Poker Lessons From Richelieu

A Portrait of the Statesman as Gambler

Armand-Jean du Plessis, better known to history as Cardinal Richelieu (1585–1642), spent most of his career contending for and then exercising control over a deeply divided, indebted, and dysfunctional superpower. His country’s politics were vicious, and its government paralyzingly complex. In short, if he were dropped into Washington today, he might feel right at home.

French historians have long hailed Richelieu as the architect of the absolute monarchy that dominated Europe throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Henry Kissinger, in Diplomacy, dubbed him “the father of the modern European state system.” Even critics, such as Alexandre Dumas, who made him the villain of The Three Musketeers, often cannot help admiring Richelieu’s icy savoir-faire, which is captured in the famous portrait by Philippe de Champaigne that adorns the cover of Jean-Vincent Blanchard’s new biography. As Richelieu intended, it shows a master political player with the ruthlessness necessary to achieve his goals, chief among them raising France to greatness.

Richelieu was indeed a model statesman, but not for the reasons usually given. Despite his long-standing reputation (which Blanchard largely endorses), the cardinal was not really a great institution builder, still less someone bent on making France what Blanchard calls “a modern administrative state.” Nor do Kissinger’s claims about Richelieu inaugurating an international order based on raison d’état hold up. The cardinal was hardly the first European statesman to place national interest above moral or religious imperatives, and the modern European state system, with its power balancing and alliances, did not really take firm shape until the Peace of Westphalia, six years after Richelieu’s death. Richelieu was, however, one of the greatest examples in history of the politician as high-stakes gambler, notable less for what he did than for how he did it.

Richelieu’s qualities as a statesman emerge most sharply when he is compared with other leaders of the period -- particularly his great rival, Spain’s chief minister, the Count-Duke of Olivares, who lacked both the cardinal’s keen foresight and his taste for risk but nonetheless came close to defeating him on many occasions. For this reason, the single best recent treatment of Richelieu remains the British historian J. H. Elliott’s brilliant 1984 study Richelieu and Olivares. Blanchard’s biography is engaging and well written but has a more sprawling and somewhat thinner feel. As a specialist in seventeenth-century literature, Blanchard has trouble situating Richelieu in the broader sweep of European history, particularly when it comes to the complex dynamics of ancien régime administration and diplomacy. Still, he has read the most important primary sources carefully and has a good eye for colorfully illustrative passages, along with a genuine sensitivity to his subject’s personal strengths and weaknesses. Those who know Richelieu only from the movies will find in Blanchard’s pages a very human character who triumphed in a setting far more frightening than anything Hollywood has recently devised.

ORBITING JUPITER

The tone of Richelieu’s career was set by the savage and unpredictable political culture into which he emerged. The first two kings of France in his lifetime, Henry III and Henry IV, were both assassinated. The next king, Louis XIII, had his chief minister, Concino Concini, shot in the street, after which the man’s naked body was ripped to pieces on the Pont Neuf. (Some reports claimed that members of the frenzied crowd even cooked and ate Concini’s heart.) Several other leading figures of the period ended their days on the executioner’s block, including the unhappy Comte de Chalais, whose headsman bungled the job and ended up frantically chopping away at his screaming victim with a small hatchet.

Richelieu himself was regularly in danger of meeting a similar fate. Chalais had plotted to have him stabbed to death, and another enemy tried to put a bomb under the seat of his carriage. Richelieu was Concini’s protégé, and himself escaped from the angry Parisian crowds only because he had the presence of mind to order his retainers to start shouting, “Vive le roi!” (Long live the king!). Surviving in such a milieu, to say nothing of flourishing, required brilliant timing, courage, an uncanny ability to read and manipulate others, and a willingness to take dramatic risks -- all qualities Richelieu had in abundance.

Richelieu rose to national prominence during a particularly perilous time, the years following the assassination of Henry IV in 1610. The popular monarch’s successor, Louis XIII, was just eight years old when he took the throne and grew into an awkward, insecure youth with a bad stutter, psychologically overwhelmed by his ferociously ambitious mother, Marie de Médicis, who served as his regent. Sensing an opportunity to claw back some power from the monarchy, French nobles staged a series of revolts, and eventually Louis rebelled against his mother and sought to take control of the government in his own right. (One step in this process was the killing of Concini, who had been Marie’s favorite adviser.)

It was Marie who originally saw the potential in Richelieu -- at the start of this period, a relatively minor noble from western France who had joined the clergy merely to secure his family’s rights to the revenues of a bishopric. She quickly brought him into the inner circles of power, placing him in charge of French foreign policy in 1616. In 1618, after war broke out between mother and son, Louis banished Richelieu to Avignon. But the young bishop managed to convince the king of his loyalty and proved instrumental in bringing about a family reconciliation of sorts. Following the 1621 death of Louis’ chief adviser, the Duc de Luynes, Richelieu came to the fore, eventually becoming the king’s most trusted and important councilor. In 1622, the pope agreed to make him a cardinal.

For the next two decades, Richelieu was a crucial player in French and European politics, but with his position resting on his ability to please and manipulate his vain, stubborn, and temperamental royal master -- whom Blanchard nicely describes as “worn out by inner torments, military battles, and furious hunting.” As a Spanish diplomat of the time put it, Richelieu had come “closer to Jupiter, but also to his thunder.” Blanchard might have dwelt somewhat more on this fascinating relationship, in which Richelieu not only flattered the king endlessly but also made sure the monarch was surrounded by attractive young men. Above all, Richelieu became a mentor to Louis, someone able to scold the king for his shortcomings, sometimes even in public.

