Cardinal Richelieu : Absolutism – Beacon Lights of History, Volume VIII : Great Rulers

Beacon Lights of History, Volume VIII : Great Rulers by John Lord

Beacon Lights of History, Volume VIII : Great Rulers

Alfred the Great : The Saxons in England
Queen Elizabeth : Woman as a Sovereign
Henry of Navarre : The Huguenots
Gustavus Adolphus : Thirty Years’ War
Cardinal Richelieu : Absolutism
Oliver Cromwell : English Revolution
Louis XIV : The French Monarchy
Louis XV : Remote Causes of Revolution
Peter the Great : His Services to Russia
Frederic the Great : The Prussian Power

Beacon Lights of History, Volume VIII : Great Rulers
John Lord

Topics Covered
State of France in the 17th Century
Elevation of Richelieu
He perceives the great necessities of the State
Makes himself necessary to Louis XIII.
His aims as Prime Minister
His executive ability
His remorseless tyranny
His warfare on the Huguenots
Aims of the Huguenots
La Rochelle
Fall of the Huguenots
Character of the Nobility; their decimation
The Queen-Mother
The Duke of Orleans
The justification of Richelieu
The Parliaments
Their hostilities
Their humiliation
The policy of Richelieu
His services to the Crown
His internal improvements
His defects of character
Necessity of absolutism amid treasons and anarchies
Abuse of absolutism

Cardinal Richelieu : Absolutism

A. D. 1585-1642.

Cardinal de Richelieu is an illustration of what can be done for the prosperity and elevation of a country by a man whom we personally abhor, and whose character is stained by glaring defects and vices. If there was a statesman in French history who was pre-eminently unscrupulous, selfish, tyrannical, and cruel, that statesman was the able and wily priest who ruled France during the latter years of Louis XIII. And yet it would be difficult to find a ruler who has rendered more signal services to the state or to the monarch whom he served. He extricated France from the perils of anarchy, and laid the foundation for the grandeur of the monarchy under Louis XIV. It was his mission to create a strong government, when only a strong government could save the kingdom from disintegration; so that absolutism, much as we detest it, seems to have been one of the needed forces of the seventeenth century. It was needed in France, to restrain the rapacity and curtail the overgrown power of feudal nobles, whose cabals and treasons were fatal to the interests of law and order.

The assassination of Henry IV. was a great calamity. The government fell into the hands of his widow, Marie de Médicis, a weak and frivolous woman. Under her regency all kinds of evils accumulated. So many conflicting interests and animosities existed that there was little short of anarchy. There were not popular insurrections and rebellions, for the people were ignorant, and were in bondage to their feudal masters; but the kingdom was rent by the rivalries and intrigues of the great nobles, who, no longer living in their isolated castles but in the precincts of the court, fought duels in the streets, plundered the royal treasury, robbed jewellers and coachmakers, paid no debts, and treated the people as if they were dogs or cattle. They claimed all the great offices of state, and all high commands in the army and navy; sold justice, tampered with the law, quarrelled with the parliaments,–indeed, were a turbulent, haughty, and powerful aristocracy, who felt that they were above all law and all restraint. They were not only engaged in perpetual intrigues, but even in treasonable correspondence with the enemies of their country. They disregarded the honor of the kingdom, and attempted to divide it into principalities for their children. “The Guises wished to establish themselves in Provence, the Montmorencies in Languedoc, the Longuevilles in Picardy. The Duke of Epernon sought to retain the sovereignty of Guienne, and the Duke of Vendôme to secure the sovereignty of Brittany.” One wanted to be constable, another admiral, a third to be governor of a province, in order to tyrannize and enrich themselves like Roman proconsuls. Every outrage was shamelessly perpetrated by them with impunity, because they were too powerful to be punished. They assassinated their enemies, filled the cities with their armed retainers, and made war even on the government; so that all central power was a mockery. The Queen-regent was humiliated and made contemptible, and was forced, in her turn and in self-defence, to intrigues and cabals, and sought protection by setting the nobles up against each other, and thus dividing their forces. Even the parliaments, which were courts of law, were full of antiquated prejudices, and sought only to secure their own privileges,–at one time siding with the Queen-regent, and then with the factious nobles. The Huguenots were the best people of the land; but they were troublesome, since they possessed cities and fortresses, and erected an imperium in imperio. In their synods and assemblies they usurped the attributes of secular rulers, and discussed questions of peace and war. They entered into formidable conspiracies, and fomented the troubles and embarrassments of the government The abjuration of Henry IV. had thinned their ranks and deprived them of court influence. No great leaders remained, since they had been seduced by fashion. The Huguenots were a disappointed and embittered party, hard to please, and hard to be governed; full of fierce resentments, and soured by old recollections. They had obtained religious liberty, but with this they were not contented. Their spirit was not unlike that of the Jacobins in England after the Stuarts were expelled from the throne. So all things combined to produce a state of anarchy and discontent. Feudalism had done its work. It was a good thing on the dissolution of the Roman Empire, when society was resolved into its original elements,–when barbarism on the one hand, and superstition on the other, made the Middle Ages funereal, dismal, violent, despairing. But commerce, arts, and literature had introduced a new era,–still unformed, a vast chaos of conflicting forces, and yet redeemed by reviving intelligence and restless daring. The one thing which society needed in that transition period was a strong government in the hands of kings, to restore law and develop national resources.

