Worth Reading: Richelieu and Olivares

This guy you know:


He’s the winner. Through the efforts of Dumas, he found an unforeseen afterlife as a major literary and film villain who constantly twirled his mustache and plotted against a pesky Gascon and his indomitable friends.

This guy you don’t know:

Count-Duke of Olivares

He’s the loser. No Dumas or even his cheap Spanish equivalent found him worthy of commemoration.

The winner is Armand-Jean du Plessis, born a minor French aristocrat. Originally destined for a military career, he became a Roman Catholic clergyman instead to keep the revenues of the bishopric of Luçon in the family. Eventually, after many political ups and downs, the reform Bishop of Luçon won Louis XIII‘s favor. This support led Pope Gregory XV to raise Bishop Plessis to the dignity of cardinal. Later still, Louis XIII awarded Plessis the title of Duke of Richelieu. After this, Plessis was known as the Cardinal-Duke of Richelieu.

Cardinal Richelieu
Cardinal Richelieu

The loser is Gaspar de Guzmán y Pimentel Ribera y Velasco de Tovar, born a Castilian grandee from a distinguished cadet branch of an even more distinguished family of Castilian grandees. Through his uncle’s influence, Guzmán became a courtier to and then royal favorite of the Prince of Asturias. When the sixteen year old prince became king as Phillip IV, he made Guzmán Duke of Sanlucar la Mayor but, because Guzmán had already inherited the ancient family title of Count of Olivares, Phillip IV allowed him to combine the two titles into the unique title of Count-Duke of Olivares and Sanlucar la Mayor.

The Count-Duke of Olivares
The Count-Duke of Olivares

It was under their titles, Richelieu and Olivares, that Plessis and Guzmán entered history. This is only one similarity that contemporaries and later commentators saw between the two men:

  • Richelieu (1585) and Olivares (1587) were born within two years of each other.
  • They died within three years of each other (Richelieu 1642, Olivares 1645).
  • They became first minister to their respective kings within three years of each other (Olivares 1621, Richelieu 1624).
  • They left office within a year of each other (Richelieu by death in 1642, Olivares by dismissal in 1643).
  • Both relied on the tenuous health and often more tenuous support of young, occasionally resentful monarchs for their political (and physical) survival.
  • Both were deeply unpopular with the people they governed over, from noble to commoner.
  • Both sought to reform their kingdoms but existing power structures and the demands of war frustrated their efforts.
  • Both initiated long wars that severely strained their governments, societies, and economies.
  • Both were devout Catholics who sometimes found themselves allied with Protestant heretics.
  • Both were hard workers.

Richelieu and Olivares by J. H. Elliot surveys these and other similarities. More importantly, the book explores the differences between the two men, especially those crucial differences that made Richelieu immortal and Olivares forgotten. Richelieu and Olivares is an entertainingly quick read that offers many unique insights from an overlooked but critical period of European history.

Richelieu and Olivares were competitors for most of their careers. In peace and in war, they fought each other for the number one slot in the pecking order of Christendom. Olivares sought to keep the slot for Spain. Richelieu sought to seize it for France.

At the beginning of their tenures, however, domestic reform seemed more pressing. Olivares recognized that was undergoing a long, slow decline when he assumed office in 1621. France was more obvious: it was broken down after 65 years of religiously accentuated civil war, foreign intervention, and misrule when Richelieu became first minister in 1624. Richelieu and Olivares sought to reverse their kingdom’s fortunes through internal reform but both gave up when they came face to face with an intolerable stumbling block: each other. By the end of their ministries, their rivalry had exploded into 35 years of constant warfare that raged on for 14 years after both men were dead.

But that was the future. At the start of their ministries, Richelieu and Olivares both saw a different future and that future was Dutch. As part of a Europe-wide trend, Richelieu and Olivares sought to adopt Dutch innovations. Both set up versions of the VOC. Both tried to encourage their aristocracies to become more commercially minded and work. Both expanded their navies and merchant marines. Both pursued colonial ventures and tried to increase trade.

Both only went skin deep.

They both overlooked the subtle factors undergirding Dutch success, the most important of which was the Dutch’s power to harness late medieval institutions like Estates. An earlier pan-European phenomena, Estates represented the estates of the realm. Originating in the late Middle Ages, Estates started as a way for feudal overlords to consult (and propagandize) their vassals and subjects. However, after the estates were brought together in Estates, the discovery of their collective power led many Estates to challenge the power of their overlords and win a substantial share of the judicial, legislative, and financial power of their realms before the late fifteenth century.

