The Passing of Richelieu and Olivares

Cardinal Richelieu in his older years, doing his best supervillain impression in a bit of river barging. Photo Credit: Paul Delaroche.

As Friedrich Wilhelm and the Swedes began to peel apart imperial unity, the Hapsburg’s most implacable foe must have died with a smile on his face. A victim of his own doctors as well as outright disease, Cardinal Richelieu passed in December 4th, 1642. For years the Cardinal had put his considerable intellect towards the construction of a strong and cohesive French state, and the results were mostly impressive. He had fostered the settlement of New France in North America, patronized the arts, sciences, literature, literally written the book on political science, crushed much of the internal dissent to the French monarchy, and engineered the long term collapse of Hapsburg power in Europe. Even in death his hands reached out to move the other pieces in this long game.[1] When peace was finally negotiated in 1648, French demands and conditions relied on documents Richelieu himself drew up in his last year. Though brilliant, Richelieu’s legacy was tarnished by his drive for foreign success over domestic reform. Crippling taxes were imposed to pay the loans France relied upon, and when France itself was invaded Richelieu faced both court plots on his life and mass revolt. Yet even so, the Cardinal had ensured that the next century would be dominated by France.

Not that his longstanding opponent Count-Duke Olivares could gloat much at outlasting his rival. Just a month later in January 1643 King Phillip IV relieved Olivares of his duties. After 22 years in power, Phillip tried to let his favorite down easy and couched the choice as simply “accepting” one of the many times Olivares had tried to tender his resignation for tactical gains. But the presence of an angry mob eager to celebrate his fall from grace pointed to the extreme dislike Madrid felt for Olivares. Some of this was due to ongoing and miserable intrigue surrounding Olivares’ recently legitimized son, which due to some contrived family ties had managed to antagonize some powerful relations. And other parts were scapegoating for problems outside of his control, or inherited, as was the case with the weeping sore known as Spanish Netherlands. But it was hard to say Spain was better off than it had been when he assumed control. Olivares, like Richelieu, left a complicated legacy. Some of his ideas were clever. Many more were not, or were so insanely grandiose they belonged on Lex Luthor’s desk. Still others were necessary, and indicate a man who might have done great things if his nation’s foundations were not groaning under the burden of a decaying empire. But for the better part of two decades, Olivares and Richelieu had played a thousand games of geopolitical chess across Europe, and the Cardinal had won far more than he had lost. Likely it is the reason Olivares is nearly forgotten to time and Richelieu is emblazoned on the side of a thousand streets, half a dozen warships, and honored, even as a villain, by some of the hammiest actors in cinema.

louis XIII
A somewhat creepy portrait of Louis XII, his Queen Anne of Austria, and their dead-eyed son the Future King Louis XIV. Photo Credit Wikipedia Commons

Nor would Cardinal Richelieu not long outlast his King. Louis “the Just” XIII died on May 14th, 1643 of tuberculosis. All his life he had relied on others, first his meddling Medici mother, then court favorite Charles de Luyne, his mother (again), then Richelieu, and the final end of things, Richelieu’s handpicked successor Cardinal Jules Raymond Mazarin. An introvert by nature, Louis was a quiet enigma surrounded by more vocal personalities. His passion for the lute, and occasionally for some of his male courtiers, paints a complicated picture of a king struggling to fit himself into the mold of royalty but fully aware of his responsibilities.[2]

Louis left the place in competent hands. Though Mazarin was Italian, and ruling jointly with Louis’ Spanish born wife Anne of Austria[3], the two proved deeply loyal to France and dedicated themselves to laying the foundations for the rule of Louis XIV; the future Sun King was just five at the time of his father’s passing. In one of those final uncanny moments in history, on May 14th, 1643, the King called the Duke of Anjou in to see him, “Monsieur de Conde, I dreamt that your son had won a great victory”.[4] Just a few days later, at the Battle of Rocroi, the Duke’s son would ensure the rise of French power in the aftermath of the war. Times were changing.

[1] His body would also move, though likely less in accordance with his will. In the French Revolution Richelieu’s body was literally stolen, and a noble in Brittany kept the mummified head. From 1796-1866, the family would occasionally wheel it out for display before Napoleon III finally convinced the family to stop being creepy and return the Cardinal’s remains.

[2] His lasting personal legacy may have been his influence in men’s fashion and wigs especially. Bald at a relatively young age, Louis set the fashion of the era to compensate accordingly.

[3] Just one of many confusing consequences of the repeatedly regrafted Hapsburg family tree.

[4] Wedgwood 2005


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