Cardinal Richelieu painting by Philippe de Champaigne, National Gallery, London

Cardinal Richelieu painting by Philippe de Champaigne, National Gallery, London

Now amid all these evils Richelieu grew up. Under the guise of levity and pleasure and good-nature, he studied and comprehended all these parties and factions, and hated them all. All alike were hostile to the central power, which he saw was necessary to the preservation of law and to the development of the resources of the country.

Moreover, he was ambitious of power himself, which he loved as Michael Angelo loved art, and Palestrina loved music. Power was his master-passion, and consumed all other passions; and he resolved to gain it in any way he could,–unscrupulously, by flatteries, by duplicities, by sycophancies, by tricks, by lies, even by services. That was his end. He cared nothing for means. He was a politician.

The progress of his elevation is interesting, but hideous. Armand Jean Duplessis was born in 1585, of a noble family of high rank. He was designed for the army, but a bishopric falling to the gift of his family, he was made a priest. He early distinguished himself in his studies, for he was precocious and had great abilities. At twenty he was doctor of the Sorbonne, and before he was twenty-one he received from the Pope, Paul V., the emblems of spiritual power as a prelate of the Church. But he was too young to be made a bishop, according to the canons,–a difficulty, however, which he easily surmounted: he told a lie to the Pope, and then begged for an absolution. He then attached himself to the worthless favorite of the Queen-regent, Concini, one of her countrymen; and through him to the Queen herself, Marie de Medicis, who told him her secrets, which he betrayed when it suited his interests. When Louis XIII. attained his majority, Richelieu paid his court to De Luynes, who was then all-powerful with the King, and who secured him a cardinal’s hat; and when this miserable favorite died,–this falconer, this keeper of birds, yet duke, peer, governor, and minister,–Richelieu wound himself around the King, Louis XIII., the most impotent of all the Bourbons, made himself necessary, and became minister of foreign affairs; and his great rule began (1624).

