Political Testament of Cardinal Richelieu

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At the beginning of the 17th century, France was a place of internal strife and bickering bureaucrats. The king, Louis XIII, had come to the throne in 1610 at the age of nine, leaving the running of the kingdom to his mother, Marie de Medici. One of her court favorites, Armand de Plessis de Richelieu, rose through the ranks, eventually gaining the title of Cardinal and becoming one of Louis’ key advisors and minister. His political manifesto, Political Testament, was a treatise for King Louis XIII that offered him advice mainly concerned with the management and subtle subjugation of the nobles and the behavior of a prince. Beneath all of the obeisant rhetoric, Richelieu was essentially writing a handbook for Louis XIII on how to survive as a king in a political landscape increasingly dominated by the aristocracy. Richelieu’s ideology shows a pragmatic attitude reminiscent of The Prince, a political work by 15th century Florentine politician Niccoló Machiavelli.

In Political Testament, Cardinal Richelieu explains that the nobility is something to be used as a tool, a perpetual game of appeasement and request of services. He understood that the nobility could be a nuisance and a body of dissent against the King, but that they were necessary to the crown to provide military aid and money. Richelieu explains that one must know how to manage and manipulate them: “To take away the lives of these persons, who expose their lives every day for a pure fancy of honor, is much less than taking away their honor and leaving them a life which would be a perpetual anguish for them. All means must be used to maintain the nobility in the true virtue of their fathers, and one must also omit nothing to preserve the advantages they inherited.” ...

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...e clear that Richelieu was firmly on the side of the monarchy. This taints his advice to some degree: he does not take the complaints of the nobility into account and presents a decidedly one sided view of what makes a good king. This proves to be limiting; perhaps some of the unrest could have been avoided if reconciliation had been pursued instead of a power struggle. Richelieu’s Political Testament is an interesting case study in the political theory of the 17th century, and clearly served as a model for many kingships to come.

Works Cited
Mortimer Chambers, Barbara Hanawalt, Theodore K. Rabb, Isser Woloch, Raymond Grew, and Lisa Tiersten, The Western Experience, Ninth Edition (Boston: McGraw-Hill, 2006).

Cardinal Richelieu, Political Testament, in Primary Sources: Documents in Western Civilization [CD-ROM] (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson-Prentice Hall, 2009).
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