J.M. Roberts

J.M. Roberts has been Vice-Chancellor of Southampton University since 1979. He is the author of The Mythology of the Secret Societies and the Hutchinson History of the World (now in Pelican).

Cardinal’s Loot

J.M. Roberts, 23 January 1986

Richelieu has long been seen as the founder of the absolute monarchy of France, but has hardly, until now, been studied as a millionaire. Yet Dr Bergin came to his theme almost by accident. While looking for something entirely different in the Paris archives, he noticed in the catalogue a reference to five volumes of materials relating to Richelieu’s affairs. A year later he called them up to begin ‘a short article on Richelieu’s revenues’. Slowly, the magnitude of the task of explaining anything about his subject dawned on him. He was caught, as many historians have been, by his documents. And now we have this remarkable study, the most comprehensive that exists of the personal finances of France’s greatest 17th-century statesman – indeed of any 17th-century notable.’

On the rise

J.M. Roberts, 16 September 1982

A man of whom Horace Walpole remarked that ‘gallantry without delicacy was his constant pursuit,’ who brought about the overthrow of the Jesuits, who ran French foreign policy throughout the disastrous Seven Years War, and who overspent his (wife’s) means on a scale spectacular even among the French nobility of his age, would seem hard to forget. Yet the name of Etienne François, Duc de Choiseul, does not now awaken much recognition even among educated men and women. Nor, of course, do such names as Von Arneth, de Broglie, Droysen, Lodge, Sorel (or those of any of the other great masters of the diplomatic history of the 18th century): there lies a large part of the story. Choiseul is embedded at the centre of a subject-matter which is out of fashion. The tides of ideology, social concern, intellectual adventurousness, as well as simple fads, have washed over the 18th century until the splendid old landmarks – the Diplomatic Revolution, Family Compact, Secret du Roi, Kutchuk-Kainardji and all the rest of them – have virtually disappeared in some modern accounts. We shall have to come back to them, of course, if only because 18th-century men themselves attached such importance to them, but while the old diplomatic history is as unjustly discredited as it is at present, it is unlikely that an author as well-informed as Dr Butler can be under any illusion that a large public waits eagerly to find out more about Choiseul. That is a pity. He was an important and interesting man. But such public as does exist for a biography can hardly be enlarged by having to pay £48 for this first instalment.


J.M. Roberts, 22 January 1981

1789, alas, is the great year of the 18th century. That is one of the problems in characterising the age: whenever it is thought to begin – in 1700, or with the death of Louis XIV in 1714, or in 1730 as Professor Hufton has had to accept for her new book – we always seem to finish up at the Tennis Court or the Bastille. There is overwhelming pressure to see the century as an age before the deluge, everything in it being placed and scrutinised in the light of the great revolution to come.

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