During all these seventeen years of office-climbing, Richelieu was to all appearance the most amiable man in France; everybody liked him, and everybody trusted him. He was full of amenities, promises, bows, smiles, and flatteries. He always advocated the popular side with reigning favorites; courted all the great ladies; was seen in all the fashionable salons; had no offensive opinions; was polite to everybody; was non-committal; fond of games and spectacles; frivolous among fools, learned among scholars; grave among functionaries, devout among prelates; cunning as a fox, brave as a lion, supple as a dog; all things to all men; an Alcibiades, a Jesuit; with no apparent animosities; handsome, witty, brilliant; preacher, courtier, student; as full of hypocrisy as an egg is of meat; with eyes wide open, and thoughts disguised; all eyes and no heart; reserved or communicative as it suited his purpose. This was that arch-intriguer who was seeking all the while, not the sceptre of the King, but the power of the King. Should you say that this non-committal, agreeable, and amiable politician–who quarrelled with nobody, and revealed nothing to anybody; who had cheated all parties by turns–was the man to save France, to extricate his country from all the evils to which I have alluded, to build up a great throne (even while he who sat upon it was utterly contemptible) and make that throne the first in Europe, and to establish absolutism as one of the needed forces of the seventeenth century?

Yet so it was; and his work was all the more difficult when the character of the King is considered. Louis XIII. was a different kind of man from his father Henry IV. and his grandson Louis XIV. He had no striking characteristics but feebleness and timidity and love of ignoble pleasures. He had no ambitions or powerful passions; was feeble and sickly from a child,–ruled at one time by his mother, and then by a falconer; and apparently taking but little interest in affairs of state.

But if it was difficult to gain ascendency over such a frivolous and inglorious Sardanapalus, it was easy to retain it when this ascendency was once acquired. For Richelieu made him comprehend the dangers which menaced his life and his throne; that some very able man must be intrusted with supreme delegated power, who would rule for the benefit of him he served,–a servant, and yet a master; like Metternich in Austria, after the wars of Napoleon,–a man whose business and aim were to exalt absolutism on a throne. Moreover, he so complicated public affairs that his services were indispensable. Nobody could fill his place.

Also, it must be remembered that the King was isolated, and without counsellors whom he could trust. After the death of De Luynes he had no bosom friend. He was surrounded with perplexities and secret enemies. His mother, who had been regent, defied his authority; his brothers sought to wear his crown; the nobles conspired against his throne; the Protestants threatened another civil war; the parliaments thought only of retaining their privileges; the finances were disordered; the treasures which Henry IV. had accumulated had been squandered in bribing the great nobles; foreign enemies had invaded the soil of France; evils and dangers were accumulating on every side, with such terrific force as to jeopardize the very existence of the monarchy; and one necessity became apparent, even to the weak mind of the King,–that he must delegate his power to some able man, who, though he might rule unscrupulously and tyrannically, would yet be faithful to the crown, and establish the central power for the benefit of his heirs and the welfare of the state.

Now Richelieu was just the man he needed, just such a man as the times required,–a man raised up to do important work, like Cromwell in England, like Bismarck in Prussia, like Cavour in Italy: doubtless a great hypocrite, yet sincere in the conviction that a strong government was the great necessity of his country; a great scoundrel, yet a patriotic and wise statesman, who loved his country with the ardor of a Mirabeau, while nobody loved him. Besides, he loved absolutism, both because he was by nature a tyrant, and because he was a member of the Roman Catholic hierarchy. He called to mind old Rome under the Caesars, and mediaeval Rome under the popes, and what a central authority had effected for civilization in times of anarchy, and in times of darkness and superstition; and the King to him was a sort of vicegerent of divine power, clothed in authority based on divine right,–the idea of kings in the Middle Ages. The state was his, to be managed as a man manages his farm,–as a South Carolinian once managed his slaves. The idea that political power properly emanates from the people,–the idea of Rousseau and Jefferson,–never once occurred to him; nor even political power in the hands of aristocrats, fettered by a constitution and amenable to the nation. A constitutional monarchy existed nowhere, except perhaps in England. Unrestricted and absolute power in the hands of a king was the only government he believed in. The king might be feeble, in which case he could delegate his power to ministers; or he might be imbecile, in which case he might be virtually dethroned; but his royal rights were sacred, his authority incontestable, and consecrated by all usage and precedent.

