In the early 17th century, Richelieu was the principal minister of Louis XIII of France and Olivares was the same for Philip IV of Spain, the two greatest European states of their time. In this interesting parallel biography, concentrating on their ministerial careers, Elliott seeks to show that, although Olivares and Richelieu were enemies, they were similar in many ways. Both were reformers, aiming at the construction of a centralised monarchy; both tried to increase the political influence of their countries, and both held onto power as advisors to weak kings to achieve this. They both led their nations into war to gain European predominance and they had to face military, economic and political crises in fighting wars that continued after their deaths. Elliott may be too keen to show their similarities rather than any differences, but this is the result his comparative treatment.
If Olivares was a statesman of the same rank as Richelieu, why is he now largely forgotten? Part of Elliott's answer is that the problems Olivares faced in Spain were greater than those Richelieu faced in France, particularly the lack of unity between the various territories of the Spanish monarchy and the problems of controlling them. Although this might suggest that he should have concentrated on domestic matters, Olivares embarked on an aggressive foreign policy whose failure led to war with France, and eventually their being on opposite sides in the Thirty Years War, to the frustration of his aims and finally his dismissal. Another element, which Elliott is rather reluctant to concede, is that although Olivares was able and hard-working, Richelieu was more decisive and better able to use any opportunities as they arose. In addition, Olivares faced only slight opposition in Spain until almost the end of his career, but Richelieu faced continual opposition from those who wished for a compromise peace with Spain. On balance therefore, Richelieu was the better statesman and, as France won the war, he is remembered
Elliott's parallel study of the two statesmen is interesting and, in clarifying the significance of Olivares and rescuing him from obscurity, he presents a readable introduction to Olivares for English students. He is obviously the master of his subject and writes clearly and with empathy for his two subjects.