As Richelieu’s star and influence rose, Marie grew resentful of her former protégé, and a showdown became inevitable. On November 11, 1630, Marie exploded at the cardinal in front of the king, showering him with insults and forcing him to beg for mercy on his knees. Louis, apparently struck dumb by the outburst, left without acknowledging Richelieu, and Marie’s supporters rejoiced that their nemesis the cardinal had fallen. That evening, the king summoned Richelieu to his hunting lodge at Versailles -- for his execution, the cardinal thought, assuming he had finally lost the high-stakes poker game of court politics. Overcoming his urge to flee, Richelieu obeyed the king’s command and discovered that he was in fact being restored to royal favor, in an episode that would become known as the Day of the Dupes, with Marie’s leading allies arrested instead the next morning. By 1642, Louis could write to Richelieu, “I have never loved you so much. We have been together for too long ever to be separated.”

THE GAMBLER

Richelieu’s statecraft involved as much dangerous risk taking as his domestic political career. In 1618, what would become known as the Thirty Years’ War broke out -- Europe’s last great spasm of religious warfare, in which a furious conflict between a series of Protestant states, on one side, and the House of Hapsburg and its Catholic allies, on the other, tore the center of the continent apart. France, a Catholic state itself, nevertheless intervened on the Protestant side, hoping to supplant the Austrian and Spanish Hapsburgs as the strongest power in Europe.

Richelieu initially felt that France could do no more than subsidize Protestant efforts and engage in strictly limited military campaigns. Ironically, he feared treachery from the Huguenots, France’s own small Protestant minority, who had lingering grievances against the French state and control of several strategic towns, including the Atlantic port of La Rochelle. Realizing that he had to address the Huguenot threat before intervening seriously abroad, in 1627 Richelieu laid siege to La Rochelle and starved the city into submission. (By the end of the operation, even the rats had disappeared, and the starving locals were reduced to eating boiled shoe leather.)

Then, Richelieu made one of his boldest moves. With France exhausted and indebted, he quickly raised another army and sent it on the dangerous route across the Alps into northern Italy, where an unstable political situation offered France the chance to break the Hapsburgs’ extended supply lines. The gamble paid off, and a few months after the fall of La Rochelle, Richelieu and Louis watched French forces storm in triumph across the northern Italian plains.

After its victory in Italy, France continued to encourage and subsidize Protestant powers, such as the Netherlands and Sweden, without committing fully to the broader war. A series of Catholic victories in the early 1630s, however, finally convinced Richelieu to go all in, and in May 1635, he sent a gaudily dressed herald across the border to Spanish-ruled Brussels to issue a formal declaration of war.

At first, the gambit seemed to go terribly wrong. Spanish forces invaded France’s northern provinces in the summer of 1636, capturing several strategic fortresses and coming within a day’s ride of the capital. Panicky crowds flooded the streets of Paris calling for Richelieu’s head. The cardinal fell into a deep despair. Yet François-Joseph le Clerc du Tremblay, the so-called Gray Eminence, who stayed at Richelieu’s side throughout much of his career, managed to rouse him, and recovering his nerve, France’s chief minister walked out onto the Pont Neuf to much the same spot where his predecessor, Concini, had been butchered two decades earlier. Admiring his nerve, the crowd cheered the man it had just been cursing. Meanwhile, the French armies held, then gained a respite when the Spanish broke off their offensive to rebuff an attack from the Dutch. Over the next six years -- the last six years of Richelieu’s life -- France seized large new territories and established itself as a leading power in Europe.

THE CARDINAL’S VIRTUES

Many today might dismiss Richelieu’s brand of leadership as archaic, something with little relevance to the far more ponderous process of modern statecraft, with its armies of bureaucratic functionaries analyzing all policy options in mind-numbing detail. Yet from Munich to the Cuban missile crisis to nuclear proliferation, recent history is replete with instances of international politics resembling nothing so much as a poker game. And was not the 2003 invasion of Iraq very much a gamble, with the Bush administration having its own, not-entirely-un-Richelieu-like power behind the throne, manipulating an inexperienced young leader struggling to emerge from the shadow of his powerful parent? In this sense, the survival skills that politicians develop in their rise to power at home may serve them surprisingly well when they take on responsibility for international affairs, and Richelieu may offer a model of sorts.

As for his historical significance in France’s long-term development, the record is less clear. Richelieu won important victories over his country’s great rivals, Hapsburg Austria and Spain, but he did not consolidate those triumphs. He raised tax revenues manyfold, allowing France to fight effectively in the Thirty Years’ War, but in the process he squeezed the peasantry and provincial elites so brutally that he provoked a series of ruinous revolts that culminated, soon after his death, in outright civil war. And although Richelieu improvised brilliantly, as when he sent out agents called intendants, armed with new powers, to help collect taxes and control the army in the provinces, he did not design permanent new administrative structures.

It would take another monarch and another chief minister -- Louis XIV and Jean-Baptiste Colbert -- to take the story further in the decades that followed. They were the ones who secured the French state’s modern borders, who cooperated more closely with provincial elites and extracted even greater sums from the country with considerably less strife (in order to wage even more ambitious wars), and who turned Richelieu’s intendants into established arms of the central state. Richelieu, in short, did not create modern France nor make it the leading force in Europe. But his actions paved the way for his successors to do so, which is no small feat.