Yet while Richelieu would uphold the authority of the crown as supreme and absolute, he would not destroy the prestige of the aristocracy; for he was a nobleman himself,–he belonged to their class. He believed in caste, in privileges, in monopolies; therefore he would not annul either rank or honor. The nobles were welcome to retain their stars and orders and ribbons and heraldic distinctions, even their parks and palaces and falcons and hounds. They were a favored class, that feudalism had introduced and ages had indorsed; but even they must be subservient to the crown, from which their honors emanated, and hence to order and law, of which the king was the keeper. They must be subjects of the government, as well as allies and supporters. The government was royal, not aristocratic. The privileges of the nobility were social rather than political, although the great offices of state were intrusted to them as a favor, not as a right,–as simply servants of a royal master, whose interests they were required to defend. Some of them were allied by blood with the sovereign, and received marks of his special favor; but their authority was derived from him.

Richelieu was not unpatriotic. He wished to see France powerful, united, and prosperous; but powerful as a monarchy, united under a king, and prosperous for the benefit of the privileged orders,–not for the plebeian people, who toiled for supercilious masters. The people were of no account politically; were as unimportant as slaves,–to be protected in life and property, that they might thrive for the benefit of those who ruled them.

So when Richelieu became prime minister, and felt secure in his seat,–knowing how necessary to the King his services were,–he laid aside his amiable manners as a politician, and determined as a statesman to carry out remorselessly and rigidly his plans for the exaltation of the monarchy. And the moment he spoke at the council-board his genius predominated; all saw that a great power had arisen, that he was a master, and would be obeyed, and would execute his plans with no sentimentalities, but coldly, fixedly, like a man of blood and iron, indifferent to all obstacles. He was a man who could rule, and therefore, on Carlyle’s theory, a man who ought to rule, because he was strong.

There is something imposing, I grant, in this executive strength; it does not make a man interesting, but it makes him feared. Every ruler,–in fact every man intrusted with executive power, especially in stormy times,–should be resolute, unflinching, with a will dominating over everything, with courage, pluck, backbone, be he king or prime minister, or the superintendent of a railway, or director of a lunatic asylum, or president of a college. No matter whether the sphere be large or small, the administration of power requires energy, will, promptness of action, without favor and without fear. And if such a person rules well he will be respected; but if he rules unwisely,–if capricious, unjust, cruel, vindictive,–he may be borne for a while, until patience is exhausted and indignation becomes terrible: a passion of vengeance, like that which overthrew Strafford. Wise tyrants, like Peter and Frederic the Great, will be endured, from their devotion to public interests; but unwise tyrants, ruling for self-interest or pleasure, will be hurled from power, or assassinated like Nero or Commodus, as the only way to get rid of the miseries they inflict.

Now of the class of wise and enlightened tyrants was Richelieu. His greatness was in his will, sagacity, watchfulness, and devotion to public affairs. Factions could not oust him, because he was strong; the King would not part with him, because he was faithful; posterity will not curse him, because he laid the foundation of the political greatness of his country.

I do not praise his system of government. On abstract principles I feel that it is against the liberties of mankind; nor is it in accordance with the progress of government in our modern times. All the successive changes which reforms and revolutions have wrought have been towards representative and constitutional governments,–as in England and France in the nineteenth century. Absolutism or Caesarism is only adapted to people in primitive or anarchical states of society,–as in old Rome, or Rome under the popes. It is at the best a necessary tyranny, made so by the disorders and evils of life. It can be commended only when men are worse than governments; when they are to be coerced like wild beasts, or lunatics, or scoundrels. When there is universal plunder, lying, cheating, and murdering; when laws are a mockery, and when demagogues reign; when all public interests are scandalously sacrificed for private emolument,–then absolutism may for a time be necessary; but only for a time, unless we assume that men can never govern themselves.

In that state of society into which France was plunged during the regency of Marie de Médicis, and at which I have glanced, absolutism was perhaps a needed force. Then Richelieu, its great modern representative, arose,–a model statesman in the eyes of Peter the Great.

