A Cardinal in Full

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...

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