Overall, I didn’t feel this book lived up to expectations. It might have been a function of reading it in small, disjointed blocks, but the book never seemed to tie together cohesively. The section on Richelieu’s early life and education and rise to power was good, but as soon as he reached the court of Louis XIII then it began to fall apart. I felt that most events and characters were covered rather thinly, and sometimes confusingly. I often had to look up key players on wikipedia as they suddenly jumped into the narrative with little explanation. The book also assumes a large amoutn of knowledge of the thirty years war and the French wars of religion moregenerally for much of the book to make sense as little of this “backstoy” is given. Luckily I knew enough to get most of it (my knowledge of the French wars of religion was a little hazy though) but others may struggle more.
There is a lot of detail about the court dramas at the time, if covered quite thinly, but not a lot about the more economic or political aspects of France at the time. His talk of culture, and how it evolves over time, however, is very interesting. The book is also lacking anything really relating to Richelieu’s policies outside of personal court squabbles. We see him occasionally taking command of armies such as at la Rochelle, and solving plots agaisnt him in the court. We see him employing a mixture of charm, hysteria, and threats to resign to get Louis XIII to sign off on his ministerial decrees, but we’re given little insight into what those decrees contain. We know broadly that his policies are to reduce the power of the Grands, strengthen the monarchy and bolster France’s gloire, but we’re rarely given concrete descriptions of how he achieved these goals. I had to look up his economic policies, for instance elsewhere.
The general picture throughout is one of a royal court of chaos, incompetence, and petty drama, which is probably pretty realistic. The French court and government at the time is pretty chaotic. Ministers rise and fall by the fickle whims of Louis and are endlessly drawn into court infighting between the various factions of the king, his mother, his brother, representatives of the church, greater nobility, as well as by the various favourites who would typically rise rapidly to a pinnacle of power and then fall ignominiously within a few years. Louis himself seems to be a pretty weak king. Timid and indecisive, dominated by srong personalities such as his mother and then Richelieu. He also appears to have been gay, or at least uninterested in women which caused all sorts of problems for the kingdom as he very reluctantly (if at all) produced an heir. Levi casts a huge shadow over the future Louis XIVs paternity, and all but implies it was Mazarin who really impregnated Louis’ wife. Googling around, this doesn’t seem to be the historical consensus however. It does make sense though, as Louis XIV was definitely unlike his supposed father in temperament, at least if the portrayal given here by Levi is correct.
Despite the general “pop culture” impression as Richelieu as a masterful spider sitting in his web of agents, his position always seemed challenged and precarious, and his policies in large part driven by contingency. Moreover, the only plots he seemed to have foiled (or at least are described in this book) seem to have been solved not through a horde of secret agents but either hilarious incompetence and stupidity on the part of the plotters, or one of them getting cold feet, switching sides, and telling Richelieu everything. We are given relatively little information about Richelieu’s policies in government more generally. We are told that Richelieu is a great administrator, but not shown him doing any administrating at all. Instead he just appears to be bogged down in endless court scandals and infighting.
The book does have its strong points, but ironically they have little to do with Richelieu, the purported subject of the biography. The discussion of France’s literary and drama scenes at the time is good and interesting. The silly feuding of the dramatists for patrongage is amusing, and his general views on the developing cultural trends of France are interesting. As is his briefly covered forays into religious conflicts. The Jansenists vs the Gallicanists vs the More strictly orthodox catholics vs, of course, the Huguenots and protestants more generally. How Richelieu navigated these debates was interesting, even thoguh they seem mostly esoteric from the perspective of a modern reader. The general impressions the book gives on the fickleness of fate and the fleetingness of power are worthy of reflection. We often think of the 17th century as the period of France’s ascendance, with images of the Sun King and his splendour, but in reality, at the beginning of the 17th century, France was a basket-case. Ravaged by civil war as well as religious and sectarian conflict between Catholics and Huguenots, with a weak monarch and a failing economy, it began to fall under the sway of the Habsburgs, then at the peak of their power. In only 30-50 years France had completely reversed course and become the dominant cultural and military power in Europe while the Spanish had slipped into stagnation and decay.
The discussions on the changing culturees of France were also interesting, and how the general cultural tone meandered between optimism and pessimism as the situation changed. After the wars of religion slowly puttered out, France was seized by a great cultural optimism and became generally convinced of the fundamentally good nature of man, and the possibility of religious perfection, as well as dreaming of gloire. Richelieu came of age in this cultural millieu and never seems to have left it, even as the greater culture took on a more pessimistic tone. As France slowly and inexorably got dragged into the 30 years war, and civil strife between catholics and Huguenots inevitably broke out again then the cultural mood turned more pessimistic. Then, as these factors subsided and France again entered a period of growth and prosperity under Louis XIV, there was another great swell of optimism and splendour. It is this swell that, I think, crystallised history’s impression of Louis XIV as the Sun King, and despite the defeats of his later reign, nobody the impression persists. In general, it seems, that when men are at peace, they dream of the dashing heroism of war; when at war, they dream of the tranquil security of peace.
Overall, the book focuses extremely heavily on the personal side of rule, and court life. It has very thin detail on the economic and social policies of Richelieu (outside of his patronage of the arts and literature). it does not deal with the administratoin of the French government really at all. It does not deal with the military and diplomatic situations except in passing (where they are generally poorly explained). The book therefore sits in an odd place. To fully be able to follow the events described, you need to know a lot about general European politics of the time, as well as about Richelieu specifically. However, the material in the book is often at such a level that people who do know all of that, will get relatively little out of it. So it goes.