Armand-Jean du Plessis de Richelieu Biography

Cardinal Richelieu was the French chief minister from 1624 until his death.

Armand Jean du Plessis de Richelieu, Cardinal-Duc de Richelieu ( September 9, 1585 – December 4, 1642), was a French clergyman, noble, and statesman.

Consecrated as a bishop in 1607, he later entered politics, becoming a Secretary of State in 1616. Richelieu soon rose in both the Church and the state, becoming a cardinal in 1622, and King Louis XIII’s chief minister in 1624. He remained in office until his death in 1642; he was succeeded by Jules Cardinal Mazarin.

The Cardinal de Richelieu was often known by the title of the King’s “Chief Minister.” As a result, he is sometimes considered to be the world’s first Prime Minister, in the modern sense of the term. He sought to consolidate royal power and crush domestic factions. By restraining the power of the nobility, he transformed France into a strong, centralized state. His chief foreign policy objective was to check the power of the Austro-Spanish Habsburg dynasty. Although he was a Roman Catholic cardinal, he did not hesitate to make alliances with Protestant rulers in attempting to achieve this goal. His tenure was marked by the Thirty Years’ War that engulfed Europe.

As an advocate for Samuel de Champlain and of the retention of Québec, he founded the Compagnie des Cent-Associés and saw the Treaty of Saint-Germain-en-Laye return Québec to French rule under Champlain, after the settlement had been captured by the Kirkes in 1629. This in part allowed the colony to eventually develop into the heartland of Francophone culture in North America.

Richelieu was also famous for his patronage of the arts; most notably, he founded the Académie française, the learned society responsible for matters pertaining to the French language. Richelieu is also known by the sobriquet l’Éminence rouge (“the Red Eminence”), from the red shade of a cardinal’s vestments and the style “eminence” as a cardinal. He is also a leading character in The Three Musketeers, by Alexandre Dumas.


In 1622, Richelieu was elected the principal of the Sorbonne University. Seeing that the college buildings were falling into ruin, he set about renovating them. In 1629, he began to rebuild the entire establishment, on the condition that a place was left for his tomb, and also ordered the construction of the Palais-Cardinal, later known as the Palais-Royal. The tomb was designed by François Girardon and later protected by Alexandre Lenoir during the French Revolution. [1]

As the chief minister of King Louis XIII from 1624 to his death, Richelieu played a vital role in centralizing the French state and strengthening its power. At one point, he attempted in vain to set up a hospital for invalid soldiers. Following his death, he was buried in his tomb at the Sorbonne and succeeded as chief minister by Jules Mazarin. [2]

Richelieu’s Strategy

The Habsburg Challenge and the Art of the Long View

When Richelieu was elevated to the rank of chief minister in 1624, France’s strategic position, locked in the heart of a war-torn Europe, appeared — at first glance — rather grim. 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. Time was therefore the recuperating nation’s most precious strategic commodity. A strategy of delay and protraction was not only required to muster its martial strength but also to forge the necessary elite consensus. Provided France could continue to buy time and bleed the Habsburgs via a league of well-funded and militarily capable proxies, Richelieu was convinced that France’s demographic and economic resources would allow it to eventually gain the upper hand in its protracted competition with Spain. As he had confidently predicted in a letter to his ambassador in Madrid in 1632,

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.68

Second, Richelieu believed that France’s geographic predicament — its location at the center of the European chessboard and its seeming state of encirclement — could, in fact, be leveraged to its advantage. As one 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.69

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.70 As Richelieu later gloated in the Testament Politique, France’s centrality and superior interior lines of communication provided it with the means to sever the various strands of Spain’s imperial web:

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.71

J.H. Elliott, an eminent scholar of early modern Spain, has shown the extent to which Richelieu’s Spanish counterpart and longstanding nemesis, the Count-Duke of Olivares, was aware of the inherent vulnerabilities that came with Spain’s sprawling empire.72 Elliott notes that Richelieu’s fears of encirclement were paralleled by Olivares’ “obsession with the French threat to the network of international communications on which Spanish power depended. … What to France was a noose, was to Spain a life-line.”73

Image 1: Map of Europe During Richelieu’s Time as Chief Minister

Richelieu did not confine his strategy of great power competition to the continental theater, however. From the very beginning of his time as chief minister he stressed the importance of seapower and resolutely focused on the development of France’s naval strength.74 While prestige undoubtedly played a role in Richelieu’s energetic pursuit of seapower, it was not the only motivation. His quest to see France emerge as a full-spectrum great power was also undergirded by an ambition to better compete for access to an increasingly globalized market and a desire to shield France’s maritime approaches and seaborne trade from predatory naval action.75 Threatening some of Spain’s most vital maritime resupply lines and further complicating its strategic planning was simply the icing on the cake.76 The story of Richelieu’s stewardship of the French Royal Navy is not one of untrammeled success. His efforts to vault France into the ranks of Europe’s greatest oceanic powers were chronically undermined by bureaucratic and logistical travails and the fleet’s funding was often neglected in favor of a perpetually resource-starved army.77 Overall, however, the cardinal’s overarching goals were more than met. By 1635, he had succeeded in creating a navy that overshadowed England’s and matched that of Spain in the Mediterranean.78

Finally, Richelieu knew that France would struggle to prosecute a multifront campaign against the combined military might of the Habsburgs’ two dynastic branches. 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.79 In this, Richelieu was aided by a formidable coterie of advisers, bureaucratic allies, and diplomatic envoys, who tirelessly crisscrossed the continent and produced exquisitely detailed strategic forecasts. Some of these studies, which engage in a dispassionate, 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.80

La Guerre Couverte

Many of Richelieu’s first actions as chief minister focused on domestic consolidation and on preempting any perceived political threats to the reign of a youthful and unseasoned monarch.

In his earlier incarnation as bishop of Luçon, an area with a heavy Calvinist minority population, Richelieu had displayed a proclivity for toleration. Both in his actions as bishop and in his theological writings, he had repeatedly argued that Protestants should be converted by the power of reason and dialectical discussion, rather than force of arms.81 As a government official, however, he and other leading members of the royal council took an increasingly hardline approach to the various Huguenot enclaves that dotted French territory. Under the terms of the Edict of Nantes, these communities had been granted a strong degree of autonomy, and, with their fortified cities and independent political assemblies, appeared, in the words of Richelieu, to seek to “share the state” with the French monarch.82 Fears over the emergence of a parallel political structure, or of a “state within the state” with strong ties to potentially hostile foreign powers, were accompanied by a more diffuse sense of ideological peril. French absolutist thinkers fretted over the subversive appeal and longstanding popularity of Calvinist republicanism, which they perceived as profoundly antipathetic to monarchic government, among the higher echelons of the French nobility.83 These tensions came to a head in 1627 with the royal siege of the Huguenot port-city of La Rochelle — a massive military undertaking that was led by the king, overseen by the cardinal-minister, and involved the bulk of royal military resources at the time.