The Dutch themselves rebelled against Phillip II to preserve the power they exercised through their medieval institutions. The revolt came after Phillip II tried to centralize what was formerly local power by transferring it to his personal appointees. The Dutch Republic’s successful defense of its old order during the Eighty Years’ War gave the men who held the money the power and the interest to vote on whether or not to tax and borrow from themselves. This control over government funding by the Dutch moneyed class guaranteed that the Republic would never arbitrarily confiscate property or default on its debt since the moneyed classes were the state.

In other parts of Europe, developments went in the opposite direction. During the 17th century, Estates after Estates was weakened, suppressed, and bypassed in favor of centralized control by the ruler. In some cases, like the Netherlands, Poland-Lithuania, England, and Scotland, Estates held on and won supreme authority. In many more cases, aspiring divine monarchs defeated their Estates.

This newfangled absolutism was the hip new thing. With cutting edge thinkers like Bodin, Hobbes, Filmer, and Bossuet, absolutism was the future. Unfortunately, there were holdouts on the march to progress. In England and Scotland, the efforts of progressive monarchs like James I and VI, Charles I and I, Charles II and II, or James II and VII were thwarted. History actually turned-tail and went backwards when the Dutch conquered England in 1688 under the leadership of James II and VII’s nephew and son-in-law Willem III and II and III and forced England, her colonies, Ireland, and Scotland to become permanent members of the reactionary Bataviasphere.

Richelieu and Olivares, on the other hand, were both men of the future. Both were pioneers of absolutism. Ironically, Richelieu started out as a representative in the French version of Estates, the Estates-General. But the 1614 session of the Estates-General was the last such assembly called until 1789. Richelieu was the major reasons it remained unsummoned for another 175 years. He set out and largely succeeded in making the king the absolute power in France in fact as well as theory

Richelieu’s task, however, was easy. While French administrative practices remained in flux after the Wars of Religion, giving Richelieu the freedom to innovate, Olivares faced a well-established, elaborate, and sclerotic central bureaucracy. On top of this, Phillip IV was not the king of Spain. While Louis XIII was the king of a unitary kingdom of France, Phillip IV was king of Castile, Aragon, Valencia, Portugal, Naples, and various other dominions that were loosely lumped together as Spain. Each of these dominions had its own institutions, laws, liberties, and politics and jealously guarded them.

With the king’s support, Olivares attempted to overcome both. He used ad-hoc juntas packed with his own creatures to bypass the established court bureaucracy, but to little effect. He continuously tried to bypass the Estates of Phillip IV’s various dominions, especially when Olivares was trying to collect more taxes. Though Castile was the heart of Phillip IV’s power, even the Castillian Cortes resisted his efforts. Olivares’ fared even worse with the other realms’ Estates. The Corteses of Aragon, Navarre, and Portugal and the Corts of Catalonia and Valencia each contributed less to overall Spanish efforts than Castile. Olivares made several attempts to remedy this imbalance, the most ambitious effort was the “Union of Arms” that would have distributed the cost of raising and supporting troops among each realm based on their size and population. This plan failed but Olivares persisted in his efforts as Spanish finances deteriorated.

His efforts failed. As a result of Olivares’ depredations, Catalonia, Naples, Andalusia, and Portugal revolted in the 1640s and for a time it seemed like Spain itself would fragment. While the worst case didn’t happen and the Catalan, Neapolitan, and Andalusian revolts failed, Portugal was able to regain its independence and take its wealth and its colonies with it. Something resembling Olivares’ vision of a more unified and absolutist Spain eventually did come to Spain but, ironically, it had to wait until Louis XIII’s great-grandson Phillip V brought Richelieu’s vision to Spain as its first Bourbon king.

Whether Richelieu or Olivares could have creatively engaged their Estates is impossible to say. It would have meant ceding more power to their nobility and gentry than either man demonstrated comfort with. Even then it’s less than sure whether or not an empowered French or Spanish Estates would have cooperated with Richelieu’s or Olivares’ ambitious agendas. What we do know is that Richelieu and Olivares didn’t engage their Estates and that they paid the consequences. The lack of sustained financial buy in by French and Spanish moneyed classes led to chronic funding crises for France and Spain well into the twentieth century.

The crisis of Estates led to the naive efficiencies of absolutism triumphing on the Continent. It was only on the fringes of the European world that late medieval institutions like Estates survived. There, when even an outlier like England showed signs of absolutist ambitions, its colonies followed the earlier Dutch example and rebelled to preserve their archaic institutions and keep them under local control.