But he was not to reign, and trample all other powers beneath his feet, without a memorable struggle. Three great forces were arrayed against him. These were the Huguenots, the nobles, and the parliaments,–the Protestant, the feudal, and the legal elements of society in France. The people,–at least the peasantry,–did not rise up against him; they were powerless and too unenlightened. The priests sustained him, and the common people acquiesced in his rigid rule, for he established law and order.

Richelieu Watches the Siege Operations from the Dam at Rochelle painting by Henri-Paul Motte

Richelieu Watches the Siege Operations from the Dam at Rochelle painting by Henri-Paul Motte

He began his labors in behalf of absolutism by suppressing the Huguenots. That was the only political party which was urgent for its rights. They were an intelligent party of tradesmen and small farmers; they were plebeian, but conscientious and aspiring. They were not contented alone to worship God according to the charter which Henry IV. had granted, but they sought political power; and they were so unfortunate as to be guilty of cabals and intrigues inconsistent with a central power. They were factious, and were not disposed to submit to legitimate authority. They had declined in numbers and influence; they had even degenerated in religious life; but they were still powerful and dangerous foes. They had retreated to their strong fortress of La Rochelle, resolved, if attacked, to fight once again the whole power of the monarchy. They put themselves in a false position; they wanted more than the Edict of Nantes had guaranteed.

Unfortunately for them they had no leaders worthy to marshal their forces. Fashion and the influence of the court had seduced their men of rank; nor had they the enthusiasm which had secured victory at Ivry. Nor could they contend openly in the field; they were obliged to intrench themselves in an impregnable fortress: there they deemed they could defy their enemy. They even invoked the aid of England, and thus introduced foreign enemies on the soil of France, which was high-treason. They put themselves in the attitude of rebels against the government; and so long as English ships, with supplies, could go in and out of their harbor, they could not be conquered. Richelieu, clad in mail, a warrior-priest, surveyed with disgust their strong defences and their open harbor. His artillery was of no use, nor his lines of circumvallation. So he put his brain in motion, and studied Quintus Curtius. He remembered what Alexander did at the siege of Tyre; he constructed a vast dyke of stone and timber and iron across the harbor, in some places twelve hundred feet deep, and thus cut off all egress and ingress. The English under Buckingham departed, unable to render further assistance. The capture then was only a work of time; genius had hemmed the city in, and famine soon did the rest. Cats, dogs, and vermin became luxuries. The starving women beseeched the inexorable enemy for permission to retire: they remembered the mercy that Henry IV. had shown at the siege of Paris. But war in the hands of masters has no favors to grant; conquerors have no tears. The Huguenots, as rebels, had no hope but in unconditional submission. They yielded it reluctantly, but not until famine had done its work. And they never raised their heads again; their spirit was broken. They were conquered, and at the mercy of the crown; destined in the next reign to be cruelly and most wantonly persecuted; hunted as heretics by dragonnades and executioners, at the bidding of Louis XIV., until four hundred thousand were executed or driven from the kingdom.

But Richelieu was not such a bigot as Louis XIV.; he was a statesman, and took enlightened views of the welfare of the country. Therefore he contented himself with destroying the fortifications of La Rochelle, filling up its ditches, and changing its government. He continued, in a modified form, the religious privileges conceded by the Edict of Nantes; but he kept a strict watch, humiliated the body by withholding civil equalities and offices in the army and navy, treating with disdain their ministers, and taking away their social rank, so that they became plebeian and unimportant. He pursued the same course that the English government adopted in reference to Dissenters in the eighteenth century, when they were excluded from Oxford and Cambridge and church burial-grounds. So that Protestantism in France, after the fall of La Rochelle, never asserted its dignity, in spite of Bibles, consistories, and schools. Degraded at court, deprived of the great offices of the state, despised, rejected, and persecuted, it languished and declined.

