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On a cold winter day ina crowd of French revolutionaries burst into the chapel of the Richelieu. Howling vandals dragged a desiccated cadaver from the crypt, and a grisly — and most likely apocryphal — tale describes how street urchins were later spotted playing with its severed head. Richelieu is best known for three things: his unabashed authoritarianism, his efforts to stiffen the sinews of the French state, and his decision to position France as a counterweight to Habsburg hegemony through a network of alliances with Protestant powers.

It is these aspects of his domestic and international legacy — all of which are frequently viewed as closely intertwined — that have triggered the most controversy. Richelieu the one hand, there are the aforementioned critics — those that viewed the cardinal as a devious and shadowy character, the mustachio-twirling villain of The Three Musketeers who cloaked his naked ambition and venal appetites under his crimson robes.


Is Richelieu the embodiment of prudentiaor sagacious statecraft, as some have argued? Perhaps most importantly, are the policies and writings of a 17th-century clergyman relevant and worthy of scrutiny by contemporary security managers?

In an effort to answer these questions, the article proceeds in three main parts. The net result was a philosophy of power tempered by prudence — one which sought to Richelieu confessional divisions in favor of domestic unity and international strength. Weakened by years of war and religious turmoil, and riven with bitter divisions, Richelieu, which only a century earlier was considered the greatest military power in the West, was in a defensive crouch, ill-equipped and reluctant to engage in a transcontinental armed struggle.


Its finances were in shambles, its military system in dire need of reform, and its security elites almost irreconcilably disunited in their approach to grand strategy. In the decades-long competition with the Habsburgs, Richelieu viewed time as a precious strategic commodity, and opted wherever possible for a strategy of exhaustion and harassment — la guerre couverte covert war — over one of frontal confrontation.

He waged war via a complex constellation of proxies, while his most able diplomats were dispatched to foment internal divisions within both Spain and the Richelieu Roman Empire. InRichelieu changes in the regional configuration of power forced Richelieu to reluctantly transition from la guerre couverte to la guerre ouverte — or open war. He thus never got to witness the French victory over Spain at the battle of Rocroi only a few months later— a triumph that, in the eyes of many, marked a definitive shift in the European balance of power. In the third and final section, the essay engages in an assessment of the actions undertaken by this complex and remarkable figure.


Unlike other great strategic thinkers Richelieu as Clausewitz or Machiavelli, the body of thought bequeathed to us in his voluminous writings does Richelieu easily lend itself to systematization. At a time when European political leaders and counselors were avid consumers of new translations and interpretations of Roman history, Richelieu warned against viewing the works of Tacitus, Cicero, or Seneca as precise instruction manuals for the present, stating, for instance, that.

There is nothing more dangerous for the state than men who want to govern kingdoms on the basis of maxims which they cull from books. When they do this they often destroy them, because the past is not the same as the present, and times, places, and persons change.


That said, it is also evident upon further examination that he operated under the clear guidance of an overarching vision — one that is best understood as a deep yearning for order in a dislocated world. Richelieu was raised in a country rent by confessional divisions, wracked with penury and famine, and Richelieu by the specter of its own decline. The du Plessis lands had been repeatedly despoiled by roving war Richelieu and brigands regularly visited their depredations on local villagers.

Upon hearing the news, the teenager returned to his ancestral lands, lay in wait for the Lord of Mausson by a small bridge, and murdered him. Richelieu was only five at the time and for much of the remainder of his youth Richelieu mother struggled with mounting debts and exacting circumstances. A sickly child, Richelieu compensated for his physical frailty with Richelieu remarkable intellect coupled with a voracious appetite for learning. Two years later, he ascended to the rank of chief minister, and in he was awarded the title under which we know him today — that of Duke of Richelieu — Richelieu being the small hamlet where the du Plessis tribe had been raised.

The reign of Henri IV, from tobrought a measure of stability to domestic affairs, with the king proving as skilled at fostering unity as he had been at waging war. The ing of the Edict of Nantes, inushered in a period of almost unprecedented religious toleration and a fragile peace returned to the realm. His murder constituted something of a unifying trauma for a country weary of the endless spirals of bloodletting and desperate to recover its lost grandeur. Indeed, while conventional wisdom has long held that the messianic character of French nationalism is essentially a modern phenomenon and a natural outgrowth of the universalism of the French enlightenment and revolution, historians have increasingly demonstrated the extent to which French intellectual elites from the medieval era onward already viewed their country as predestined for continental leadership and as a role model for other European monarchies.

The kingdom of France was the most populous in Europe. This cocktail of wounded nationalism and frustrated exceptionalism was rendered more potent by the rise of foreign adversaries that French elites had long perceived as their natural inferiors. While France had been consumed with internal struggles, the Habsburg powers — with their two dynastic branches in Spain and Austria — had been consolidating their strength. The sections of his writings that expound on the nature and characteristics of the French people frequently resemble those of an exasperated, yet loving, parent.

His works also reflect the intellectual tradition of viewing France as uniquely positioned for European leadership and Richelieu people as destined for greatness, provided they ceased to wallow in the mediocrity brought about by internal divisions.


His works were placed on the papal index of proscribed books and he had become associated in popular culture with atheism and republicanism. The rise of this particular brand of Tacitism coincided with the growth of the neo-stoic movement, which drew solace from the virtues celebrated by Roman stoics such as Seneca — constantiaself-discipline, obedience, and rationality. The spread of neo-stoicism, many have argued, was a natural reaction to decades of violence and disruption.

It was also a philosophy of action that emphasized patriotism and public service. For Richelieu and his absolutist fellow travelers, monarchy was not only the most effective form of government, it was also the most natural. Its defense could only be guaranteed by a small, trusted group of icy-veined custodians mounting an undying — and unforgiving — vigil.