It’s ironic that the American Revolution occurred just as the last traces of the traditional Estates disappeared from continental Europe. In 1787, Prussians annihilated the old Dutch Republic. In 1791, Russia, Austria, and Prussia destroyed the Sejm of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth during the final partition of Poland. In France, an attempt to employ the old Estates-General ended up suborned by the sinister new religion of Jacobinism. In the name of a reality free but philosophically pure revolutionary faith, French armies swept away what remained of the old medieval institutions on the Continent along with old medieval republics like Venice and Genoa. This clear cutting destroyed the evolved diversity of Europe’s social ecology. The way was clear for the future subjection of continental Europe to idealized monocultures of the mind. The United States was left as the last besieged outpost of medieval European experience.

Richelieu is sometimes hailed as a pioneer of the centralized modern nation-state and non-confessional raison d’etat foreign policy. Elliot argues that this is true to a certain extent but that making Richelieu the pioneer in both overstates the case.

The origins of recognizably European nation-states go back at least to the New Monarchs and even back to Phillip the Fair and Edward Longshanks. In Richelieu’s time, nation-states were being pioneered all over the place by his contemporaries like Olivares, Maurice of Nassau and Frederick Henry in the Dutch Republic, Axel Oxenstierna in Sweden, Christian IV in Denmark, and Thomas Wentworth and William Laud in England, Scotland, and Ireland. Richelieu was simply an exemplar of a trend that had started long before him and continued long afterwards.

Non-confessional raison d’etat foreign policy was neither original with Richelieu or even followed consistently by Richelieu. Nothing Richelieu ever did was as shocking to contemporary European sensibilities as Francis I’s alliance with the Muslim Turk in 1536 against their mutual enemy Charles V.

So Happy Together
Francis and the Turk: So Happy Together

This unholy raison d’etat alliance continued in strength until just after the reign of Henry IV. Ironically, Richelieu seems to have done little to strengthen the alliance even though he was locked in a protracted war with Austria and Spain. Relighting that flame was left to Louis XIV. Nor were strange bedfellows only found in France. Olivares, champion of ultra-Catholic Spain, secretly worked with the Anglican Charles I and I against the Dutch. The English under Elizabeth I had an alliance with Morocco against Spain and flirted with the Turk. The Dutch actively sought support from the Turk during their revolt as did various German and Hungarian Protestant rulers. Some Protestants and Muslims, in the name of good relations and with varying degrees of conviction, even sought to demonstrate that Protestantism was closer to Islam than either faith was to Roman Catholicism. Liever Turks dan Paaps seems to be Dutch for “Distance makes the heart grow fond” (or “Familiarity breeds contempt”).

The age seems rife with raison d’etat, some of which makes Richelieu’s alliance with the Calvinist Dutch, the Lutheran Danish and Swedes, and various Protestant German princelings look quite tame. Both confessional and non-confessional foreign relations preceded Richelieu and survived long afterwards. Richelieu himself was more confessional and even idealistic than many historians allow. Elliot points out that Richelieu always saw his mission as creating a Christendom wide peace free of Hapsburg hegemony (with France as high-minded arbiter). His overall strategy aimed to gain access points to Germany and Italy so France could intervene to preserve German and Italian liberty. He saw Hapsburg ambitions as corrupting the Catholic Church through Hapsburg manipulation of the papacy. In opposing Hapsburg imperialism, he was freeing Catholicism from Hapsburg corruption and opening the way to restoration of Christian unity under true doctrine (with France as high-minded arbiter). In his treaties with the Dutch and the Swedes, Richelieu insisted (with varying degrees of effectiveness) on those two realms extending toleration to Catholics). How much of this was bluster is hard to say. The combination of cultural virtue with strategic and tactical vice was not unusual for that time or any time for that matter.

The competition between Spain and France, first as intrigue through the dark arts and after 1635 through open war, was a nearer run thing than later generations realized. Olivares renewed war on the Dutch in 1619 in response to Dutch attacks on its overseas possessions (and the religion thing) and pursued a strategy that for ten years severely pressed the Dutch. However, fatal let ups in pressure and Olivares’ diversion of troops to Italy and the Holy Roman Empire gave them the opportunity to recover. The results in Italy were indifferent but Olivares’ intervention in the Thirty Years’ War decisively turned the war in the Hapsburg’s favor by 1635. The Swedes were so badly battered they could barely hang on to a few pieces of territory in northern Germany and the Protestant German princes sued for peace with Austria and Spain.

