Masters or Servants

Conrad Russell

  • The Young Richelieu: A Psychoanalytic Approach to Leadership by Elizabeth Wirth Marvick
    Chicago, 276 pp, £27.20, December 1983, ISBN 0 226 50904 4
  • Richelieu and Olivares by J.H. Elliott
    Cambridge, 189 pp, £17.50, March 1984, ISBN 0 521 26205 4

Cardinal Richelieu’s sister did not dare sit down, because she believed she was made of glass. Facts such as this cry out for psychological explanation, and an attempt to provide it has been made by Elizabeth Wirth Marvick, in The Young Richelieu. The attempt is bravely made, and it rests on solid archival research in the Bibliothèque Nationale, the Archives, the British Library and other places. Yet, though the attempt to provide a psychological explanation of Richelieu and his family circle is well and honestly made, it is again necessary to express doubts about the documentary base for this type of work. In understanding the psychological make-up of our contemporaries, we rely heavily on aural and visual evidence: we listen carefully to them, and in so doing, learn to recognise the places where they protest too much, to perceive the vital distinction between the things they say because they mean them and the things they say because they do not mean them. Such evidence is inaccessible to the historian. In the 19th century, in the age which, in their different ways, Freud and Peter Gay have made their own, sheer bulk of documents may to some extent compensate for this difficulty. In the 17th century, the problem of psychological interpretation is altogether more intractable. That 17th-century characters had psychologies, as much as any later characters, may be instantly conceded. Yet it is hard not to respond to attempts to discover them with a hesitant ‘well, maybe’.

Professor Elliott, in his Richelieu and Olivares, is constantly aware that a psychological dimension exists, yet his concern is much more with political history widely interpreted. His interest is in a comparative study of the two great gladiatorial opponents of the early 17th century. The basis for comparison is a sound one, and the exercise is extremely fruitful. The two men’s periods of power were almost identical, and a large amount of their time and energy was spent on the long-running duel they conducted with each other. A comparison, then, comes to include a great deal more than just the men themselves. It includes the resources they were able to devote to combat with each other, and thus the political and financial systems of their countries, their relations with their monarchs, their struggles with would-be domestic rivals, and the political traditions on which they were able to draw. The study of these two men turns into a study of the development of the powers of the state in Early Modern Europe, and affords insights which can be used towards the understanding not only of France and Spain but of other countries such as England. The work, in fact, is of the quality we are used to expecting of Professor Elliott. He has been, over the past thirty years, the source of many of the best new ideas in his field, and there are more here.

One of the most interesting lines of investigation turns out to be the comparison of the countries the two men governed. For the present generation, there has been much historical mileage to be gained out of the rejection of previous conclusions based on hindsight, and the rivalry of France and Spain turns out to be an excellent case-study. To generations brought up on ‘the decline of Spain’, the contest appeared to be a very unequal one. France, the unified nation-state governed by an ‘absolute monarchy’ guided by ‘reason of state’, appeared to be the power on the side of the future, and Spain, the unwieldy multinational colossus driven by an outdated devot mentality, a power whose great days were already in the past. When Velasquez painted the fall of Breda, in 1625, it did not appear that simple.

As Professor Elliott’s work goes on, we slowly realise that he is saying much more than this. The proposition that contemporaries did not know France was going to win is worth absorbing, yet it is only a preface to the major argument of the book – that these two giants were much more equally matched than we have often taken them to be. France faced a major handicap in the readiness with which its domestic dissidents took to rebellion, often with foreign help. More seriously, France faced major religious divisions, which always gave its opponents opportunities to fish in troubled waters. The Huguenot revolt of 1625, for example, was a major obstacle to the diplomatic plans of both France and England and Professor Elliott has now demonstrated finally that it was helped on by Spanish encouragement. The French cult of une foi, un roi, une loi grew up, not because France was a united country, but because it was not.

As French disadvantages emerge from investigation, so some supposed French advantages begin to disappear. It is hard to regard Richelieu’s Protestant alliances as representing a novel ‘triumph of raison d’état over confessional diplomacy’. They represent a policy which had been traditionally French at least as far back as the reign of Francis I, and which would have looked painfully familiar to Charles V. Indeed, the basic attitudes could have been traced back to the days when Richard I and Philip Augustus had ignored Papal attempts to prevent them from fighting over the Vexin. Nor is the constitutional contrast between France and Spain as clear as was once thought. The late Professor J.W. Daly has reminded us that we do not know what an ‘absolute monarchy’ is, while Professor Major has drawn our attention to the survival of estates and provincial liberties in many parts of France.

