Cardinal Richelieu had one simple foreign policy aim – to fight for France’s interests by whatever measures were needed. As a loyal servant to Louis XIII, Richelieu wanted France to be the dominant power in Europe and give Louis the status Richelieu felt he deserved. When deciding foreign policy and what was best for France, Richelieu took little notice of religious considerations. His time in power saw him, a Cardinal, ally with Protestant Sweden in the Thirty Years War and act as a bulwark against Catholic Spain. He was against Habsburg encirclement, yet the Holy Roman Emperor was still technically the temporal defender of the Catholic Church. For him, politics were a separate entity from religion. What Richelieu wanted for France, he got regardless of such issues as religion.

France and Northern Italy:

However, Richelieu’s plans for European domination were dependant on one thing – peace and stability at home. In 1624-25, he sent French troops to support the Grisons in their fight against the Austrians and to hinder the Spanish who were using the Valtelline to move troops south to north across Europe. these Spanish troops moved far too near to the French border for Richelieu’s liking – so any opportunity to harass them was taken. However, the Huguenot revolt at La Rochelle in 1625, forced Richelieu to call back French troops and this campaign came to an end due to internal problems. This was a trend that was to tie the hands of Richelieu.

Once the Grace of Alais ended the Huguenot issue, Richelieu could concentrate on northern Italy. In 1629, France had conquered Savoy and one year later, France captured Pinerolo in Piedmont. In the favourable Treaty of Cherasco of 1631, France kept the strategically important Pinerolo. By keeping Pinerolo, Richelieu committed France to a long term campaign as the Spanish would not tolerate a French presence in northern Italy for long and the area had to be patrolled by French soldiers. Richelieu wrote to Louis XIII:


(Give) up all thought of rest, or economising, and of putting right the internal affairs of the kingdom.”


Richelieu’s siding against the Spanish lead to his final clash with the dévot Marie de Madici. However, any input into northern Italy by France after 1631 was not successful. First the main and important part of the war took place in Germany; by the mid-1630’s, northern Italy had ceased to be as important as it was. In 1635, the French took control of the Valtelline but the Spanish regained it in 1637. In September 1640, the French took Turin but by that date, it was a paper-thin victory.

However, the campaign in north Italy does show how Richelieu’s mind worked. The man who lead the French to victory in 1635 was Rohan – the Huguenot leader who had lead the rebellion against the government at La Rochelle!    

France and Germany:

Richelieu’s preoccupation with northern Italy meant that any French involvement in Germany was kept to a diplomatic and financial level up to 1635. Richelieu must have also known that most armies fighting in central Europe were of a much higher quality than the Spanish armies in northern Italy. Richelieu knew that the French army was not yet ready for a campaign in central Europe. Most of the armies fighting in the Thirty Years War had had a number of years experience in modern fighting techniques. France did not.

Again, in his dealings in central Europe, Richelieu showed that religion was not a barrier. In the war against Spain and Austria, he allied Catholic France with Protestant Holland in 1624. Just one year later the Huguenots in La Rochelle were to be in all out rebellion against Richelieu’s government but the alliance with Holland stood firm.

France also played a central part in the formulation of a coalition that included Denmark, Holland, England and Frederick of the Palatinate who allied against the might of the Holy Roman Emperor. All were Protestant states.

However, Richelieu’s most important contribution was to ally to a state in which it was illegal to be a Catholic – Sweden. In the Treaty of Altmark (1629), Richelieu negotiated the end of war between Sweden and Poland. In 1631, Sweden and France signed the Treaty of Bärwalde by which Sweden would keep an army in Germany that would be financed by France. The decided amount was 400,000 thaler a year for five years. Sweden’s military impact in Europe during the Thirty Years War ensured Gustavus Adolphus a place in history.

As the war progressed, Richelieu built up a large network of allies that was to include the Electors of Bavaria, Trier and Cologne, Murad IV (Sultan of Turkey), and on occasions Pope Urban VIII. Though this seems like an impressive list, it was extremely hard for Richelieu to manage it. Simple distance and communication problems made his task all but impossible and it also excluded disloyalty and those prepared to offer their services elsewhere if they felt that the money was better! Probably the most difficult ally Richelieu had was Gustavus of Sweden. His sweep through to the south-west of Germany (against the wishes of Richelieu) forced Maximillian of Bavaria back to the side of the Emperor after Richelieu had spent time cultivating his friendship. The death of Gustavus in 1632 ended this problem.

Oxenstierna formulated the League of Heilbronn after the death of Gustavus. However, it was Richelieu who influenced it not Oxenstierna and French subsidies were paid into the League’s coffers and not to Sweden. However, the defeat of Sweden at the Battle of Nördlingen in 1634, gave Richelieu no alternative but to militarily involve France as there was no other alternate ‘power’ who could do the same. However, in 1635, France was not ready for war so Richelieu tried to achieve success at a diplomatic level while his military was being developed.

Richelieu renewed his alliance with Holland for a joint attack on the Spanish Netherlands. The alliance with Sweden was renewed for another three years. Richelieu rallied Savoy, Parma and Mantua into an alliance to attack Milan in July 1635. He took under his wing Bernard, Duke of Saxe-Weimar, the successful military commander of the Swedish army. But for all this activity, France was not safe.

In 1636, an Austrian army marched into Burgundy and Franche Comté. A Spanish army based in the Spanish Netherlands invaded France and got as far as Corbie near the cathedral city of Amiens. The people of Paris panicked as they were only 50 miles away but both Louis XIII and Richelieu held firm and maintained some form of stability in the city. Probably military logic told them that the Spanish army was hopelessly overstretched at Corbie and that it would have to retreat. They were right.

By 1637, the small but modern French army was ready to take to the field. Its two principal commanders were Turenne and d’Enghien. The Dutch attacked the Spanish from the north in the Spanish Netherlands, while the French attacked from the south. The region of Artois had been captured by 1640. The Spanish army was severely beaten by a French army at Rocroi in 1643 – just 5 months after the death of Richelieu.

In 1638, Bernard of Saxe-Weimar took Breisach. This was an important city to take as it was the gateway the French needed to get into Germany. It also cut in half the Spanish Road so Spanish troops in the Spanish Netherlands could not be supplied by land and a sea supply route was fraught with danger. In 1639 Bernard died. Ironically, this proved useful to Richelieu as Bernard had become more and more difficult to control as he became more successful. Richelieu bought Bernard’s army and the land which it had occupied!

In 1638, Richelieu signed the Treaty of Hamburg with Sweden which gave Sweden a subsidy of 1 million livres a year to help pay for a campaign in Germany. With this in hand, the French and Swedes made deep inroads into Germany.

The final years of the Thirty Years War were non-conclusive and for good reasons the Peace of  Westphalia was known as the ‘Peace of Exhaustion’. 

With Spain, Richelieu had to ward off a Spanish invasion via the Pyrenees. Once this was done, France invaded Spain though with no success. Just before Richelieu’s death, the French captured Roussillon, a Spanish province north of the Pyrenees but an attack on Catalonia was unsuccessful.

By his death, Richelieu had all but removed the threat of the Spanish; he had been responsible for creating a modernised army and navy and France had captured strategic cities in western Europe. Richelieu had done what he had intended to do – make France a serious ‘player’ in European affairs, a nation to be reckoned with.

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