Richelieu’s suppression of the Huguenot uprising was part of a broader effort to do away with alternative power centers or codes of loyalty within France.

Richelieu, whose earlier attempts at preserving peace with the great Huguenot lords had led to his being derisively dubbed the “Cardinal of La Rochelle” by his dévot opponents, now showed himself to be methodical and ruthless in his prosecution of the year-long siege. England’s decision to dispatch a large amphibious task force in an (unsuccessful) bid to aid its beleaguered co-religionists in La Rochelle had only strengthened the cardinal-minister’s determination to forcibly subsume Huguenot communities within the French state. The monarchy’s eventual victory over the Huguenot rebels and their great power sponsor precipitated the collapse of Protestant opposition to royal rule and considerably burnished young Louis XIII’s martial credentials in the eyes of fellow European leaders. It was succeeded by the Peace of Alais, which erased most of the Huguenots’ past political privileges, while continuing, by and large, to accord them freedom of worship. Leading figures of the Huguenot uprising were pardoned or treated with clemency after having sworn fealty to the French king, and some, such as the Duke of Rohan, went on to number among some of France’s greatest generals.84 Subsequently, royal historians took great pains to stress that the king’s Protestant subjects had not been punished on account of their religion, but rather because they had chosen the path of armed rebellion and collusion with a foreign power.85

Richelieu’s suppression of the Huguenot uprising was part of a broader effort to do away with alternative power centers or codes of loyalty within France, carried out via an expansion of the definition of treason or lèse-majesté, and a series of policies targeting the French nobility that focused on its capacity to resist royal authority and its distinct strategic sub-culture.86 In 1626, for example, Richelieu ordered the destruction of all fortresses not situated on the nation’s frontiers, regardless of the religious affiliation of their proprietors. That same year, he issued a much-decried edict against dueling. While this measure may seem almost quaint to a modern reader, it was in fact hugely significant.87 It took direct aim at some of the French nobility’s most cherished beliefs, including their hallowed honor code. Richelieu, whose elder brother perished in a duel in 1619, was weary of witnessing promising members of the nation’s warrior caste ritually kill one another at an alarming rate.88

As historians of the Ancien Régime have noted, these deadly contests fulfilled an important symbolic and social function within a French nobility still wedded to ideals of Homeric heroism and medieval chivalry.89 The aristocracy’s fighting ethos was undergirded by its members’ desire to demonstrate their worth to other members of their social caste and win that most precious of social currencies — gloire. Dueling had progressively become like a religion — death in single combat was a “human sacrifice to the god of peer opinion.”90 Richelieu, like many of his contemporaries, was of two minds regarding the French nobility’s warrior ethos. 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.91 In his later correspondence with French nobles deployed to the front, it is telling that he sometimes advised his soldier-aristocrats to rein in their natural hotheadedness and to behave with “prudence.”92 More than anything, the cardinal-minister wished to redirect the famed furia francese and thirst for glory of the nobility so that it served the broader geopolitical ambitions of the French crown rather than merely the competitive impulses of a narrow and fractious social stratum.

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. Lashed by gusts of bureaucratic opposition, the chief minister strove to husband France’s military resources, bleed its enemies, and buy time. 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, first and foremost, in the diplomatic arena — at the lavish royal courts and stuffy religious conclaves where the fate of European politics was truly decided. In Testament Politique, he opines that the ability to

negotiate without ceasing, openly or secretly, and everywhere, even if it yields no immediate fruit and the expected one is not yet apparent, is absolutely necessary for the well-being of states.93

The Valtellina and Mantuan Succession Crises

The most significant crises during the guerre couverte period occurred at the bloody peripheries and messy intersections of each great power’s sphere of interest. France and Spain vied for access and influence, probed each other’s weaknesses, and worked to dilute each other’s ability to maintain alliance structures and project power across the European theater. As the Duke of Rohan later noted, the Franco-Spanish rivalry had become the structuring force across Christendom. The two states formed “the two poles from which stemmed the pressures for war and peace upon other states,” with France seeking to play the “counterpoise” to Spanish ambitions, and the princes of Europe “attaching themselves to one or the other according to their interests.”94 This increasingly tense cold war was fundamentally a two-level game — a combination of geopolitical competition and interference in one another’s domestic politics — accentuating pre-existing movements of internal unrest with the hope of precipitating an abrupt dislocation of their rival’s fragile state structure.

For close to a century, since the early 1500s, 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.95 One such artery was the Valtellina (or Val Telline), a valley that snaked through the central Alps, connecting Lombardy with the Spanish Netherlands. 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 the need ever arose, provide the Holy Roman Empire with reinforcements. For Richelieu and his disciples, the prospect of Spanish dominion 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.

In 1620, Madrid 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. Two years later, its garrisons facing expulsion by allied forces of France, Venice, and Savoy, Spain reluctantly agreed to let its soldiers be replaced by papal troops. For Richelieu, however, this settlement remained inadequate, as the Vatican had allowed Spain to continue to use the Valtellina as one of its prime military thoroughfares. A few months after becoming chief minister, Richelieu sought to rebalance the situation by conducting secret negotiations with Savoyard and Swiss allies, catching Spain off guard. A small force of French and Swiss troops flowed into the Valtellina and unceremoniously expelled its papal custodians. Meanwhile, a larger French army joined forces with its Savoyard allies in a protracted siege of Genoa, in a bold attempt to neutralize one of Spain’s main bankers and truncate the southern arm of the Spanish road. This last endeavor ultimately proved unsuccessful, with Madrid succeeding in breaking through a French naval interception force in the Mediterranean and relieving Genoa by sea. France and Spain subsequently entered lengthy negotiations, which ultimately led to the signing of the Treaty of Monzon in 1626. The treaty restored control of the Valtellina to the Grisons, while enshrining and protecting the exercise of Catholicism in the valley. All fortifications were levelled and papal troops were once again dispatched to preserve the peace. Most importantly, the treaty granted equal rights of transit to both Spain and France, thus reinstating — at least in the military sphere — the old status quo.96

For close to a century, since the early 1500s, France and Spain had jostled for control over the “portes” or gateways that provided staging points into their respective heartlands.

Barely a year later, another crisis flared up in northern Italy. In this case, tensions revolved around the Duke of Mantua’s succession. This minor dynastic squabble quickly took on geopolitical significance. The duchy of Mantua and its dependency of Monferrato were fiefs of the Holy Roman Empire, strategically located along the Po river, abutting the Spanish duchy of Milan. Following the death of Duke Vincent II of Mantua in 1627, who had failed to produce a son and heir, the duchy was claimed by his closest male relative, the flamboyant French noble Charles de Nevers. De Nevers, in a typical display of impetuosity, preemptively took possession of the duchy without consulting Vienna, as feudal protocol would have dictated.97 His actions precipitated the reluctant intervention of Europe’s three greatest powers — France, Spain, and the Holy Roman Empire — all of which would rather have focused their attention and resources elsewhere.98 The conflict soon devolved into a slugging match, dragging on for close to four years, and only coming to an end with the signing of the Treaty of Cherasco in 1631.

