nearby College of Auch as tutor to the sons of the local seigneur, then to the Collège de France, Paris, where he studied rhetoric and philosophy with the famous humanist logician and mathematician Petrus Ramus, who became his friend; he studied law briefly at Bourges under the famous legist Jacques Cujas and became an advocate before the Parlement of Paris, while acting as tutor to Jean de la Barrière, the future reforming abbot of the Feuillants.

In 1572 he joined the household of Paul de Foix, Archbishop-elect of Toulouse, whom he accompanied on various embassies and finally to Rome. De Foix dying in 1584, d'Ossat remained at Rome, supervising the French embassy for a year, and then becoming secretary successively to Cardinal Luigi d'Este and François de Joyeuse, two cardinals successively in charge of French affairs at Rome. In 1588 he refused the post of minister of foreign affairs to Henry III, then, driven from Rome by the rupture of diplomatic relations after the murder of Charles de Guise, Cardinal of Lorraine (1588), he returned after the death of Henry III the following year, as the private agent of the widowed queen, Louise de Vaudemont.

He used his unofficial position to support the cause of Henry IV, whose conversion to Catholicism he prepared Pope Clement VIII to accept. As agent for Henry, cooperating with Jacques Davy du Perron, he negotiated the reconciliation with the pope, which took place on 19 September 1595. This was the greatest act of d'Ossat's diplomatic career, assuring as it did the definitive triumph of Henry IV over the House of Guise and the Catholic League, and the restoration of peace to France after more than thirty years of civil war (see French Wars of Religion).


Though Ossat was appointed Bishop of Rennes (on 9 September 1596) he remained at Rome, without any well-defined office, though he was charged with occasional missions to Venice and Florence (1598), and managed the French embassy in the absence of a noble ambassador, as professional diplomats traditionally do, and was always the enlightened and devoted representative of French interests. All the ambassadors of Henry IV had orders to make known to him the business with which they were charged and to be guided by his advice. Villeroy, Henry's minister of foreign affairs, himself consulted him on all matters in any way connected with Rome.


He was created cardinal priest in the consistory of 3 March 1599, and transferred to the Diocese of Bayeux, but he never went there.

A measure of Ossat's skill and tact may be gained by the French measures he was able to present successfully to the Holy See: the expulsion of the Jesuits from France, the non-publication of the decrees of the Council of Trent, the Edict of Nantes, and French alliances with England, and even with the Sultan of Turkey, the annulment of Henry IV's marriage with Margaret of Valois, and the marriage of the Duc de Bar with Catherine of Navarre, the king's sister and an unrepentant Calvinist.

At the same time d'Ossat used his influence at Rome for the benefit of French humanists: the historian Jacques-Auguste de Thou, witness to the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacres, the philosopher Michel de Montaigne, and the savant Nicolas Claude Fabri de Peiresc.


He died on 13 March 1604 after brief illness in Rome. Ossat is buried in the church of San Luigi dei Francesi, above the Piazza di Spagna; his tomb is still to be seen. Cardinal Bentivoglio said of him that never was a man more worthy of the cardinal's hat, because of his religious zeal, the integrity of his morals, and the eminence of his learning.[2]

In the course of his diplomatic career Ossat wrote many letters and memoranda, a selection of which, printed in 1614, long served as models for diplomats, owing not only to the importance of the questions which they treat, but especially to the talent for exposition which Ossat displays in them. The Académie Française inscribed Ossat among the "dead authors who have written our French language most purely", and Lord Chesterfield wrote to his son that the "simplicity and clearness of Cardinal d'Ossat's letters show how business letters should be written".


  1. ^ The main source is still A. Degert, Le cardinal d'Ossat evêque de Rennes et de Bayeux (1537–1604, 1894, noted by Bernard Barbiche, "L'influence française à la cour pontificale sous le règne de Henri I", Mélanges d'archéologie et d'histoire, 77.1 (1965:280 note 1.
  2. ^ Bentivoglio, Mémoires.

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