In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Cardinal Richelieu

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Edited Collections
  • Biographies
  • Reference Works
  • Bibliographies
  • Early Life and Career
  • Richelieu as First Minister
  • Comparative Studies of First Ministers
  • Political Thought and Writings
  • Governing France
  • War and Foreign Policy
  • Religion
  • Culture and the Arts

Renaissance and Reformation Cardinal Richelieu
Eric Nelson
  • LAST REVIEWED: 25 August 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 August 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399301-0386


Today Cardinal Armand-Jean du Plessis de Richelieu is arguably the most well-known French government official of the 17th century, in no small part due to Alexandre Dumas’s 1844 novel The Three Musketeers—and the many film adaptations that have been made of it. In his novel Dumas cast Richelieu as a powerful and ruthless villain ruling France from behind the throne by manipulating King Louis XIII. It is this image that lives on in the popular imagination today, but in the century and a half since Dumas wrote his novel historians have constructed a variety of alternative interpretations of the cardinal minister. With just a few earlier exceptions, modern scholarship on Richelieu only began in the 1870s when Martial Avenel collected and published an eight-volume edition of the cardinal’s papers. Late-19th and early-20th-century scholarly consensus viewed Richelieu as a “great man” who, during his period as first minister between 1624 and 1642, transformed a kingdom on the verge of collapse after decades of civil and religious war into a unified nation and leading power on the European stage. Scholars credited him with laying the foundations for absolute rule, taming the political threat posed by the great nobles and Huguenot minority at home, and intervening decisively in the Thirty Years’ War abroad. To many, Richelieu seemed a modern man ahead of his time. He was a churchman with a secular outlook informed by the concepts of reason of state and balance of power, so central to 19th-century political thinking. Following French defeat in the early 1870s at the hands of Chancellor Bismarck—the figure who had politically united Germany and transformed this new state into a major European power in the 19th century—some identified Richelieu as France’s 17th-century equivalent of the German chancellor. To a certain extent this heroic image of Richelieu still persists alongside Dumas’s scheming minister, but during the 20th century scholars came to moderate or challenge much of this interpretation. Some have noted the constraints on Richelieu’s scope for action and the limitations of French administrative structures charged with effecting change from the center. Others have emphasized Richelieu’s reliance on compromise and concessions to govern the kingdom. Finally, several scholars have brought Louis XIII out of the shadow of his first minister, presenting their government as a more equal partnership than in the past and identifying the king as the ultimate arbiter of royal policy. Today Richelieu, his government, and his legacy remain topics of scholarly debate as the great man identified by earlier historians is examined and re-examined with reference to the complex environment in which he operated.

General Overviews

There are a number of excellent surveys of early modern France available in English. The selection chosen here provides a variety of perspectives and emphases. The first two chapters of Collins 2009 examine statecraft and government during Richelieu’s time as first minister, while the last two chapters of Holt 2002 provide excellent overviews of political and religious developments in France during the first half of the 17th century. Bercé 1996 explores the political history of France during the reigns of Henry IV, Louis XIII, and the regency years of Louis XIV’s rule, while Beik 2009 traces social and cultural developments in the kingdom from the 16th through the 18th century. Although older, Tapié 1975 remains a useful survey of France during the reign of Louis XIII. Finally, Bergin 2009 offers a wide-ranging exploration of Richelieu in Spanish, German, English, and American historiography.

  • Beik, William. A Social and Cultural History of Early Modern France. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2009.

    The best single survey of social and cultural developments in France from the 16th through the 18th century, this text is organized into thematic chapters on such topics as population, rural society, the nobility, cities, warfare, and religious life.

  • Bercé, Yves-Marie. The Birth of Absolutism: A History of France, 1598–1661. Translated by Richard Rex. New York: St. Martin’s, 1996.

    DOI: 10.1007/978-1-349-24383-9

    Originally published in French as La naissance dramatique de l’absolutisme, 1598–1661 (Paris: Seuil, 1992) this survey examines the emergence of Bourbon France. It focuses primarily on political and governmental developments contextualizing Richelieu’s contributions to the emergence of a new more “absolutist” 17th-century French state.

  • Bergin, Joseph. “Three Faces of Richelieu: A Historiographical Essay.” French History 23 (2009): 517–536.

    DOI: 10.1093/fh/crp070

    This wide-ranging historiographical essay explores the evolving views of Cardinal Richelieu in Spanish-, German-, and English-speaking regions from the 17th to the 21st century with special emphasis on recent efforts to re-examine long-established stereotypes of the cardinal.

  • Collins, James B. The State in Early Modern France. 2d ed. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2009.

    This survey focuses on the development of the French state from the reign of Henry IV to the Revolution. Collins examines Richelieu’s ministry in the context of the longer-term developments that created a mature form of the French monarchical state by the end of the 17th century.

  • Holt, Mack P., ed. Renaissance and Reformation France 1500–1648. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.

    Comprised of eight thematic chapters written by leading scholars in the field, this survey provides an excellent introductory overview for undergraduates. The final two chapters focus on religious and political developments during the first half of the 17th century.

  • Tapié, Victor-Lucien. France in the Age of Louis XIII and Richelieu. Translated by David M. Lockie. New York: Praeger, 1975.

    This classic account provides a chronologically organized political history of Louis XIII’s reign. It was originally published in French as La France de Louis XIII et de Richelieu (second edition, Paris: Flammarion, 1967). The annotated bibliography by the author and the bibliographical aid created by the translator of this text are excellent guides to primary sources and older secondary studies in the field.

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