This biography of Richelieu, apparently intended for a general audience, attempts to encompass his entire career and complex personality in 227 pages of text. The result: unsatisfactory.
Armand-Jean du Plessis (1585-1642), Duc de Richelieu and Cardinal of the Roman Catholic Church, was, according to Henry Kissinger in his book "Diplomacy," "the father of the modern state system." Kissinger, who adds that "few statesmen can claim a greater impact on history" than Richelieu, is not alone in this estimate.
Richelieu dominated the time in European history that modern nations began to emerge from the violent chaos of religious and dynastic strife arising from the Reformation and the Catholic Counter-Reformation. Violence repeatedly convulsed Europe in religious and dynastic strife from circa 1524 to the Peace of Westphalia in 1648 and beyond. Kingdoms were riven with civil wars, ostensibly based on religion, and dynasts devastated Europe both in the name of disparate Christian creeds and to increase their own political power.
Richelieu himself was as complex and even contradictory as the era he confronted. A man of some sensitivity and considerable cultivation, he entered a clerical career, read and wrote orthodox theology and was apparently a sincere Catholic throughout his life. Yet this did not prevent him from pursuing policies that placed the growth of French monarchial power above everything else. He pursued these aims with utter ruthlessness and opportunistic practical expediency.
To take just one example, Richelieu crushed Protestant military and political power in France but did not expel Protestants or even interfere much with their strictly religious practices. Similarly his foreign policy bewildered many because superficially it seemed inconsistent as Richelieu supported now one side and now another.
Richelieu was in fact pursuing French power and consistently trying to master what he saw as the greatest threat to France: The two branches of the Habsburg family (one of which claimed overlordship in the German states (the Holy Roman Empire) and the other ruled Spain and claimed dominion in Holland and what is now the Benelux area. The wars generated by all this ultimately involved most of the European states of the time and so devastated German lands that it took nearly two centuries for physical recovery; and, some would say, longer for recovery of German political development.
Richelieu also reformed France. By the time of his death in 1642, he had greatly enhanced the monarchy's ability to centrally control its territory by appointing new royal officials ("intendants") with broad (and vague) administrative, political and military authority to oversee traditional royal provincial officials (who had purchased their offices and rapaciously exploited them for profit).
This also helped undercut the power and prestige of the hereditary nobility in the provinces, whom Richelieu then conciliated by making loyalty to the King and careers in the royal service irresistibly attractive. The nobles, whose power had put the monarchy itself in peril in civil strife from at least 1547 through the assassination of King Henry IV and the minority of Louis XIII, were eliminated as a significant political threat to the state.
Richelieu did all this and much more in a polity that still possessed many elements of the old feudal order. All politics were dominated by an intensely competitive oligarchic aristocracy and were deeply personal, reflecting bitter competition for individual power and glory. Political parties did not exist. There were no elections. The King personally controlled who would hold power; and, in the end, power at court depended on getting and keeping the ear of the ruler.
No way to transfer power existed other than to secure the "fall" of a dominant minister. This could be caused simply by the ruler's fickleness and the rise of a favorite or by catastrophic failures of policy but also often by causing doubt about a minister's loyalty to the Crown. A fall caused by "disloyalty" could be followed by imprisonment or death.
Accordingly plots (both domestic and foreign) against a dominant minister such as Richelieu were many and constant. To combat them and to insure personal and political survival, Richelieu created the best system for domestic and foreign intelligence seen to that time in Europe. One of the remarkable aspects of Richelieu's spectacular achievements is that he had them against this backdrop, when he must have spent enormous time simply in protecting himself.
Much is omitted from the above simplified description of what Richelieu faced and achieved. Yet without some idea of this history a reader not already familiar with it can have little hope of appreciating Richelieu's life and career. The space constraints of this book largely prevented meaningful discussion of this background, crippling both author and reader from the start.
The book has little room for the things that make history come alive: the illuminating anecdote; the telling detail; the personal quirk. These are almost entirely missing, not only with regard to Richelieu himself but for all the personalities in the book.
The book is at best a summary narrative with a torrent of facts overwhelming the reader without much enlightening him. The writing is pedestrian and the book as a whole could easily serve as the "Age of Richelieu" segment of a mediocre high school or college textbook.
It is supported by a not very useful summary "Chronology," a list of "Principal Characters" containing only names and titles and devoid of any biographical information whatever, including the "character's" relationship to Richelieu, a "Family Tree" for Louis XIII and one for Richelieu (each occupying half of a page and each beginning with their respective subject's parents and ending with the generation succeeding the subject's), a single map of "France in 1630" and a poor index.
Not very interesting, not very illuminating, not much fun, not worth reading.