The contrast between the nation-state and the multiple monarchy is also far from simple. Professor Elliott and Professor Major have tellingly reminded us that in relation to Béarn and Navarre, France, too, was a multiple monarchy. The difficulties France experienced in this context are startlingly similar to those experienced by Charles I with Scotland in 1639-40. It is also true, as Professor Elliott points out, that the future was not necessarily on the side of the nation-state: ‘the French model of political organisation was not the only one to emerge from those turbulent decades of warfare and disruption.’ He could have made his point even stronger if, following some of his previous insights, he had looked across the Channel, for the 17th century showed one really conspicuous example of the survival and success of a supra-national dynastic state. Its name is Britain. England, no doubt, can claim to be regarded as a nation-state in 1603, yet just because England can be regarded as a nation-state, Britain cannot. By no possible stretch of the imagination can people like Oliver Cromwell be taken as representatives of a British nation. Some Utopian unionists in the 17th century dreamed of creating a British nation, but the only people who regularly used the word ‘British’ to connote a national identity were the Irish, who intended thereby to exclude themselves. A British sense of national identity is a creation of the 18th century, and is at present being studied by Professor Colley. The story which leads up to 1707, on the other hand, can only be regarded as an example of the triumph, albeit a very troubled one, of the supra-national state.

There is perhaps even more interest in pursuing the similarities between the careers of Richelieu and Olivares. Among these, one of the most interesting is their position as valido, or premier ministre. As Richelieu put it, ‘if the sovereign cannot or will not personally keep a continuous eye on the chart and compass, reason demands that he should give one responsibility over all the rest.’ As Olivares put it, it was necessary to have a single minister to see that ‘all the material is brought before the prince in a suitably digested form.’ These views were of course self-serving and not universally accepted. They were expressed, as Professor Elliott says, ‘in a political climate which was increasingly hostile to the existence of a royal favourite’. Above all, this hostility could sometimes extend to their royal masters (or servants?). Favourites, even if they retained office, ‘remained a prey to gnawing anxiety’ for fear their masters might tire of them.

If the climate of opinion was against these first ministers, and the king was always likely to find his dignity threatened by them, why did they survive? Political skill cannot be the whole answer: after all, political skill was hardly an invention of the 17th century. It seems clearer with each investigation that there must have been strong institutional reasons for the development of a valido, able to take responsibility for the whole conduct of business. It is perhaps a matter of regret that Professor Elliott, who is surely uniquely qualified to do so, has not discussed at greater length what these reasons might have been. Sheer pressure of business is undoubtedly one of them: by about 1610, in most major states, the burden of work was probably simply too much for a monarch who, after all, had not been hand-picked for the job. With the growth of an increasingly complex web of professional diplomacy, it may perhaps have become more important to have day-to-day decisions in the hands of someone who, just because he was not the ultimate arbiter, could be repudiated in extremis. Perhaps, also, the tensions created in the business of patronage by a century of inflation made a case for putting this (and the hatreds it aroused) in the hands of someone who, because he was not the king, could be hated with at least comparative safety. Perhaps, as Professor Elliott seems to suggest in some places, it is an intermediate stage in the growth of an impersonal state. This question is one which calls for further thought.

It is also worth thinking about England’s failure to continue this institution after the death of Buckingham. Was Algernon Percy right when he said, on the death of Buckingham, that Charles would not choose another favourite, because it was essential to him to prove that he had not been dominated by the last one? And would England have experienced less trouble if it had had a valido during the 1630s? It is an intriguing coincidence that in 1642-3, at the crisis of the Thirty Years’ War and somewhere near the top of the demographic curve, England, France and Spain all replaced the man who had held supreme power. In France, the replacement was brought about by death, in Spain by a court intrigue, and in England by civil war. Ought we to conclude that mutiny against the captain is far harder than dropping the pilot?

