The Man Who Changed The Face of Europe

[Review of Richelieu, by Hilaire Belloc. Gates of Vienna Books, 2006.]

Many years ago when I was in college, my history professors explained two theories of how and why a single man can change the course of history. Was the man so great that he actually had an effect on the events of his day? Or, was it the world-shaking turn of events that caused the individual to rise to greatness?

The question is, of course, moot, but fun to consider.

Readers of this site know that the present writer is a fan of the great Catholic British/French writer, Hilaire Belloc. Not only was he a fine historian, but his writing style is poetic and unique. At times, one has to plow through a difficult passage, but several re-readings certainly make the result worthwhile. One always feels much better educated upon completing one of his books.

So it is with Belloc’s 1929 biography of Cardinal Richelieu, a monumental figure in French and European history. The book is not a straight biography of the Cardinal. Belloc assumes that the reader knows the particulars of his life – probably not a good assumption for the American reader. He tells us from the outset that his primary goal is to focus on one particular aspect of that influential life, not just as it affected France, but the greater part of Europe.

Let me give you Belloc’s own words in describing the purpose of his book: “I am dealing with one matter only, but a matter of supreme importance. It is the permanent deflection of Europe from his [Richelieu’s] time to ours, into a state which leaves Christians divided doubly: for it has broken Christendom into a mosaic of nationalities, erecting the worship of nationality into a religion to replace the ancient religion whereby Europe came to be, and it has left a line of cleavage between the Catholic and the Protestant culture which has become a gulf increasing before our eyes. Richelieu applied his remote, his isolated, his overpowering genius to the creation of the modern state, and, unwittingly to himself, to the ruin of the common unity of Christian life.” Richelieu created the “religion of nationalism.”

Born Armand-Jean du Plessis, duc de Richelieu et de Fronsac, in 1585, his family was of the lesser nobility, but quite prominent. His delicate health belied his incredible energy. His brilliance was unquestioned, but he was tactful, too, especially in dealing with the royal family. Detractors would rather call his tact duplicity. Suffice it to say that he knew when to push and when to hold back.

He first envisioned a career in the army, but became a priest instead. However, his interest in and knowledge of military strategy never died and he employed it in many a battle for the sake of French unity. He was consecrated bishop in 1608 at the age of twenty-three and made a Cardinal in 1622. This was the time when the reforms of the Council of Trent (1545-1563) were just beginning to impact the Church in France. King Henry II and his son King Francis II, who both reigned during the Council of Trent, refused to allow the French bishops to attend the Council. This was because the Gallican Henry (under the influence of Catherine de’Medici, the Queen mother) wanted to hold a reforming council on his own terms and turf, even intending to invite Protestant Huguenots. The Pope, Pius IV, refused and, instead, summoned all the bishops to Trent for a much needed dogmatic council.

This was also the time of the terrible religious wars that tore France apart (1562-1598), and much of the rest of Europe, with the Huguenot princes fighting against the Valois kings with their own armies and attempting to gain more of the land of France for themselves. The Cardinal was a sincere priest who preferred to win over the heretics by education and persuasion rather than defeating them in battle. To that end he wrote several catechisms directed at the French Huguenot pastors and their flocks. When it was necessary to war against them, however, he did not hesitate, often directing the course of the battle himself.

Cardinal Richelieu became involved in political life in France when the faithful of his diocese asked him to represent them in the States-General. He soon rose to become advisor to the Queen Regent, the abominable Maria de Medici of Italy, mother of the young King Louis XIII. Belloc’s many vivid descriptions of this despicable woman are truly amusing. It is obvious that he considered her totally above her abilities — at times detrimental — in the position of Regent. Richelieu eventually made himself indispensable to the royal family through his wise counsel to the queen mother and the young king as he assumed maturity. He is considered by some to be the first prime minister of any government, becoming the de facto ruler of France during those years.

Richelieu’s primary goal was to isolate France from outside power and influence and consolidate it under the monarchy. While the two most threatening powers to France were the Catholic Hapsburgs in Spain and the Catholic power of the Holy Roman Empire, also Hapsburgs, based in Vienna, there were also the German states to deal with, and their warring factions of Protestants and Catholics. To achieve his ends the prime minister had no scruples in allying with Swiss Protestants to keep the Hapsburgs out of northern Italy. On the other hand, when the time came to make war on the Huguenots, whom the British Crown was attempting to bolster in France, it was all-out war to the death in the Protestant stronghold of La Rochelle in western France.

Belloc takes us through years of intrigue and plotting, Richelieu’s advancing in power and being held back, plots against him discovered and plotters executed. When, finally, Richelieu felt powerful enough to move against the German states in 1631, he solicited the help of the Swedish military genius, Gustavus Adolphus, a rabid anti-Catholic who was more interested in money than anything else.

Here is Belloc’s take : “But once that hired soldier took the field, Richelieu found that he had called up the devil and that the devil was too much for him. He had intended to check the advance of the Hapsburgs by paying a new captain to fight them, but he had not intended to weaken Catholicism. He discovered that he had almost ruined it in the Empire and had left it permanently unable to recover its old supremacy there.” Fortunately, Gustavus Adolphus was killed in battle at the end of a year, but it was too late to stop the ruin.

Never a man of robust health, Richelieu died at age fifty-seven having accomplished his primary goal, a united France under a strong monarchy — at least for a time. When his confessor asked him the ritual question before death, “Do you forgive your enemies?” he replied, “I have no enemies save those of the state.” Indeed, he had seen to the execution of many.

Upon hearing of the death of the Cardinal, the Holy Father is said to have declared, “If there be a God, the Cardinal de Richelieu will have much to answer for. If there be none, why he lived a successful life.”

Richelieu remains a controversial figure. Belloc’s book will definitely show you why!