This was when Richelieu decided that France had to intervene to prevent total Hapsburg victory. In contrast to their formidable reputation later in the 1600s, the initial stages of French intervention were disastrous. France hadn’t fought a major foreign war for forty years and their armies were routed. The Spanish and Austrians invaded France and even threatened Paris but they were unprepared for the scale of the French collapse and were unable to exploit this opportunity.

Spain would never again have such an opportunity. France was able to recover and beat off further Austrian and Spanish attacks on its territory. Richelieu’s subsidies fed a Swedish and Dutch revival that slowly ground away at Spanish and Austrian forces. Interruptions in silver shipments from the Americas hampered Spain’s access to capital markets. The need for ever more men and ever more money squeezed the Spanish home territories, leading to minor and then major revolts at home. Overseas, Dutch and VOC fleets seized the lucrative spice trade and other former revenue sources and raided Spain’s colonies. The Dutch destroyed the Spanish Navy in 1639, a fleet Spain could not afford to replace. These burdens cumulatively caused Spanish power to rapidly wane while France’s went slowly on the ascent.

Neither Richelieu or Olivares lived to see the results of their labors. Richelieu died in 1642 still holding on to the reins of power. His policies would need another eighteen years to come to fruition. Olivares was dismissed by Phillip IV in 1643 through the intrigues of the queen and his nephew (and successor as favorite and first minister). Olivares went into internal exile and died two years later.

Why did Richelieu overcome Olivares? Both men were hard workers. Both were highly intelligent, though Richelieu probably had an edge. Olivares had more resources while Richelieu had less. Olivares faced fewer internal opponents in Spain than Richelieu before the very end of his ministry. Spain’s politics were much more stable while France’s were in a state of barely controlled turmoil. Spain’s army and navy were unmatched in Europe. Yet, in the end, Olivares, and Spain with him, fell short. Elliot speculates that Richelieu’s edge might have been a greater tendency to take chances that the more cautious Olivares would not. Olivares was also increasingly besieged by mental illness towards the end of his life. Richelieu, while constantly ill, kept his clarity of thought till the end.

In the end, it may have been luck, slightly tipped this way or that by human action whether intentional or unintentional. Olivares himself captured his dilemma when he wrote this to his secretary after his dismissal:

It is no good speculating, Señor Antonio Carnero, or turning things over in one’s mind, for this is the world, and so it always was; and there were we trying to achieve miracles and reduce the world to what it cannot be, when it is certain that the one certain thing about it is its instability and inconstancy and lack of gratitude. We entirely forgot God and placed our faith in men, and the more we turn this over in our minds, the madder we become.

Richelieu and Olivares is worth reading.

5 thoughts on “Worth Reading: Richelieu and Olivares”

  1. History is constantly rewritten to suppport modern day political positions. Greatest changes occur in the 700 years during and after the Black Death. As we know from personal experience, todays newspapers, diaries, memos and every othe sort of recollection are usually inacurate or just plain misleading. So it was in the past.

    Political philosophies were spun out by contemporary spinners to justify the deeds of those the admired and to condemn the deeds of those they hated. These spinners-philosopes had the same effect as James Carville or Karl Rove or Dick Morris.

    We should be careful to treat history books with the same respect that we give the Washington Post, New York Times, Le Monde, API, Pravda or Haeretz.

    Arguments based on history have an ever shifting foundation.

  2. I have always thought of Cardinal Richelieu and Count-Duke Olivares not so much as the perfect pair, but as two members of a triumvirate. Lord High Chancellor Axel Oxenstierna being the man to finish the trio. Together they were the three most influential – and in theory – powerful men in Europe. Their battles defined their century; they were truly the last great “favorites.”

    Of course, J.H. Elliot doesn’t know Swedish, so Oxenstierna gets the boot.

    For those interested, another interesting study of Count-Duke Olivares, also written by J.H. Elliot, can be found in Grand Strategies in War and Peace. I would recommend it.

  3. Bravo, citizen Fouche! Excellent historical review.

    I would demur on T. Greer’s point that these men were the “last” favorites. The Russians, as usual, lagged in this regard the Tsars having the most de facto and de jure “absolute” power, the most primitive and inept state bureaucracy and an old boyar nobility that was broken by Ivan the Terrible and Peter the Great and then expanded by Peter’s state service nobility. The Imperial Court and courtiers remained the nexus of power up through Alexander III and was still potent under his idiot son, Nicholas II.

  4. Ah, there are constitutional checks on the POTUS and on the USG itself, however frayed they might be. There weren’t any on the Tsars, not until after the 1905 Revolution. Colonel House was Wilson’s alter ego and he was certainly in spirit, a courtier, but he didn’t have the kind of irresponsible power that a Tsar’s favorite could exercise

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