The troublesome de Nevers was ultimately granted his imperial investiture and the right to rule over his now-ravaged duchy, albeit at the price of territorial concessions. More importantly for Richelieu, the conflict imposed significant financial costs on both Spain and the Holy Roman Empire, strained relations between the two partners, and forced them to divert large numbers of troops away from more critical theaters of operation for extended periods.99 Madrid’s decision to intervene on the Italian peninsula negatively affected its military operations in Flanders. Meanwhile, the imperial troops Olivares had been hoping would join his prosecution of the Dutch, and who were also much needed in Germany to stave off the advance of the Swedes, were instead channeled southward, toward Mantua, where they were decimated by plague.100 Through secretly negotiated clauses, France also gained access to the strategically positioned mountain fortress of Pinerolo in the Piedmont, which it had quietly wrested from Savoy.101 All in all, therefore — and despite the cost and clear risks associated with France’s decision to intervene in support of its belligerent proxy, Richelieu’s calculus seemed to have paid off — France weathered the protracted crisis far better than its two main competitors.

The Challenges of Alliance Management

The Mantuan succession crisis also showed, as David Parrott notes, that

While the rulers of the major powers may have wished to construct their political strategies in the clear light of state interest and international Realpolitik, they were frequently confronted by lesser territories whose juridical status and succession arrangements were often diffuse or ambiguous, and whose rulers were explicitly determined to assert and defend their rights as sovereigns. (…) In circumstances such as the Mantuan crisis, where the grip of the major Italian powers was for various reasons weakened, the initiatives and interests of these lesser states could lead to dramatic destabilization.102

Richelieu was well aware of the risks of entanglement and entrapment inherent to asymmetric alliance structures. The unexpected ramifications of the Mantuan succession crisis undoubtedly helped shape some of his more interesting — and still resonant — reflections on the challenges of alliance management. In Testament Politique, for instance, the cardinal warns future statesmen “not to embark voluntarily on the founding of a league created for some difficult objective” unless they are sure “they can carry it out alone,” should their allies desert them. He argues this is for two reasons:

The first is based is on the weakness of unions, which are never too secure when headed by central sovereigns. The second consists in the fact that lesser princes are often as careful and diligent in involving great kings in important commitments as they are feeble in aiding them, although they are fully obligated to do so.103

Despite these wry observations on the fickleness of security partners, Richelieu put alliance politics at the very center of his grand strategy, seeking to develop, in parallel, two separate German and Italian leagues. The Italian league, with Savoy and Venice at its core, was designed to exert a slow stranglehold over Spanish possessions in Naples and Milan. In Germany, Richelieu sought to stoke the resentment of restive prince-electors, and to further fragment the empire’s political mosaic by supporting the establishment of a separate pro-French and anti-Habsburg Catholic League under the leadership of Bavaria.104 On occasion, France’s policy of political disruption bore fruit. This was evident, for instance, during the Diet of Regensburg in 1630, when Richelieu’s agents, led by the wily Father Joseph, succeeded in dealing a major blow to Emperor Ferdinand II’s power and prestige by quietly encouraging the elector counts to veto the election of his son as his successor and dismiss one of the Imperial Army’s more talented commanders, Albrecht Von Wallenstein. France’s overarching goal was to keep the Holy Roman Empire in a state of managed disequilibrium and to buy time — time that could be used to further erode the foundations of Habsburg power in Germany. This cynical policy could be implemented, the sly monk argued in a memorandum to the king, in a relatively straightforward fashion, by simply continuing the centuries-old French tradition of mediation in German affairs.105

Weakening the Viennese Habsburgs also provided France with greater latitude to exert control over the lands circling its eastern periphery, in particular the duchy of Lorraine. Lorraine was technically a fiefdom of the Holy Roman Empire, and its leader, the young duke Charles IV, had become a thorn in Richelieu’s side. Bright but brash, Charles IV was less adept at balancing France and the Holy Roman Empire than his forebears. He was also far less canny at steering a middle course than, for instance, the dukes of Savoy in Italy, whose adroit manipulation of the Franco-Spanish rivalry forced grudging admiration in both Paris and Madrid.106 The duke of Lorraine, on the other hand, pursued a lopsided policy that was consistently and aggressively hostile to the interests of the French crown — plotting with its foreign enemies, abetting its insurgencies, and providing a safe haven for the leaders of France’s domestic opposition.107 Over the course of a decade, France engaged in a series of punitive raids and limited encroachments on Lothringian territory, pressuring the contumacious duke into a series of increasingly unequal and humiliating treaties, until, in 1633, Richelieu ordered a full-scale invasion and annexation of Lorraine. Charles IV eventually abdicated and fled overseas and Lothringian lords were forced to swear oaths of loyalty to the French crown.108

Most of the time, however, Richelieu’s behavior was not classically expansionist, as he did not seek to engage in a rigid linearization of a new, more extensive set of French boundaries. Instead, he wove a web of protectorates along the kingdom’s borders, offering to ensure the defense of weaker principalities, fiefdoms, and bishoprics in exchange for transit rights or the stationing of small detachments of French troops in strategically positioned fortresses — often overlooking key segments of the Spanish road. These garrisoned protectorates were viewed by the chief minister as serving a dual function — both as watchtowers and as potential staging areas for future military interventions.109

Even as Richelieu pursued his strategy of delay, limited military involvement, and tailored assertiveness within France’s near abroad, he also sought to sap Habsburg power from afar, through a policy of indirect or subsidized warfare. This policy of remote-control balancing was not only financially onerous — involving the disbursement of increasingly large flows of subsidies to France’s Protestant proxies — but also diplomatically challenging. French envoys were sent to broker agreements and mediate disputes between France’s partners and third parties, such as Sweden and Poland, so that the former could redirect the entirety of its military machine toward the German theater.110 The sheer heterogeneity of France’s many coetaneous alliance structures proved to be a major, sometimes insuperable, challenge. Indeed, managing such a disparate array of security partners with competing territorial and confessional agendas eventually became almost impossible — leading a reluctant Richelieu to privilege the preservation of the alliance with Sweden over that with Bavaria.111

Another chronic set of difficulties encountered by Richelieu and his envoys will be familiar to any modern student of security studies: the fact that proxies and/or client states rarely share similar objectives to those of their sponsors, and that, generally speaking, the stronger a proxy is, the less dependent and politically beholden it is to its patron.112 This was a clear and recurring feature of the France-Sweden relationship during Richelieu’s tenure. When France first signed the Treaty of Barwalde with Sweden in 1631, promising one million livres per annum over the course of five years in exchange for Stockholm maintaining a fully equipped army of 30,000 infantry and 6,000 cavalry in Germany, Richelieu was enthusiastic. He waxed lyrical about the martial prowess of Gustavus Adolphus, the Swedish king, comparing him to Julius Caesar and Alexander the Great.113 Following Adolphus’ crushing victory over imperial forces at the Battle of Breitenfeld, however, the Swedish warrior-king’s relentless advance through a war-torn Germany began to foster French anxieties.114 His victories — too definitive and complete — ran the risk of completely unraveling France’s efforts to portray itself as a neutral arbitrator of state interests and led to a lasting rift with an embittered Maximilian of Bavaria. Richelieu also began to wonder whether Sweden, flush with the fruits of its conquests and no longer in need of French subsidies, might decide to turn its attention against France’s cluster of German protectorates. It was not without some relief, therefore, that the cardinal heard the news of the Northern Lion’s death at the battle of Lützen in 1632.

