“The Musketeers” Quandary; or, a Question of Timing

Historical photo of Alexandre Dumas
Alexandre Dumas, author of The Three Musketeers.

While many people have not read Alexandre Dumas’s The Three Musketeers, most people have probably seen at least one movie based off of it. They probably immediately associate swordfighting with it although, as musketeers, there really should be some guns included. They probably also think of Cardinal Richelieu as a greedy, self-serving villain and Louis XIII as an inept and easily manipulated king.

As an Aside: While Alexandre Dumas was born and raised in France, he was a quarter black, with his grandmother having been a slave in Haiti. Not exactly how one envisions famous historical European writers.

The Real Richelieu and Louis XIII

In real life, Louis XIII was a highly capable, powerful king who worked closely with Richelieu.  Rather than attempting to control and undermine the king, Richelieu tirelessly assisted the king in amassing increasingly absolute power, which was eventually inherited by the king’s son, Louis XIV. Also known as the Sun King, Louis XIV is often used as the example of an absolute ruler, and he owes much of that to his father and Richelieu.

Why the Fictional Depictions?

Dumas lived within a very different culture than his 17th century characters. In 19th century France, the French Revolution had already happened, and the dead monarchy represented abuse of power, backwardness, folly, shallowness, and absurdity. His versions of Richelieu and Louis XIII reflect this.

Peter Capaldi as Richelieu, The Musketeers
Peter Capaldi as a particularly sinister-looking Richelieu in The Musketeers. (c) BBC

The Musketeers

Last year, the BBC started The Musketeers TV series starring Peter Capaldi as Richelieu. Then Capaldi went off to become the twelfth Doctor on Doctor Who. Something had to be done with Richelieu, which is rather problematic since he’s a historical figure and so central to the original story.

So they killed him.

The Timing of Deaths of Births

It is true that Richlieu died during Louis XIIIs reign, it was only by a year. Stick to history, and the BBC would have only have one more season before they’d be short both a cardinal and a king.

They’re also tied to a specific moment in history because they have already established that the queen is pregnant, with her giving birth in the opening episode of season two. This is Louis’s heir, the man who will eventually be Louis XIV.

And that happens four years before Richelieu’s death and five years before his father’s.

Somewhat ironically, one of the most powerful kings in the history of Europe emerges from that most inauspicious of royal circumstances: a child king. Given the crown at the age of 5, the Sun King ruled until his death at the age of 76, making him the longest reigning monarch in Europe.

As an Aside: While Elizabeth II is about to become Britain’s longest reigning monarch, she’ll need to live another eight years before she breaks the record of Louis XIV, which is an outside possibility as she’ll need to be 97 years old.

Conclusion? As I repeatedly tell my students, don’t use TV and movies as sources of historical fact. There are plenty of reasons why history gets set aside to make way for the story.  Sometimes it’s creative license, sometimes it’s politics and culture, and sometimes it’s because Doctor Who pinches your Richelieu.

1 Comment

  1. Thank you. I love the history of this time and this great king, and loathe, just loathe, Dumas’s novel, aka character assassination. He was just echoing that creepy gossip Tallemant. No, I have not watched the series, nor would I. Even seeing what they do to the beautiful fashions of the time in the films and series makes me want to throw bricks at the screen.

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