Having subdued the Huguenots, Richelieu turned his attention to the nobles,–the most worthless, arrogant, and powerful of all the nobility of Europe; men who made royalty a mockery and law a name. I have alluded to their intrigues, ambition, and insolence. It was necessary that they should be humiliated, decimated, and punished, if central power was to be respected. So he cut off their towering heads, exiled and imprisoned them whenever they violated the laws, or threatened the security of the throne or the peace of the realm. As individuals they hated him, and conspired against his rule. Had they combined, they would have been more powerful than he; but they were too quarrelsome, envious, and short-sighted to combine.

The person who hated Richelieu most fiercely and bitterly was the Queen-mother,–widow of Henry IV., regent during the minority of Louis XIII. And no wonder, for he had cheated her and betrayed her. She was a very formidable enemy, having a great ascendency over the mind of her son the King; and once, it is said, she had so powerfully wrought upon him by her envenomed sarcasms, in the palace of the Luxembourg where she lived in royal state, that the King had actually taken the parchment in his hand to sign the disgrace of his minister. But he was watched by an eye that never slept; Richelieu suddenly appearing, at the critical moment, from behind the tapestries where he had concealed himself, fronted and defied his enemy. The King, bewildered, had not nerve enough to face his own servant, who however made him comprehend the dangers which surrounded his throne and person, and compelled him to part with his mother,–the only woman he ever loved,–and without permitting her to imprint upon his brow her own last farewell. “And the world saw the extraordinary spectacle of this once powerful Queen, the mother of a long line of kings, compelled to lead a fugitive life from court to court,–repulsed from England by her son-in-law, refused a shelter in Holland, insulted by Spain, neglected by Rome, and finally obliged to crave an asylum from Rubens the painter, and, driven from one of his houses, forced to hide herself in Cologne, where, deserted by all her children, and so reduced by poverty as to break up the very furniture of her room for fuel, she perished miserably between four empty walls, on a wretched bed, destitute, helpless, heartbroken, and alone.” Such was the power and such was the vengeance of the cardinal on the highest personage in France. Such was the dictation of a priest to a king who personally disliked him; such was his ascendency, not by Druidical weapons, but by genius presenting reasons of state.

The next most powerful personage in France was the Duke of Orleans, brother of the King, who sought to steal his sceptre. As he was detected in treasonable correspondence with Spain, he became a culprit, but was spared after making a humiliating confession and submission. But Condé, the first prince of the blood, was shut up in prison, and the powerful Duke of Guise was exiled. Richelieu took away from the Duke of Bouillon his sovereignty of Sedan; forced the proud Epernon to ask pardon on his knees; drove away from the kingdom the Duke of Vendôme, natural brother of the King; executed the Duke of Montmorency, whose family traced an unbroken lineage to Pharamond; confined Marshal Bassompierre to the Bastile; arrested Marshal Marillac at the head of a conquering army; cut off the head of Cinq-Mars, grand equerry and favorite of the King; and executed on the scaffold the Counts of Chalais and Bouteville. All these men were among the proudest and most powerful nobles in Europe; they all lived like princes, and had princely revenues and grand offices, but had been caught with arms in their hands, or in treasonable correspondence. What hope for ordinary culprits when the proudest feudal nobles were executed or exiled, like common malefactors? Neither rank nor services could screen them from punishment. The great minister had no mercy and no delay even for the favorites of royalty. Nay, the King himself became his puppet, and was forced to part with his friends, his family, his mistresses, and his pleasures. Some of the prime ministers of kings have had as much power as Richelieu, but no minister, before or since, has ruled the monarch himself with such an iron sway. How weak the King, or how great the minister!

The third great force which Richelieu crushed was the parliament of Paris. It had the privilege of registering the decrees of the King; and hence was a check, the only check, on royal authority,–unless the King came in person into the assembly, and enforced his decree by what was called a “bed of justice.” This body, however, was judicial rather than legislative; made up of pedantic and aristocratic lawyers, who could be troublesome. We get some idea of the humiliation of this assembly of lawyers and nobles from the speech of Omer Talon,–the greatest lawyer of the realm,–when called upon to express the sentiments of his illustrious body to the King, at a “bed of justice”: “Happy should we be, most gracious sovereign, if we could obtain any favor worthy of the honor which we derive from your majesty’s presence; but the entry of your sacred person into our assembly unfits us for our functions. And inasmuch as the throne on which you are seated is a light that dazzles us, bow, if it please you, the heavens which you inhabit, and after the example of the Eternal Sovereign, whose image you bear, condescend to visit us with your gracious mercy.”

