Political Testament of Cardinal Richelieu

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Fourth printing by Henri Desbordes, Amsterdam, 1691.

The Political Testament of Cardinal Richelieu (French: Testament politique du Cardinal Duc de Richelieu) is a collection of political advice authored by Cardinal Richelieu in his capacity as chief minister to King Louis XIII of France. Taken down over a period of years by means of dictation and compiled postumously, the Political Testament was intended as a continuation of Richelieu's education and instruction to the King to carry on after the author's death, and not intended for publication. However, it is unlikely that the intended audience ever read it — Richelieu passed on December 4, 1642, and Louis followed him in death on May 14, 1643. It gives some insights into the problems of royal government at the time and insights into the mind of the architect of the French absolute monarchy.

Composition and publication history

The matter of the Political Testament was compiled from passages dictated or written down at odd moments during Cardinal Richelieu's service as first minister, and was substantially completed by 1638. As this coincides with the death of Richelieu's confidant Père Joseph, it was once believed Père Joseph edited the material into a whole, but is now thought to have been compiled by secretaries around 1646; neither the King nor the author ever saw the work in its polished form (Hill, xi).

Even after its completion, the Political Testament was not put to press for decades. In general, Richelieu had counseled toleration of the Hugenots, a policy his master's successor Louix XIV did not follow. When it was published by Henri Desbordes in Amsterdam in 1680, it was intended as a rebuke to the Sun King's treatment of French Protestants (Hill, xii). The first English language translation appeared in London in 1695, followed by the first Spanish edition at Madrid in 1696 (Hill, xiv).

Already by 1688, Richelieu's biographer Antoine Aubéry cast doubt on the authenticity of the Political Testament, but the most ferocious skeptic of Richelieu's authorship was Voltaire. "[D]oubtless swayed," said Professor Henry Bertram Hill of the University of Wisconsin, "by the belief that the book was not diabolical enough to be the work of a priestly despot," the anticlerical giant attacked the text as spurious again and again. A grossly inaccurate second French edition in 1764 seemed to confirm his suspicions, but in 1880 Gabriel Hanotaux found a previously unknown collection of relevant Richelieu papers in the Bibliothèque Nationale, establishing the authenticity of at least considerable portions with certainty. A critical French edition incorporating modern scholarship was finally published in 1947 (Hill, xii-xiv).

Political instruction

Richelieu's Political Testament is divided into two parts, along with an Introductory Epistle. The first, divided into six chapters, focuses on the history of the earlier portion of Louis XIII's reign, speaks on the nature of the institutions of French government and society, and indicates a direction salutary forms might take. The second, divided into ten chapters, the last being a Conclusion, is more exhortative and prospective, and deals with public policy (Hill, ix). While Louis XIII is counseled to value the supports the Estates of the realm may provide in governance, Richelieu enjoins measures furthering his policy of centralization. He tells the King to prevent the Jesuits from monopolizing education of gaining influence in the state (17-18), and spends pages disparaging duelling, advising the monarch to make a sacrifice of the aristocracy's pride and subject the personal disputes of his nobles to legal regulation (22-26). Concerning the Third Estate, he calls for a more meritocratic judiciary, and sees the end of the heritability of petty offices as an ideal but imractical for the present (28-29). Regarding speculation he is not so reserved: "I maintain that no one could justly complain if one governed with such circumspection that in punishing all quickly enriched schemers no harm were thereby done to those who had acquired wealth and power by virtue of their honest efforts, surely a most innocent means of self-improvement," (30). Regarding the common people with some condescension, he cautions against the idea that relieving them of all taxation would benefit them , likening them to "mules, which being accustomed to work, suffer more when long idle than when kept busy," (31).

Anticipating the glory of Versailles under Louis XIV, Richelieu deplores the present state of the royal household. Reminding the King that "foreigners recognize the grandeur of princes only by appearances" (51), he recommends that His Majesty be served only by nobles organized into four companies, with membership to be freely bestowed as an honor (to endear the nobles to him) rather than sold as hereditary offices (54-55).

A stern and regular use of punishments and rewards is recommended. Richelieu viewed Louis XIII as an altogether too soft ruler, and pled to him that "The rod, which is the symbol of justice, ought never to be idle," lest offenders come to expect leniency in the future, and feel secure in offending again (87). Crushing plots before they can strike assumes such importance that acting against them on suspicion, when hard evidence is lacking, may be called for (90).

On foreign policy, Richelieu cautions against forming alliances for any objective too great for France to carry out herself, for fear lesser states may abandon the stronger power at the critical moment (100-101). In light of France's reverses in the Thirty Years' War, he commented that France was ill-suited for wars of conquest, and focus on defense (120-122).


Richelieu warns at length against an overbroad expansion of learning, which he foresaw would bring a rise in intellectual mischief and unjustified pride among those apt to wax presumptuous with education but unsuited for reaping any of its fruits.

Because a knowledge of letters is entirely indispensable to a country, it is certain that they should not be indiscriminately taught to everyone. A body which had eyes all over it would be monstrous, and in like fashion so would be a state if all its subjects were learned; one would find little obedience and an excess of pride and presumption. The commerce of letters would drive out that of goods, from which the wealth of the state is derived. It would ruin agriculture, the true nourishment of the people, and in time would dry up the source of the soldiery, whose ranks flow more from the crudities of ignorance than from the refinements of knowledge. It would, indeed, fill France with quibblers more suited to the ruination of good families and the upsetting of public order than to doing any good for the country. If learning were profaned by extending it to all kinds of people one would see more men capable of raising doubts than of resolving them, any many would be better able to oppose the truth than to defend it. It is for this reason that statesmen in a well-run country would wish to have as teachers more masters of mechanic arts than of liberal arts. (14-15)


Advising on the proper selection of royal councillors, Richelieu warns against those besotted with abstractive ideology: "There is nothing more dangerous to the state than those who wish to govern by maxims they have learned from books," (58).

