Richelieu

Richard Wilkinson wonders why historians have accepted the Cardinal's extravagant assessment of himself.

Historians are too ready to accept Cardinal Richelieu at his own valuation. Far from personifying the classic case for absolutism, he is a horrifying illustration of the dangers of too much power in the hands of one man.

Cardinal Richelieu – 'the greatest public servant France ever had'. Such is the consensus among French historians who see Armand-Jean du Plessis de Richelieu (1585-1642) as the nation's most creative, selfless and patriotic statesman, and a heroic human being as well. For example Victor-L Tapier believes that 'there were in Richelieu those qualities that bring honour to mankind in any age'. The French have truly taken him to their hearts. His portrait appears on bank-notes and a World War Two battleship was called after him. Such sympathetic assessments of Richelieu have to a great extent been endorsed on this side of the Channel. For who can deny that during his tenure of power (1624-1642.) Richelieu transformed France? While it is no longer fashionable to apply 'absolutism' to seventeenth-century regimes, Richelieu certainly achieved an administrative revolution on behalf of his master, the morose and neurotic Louis XIII. And did not Richelieu effectively challenge the Habsburg powers abroad, thereby enabling Louis XIV's France to replace Spain as the arbiter of Europe?

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