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The Count-Duke of Olivares, 1587-1645

During the years when France rose to predominance in Europe, writes J.H. Elliott, the Spanish Empire was governed by a man capable of gigantic designs, but lacking felicity in their outcome.

The aloof and imposing figure of Cardinal Richelieu dominates traditional accounts of European history in the age of the Thirty Years War, and this is understandable enough. French victory in the war, and the subsequent establishment of French hegemony over Europe, have naturally focused attention on the rise of France to its position of predominance under the leadership of Richelieu.

But it is arguable that the preoccupation of historians with the revival of French power and the policies of Richelieu has distorted the whole picture of European history in the first half of the seventeenth century; for contemporaries were still overwhelmingly impressed by the power of Spain, and, if they watched with intense interest the activities of Cardinal Richelieu in Paris, they were at least no less interested in the activities of his great rival, the Count-Duke of Olivares, in Madrid.

These two men, jealously eyeing each other’s every move on the European chess-board, seemed at the time well matched, which makes it all the more ironical that the figure of one of them, Olivares, should have been so entirely eclipsed in later historical narratives.

Neglect is no doubt the price of defeat, but there was a particular additional reason for the neglect of Olivares’s memory even by his fellow-Spaniards. By the time of his fall from power in 1643, he had incurred such universal odium throughout Spain that his countrymen wanted only to forget him, and to obliterate for ever the memory of those nightmare years during which they had groaned under the oppressions of a tyrannical minister. Contemporary impressions of the Count-Duke were transmitted from generation to generation, accumulating fresh distortions with the passage of the years, so that, to nineteenth-century liberals, the image of Olivares was an even more caricatured version of what it had been to contemporaries—the image of a monstrous Minister, of a tyrant who had led Spain to disaster.

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