Women in government

After remarking on the necessity of secrecy and diligence in government, Richelieu makes a strident case that women are, generally speaking, unsuited for government.

From this it follows that women, by nature indolent and unable to keep secrets, are little suited to government, particularly if one also considers that they are subject to their emotions and consequently little susceptible to reason and justice, attributes which should exclude them from all public office. This is not to say that a few might be found so free of these faults as to make them admissible to public service. There are few general rules for which no exceptions can be found. This era bears witness to several women whose deeds cannot be praised enough. But it is true that their weakness denies them the masculine vigor necessary to public administration, and it is almost impossible for them to govern without a base exploitation of their sex, or without acts of injustice and cruelty arising from the disorderly ascendancy of their emotions. (75)

Divine basis of government

Richelieu describes cooperation with the reign of God by princes on earth as "the principle basic to the good government of states… that without this foundation no prince can rule well nor can any state be successful," (67). To that end, he explains that rulers need serve as moral examples: "Nothing is more influential for the well-being of the social order than the public life of princes, which is the living law speaking and ruling with more efficacy than all those edicts which might be promulgated to make people seek the good ends desired," (68). As sovereigns are obliged to guide their subjects to the path of salvation (69), they should establish God's true church, and banish all heretical sects acting as rivals (70). Yet, he notes that man "is reasonable enough by nature to find his way ultimately to so good an end," and cautions against actions "so hazardous as to risk uprooting the grain while pulling out the tares" and endangering the state as well as souls (69). This passage lays out Richelieu's famous appeal for toleration of the Hugenots, later used as a barb against Louis XIV for his hostility to French Protestants, particularly following the Edict of Fontainebleau.

The Cardinal, intent on cajoling Louis XIII into proper kingly behavior, states that should rulers "are neglectful in establishing the reign of God, as well as of reason and justice," then "they will find themselves much more culpable than those who transgress the laws and commandments" in private life, teachimng that the iniquities of a king will "demand a special accounting" by "the King of Kings on Judgment Day," (126-127).

The views of divine government in the Political Testament are marked by the growing rationalism of the day. Man should "do nothing except that which is reasonable," for to do otherwise militates against his nature, and consequently against the Creator. This imperative applies especially when to men of "great and conspicuous" station, because his ascendency makes the use of reason, a gift from God for man's elevation, all the more necessary (71).

Evaluation of Louis XIII

In addressing the intended recipient of his instruction, Richelieu gives an astonishingly frank account of the srengths, and more prominently the weaknesses, of the king he served. In his capacity as a cleric, Richelieu considers Christian devotion no challenge for the monarch, even cautioning him against being too scrupulous (34-35). Yet, though "exempt… from the most conspicuous imperfections of princes" (47), Louis XIII is highly indecisive, prone to being completely upset by a slight turn of emotions, to the extent that he has become his own worst enemy, "an enemy which is all the more dangerous because it is internal and domestic," (Richelieu, 37). He told Louis "there is nothing in nature less compatible with reason than emotion," and urged him to see that "to will firmly and to do what one wills are the same thing in a true prince," (72-73). Distressed by his pious master's favoritism in appointments, he warns that kings "are responsible to God" when they make political appointments out of affection (105).

As a devout Catholic, Louis XIII was never known to have taken a mistress, a rarity in monarchs of his era, and was sometimes called Louis the Chaste for his fidelity to his wife. Some contemporary rumors that Louis was a homosexual gained currency, and centuries later cultural Marxist historians, determined to create a narrative that would tarnish the reputation of the Rex Christianissimus, repeated the hearsay as fact. However, Richelieu takes care to warn his charge against the dangers of the malice and flattery of women around the throne, judging them "more dangerous than men" to the court and describing them as "of a sex to which are attached various kinds of attractions" (116-117). As the Political Testament was intended as a personal instruction, a passage warning Louis against the dangers of women would appear superfluous if Cardinal Richelieu knew the King anything but heterosexual.

Reflections on Richelieu himself

Professor Hill stated, "the most enduring single impression to be gained from the Testament is the unintended self-portrait of the author—friendless, lonely, selfless, severe, distrustful, inflexible, indefatigable, devoted only to the welfare of the state as he saw it," (Hill, x). The text is rife with indirect references to the hardships he endured as a sickly man — the Cardinal's poor health was a prime motive for authoring the Testament (4) — whose sole consolation was the well-being of the King's subjects under his guidance. Indeed, he tells the King that churchmen are choice candidates for public positions, "not because they are immune to personal interests, but because they have less than other men, since having neither wives nor children they are free of the attachments which have the most influence," (109-110). Statesmanship is all-consuming: "the uninterrupted attention" public servants are "obliged to give government matters in order to foresee evils which might arise deprives them of all repose and relaxation. Their principal compensation," he admits, "can come from seeing many other men sleep without fear in the shadow of their protection and thus live happily as a result of their misery," (82).


  • Richelieu, Armand Jean du Plessis, Cardinal et Duc de (trans. and intro. Henry Bertram Hill). The Political Testament of Cardinal Richelieu. Madison, Wisconsin: University of Wisconsin Press, 1961.