Armand Jean du Plessis, duc de Richelieu, better known as Cardinal Richelieu, epitomizes political realism. With his principle that reason of state precedes any other consideration, he stands alongside the Florentine statesman Niccolò Machiavelli as an archetype of Renaissance realpolitik. The fact that Richelieu chose a devout young niece who seems to have embodied the very opposite of those precepts to protect his legacy as legal executor of his will poses a conundrum. It also prompts us to consider a neglected figure whose story reveals much about the role women played in French politics and religion.

Bronwen McShea explores these themes in La Duchesse, her engaging biography of Marie de Vignerot, duchesse d’Aiguillon. As an active patroness, Marie shaped the Catholic Church in France and overseas. She also had an important...


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