Sorry BBC, Cardinal Richelieu was not a beard-stroking evil genius

Peter Capaldi as Cardinal Richelieu in the BBC's new series The Musketeers

In the popular historical imagination, Cardinal Richelieu was as cold-hearted and sinister as any Dalek and he would have made Malcolm Tucker seem like a political pussycat. How fitting, then, that Peter Capaldi, fresh from The Thick of It and newly ensconced in the Tardis, should be the latest actor to portray the diabolical cardinal on screen. Capaldi will no doubt do an excellent job – he is a soaring talent – but it is worth taking a moment to consider whether the well-established stage villain image of Richelieu is accurate.
The short answer is no. Richelieu was hardly an angel. He was ruthlessly ambitious, extremely self-satisfied and endlessly self-serving.

But this was true of most successful 17th-century politicians. Crucially, looking after number one (amassing power and wealth) did not preclude being a loyal servant of state, and Richelieu most certainly loved France. The cardinal was brutal with the press but most chief ministers were, back then. And so what if he enjoyed commissioning idealised portraits of himself or employing hacks to re-write history in his favour? Keeping up appearances and having an eye to posterity were not uncommon early-modern pursuits – nor have they ever fallen out of fashion. It is also important to mention that Richelieu’s religious faith appears to have been heartfelt and, for the most part, he was a loyal advocate of post-Tridentine reform. Some have criticised him for making too many compromises, especially when it came to his dealings with the Protestant powers of Europe, but this kind of politique legerdemain had been going on since the outbreak of the Reformation.

In sum, Richelieu was surprisingly unsurprising. The burning question, therefore, is why he has been singled out for such sustained character assassination over the centuries. It could be argued that this was partly his own fault. He worked so very hard to cultivate a positive image of himself that there was bound to be a backlash, especially in his homeland. This came to full fruition in the 19th-century, in the works of Hugo, Dumas and countless others, and we Brits certainly relished the opportunity to join the chorus of disapproval. Long before Capaldi took the part, the great Henry Irving was playing an absurdly sinister Richelieu on the London stage. The broader point, though, is that we always want a villain of the piece, even if this makes little historical sense.

Historians, of course, are expected to be more subtle than dramatists, novelists or screenwriters and here we encounter a far more interesting debate about the famous cardinal.

Was he as good at his job as we have always been led to believe? Even his worst enemies have admitted that he was efficient. In recent years there has been a great deal of argument about this in lofty academic circles. The dynamism of the man has not been dented, nor (to any fatal extent) has his status as a skilled political operative. As for the results of his extended tenure at the top of the French hierarchy, well, the jury is out.

Not so long ago, it was normative to talk about the rise of 17th-century absolutism, and France was the poster child. Most scholars now accept that a truly centralised state was neither possible nor particularly desirable in this era. Still, Richelieu undoubtedly sought to control rivals and to both improve and expand the monarchy’s administrative reach. He did quite well, but not nearly as well as previously thought. It should also be pointed out that his own position was always vulnerable: perhaps that is why he had his darker moments. As for foreign policy, the consensus seems to be that he was far from brilliant. Wars had to be fought, but there was still the issue of picking one’s battles carefully and, in this regard, Richelieu’s report card is mixed. Most damningly of all, his financial policies (taxes at every turn) were very damaging and wildly unpopular.

A conclusion? Richelieu was of his time and he did his best. He was not a monster, but nor was he quite the political genius he pretended to be. He was a survivor. Balanced appraisals lack glamour, of course.

He’ll still be compared to Stalin, even by serious historians, and he’ll still be depicted on television as an evil schemer. The former is absurd but the latter is eminently forgivable: if you are adapting books about musketeers then you are stuck with the original text, and this can be jolly good fun. At least, in his homeland, Richelieu enjoyed something of a rehabilitation during the 20th century: he was championed as one of the creators of modern France and was even deemed worthy of being put on bank notes. This case for the defence was over-egged too, and the simple truth is that Richelieu was neither as fabulous nor as despicable as you might think. He is still, however, one of the most enthralling historical figures you are ever likely to encounter. If people light celebratory bonfires when you die and if you are still on the telly almost 400 years later then you must have done something interesting.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Catholic Herald (24/1/14)