The Magazine

Cardinal of State

Richelieu and the invention of modern France.

Nov 14, 2011, Vol. 17, No. 09 • By KENNETH WEINSTEIN
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For the past three centuries and a half, Cardinal Richelieu has captivated students of politics. 

Painting of Cardinal Richelieu

Cardinal Richelieu by Philippe de Champaigne (ca. 1640)

Armand Jean du Plessis, Cardinal-Duc de Richelieu et de Fronsac (1585-1642), chief minister to Louis XIII, was, after all, the prime architect of the consolidation of the French monarchy against the nobility, and the individual most responsible for France’s rise on the world stage. Jean-Vincent Blanchard, professor of French at Swarthmore, has written an elegant and readable new biography that reveals what a political genius Richelieu really was. Blanchard describes the brutal intrigues that marked the royal court, and how Richelieu went from opponent of Louis XIII to his most trusted adviser, all the while surviving numerous threats to his life to become the most influential man of his age.

Richelieu’s personal ambition seemed limitless. He was, as Blanchard notes, “a man who always took care of how his own life and legacy would be perceived by posterity.” This by no means precluded the use of force. As Cardinal de Retz, a leader of the antimonarchic Fronde in the generation after Richelieu, put it: Richelieu “struck down humans like lightning rather than governing them.” Richelieu’s brutality, however, was not aimless: He “show[ed] no mercy toward enemies of the state, and the state’s enemies were his own.”

France, once considered the “eldest daughter of the Church” for its longstanding Roman Catholic tradition, was rent asunder in Richelieu’s eyes by the Wars of Religion, and by frequent unrest by a nobility unwilling to submit to monarchy. Accordingly, Richelieu’s main political aims were “to ruin the Huguenot’s party, to humble the high nobility, to bring all the subjects to know their duty, and to raise [the king’s] name in all the foreign nations to where it should be.” Richelieu sought to promote France’s unity as much as its grandeur, and thereby made the nation a prominent power in modern Europe.

From 1618 to 1648, the Thirty Years’ War, one of the ugliest conflicts in history, ravaged Western Europe. Blanchard underscores that, whereas Louis XIII faced the world as a warrior, war for Richelieu had to be envisaged in a moral perspective. Richelieu was deeply aware of the misery it brought, and of the canonical teachings on the subject, such as those of Thomas Aquinas, who wrote that war had to be justified. Though far from the orthodoxy of the Hapsburgs on religious dogma, Richelieu nonetheless recognized the need for moral justification for war.

“Few statesmen,” Henry Kissinger notes in Diplomacy, “can claim a greater impact on history. Richelieu was the father of the modern state system.” But his enduring impact can be traced in additional spheres and remains evident even today. For Richelieu helped shape the relationship between politics and high culture that would endure in ever more modern forms through today’s Fifth Republic, promoting grand public buildings, the theater, and even founding the Académie Française to improve the language. Describing the breadth of Richelieu’s legacy, Blanchard makes a convincing case that “Richelieu was to statesmanship what Machiavelli was to political theory, Galileo to science, or Descartes to philosophy.”

Blanchard’s emphasis on Richelieu’s own conception of the religious statesman may be this book’s most important contribution. It is simplistic, he argues, to understand Richelieu primarily as “the rampart of the Catholic religion and the scourge of heretics.” Indeed, unlike Louis XIV, Richelieu took care never to revoke the Edict of Nantes, which afforded toleration to France’s Protestants. Richelieu’s relationship with the church in France was complicated: The pious were skeptical of the war he helped wage against Catholic Spain and Austria, as well as alliances with Protestant princes in Germany and Switzerland.

Less devout than many of the royal confessors, Richelieu emphasized reason over orthodoxy in a manner that would later be heard in the antireligious Enlightenment. Richelieu argued that “the natural light of thought makes it obvious to anyone that man, having been created reasonable, is bound to act using this power. Otherwise, he would act against his own nature and consequently offend his Creator.” Thus, according to Blanchard, “the Cardinal was a pragmatist who thought rational political decisions and ‘natural right’ were reconcilable with God’s design.” This was in marked contrast to the thinking of most other European rulers, including the Hapsburgs, to whom religious orthodoxy and dogma were the foundations of politics.