In his Testament politique, Armand-Jean du Plessis, Cardinal Duc de Richelieu, wrote, “A capable prince represents a great treasure in a state. A skillful counsel . . . is no less a treasure.” Surely Richelieu had himself in mind, as well as his sovereign, Louis XIII (1601-43). He added, “But the acting of both in concert is invaluable, because from it derives the true happiness of states.” Alas for France in the 18-year period when Richelieu was the monarch’s principal minister, they were often in disagreement, even at cross purposes. This conflict led to fruitless struggles, wrong decisions, and unfortunate consequences. Richelieu was fully capable of erring on his own, furthermore. In the balance, though, as Jean-Vincent Blanchard concludes in this political biography, the cardinal’s counsels and unilateral actions were inspired by loyalty and were generally in France’s interest, as he saw it. He helped define the monarchy for the next century and a half, opposing the high nobles who considered the king primus inter pares and affirming the monarch’s uniqueness and divine right of office.
In the final four decades of the 16th century, France had undergone devastating religious wars. The stability and prosperity achieved briefly by Henry IV, the first Bourbon king, were jeopardized by his assassination in 1610. As regent, his widow, Marie de’ Medici, reversed certain policies of his, particularly the traditional anti-Habsburg position, which she overturned by arranging marriages with Spanish Habsburgs, and she spent the treasury surplus, and more, on extravagant gifts and pursuits, until her son Louis XIII seized power (1617).
The duc de Richelieu (1585-1642) came of Poitevin nobility on his father’s side, of the Parisian magistracy on his mother’s. The Richelieu family was not wealthy; perhaps the bride was chosen for her considerable dowry. The family had the privilege of appointing the bishop of Luçon. At age 21, Richelieu took orders and was consecrated. Under Marie’s regency he prospered, becoming a secretary of state in 1616. When Louis XIII assumed power, Richelieu went into exile, but upon the reconciliation of mother and son he returned to court. He was named cardinal in 1622 and became chief minister in 1624. He possessed, in Blanchard’s view, a “sense of opportunity, amazing decisiveness, and courage”—political qualities (in the modern sense) that allowed him to succeed, sometimes despite himself. He was “one of history’s most intrepid and fiery actors, a man who was moved by an uncommon force and who lived politics deeply, viscerally.”
The cardinal was in power during most of the Thirty Years War. His general aim was to protect and enhance the prestige of the monarchy and France. His immediate adversaries included Marie, who grew jealous and conspired against him, and the king’s brother, Gaston d’Orléans—both ready to meddle, to betray, and likewise adversaries of Louis at one time or another. Opponents included also various favorites of the king, a stuttering, pleasure-loving, and changeable man, swayed easily by others. Richelieu’s enemies on the European scene were the Habsburgs, princes allied with them, and certain rulers of border territories to the east. The cardinal’s allies included enemies of his enemies: the Dutch, German Protestant princes, Sweden, and nearby princes not in the enemy camp. At home, many of his adversaries, including (often) Marie, took stands against his pacts with Protestants, justified, he thought, even for a churchman, by realpolitik in the French cause.
The label applied above—“political biography”—should deter no reader. Political matters are interwoven with history and personal biography, all far from dry-as-dust. The exposition is lucid, setting forth the minister’s rise to power, his subsequent role and influence, his successes and failures, the evolving situation of France, internal and external, and the consequences, insofar as they can be assessed, of his decisions. Blanchard is particularly good at presenting sieges (several undertaken foolishly, often failures, others surprisingly successful). The character sketches are well done; telling details are judiciously used. A handy chronology, a list of principal characters, and the family trees of Louis XIII and Richelieu follow the narrative. There are also notes, a bibliography, an index, and fine illustrations, mostly contemporaneous paintings. The accompanying map of France in 1630 is adequate. Of course, other studies of Richelieu and his time exist in English; this one is fresh and makes use of archival investigations and previous work without pedantry.
Unhappily, the book is marred by numerous errors in English. The author, who teaches at Swarthmore, was born in Canada and reared in France. His Ph.D. is from Yale. The publisher states that this is Blanchard’s first book in English, although the Swarthmore site mentions two other English book titles. One of Blanchard’s advisors on the manuscript was Orest Ranum, an American, now professor of history emeritus at Johns Hopkins. (Ranum is known to the public because of his presence at Columbia University during the 1968 demonstrations, when SDS members burned ten years’ worth of his papers, irreplaceable. Accusations that the police had set the fire were unfounded, as a recent confession made clear.) Blanchard’s Acknowledgments page mentions others—colleagues, students, publisher’s employees—who read his work. One “smartly edited the manuscript.” How is it possible that the native English speakers and publisher’s staff could overlook the egregious errors in usage and grammar? English grammar, while simple in syntax, is still tricky, with its strong verbs (which give trouble here) and use of the pluperfect in a sentence such as “For some months, the king had wanted . . . ” Blanchard manages only occasionally to get the tense right. Then there are the “false friends”: For instance, he uses ignore to mean “be unaware of.” Trite phrases such as all hell broke loose are out of place. The barbarisms these kind (which football “color men” use) and hip set are dreadful. I understand grammar slips and difficulties with usage, prepositions, and commas. What is unacceptable is that they are not caught, at least in the publishing house. Since that service is not to be relied upon (at Walker or elsewhere), next time around Professor Blanchard should hire a well-qualified English-language specialist as his editor.
[Éminence: Cardinal Richelieu and the Rise of France, by Jean-Vincent Blanchard (New York: Walker) 309 pp., $30]
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