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The Real Story of Cardinal Richelieu, the Villain of ‘The Three Musketeers’

by Paul Combs 6 months ago in Historical
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Both Alexandre Dumas and Hollywood do him a disservice

Cardinal Richelieu (Image: Wikimedia Commons)

Back in November, I wrote a profile of legendary French author Alexandre Dumas, and in that article I said that even if you weren’t familiar with his name, you surely knew his novels (and the movies made from them): The Count of Monte Cristo, The Man in the Iron Mask, and of course The Three Musketeers. As famous as the musketeers Athos, Porthos, and Aramis have become over the past 175 years, the most iconic character from that novel was the evil Cardinal Richelieu. And while the musketeers were loosely based on historical figures, at least their names were altered; Cardinal Armand Jean du Plessis, Duke of Richelieu, also known as the Red Eminence, received no such consideration and Dumas’ Richelieu bears almost no resemblance to the real historical person.

Armand Jean du Plessis was born in Paris on September 9, 1585, the fourth of five children and the third son. Though he trained for a military career following his father’s death, he ultimately joined the clergy to (in part at least) protect an important source of his family’s revenue. He was consecrated a bishop in 1607 and appointed Foreign Secretary in 1616, the first in a series of upward moves that placed him far more squarely in the realm of politics than religion.

He was named cardinal in 1622, and from 1624 until his death on December 4, 1642 he held the posts of Governor of Brittany, Grand Master of the Navigation, and First Minister of State. It was in the last and highest position that he became the primary advisor to King Louis XIII of France and from which he promoted, defended, protected, and expanded the power of the monarchy in a most turbulent time. His efforts made France the preeminent European power in the mid-17th century and caused the decline of the influence of the Holy Roman Empire. Cardinal Richelieu worked tirelessly to establish the absolute monarchy in France while diminishing the power of the aristocracy and the Protestant Huguenots, and was successful in forging a strong central government.

Yet if you asked ten random people on the street about him, if they know the name at all they’ll most likely think of one of the actors who played him, to varying degrees of villainy, in film or television versions of The Three Musketeers: George Arliss, Charlton Heston, Vincent Price, Christoph Waltz, Peter Capaldi, and Tim Curry, to name just a few. Below are three quotes from the films that give an indication of how the cardinal was portrayed:

“He has the devil’s luck. But all the good fortune in the world won’t save him if he chooses to be my enemy.” — Peter Capaldi as Richelieu in The Musketeers (2014).

“All for one. And more for me.” — Tim Curry as Richelieu in The Three Musketeers (1993).

“It takes a good man to prevent a catastrophe, milady, and a great man to make use of one.” — Vincent Price as Richelieu in The Three Musketeers (1948).

There are many more examples, especially from the 1993 film; Tim Curry set a high bar for all evil versions of the cardinal that would come after him. These three suffice, however, to show how Richelieu has been portrayed over the decades: as a conniving, scheming, Machiavellian figure who was only out for personal gain and was, at his core, the enemy of the king.

Nothing could be further from the truth. He was no angel (there has never been a politician who was), but Richelieu faithfully and ably served King Louis XIII for over 25 years. Sadly, what we “remember” about him today is the backstabbing Richelieu of fiction, just as generations from now may very well accept the musical Hamilton as a definitively accurate portrayal of Hamilton, Washington, and the other Founding Fathers, God help us.

Historical fiction, when well written, can add much to our understanding of history. Even when it contains errors it can be entertaining, we just have to put in the effort to learn fact from fiction. Cardinal Richelieu never took the easy route as he was helping to steer the fortunes of the French Empire, and neither should we when it comes to studying history.

I understand that fiction always needs a villain, and Alexandre Dumas expertly made Richelieu that villain in The Three Musketeers. We should not do the same with the real historical figure who was Cardinal Richelieu. He was one of the greatest men of his era and deserves to be remembered accurately.

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About the author

Paul Combs

I’m a writer, podcaster, and bookseller whose ultimate goal (besides being a roadie for the E Street Band) is to make reading, writing, and books in general as popular in Texas as high school football. It may take a while.

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Nice work

Very well written. Keep up the good work!

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