Luca Fumagalli

Richelieu (1929) is among the best historical books written by Hilaire Belloc. As the title suggests, it deals with the life of Duke Armand-Jean du Plessis, the famous Cardinal Richelieu.

Selfish, self-referential and arrogant, in The Three Musketeers by Dumas Richelieu is the symbol of 17th century ecclesiastical corruption. On the other hand, paintings like that of Henri-Paul Motte, in which the cardinal, clad in shining armour, observes the siege of the Huguenot fortress of La Rochelle with satisfaction, have contributed to exaggerate his virtues, even transforming him in a kind of new crusader.

Belloc’s book aims to restore the truth about Richelieu. The cardinal is first of all relocated to the specific historical context in which he lived, the seventeenth century, characterized by two great events: the contrast between Catholicism and Protestantism, and the fatal “religion of patriotism”. Richelieu was the undisputed protagonist of this revolutionary era, an era that definitively wiped out all memory of medieval Christianity. The cardinal – a forerunner of Bismarck – with his political outlook was the true founder of modern nationalism and, at the same time, contributed to making permanent the religious division in Europe.

A brilliant diplomat but, if necessary, a shrewd double agent, Richelieu became the deus ex machina of the early seventeenth century through the conduct of an aggressive and fortunate policy. In a France prostrated by difficulties, the cardinal first concerned himself with eliminating the Calvinist aristocracy in constant turmoil, and then with strengthening the army, the bureaucracy and the crown – paving the way for absolutism – and, finally, he put French interests before those of the Catholic world during the Thirty Years War. To the Calvinists, now politically irrelevant, he guaranteed freedom of worship and, as further evidence of how religion was considered by him only a political tool, he unleashed the Lutheran king of Sweden against the emperor.

Richelieu’s end came suddenly, bringing down the cardinal at the height of his work: with him modern Europe was born with religious pluralism and extreme nationalisms. But all of this was achieved at a high price and, in hindsight, for minimal gain.