What a contrast to this servile speech was the conduct of the English parliament about this time, in its memorable resistance to Charles I.; and how different would have been the political destinies of the English people, if Stratford, just such a man as Richelieu, had succeeded in his schemes! But in England the parliament was backed by the nation,–at least by the middle classes. In France the people had then no political aspirations; among them a Cromwell could not have arisen, since a Cromwell could not have been sustained.

Thus Richelieu, by will and genius, conquered all his foes in order to uphold the throne, and thus elevate the nation; for, as Sir James Stephen says, “the grandeur of the monarchy and the welfare of France with him were but convertible terms.” He made the throne the first in Europe, even while he who sat upon it was personally contemptible. He gave lustre to the monarchy, while he himself was an unarmed priest. It was a splendid fiction to make the King nominally so powerful, while really he was so feeble. But royalty was not a fiction under his successor. How respectable did Richelieu make the monarchy! What a deep foundation did he lay for royalty under Louis XIV.! What a magnificent inheritance did he bequeath to that monarch! “Nothing was done for forty years which he had not foreseen and prepared. His successor, Mazarin, only prospered so far as he followed out his instructions; and the star of Louis XIV. did not pale so long as the policy which Richelieu bequeathed was the rule of his public acts.” The magnificence of Louis was only the sequel of the energy and genius of Richelieu; Versailles was really the gift of him who built the Palais Royal.

The services of Richelieu to France did not end with centralizing power around the throne. He enlarged the limits of the kingdom and subdued her foreign enemies. Great rivers and mountains became the national boundaries, within which it was easy to preserve conquests. He was not ambitious of foreign domination; he simply wished to make the kingdom impregnable. Had Napoleon pursued this policy, he could never have been overthrown, and his dynasty would have been established. It was the policy of Elizabeth and of Cromwell. I do not say that Richelieu did not enter upon foreign wars; but it was to restore the “balance of power,” not to add kingdoms to the empire. He rendered assistance to Gustavus Adolphus, in spite of the protests of Rome and the disgust of Catholic powers, in order to prevent the dangerous ascendency of Austria; thus setting an example for William III., and Pitt himself, in his warfare against Napoleon. In these days we should prefer to see the “balance of power” maintained by a congress of nations, rather than by vast military preparations and standing armies, which eat out the resources of nations; but in the seventeenth century there was no other way to maintain this balance than by opposing armies. Nor did Richelieu seek to maintain the peace of Europe by force alone. Never was there a more astute and profound diplomatist. His emissaries were in every court, with intrigues very hard to be baffled. He equalled Metternich or Talleyrand in his profound dissimulation, for European diplomacy has ever been based on this. While he built up absolutism in France, he did not alienate other governments; so that, like Cromwell, he made his nation respected abroad. His conquest of Roussillon prepared the way for the famous Treaty of the Pyrenees, under the administration of Mazarin. While vigorous in war, his policy was on the whole pacific,–like that of all Catholic priests who have held power in France. He loved glory indeed, but, like Sully and Colbert, he also wished to develop the national resources; and, as indeed all enlightened statesmen from Moses downward have sought to do, he wished to make the country strong for defence rather than offence.

He showed great sagacity as well as an enlightened mind. The ablest men were placed in office. The army and navy were reorganized. Corruption and peculation on the part of officials were severely punished. The royal revenue was increased. Roads, bridges, canals were built and repaired, and public improvements were made. The fine arts were encouraged, and even learning was rewarded. It was he who founded the French Academy,–although he excluded from it men of original genius whose views he did not like. Law and order were certainly restored, and anarchy ceased to reign. The rights of property were established, and the finances freed from embarrassments.