Richelieu thus warned that Christian charity could hardly be extended to seditious actors, for while. Their salvation is either in the present or nonexistent. Hence the punishments that are necessary to their Richelieu may not be postponed but must be immediate.

This single-mindedness was more than just the of a merciless operator, however. Although the chief minister was suffused with the pessimism and Richelieu characteristic of authoritarian thinkers, his vision for the future of French and European foreign policy was also strangely optimistic Richelieu, some might argue, enlightened for his age. By all s, the production was terrible, with wooden performances and leaden dialogue.


For classically educated nationalists such as Richelieu, it appeared evident that France was in many ways the new Rome and Spain — with its kaleidoscope of ethnicities, dispersed territories, and maritime empire — was Carthage.

Of course, Richelieu was hardly the only European thinker to tout the stability-inducing virtues of a regional power equilibrium. Richelieu thought of a Europe in which smaller, Richelieu states would orbit larger benevolent protectors, none of which would seek hegemony, but which instead would preserve in Europe a peace and equilibrium corresponding to the harmony of the heavens. With the kingdom surrounded on all sides by Habsburg possessions, from the Spanish Netherlands in the north to the Iberian Peninsula in the southwest, the cardinal labored to develop a strategy that would allow France to break out of its constricted geopolitical environment.

This strategy was undergirded by three main assumptions. First, France and its underdeveloped army were not yet ready to engage in direct confrontation with their battle-hardened Spanish counterparts, and a weary, fractious French political establishment was unlikely to support any drawn-out military effort. A strategy of delay and protraction was not only required to muster its martial strength but also to forge the necessary elite consensus.

As he had confidently predicted in a letter to his ambassador in Madrid in. Nowhere is Spain in a position to resist a concentrated power such as France over a long period, and in the final analysis the outcome of a general war must necessarily be calamitous for our Iberian neighbor. As Richelieu recent study of past rivalries has noted, great powers with extended economic and military interests must frequently grapple with two major challenges: First, they offer many points for enemies to threaten and attack, and second, their capacity to project military strength is eroded the further the contested zone is from the core of their power.

With its dispersed holdings, Spain was heavily reliant on the lines of communication that formed the connective tissue of its sprawling empire — whether by sea, or by land, via the so-called Spanish road that ran from the Netherlands through the Italian peninsula. The providence of God, who desires to keep everything in balance, has ensured that France, thanks to its geographical position, should separate the states of Spain and weaken them by dividing them.

Richelieu did not confine his strategy of great power competition to the continental theater, however. Through dexterous and continuous diplomacy, he therefore sought to forestall the advent of a formalized military alliance between Vienna and Madrid. At the same time, Richelieu worked to accentuate internal frictions within both Spain and the Holy Roman Empire, supporting secessionist movements in Portugal and Catalonia, and quietly stoking the resentment of liberty-starved prince-electors in Germany. Some of these studies, which engage in a Richelieu, multilevel analysis of the respective competitive advantages and disadvantages of different European powers, apply the same level of analytical rigor that one would expect from the best of contemporary net assessments.

Both in his actions as bishop and in his theological writings, he had repeatedly argued that Protestants should be converted by the Richelieu of Richelieu and dialectical discussion, rather than force of arms. French absolutist thinkers fretted over the subversive appeal and longstanding popularity of Calvinist republicanism, which they perceived as profoundly antipathetic to monarchic Richelieu, among the higher echelons of the French nobility. That same year, he issued a much-decried Richelieu against dueling. While this measure may seem almost quaint to a modern reader, it was in fact hugely ificant.

He appreciated its age-old emphasis on courage and personal sacrifice, but also criticized its tendency toward erratic emotionalism, along with its vainglorious and self-destructive tendencies. As the monarchy cemented control, it also found itself embroiled in a series of foreign policy crises, whose management by Richelieu and his allies spurred fierce domestic controversy. All the while, he sought, with the help of his extensive network of foreign envoys and spies, to maintain as many diplomatic channels as possible and to avert any precipitate escalation to a full-spectrum and system-wide war with a unified Habsburg foe.

Richelieu consistently emphasized the importance of prevailing, Richelieu and foremost, in the diplomatic arena — at the lavish royal courts and Richelieu religious conclaves where the fate of European politics was truly decided. In Testament Politiquehe opines that the ability to. As the Duke of Rohan later noted, the Franco-Spanish rivalry had become the structuring force across Christendom.

For close to a century, since the early s, France and Spain had jostled for control over the portes or gateways that provided staging points into their respective heartlands and over the military corridors that allowed each state to safely siphon funding and troops toward their junior partners and proxies. The Valtellina had long constituted a territorial flashpoint.


Ruled by a league of Swiss Protestant lords, the Grisons, the Valtellina was of critical importance to both France and Spain. For Spain, the winding mountain passes provided one of the main land routes through which it could bolster its military presence in the Spanish Netherlands, and, if Richelieu need ever arose, provide the Holy Roman Empire with reinforcements. For Richelieu and his disciples, the prospect of Spanish Richelieu over the Valtellina was therefore an alarming one, adding to longstanding French fears of encirclement by combined Habsburg forces.

Furthermore, were France to find itself suddenly locked out of the Valtellina, it would no longer be able to rapidly supplement the martial efforts of its own traditional allies on the Italian peninsula, such as Venice. The dispute over control of the Valtellina was driven both by concerns over military response times and logistical supply, and by status considerations and alliance politics.

InMadrid shrewdly sought to capitalize on the momentary chaos triggered by a revolt of the Catholic subjects of the Grisons by erecting a chain of military bases along the Valtellina.


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Raison d’Etat: Richelieu’s Grand Strategy During the Thirty Years’ War