Much of the tenure of power of both Richelieu and Olivares was taken up with war. Sometimes, as Professor Elliott points out in the case of the intendants, administrative reform proved easier to introduce as a result of war. More often, it proved harder. War, especially if it was for a while unsuccessful, provided a superb opportunity for all the opponents of the reigning favourite to organise attempts to displace him, and war, as Buckingham, Richelieu and Olivares all found, often forced them to increase the proportion of their time and effort which was devoted to the sheer struggle to survive. Moreover, war committed all three men to a struggle with provincial and national rights, customs and liberties which often impeded (and were intended to impede) the levying of the sums of money which king and minister supposed that necessity demanded. Ministers in wartime tended to agree with the outlook of Olivares, that ‘in a hostile world – constitutionalism, as an impediment to efficiency and discipline, was a luxury that could no longer be afforded.’ Wars tended to demand taxes on a scale to which consent would not be readily forthcoming, and, on many occasions, to provoke a hostility against the regime which was likely to make it discourage open expression of opinion. In 1627, the ambassador of Lucca used cipher to report that during Philip IV’s illness, the churches were almost empty when prayers were said for his recovery. A dissident Spanish courtier noted that many people were hoping for the king’s death, on the ground that it was the only way to rid themselves of the Count-Duke and his tyranny. Reactions to Buckingham and Charles during the Forced Loan crisis in the same year perhaps appear less startling when put in this European context. It is understandable that in this sort of atmosphere, neither Buckingham nor Olivares should have been eager to expose himself to the criticisms of a representative assembly. Nor were the representative assemblies likely to take kindly to the pleas of ‘necessity’ constantly advanced by monarchs at war. It was once remarked that necessity was an armed man, and, as the Duke of Buckingham ultimately discovered, this was no mere figure of speech. This constant awareness of necessity led Le Bret, in France, to argue that necessity had ‘the privilege of rendering just and legitimate actions which in other circumstances would be unjust’, and led Olivares’s lawyer, in Spain, to argue that ‘it is not for vassals to inquire into Your Majesty’s resolutions in time of war.’ To people without immediate responsibility, these arguments seemed no more convincing in France or Spain than they did in England. Professor Elliott quotes the Tard-Avisés, anti-fiscal rebels in France in 1636-7, speaking words which echo Sir Benjamin Rudyerd: ‘this fine pretext of necessities of state has been no more than an excuse for ruining the kingdom.’ Investigation of the debate on war and necessity seems to suggest that England had much more in common with the rest of Europe than is sometimes suggested. On both sides of the Channel, war taxation, if not immediately excused by success, was likely to lead to political crisis.

Why, then, did kings and their ministers on both sides of the Channel constantly allow themselves to be led into wars? In the cases of Richelieu and Olivares, at least, it was not because they did not foresee the harm that war could do. Both, but especially Olivares, saw the harm coming, and dreaded it. Both constantly said they were in favour of peace, yet peace never came. Both wanted it to be a peace through strength, or, as Richelieu put it in 1637, ‘a peace which is not subject in future to any alteration’. No wonder he never succeeded in getting it. Both ministers, and their kings, were constantly led on by what Professor Elliott describes as ‘the lure of reputation’. In this constant seeking for ‘the bubble reputation, even in the cannon’s mouth’, we are perhaps in the same world as the famous Vicky cartoon of the 1950s, which showed Eisenhower and Dulles, with harp and angel’s wings, on top of one mushroom cloud, and Khrushchev, with harp and angel’s wings, on top of another, with the caption: ‘I said mine was bigger than yours.’ Seventeenth-century England’s inability to participate regularly in this contest, however frustrating it may have been for Charles I and Buckingham, was perhaps in the long run a boon to the country’s economic development. If we look at the Norman revolt of 1639, or the Catalan of 1640, it is hard to see any way in which either France or Spain won benefits commensurate with the scale of this titanic struggle. It is not the least of the uniquenesses of the Dutch in the 17th century that they seem to have been somehow able to make warfare pay.

This book is filled with many other good things, like the very tentatively hinted suggestion of a connection between the cult of war and glory and the cult of ancient Rome, or Luynes’s naive inquiry whether Bohemia had sea-coasts. At every point, it raises questions helpful to historians of other parts of Europe. Yet, in relation to its two central characters, the question it leaves behind is whether Milton was right to describe fame as ‘that last infirmity of noble mind’.