Throughout his political life, Richelieu was constantly reminded of both the tenuousness of his position and his own mortality. An unpopular man working for a sickly king, the chief minister was the target of countless foreign plots and elaborate court machinations.115

Much of the resentment directed at him stemmed from his domestic policies: his blunt and wide-ranging efforts to centralize power, increase taxation, and rein in the nobility, along with his habit of supplanting old court favorites with his own sprawling networks of clientele.116 His relatively moderate stance on confessional issues also stirred controversy in some quarters.

The most vivid and substantive debates, however, centered on issues of foreign policy. Richelieu’s dévot opponents — whether in meetings of the Royal Council or via the clandestine production of vitriolic pamphlets — relentlessly assailed the core aspects of his grand strategy, most notably his alliance with and subsidization of Protestant powers, along with his decision to confront rather than align with Spain, a fellow Catholic nation. Although Richelieu’s vision was the one that ultimately triumphed, it is worth noting that there were many compelling reasons for distinguished statesmen to oppose his foreign policy.

In a country still reeling from decades of civil strife, many wanted to focus on domestic recovery and reducing the burden of taxation that helped finance France’s foreign military ventures and proxies — even if it came at the cost of appeasing Spain.117 France’s hamlets and villages were seething with discontent, and local uprisings — often euphemistically designated as “popular displays of emotion” (émotions populaires) — were commonplace.118 In fretful whispers, perfumed courtiers would share their grisly tales from the dark forested hinterland — of peasants hacking a “tax collector to pieces and dismembering a surgeon whom they mistook for a revenue official.”119 For many who had lived through the Boschian hell of France’s religious wars, the fear of being catapulted into yet another cataract of anarchy and bloodletting was ever present.

In a country still reeling from decades of civil strife, many wanted to focus on domestic recovery and reducing the burden of taxation that helped finance France’s foreign military ventures and proxies — even if it came at the cost of appeasing Spain.

Furthermore, some argued, why not choose to align with the Habsburgs? Would that not bring about a much-needed peace, advance the cause of international Catholicism, and be preferable to funding the systematic, continent-wide slaughter of co-religionists by foreign heretics? After all, Habsburg blood flowed in Marie de Medici’s veins, Anne of Austria was Spanish, and the queen of Spain was Louis XIII’s own younger sister, Elizabeth. From some of the gilded chambers of the Louvre, Richelieu’s grand schemes thus ran the risk of appearing not only unethical, but also increasingly fratricidal.120

It took over six years for the chief minister to quash this fierce internal opposition and it was only after the famous Day of the Dupes in November 1630 — when he dramatically prevailed over both the queen mother and his two main political opponents, the Marillac brothers — that he achieved unvarnished royal support for his agenda. Even after 1630, Richelieu still had to contend with the periodic opposition to his policies and fretted that the spiritual and impressionable Louis XIII might find himself persuaded by a member of his entourage to jettison his Protestant allies.121

These struggles over the direction of France’s foreign policy were not confined to the corridors of power. Beyond the ornate antechambers and soaring palace walls, the future of French grand strategy was being debated in another wider and more untamed space — in the pages of the political pamphlets and news gazettes that had become a ubiquitous feature of early 17th-century France.122 Richelieu, like many of his European contemporaries, was acutely aware of the growing power and malleability of public opinion in the era of the printing press, and of the need to shape collective perceptions through targeted, state-directed propaganda efforts. From the earliest days of his tenure as chief minister, he moved decisively to exert control over the political media, appointing his minions to head leading publications such as Le Mercure François, France’s first yearly newspaper, and the Gazette, a weekly publication, and waging a tireless counter-intelligence campaign against clandestine printing activities. Richelieu surrounded himself with a “politico-literary strike force” of some of the nation’s most accomplished political theorists and polemicists, who labored to defend France’s European grand strategy from a fierce onslaught of dévot-inspired critiques.123

These critiques, particularly those penned by talented writers such as Matthieu de Morgues — one of Richelieu’s more formidable and relentless opponents — were often incisive and compelling.124 Not only did they consistently assail Richelieu’s Protestant alliances as “ungodly,” they also sought to depict the chief minister as a grasping and vulpine figure, an “antichristus purpuratus,” who pursued his grandiose diplomatic schemes despite widespread popular discontent, and who, in contempt of his status as a “prince of the church,” worked to methodically undermine the Vatican.

The ideological counteroffensive launched by the bons politiques was equally robust, clearly articulated, and often remarkably well-timed. In countless tracts, treatises, and pamphlets, the politiques strenuously argued in defense of the cardinal’s character, stressing his personal loyalty to the king, as well as the strategic merits of his foreign policy — however disquieting the short-term costs may be. Tugging at their readers’ patriotic heartstrings, they stressed the urgency of recovering France’s “natural” primacy on the continent and warned of the long-term perils of a premature peace settlement that would confine the French monarchy to a subordinate status. In response to those who advocated an alignment with Madrid, they pointed to Spain’s history of interference in French domestic politics and to its perceived duplicity. To trust that such a history of enmity could be reversed, argued one of Richelieu’s disciples, was not only naïve, it was also a sign that one had inherited some of the seditious leanings “of a member of the old Catholic league” and had “thus ceased to be French.”125

Furthermore, argued Richelieu’s supporters, one need only look at Spain’s crimes against its foreign subjects or against colonized indigenous people in the new world to see the extent of its hypocrisy.126 The sanctimonious Spaniards, “who held a sword in one hand and a breviary in another,” had, according to this counteroffensive, “erected a god of blood and destruction” and pursued their dream of a universal monarchy “under specious pretexts draped in painted crosses and invocations of Jesus.”127 Their wealth, added one noteworthy critique, was tarnished with the misery of the native American peoples whose resources they had brutally exploited.128 As for France’s alliances with Protestant powers, where was it written that “God had expressly declared that he wished for the Spaniards to become the masters of the Dutch,” and for Spain to emerge as the unrivalled hegemon in Europe?129 Emphasizing the importance of credibility and reputation in international politics, the bons politiques invoked France’s historic role as a security patron in key regions such as the Valtelline and Northern Italy, arguing that, in the case of the Grisons, for instance, “heresy alone did not suffice to deprive them of their sovereignty and of their right to (French) protection and assistance.”130

These day-to-day propaganda efforts were accompanied by a more ambitious and externally-oriented policy of cultural grandeur, whereby the industrious cleric sought to transform Paris into the artistic and academic capital of Europe — a city which would eventually outshine Madrid, Vienna, and maybe even Rome. He famously created the Académie Française, which initially hosted many of the more proficient politique theorists, and established the royal press, or Imprimerie Royale, in the Louvre, which turned France into a publishing hub for high-quality books and engravings.131 Richelieu was particularly intent on nurturing a body of sophisticated legal theorists. These experts could then work to weaponize the rapidly evolving field of international jurisprudence — not only to lend credence to France’s territorial pretensions but also to justify French military actions in the eyes of international public opinion.132 This aspect of Richelieu’s diplomacy was to become abundantly evident in May 1635, when France finally formally declared war on Spain.