So his rigid rule tended to the elevation of France; absolutism proved necessary in his day, and under his circumstances. When arraigned at the bar of posterity, he claims, like Napoleon, to be judged for his services, and not for his defects of character. These defects will forever make him odious in spite of his services. I hardly know a more repulsive benefactor. He was vain, cold, heartless, rigid, and proud. He had no amiable weakness. His smile was a dagger, and his friendship was a snare. He was a hypocrite and a tyrant. He had no pity on a fallen foe; and even when bending under the infirmities of age, and in the near prospect of death, his inexorable temper was never for a moment subdued. The execution of Cinq-Mars and De Thou took place when he had one foot in his grave. He deceived everybody, sent his spies into the bosom of families, and made expediency the law of his public life.

But it is nothing to the philosophic student of history that he built the Palais Royal, or squandered riches with Roman prodigality, or rewarded players, or enriched Marion Delorme, or clad himself in mail before La Rochelle, or persecuted his early friends, or robbed the monasteries, or made a spy of Father Joseph, or exiled the Queen-mother, or kept the King in bondage, or sent his enemies to the scaffold: these things are all against him, and make him appear in a repulsive light. But if he brought order out of confusion, and gave a blow to feudalism, and destroyed anarchies, and promoted law, and developed the resources of his country, making that country formidable and honorable, and constructed a vast machinery of government by which France was kept together for a century, and would have fallen to pieces without it,–then there is another way to survey this bad man; and we view him not only as a great statesman and ruler, but as an instrument of Providence, raised up as a terror to evil-doers. We may hate absolutism, but must at the same time remember that there are no settled principles of government, any more than of political economy. That is the best government which is best adapted to the exigency of that human society which at the time it serves. Republicanism would not do in China, any more than despotism in New England. Bad men, somehow or other, must be coerced and punished. The more prevalent is depravity, so much the more necessary is despotic vigor: it will be so to the end of time. It is all nonsense to dream of liberty with a substratum of folly and vice. Unless evils can be remedied by the public itself, giving power to the laws which the people create, then physical force, hard and cold tyranny, must inevitably take the place. No country will long endure anarchy; and then the hardest characters may prove the greatest benefactors.

It is on this principle that I am reconciled to the occasional rule of despots. And when I see a bad man, like Richelieu, grasping power to be used for the good of a nation, I have faith to believe it to be ordered wisely. When men are good and honest and brave, we shall have Washingtons; when they are selfish and lawless, God will send Richelieus and Napoleons, if He has good things in store for the future, even as He sends Neros and Diocletians when a nation is doomed to destruction by incurable rottenness.

And yet absolutism in itself is not to be defended; it is what enlightened nations are now striving to abolish. It is needed only under certain circumstances; if it were to be perpetuated in any nation it would be Satanic. It is endurable only because it may be destroyed when it has answered its end; and, like all human institutions, it will become corrupted. It was shamefully abused under Louis XIV. and Louis XV. But when corrupted and abused it has, like slavery, all the elements of certain decay and ruin. The abuse of power will lead to its own destruction, even as undue haste in the acquisition of riches tendeth to poverty.


Petitot’s Mémoires sur le Règne de Louis XIII.; Secret History of the French Court, by Cousin; Le Clerc’s Vie de Richelieu; Henri Martin’s History of France; Mémoires de Richelieu, by Michaud and Poujoulat; Life of Richelieu, by Capefigue, and E.E. Crowe, and G.P.R. James; Lardner’s Cabinet Cyclopaedia; Histoire du Ministère du Cardinal de Richelieu, by A. Jay; Michelet’s Life of Henry IV. and Richelieu; Biographie Universelle; Sir James Stephen’s Lectures on the History of France.

Oliver Cromwell : English Revolution

Beacon Lights of History, Volume VIII : Great Rulers