La Guerre Ouverte

Louis XIII was a traditionalist with a deep attachment to chivalric values and ancient courtly rites. The flamboyant manner in which war was declared on Spain — with a mounted herald delivering the message before the Hallegate of Brussels after having been announced by trumpet — was characteristic of the French monarch. For years he had been champing at the bit, urging Richelieu to move from la guerre couverte to la guerre ouverte. The chief minister had consistently counseled patience, pleading with his sovereign to delay a full declaration of war as long as possible. By the spring of 1635, however, it was clear to Richelieu that this strategy, which had served France so well over the past decade, could no longer continue.

The Habsburgs’ resounding victory at the battle of Nördlingen in 1634 — during which a combined force of imperial and Spanish troops decisively routed their Swedish-led Protestant foes — abruptly reconfigured the European balance of power.133 France’s newly imperiled allies — Sweden and the Dutch United Provinces in particular — were increasingly insistent that their great power sponsor commit large-scale military forces to the fray. In the tense months following Nördlingen, the Vatican desperately sought to arrest the slide toward war, even offering to host a peace summit where Madrid and Paris could resolve their disputes through a process of mediated arbitration. Pope Urban VIII’s frantic diplomatic efforts were to no avail, however. Both Richelieu and Olivares had resigned themselves to the inevitability of conflict, and the massive, clunking cogs of their respective nations’ military machineries had begun to turn, as thousands of fresh troops were mobilized for war. Decision-makers in Spain — pointing to France’s much larger population and advantageous geographical position — became increasingly convinced that any protracted military struggle with France would not redound to their benefit. It was therefore necessary, argued Olivares, to seek an early end to the conflict by striking hard and fast. Military preparations were conducted “in width rather than in breadth.”134 The plan was to overwhelm French defenses on several fronts with the hope that the resolve of its less battle-hardened troops would crumble.135

These war plans were driven, in part, by Spain’s alarm over France’s massive military buildup under Richelieu’s tenure, which included the cardinal’s attempts to create a first-class navy. The development of France’s ground forces, however, was far more spectacular and of greater immediate concern to its enemies across the Pyrenees. As the cardinal’s network of spies at the Spanish court began to apprise him of Madrid’s plans for a series of preemptive military strikes, this buildup accelerated and France fielded an army of unprecedented size on the eve of war.

By the spring of 1635, however, it was clear to Richelieu that this strategy, which had served France so well over the past decade, could no longer continue.

Throughout the religious wars of the previous half-century, French royal forces rarely exceeded 16,000 men.136 During the brief periods of peace that followed each flare-up of civil violence, the bulk of these troops were often demobilized. When larger hosts were assembled, they were frequently composed primarily of foreign mercenaries, sometimes reaching up to 70 percent of the total number, rather than troops levied on French soil. In the absence of a well-organized and institutionalized standing army, French kings relied most often on a nucleus of gens d’ordonnance, or gendarmerie, a small body of heavy cavalry that was the country’s only permanently mobilized and fully professional military force — not including a few small garrisons lightly sprinkled across its borders. At its peak, Henri IV’s army in 1610 may have numbered up to 55,000 men.137 In contrast, by the time Louis XIII and Richelieu were mobilizing for war with Spain in 1634, documents show that they were accounting for up to 100,368 soldiers in service.138 As military preparations continued apace, these numbers steadily grew.139 French officials diligently recorded numbers of raised troops between 135,000 and 211,000 in the early years of their nation’s conflict with Spain, with one scholar estimating that up to 150,000 men may have been under arms in 1635.140

Before unleashing his freshly minted legions, however, the French chief minister insisted on getting France’s diplomatic house in order. Although the decision to go to war was made as early as April, he waited until France had fully cemented its renewed alliances with both the United Provinces and Sweden before dispatching the herald to Brussels. Following the envoy’s theatrical declaration, a public diplomacy campaign was launched whereby French propagandists moved to preempt their Spanish counterparts by issuing a series of manifestos clearly geared toward an international as well as a domestic audience, emphasizing the moral legitimacy of France’s actions. There is evidence that these carefully coordinated communication efforts were successful in shaping the overall narrative, as Olivares evinced frustration that the cardinal’s publicists always seemed to move faster and more efficiently than his own.141

The official justification for France’s declaration of war was Spain’s capture of the town of Trier, a French protectorate, the slaughter of its small French garrison, and the abduction of its archbishop-elector in March 1625. This act of great power aggression, read the herald’s declaration, was “against the law of nations” and an “offense against the interests of all princes of Christianity.”142 France once again positioned itself as the guardian of smaller states’ interests and the bulwark against Habsburg ambitions of universal monarchy. This time, however, the chief minister’s legion of lettrés was working to lay the moral underpinnings for a much more direct and overtly militarized French bid for European leadership. Louis XIII issued his own royal communiqué, arguing that while he had patiently tolerated, thus far, the constant “outrages” of Spain’s interference in France’s domestic affairs, the “Spaniards, by their arms and practices,” were now threatening the “very foundations of public liberty” in Europe.143 Naturally, the view from Madrid ­was very different. Indeed, for Olivares and his indignant acolytes, France — with its heady ambitions, exceptionalist ethos, litany of grievances, and overall truculence — was the revisionist power and great disruptor of the status quo. From the very get-go, therefore, the conflict was not framed as a mere tussle over territory and resources, but rather as a paradigm-defining battle for leadership legitimacy and shaping the international order.

Significantly, the French monarchy’s declaration of war was aimed at only one of the Habsburg branches. Richelieu hoped that Ferdinand II, already consumed with the difficult internal negotiations leading up to the Peace of Prague, would be reluctant to lend imperial military strength to the fight against France. This last-ditch attempt at alliance decoupling, however, proved unsuccessful. After months of prevarication, a reluctant Ferdinand II succumbed to the pressure exerted by the imperial court’s pro-Spanish lobby and formally declared war on France in March 1636.144 Richelieu was now facing the climactic struggle he had often anticipated but always dreaded: a war waged on an unprecedented scale, on multiple fronts, and against the combined might of both dynastic branches of the Habsburgs.

France’s military performance at the outset of this war was decidedly mixed. After a promising initial victory over an outnumbered Spanish force at the battle of Aveins, French forces, suffering from hunger and afflicted with typhus, encountered a series of military setbacks. In the summer of 1636, a joint Habsburg force led by Cardinal-Infante Ferdinand (the governor of the Spanish Netherlands and younger brother of King Philip IV) conducted a major counter-attack into French territory. The invading force met unexpectedly feeble resistance as it ravaged Picardy and Champagne and swept through a series of northern forts. The garrisons, untested and unsettled by their enemies’ novel use of shrieking mortar bombs, surrendered one after another.145 The Habsburg army, a large proportion of which was mounted, moved quickly, thrusting ever deeper into French territory, until it had captured the stronghold of La Corbie, along the Somme. Due to the rapid and unexpected nature of the troops’ advance, there was no sizable interposing military force in between them and Paris, barely sixty miles away. At the news of the cardinal-infante’s blitzkrieg-style incursion into France’s fertile northern plains, Richelieu was reportedly plunged into a deep depression. An unnerved Parisian populace directed its seething resentment at the unpopular chief minister and called for his ouster. The shaken cardinal tendered his resignation and nervously awaited his fall from grace. But although the king may have been occasionally frustrated with his adviser, he was astute enough to realize that there was no individual better suited to the position of chief minister, or more dedicated to the advancement of French prestige and interests.

He therefore crisply rejected Richelieu’s offer and the fiery Father Joseph was dispatched to shake his master out of his crippling state of despondency.146 Meanwhile, Louis XIII — in perhaps his finest hour — initiated a mass recruitment drive. Cantering through the cobbled streets of Paris, the monarch, who had always fancied himself as something of an Arthurian warrior-king, called upon every man capable of bearing arms to join him in expelling the hated foreigners from French territory.

In reality, however, the panic of the French royal court — while understandable — was unjustified. The Habsburg advance had proved remarkably successful, but the cardinal-infante was concerned that his forces’ supply lines were overextended and was already planning his withdrawal. The Corbie campaign had proved to “be no more than a short-lived pyrotechnical display.”147 It did succeed, however, in galvanizing French public sentiment and in temporarily uniting royal court factions in support of Richelieu’s war efforts. From that point, the Franco-Habsburg conflict slipped into a numbing see-saw of partial gains mitigated by temporary losses, a war of attrition that severely strained the resources, stability, and organizational capacity of the French state.

The challenges associated with coordinating the simultaneous operations of multiple armies over vast distances at a time when communications were both rudimentary and easily subject to delay or disruption were daunting. While military dispatches to Flanders or Italy would take perhaps 12 to 16 days when sent overland from France, they could take almost three months to arrive by sea from Spain. As a result, notes J.H. Elliott, it was “considerably easier to run a war from Paris than from Madrid.”148 Even then, there was inevitably a “lag effect,” when it came to issuing precise directives to faraway generals: the distance between Richelieu’s chambers and the frontlines was not only spatial — it was also temporal. The cardinal therefore often encouraged commanders to operate under their own initiative and to exercise their own judgment — provided they were not brash — as to when to seize opportunities to push into enemy territory. French generals could be reluctant to do so, however, if only because they feared the cardinal’s wrath in the event of failure. Indeed, Richelieu could be a singularly demanding overseer, demanding thick stacks of detailed correspondence on every aspect of the war effort and meting out severe punishment in response to perceived cowardice or military shortcomings.149

More broadly, many of the civil-military pathologies affecting French higher command during the Thirty Years’ War would be familiar to any student of authoritarian regimes. Most notably, Richelieu’s focus on “coup-proofing” meant that the perceived loyalty of a noble would often count more in terms of his military advancement than his battlefield performance. As contemporary scholars in the field of security studies have noted, regimes facing significant internal threats frequently adopt sub-optimal organizational practices, basing their promotion patterns on political loyalty rather than on combat prowess. 150 Richelieu, who, like all of his 17th-century European counterparts, operated at the heart of a complex web of patronage, was consistently torn between his desires to shore up his own power base and to shield his monarch from internal threats, as well as the need to effectively use the very small pool of able generals he had at his disposal.151 This sometimes resulted in confusing and counterproductive personnel policies, whereby he dismissed or disgraced competent military commanders and promoted mediocre alternatives. On other occasions, however, Richelieu could demonstrate a measure of tolerance and foresight, forgiving a proficient general’s past transgressions in favor of advancing the war effort. And at times, the canny clergyman managed to have it both ways, by preemptively absorbing promising commanders within his own networks of clientage, thus ensuring their future loyalty. This was the case, for instance, with the Count of Harcourt, whose military acumen impressed Richelieu, and who was therefore allowed to marry into the chief minister’s family despite his middling aristocratic standing.152 From then on, Harcourt was entrusted with a series of high-level military commands.

The decision to empower and deploy additional numbers of intendants was part of a broader move toward greater bureaucratic control over every aspect of the French war effort, from taxation to infrastructure development.

The French monarchy’s perennial fear of a resurgence of domestic disorder also led it to adopt a more centralized approach to the management of military operations. Whereas most other European powers continued to subcontract the levying and management of military forces to powerful nobles and “military entrepreneurs,” the royal administration of Louis XIII insisted on preserving a degree of direct control over its expanding military apparatus.153 Foreign military entrepreneurs, such as the highly effective Bernard of Saxe-Weimar, could be hired for the prosecution of overseas campaigns, but armies based and recruited on French territory remained strictly answerable to royal authority. A degree of local autonomy and decentralization remained necessary, given the bureaucratic limitations of the early 17th-century French state, and French nobles or bishops could thus continue to raise troops on their own account. The levied soldiers, however, remained under the proprietorship of the French monarchy, which stubbornly refused to take the easier — but in its eyes riskier — path of formalized military delegation. France’s rejection of the military entrepreneurship system was accompanied by the expansion of a body of civil servants — the famed intendants d’armée — whose role was to act as agents of royal authority, operating alongside French generals and co-supervising their military operations.154

The decision to empower and deploy additional numbers of intendants was part of a broader move toward greater bureaucratic control over every aspect of the French war effort, from taxation to infrastructure development.155 The intendants were entrusted with a broad set of responsibilities that ranged from investigating corruption and dispensing justice, to managing funds and supervising army expenditure. One should guard oneself, however, from overstating their ability to enact immediate change and override the decisions and policies undertaken by powerful local commanders. As David Parrott notes, the popular perception that Richelieu’s intendants were “seventeenth-century equivalents of the bolshevik commissars within the Red Army,” is in need of revision.156 Indeed, the relationships between field generals and royal intendants were often overshadowed or subsumed within complex pre-existing networks of clientele, and in some cases these culturally entrenched alternative power structures severely diluted the intendant’s authority.157 The general-intendant relationship was thus most often characterized by careful negotiation, as royal agents walked an administrative tightrope, making their best efforts to enact centralized directives — which were often somewhat overambitious or outdated — all while remaining mindful of local conditions, power dynamics, and logistical constraints. In some cases, this dual command structure acted as an impediment to military effectiveness, with royal intendants frequently butting heads with the commanders of their assigned military units. In other cases, however, the relationship could prove to be far more harmonious and productive. Military correspondence, after all, flowed in both directions, through a revamped network of dedicated postal relays that aimed to reduce some of the delays in communication. Intendants funneled reams of vital information back to the state center, keeping Richelieu and the secretariat of war somewhat better apprised of the manifold challenges plaguing the efforts of their frontline commanders.

Although France, unlike Spain, benefited from interior lines of communication, the distances remained vast and the terrain nearly impassable in many parts of the country, with thick forests, underdeveloped roads, and large, rugged mountainous regions.158 Problems of transportation and supply were a chronic source of concern, as were those of funding. The colossal costs of fielding such a large military force — one that sometimes included half a dozen armies operating simultaneously — placed a terrible strain on French finances, as well as on the country’s internal stability. Even before the war, in 1630, Richelieu grumblingly queried whether

There is a kingdom in the world that can regularly pay two or three armies at once … I would like to be told whether reason does not require that one better fund an army operating on enemy territory against powerful forces against whom it has been tried in combat, and where expenses and incommodities are indeterminate, rather than one that remains within the kingdom out of precaution of the harm that could befall it.159

This complaint pointed to one of the core quandaries confronted by the resource-hungry French armies. For the first half-decade or so of guerre ouverte, they operated largely on their own soil and thus were deprived of the possibility of engaging in the traditional practice of collecting “contributions” in the form of rapine and punitive payments extracted from enemy territory. When French troops were deployed abroad, particularly across the Rhine, their numbers often began to melt away as soldiers fled the unfamiliar and hostile German landscapes and streamed back to their villages and homesteads. This helps explain why it was deemed preferable to wage war with foreign mercenaries deep within imperial territory, while using national troops for operations in France or within its near abroad. For much of this period, the French monarchy teetered on the edge of financial collapse, staggering from one socio-economic crisis to another and racking up sizable debts to financiers who charged exorbitant rates. On average, funds allocated to defense amounted to 72 percent of government expenditure during Richelieu’s ministry.160 During the years of guerre ouverte these expenditures were rendered all the more extravagant by the crown’s continued subsidy of the Dutch and Swedes, as well as of the mercenary army of Saxe-Weimar. Unlike his Spanish rival, Richelieu could not rely on the riches from a sprawling network of overseas colonies, nor, for the reasons described above, could he hope to transfer the costs of military operations onto despoiled tracts of enemy territory.

The preservation of the kingdom’s newly aggrandized military machine was therefore largely dependent upon a massive expansion of domestic taxation. In this, Richelieu was mostly successful, with some estimates showing that the income of the French crown doubled in real terms over the course of his tenure.161 Per capita taxation also soared and the country’s peasantry — already reeling after a series of harsh winters and poor harvests — was plunged into an even more dire state of poverty. Throughout the war, the country was gripped by a series of rural uprisings, with some — such as the massive croquant revolt of 1637 or the rebellion of the Va-Nu-Pieds in Normandy in 1639 — requiring the temporary redirection of thousands of French troops away from the frontlines.162 A careful perusal of Richelieu’s writings show that, although he could sometimes appear dismissive of the common folk’s plight (and ruthless in the quashing of mass uprisings), he was not as callous or unyielding as some have taken him to be. He frequently expressed concern over the severity of the peasantry’s conditions, often granting temporary concessions in an attempt to stave off further unrest.163 His steely determination to prevail in the competition with the Habsburgs was interwoven with a deeper and more nagging fear: that the French state and people would not withstand the enormous pressures placed upon them, and that if he did not “keep a few steps ahead of financial disaster and uncontrollable social insubordination,” the country would slide back into civil war and find itself at the mercy, once again, of the predatory appetites of foreign powers.164

In this, he was not aided by the hodgepodge character of France’s new army. Many of the troops he had raised over the past decade were relatively unseasoned and the question of whether it was more judicious to concentrate the minority of experienced veterans in distinct “crack” units or to sprinkle them across the force was one that frequently remained unresolved. Most importantly, France’s high command drew on a more heterogeneous set of wartime experiences than its Spanish or imperial counterparts.165 The generals who had remained in France during the Wars of Religion were often unfamiliar with the rapidly evolving mechanics of large-scale, infantry-intensive warfare, having spent decades engaging in shadowy struggles for territorial control or denial and conducting mounted raids against nearby opponents. Others had chosen to pursue military careers in exile, with all the attendant variations in training, tactics, and doctrine. During France’s period of civil turmoil, Huguenot lords had often left to fight alongside the Dutch, while Catholic aristocrats had sometimes served under the imperial banner in the Hungarian Marches or alongside co-religionist forces elsewhere on the continent.166

The sheer variety of the military lessons gleaned by France’s warrior class, both resident and expatriate, during those tumultuous decades could, in some ways, be viewed as a strategic asset. The different terrains and adversaries confronted by Louis XIII’s armies in their continent-spanning operations — from the waterlogged plains of the Low Countries to the craggy defiles of Alpine Italy or Switzerland — certainly called for a mixture of strategies and for different forms of force structure. In other instances, however, Richelieu was clearly at pains to find enough commanders with the kind of experience needed for the most important theater of operations — the northeastern frontier. This was not only where Madrid chose to concentrate most of its elite units, it was also where the nature of the terrain (as evidenced during the Habsburg advance to Corbie in 1636) made large-scale enemy encroachments both most likely and difficult to counter. Inevitably, there were fierce debates in Paris over the distribution of finite military resources and the use of the handful of talented generals, as well as over how to prioritize the different military theaters.167 The northeastern front was often privileged to the detriment of other contested areas, such as Italy or the Valtelline, where — despite Henri de Rohan’s consummate military skill — the French expeditionary force eventually dissolved once the slow stream of funding and provisions sputtered to a halt.168

Having enumerated the multitudinous difficulties that the Bourbon monarchy had to contend with during this period, it is necessary to stress two facts. First, despite all of these challenges — whether in command and control, logistics, or domestic stability — the French war effort was somehow maintained.169 Second, perhaps most importantly, France’s organizational frailties and deficiencies were hardly unique. Across Europe, chief ministers and private secretaries grappled with a similar set of challenges as the small and overburdened bureaucracies they oversaw groaned under the pressure of resourcing and coordinating protracted military operations waged on an unprecedented scale across multiple theaters.170 Spain’s Count-Duke Olivares was no exception to this rule, and in fact faced some far more serious problems of his own. Like Richelieu, the volcanic Spaniard had to navigate the treacherous world of court politics with its webs of patronage and cronyism. And just like his French nemesis, Olivares groused about the dearth of qualified commanders and the unreliability of his allies, and was often in a wretched mental state, overworked, depressed, and plagued with insomnia. Indeed, he often appeared on the verge of buckling under the mental weight of coordinating a multifront campaign across a far larger and less geographically cohesive space than that confronted by Richelieu.171 However, whereas his French rival could increasingly rely on the expansion of domestic taxation to offset some of the exorbitant costs of military operations, Olivares remained heavily dependent on the steady flow of wealth — primarily silver — from Spain’s overseas colonies.172 This revenue progressively dwindled as the yield of South American silver mines slowly declined and Spanish treasure fleets found themselves mercilessly hounded across the seven seas by increasingly powerful naval opponents, particularly the Dutch. The latter had made substantial inroads in Brazil and the West Indies and Spain’s transatlantic trade routes were now perpetually at risk. Dutch gains in Brazil, and Spain’s inability to protect Lisbon’s possessions from their encroachments, had the added effect of further aggravating Philip IV’s Portuguese subjects, who were already resentful over their heightened levels of financial contribution to the Spanish Empire’s collective defense.173

Unfortunately for Olivares, the cardinal possessed both an uncanny gift for political survival and a robust counter-intelligence apparatus.

Spain’s system of “composite” monarchy, whereby Philip IV ruled from the Castilian heartland over a union of different territories with unique local traditions and varying levels of autonomy, was a constant source of frustration for Olivares — and of competitive advantage for Richelieu.174 Despite the Spanish chief minister’s zeal for internal consolidation, he faced an uphill battle in his campaign to more evenly apportion the cost of the war effort across Spain’s non-Castilian dominions. His attempts to reform and expand taxation and his plans for a “union of arms,” which proposed the creation of a reserve force of 140,000 men more equitably financed and recruited across Spanish territories, provoked widespread dissatisfaction in Catalonia and Portugal.175 Richelieu and his agents gleefully kept tabs on the diffusion of such sentiments and cultivated the hope that — galvanized by the pressures of war — they would eventually grow into full-fledged secessionist movements.

Both chief ministers were fully cognizant of the inadequacies of their respective state bureaucracies for the prosecution of such an onerous and large-scale war of attrition. Spain’s attempt to force France into a negotiated settlement by delivering a knock-out blow in the early stages of the war had floundered, and, as a result, Olivares now pinned his hopes on Richelieu either being forcibly ousted from power or succumbing to one of his many illnesses. This was a perfectly rational calculation. After all, the French were war-weary and Richelieu was deeply unpopular, was riddled with various ailments from crippling migraines to weeping abscesses, and had an occasionally fraught relationship with his royal patron. Moreover, were he to fall from grace, it was reasonable to assume that he and his accompanying network of politiques would be replaced with a power structure far more amenable to Spain’s interests and world vision.176 Unfortunately for Olivares, the cardinal possessed both an uncanny gift for political survival and a robust counter-intelligence apparatus. As the war dragged on with no sign of resolution, the Spanish chief minister became increasingly desperate, covertly sponsoring a number of French schemes to remove the cardinal and feverishly discussing elaborate plots for his assassination.177 Richelieu, for his part, continued to bet on Spain’s eventual dislocation and on its inability to weather the steady onslaughts from a more concentrated and populous country such as France.

In the event, history smiled on the cardinal, who won his strategic wager. On the military front, French armies and proxies finally began to make some progress, making inroads into both Flanders and Imperial German territory. Joint Habsburg military operations became ever rarer as the Holy Roman Empire focused the bulk of its forces against the Swedes. In 1637, the Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinand II died and was replaced by his son, Ferdinand III, a man with a greater appetite for compromise and a new willingness to shed the formalized military alliance with Spain in favor of conflict resolution.178 Richelieu’s fledgling navy also proved its worth, playing an important ancillary role in support of southward-facing land campaigns and winning a series of small but significant maritime skirmishes in the Mediterranean and along the Spanish coastline.179 A new generation of talented generals — such as Louis II of Bourbon (later known as Le Grand Condé) and Henri de la Tour d’Auvergne, Viscount of Turenne — came of age, and French forces consolidated their control over Artois and portions of Northern Italy as well as Alsace and Lorraine. A cordon of military outposts was established across the upper Rhine and the southern Roussillon was occupied.180 Most importantly, in 1640 Spain was finally engulfed by its internal tensions — as Richelieu had predicted — with both Catalonia and Portugal rebelling against their Castilian overlords and allying with France. In Catalonia, the ringleaders of the popular revolt opportunistically invoked ancient treaties from the time of Charlemagne and swore allegiance to Louis XIII, who promptly dispatched troops to garrison his new protectorate. Spain only succeeded in recapturing the renegade province twelve years later in 1652. In the case of Portugal, however, the divorce proved more permanent — after decades of bitter struggle, the Portuguese obtained their full independence in 1668.

These developments almost fatally impeded the Spanish war effort. Cursing the fickleness of his crimson-garbed foe, a broken Olivares lamented the fact that Madrid was now “reduced to a new war inside Spain which is already costing millions, at a time when we already find ourselves in terrible straits.”181 As Sir Richard Lodge later noted, events had

undergone a startling change since 1636. In that year the Spaniards had been victors on French soil, and their advance had excited a panic in the French capital. In 1640 France was not only secure against invasion, but its frontier had been advanced in the east, in the north, and in the south, and its great rival, Spain, was threatened with imminent dissolution. The connection with the Netherlands was already destroyed, and the French fleet in the Mediterranean made communication with Italy difficult and dangerous. In the peninsula itself two provinces were in open revolt, and one of them seemed likely to become a part of France.182

From then on — and although Spain would continue to wage war on its neighbor for almost two more decades — the strategic pendulum began to swing ever more strongly in France’s direction. Three years later, in 1643, the French army crushed a large Spanish force at the battle of Rocroi, in northeastern France, earning a spectacular and resounding victory.183

Richelieu, however, was no longer there to see it. Exhausted and emaciated, he had finally succumbed to one of his many afflictions a few months prior, on a wintry day in December 1642. In the weeks leading up to Richelieu’s death, the king paid his longstanding adviser a final visit. Surrounded by a gaggle of nervous physicians, coughing up blood, and struggling to speak between fits of hacking coughs, the cardinal leaned toward his monarch and engaged in a final defense of his policies.184 Whispering that he knew his days were numbered, he confided that he could comfort himself with the knowledge that he had left the “kingdom in the highest degree of glory and reputation it has ever been, and all [the king’s] enemies cast down and humiliated.”185 Legend has it that a few days later, as he received his final rites, the statesman was asked whether he wished to forgive any of his numerous enemies. The cardinal responded that there was nothing and nobody to forgive. After all, he personally had never had any true enemies — other, of course, than those of the state.186

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