On Richelieu’s cats

Richelieu’s cats are not alone in the pantheon of historic pets. There are many of these animals – silent witnesses to the mighty spasms of human history and, it is said, humanisers of some of history’s great figures.

Cardinal Richelieu with his cats, illustration c.1868.
Cardinal Richelieu with his cats, illustration c.1868. Credit: Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images.

I think, from time to time, about Richelieu’s cats. The great Cardinal, lion of France and reshaper of Europe, was a famed workaholic and, while the entreaties of kings, popes and princes would rarely cause more than the raise of an eminent eyebrow, he would consent to break from his efforts in statecraft to lavish attention on any one of his fourteen cats. The bony, begloved hand that was one moment consigning Huguenots to their fate or breaking alliances with the stroke of a quill was at the next gently stroking an arched feline back. I wonder how many schemes stayed in the Cardinal’s mind half formed, interrupted by a purr or a mew?

Richelieu’s cats are not alone in the pantheon of historic pets. There are many of these animals – silent witnesses to the mighty spasms of human history and, it is said, humanisers of some of history’s great figures. It is supposed that a figure turns from marble to flesh when he steps down from a pedestal to scratch a belly or be nuzzled by a whiskered face. This is true to a point – Marcus Aurelius, the austere philosopher-emperor, is undoubtedly rendered more human by his wistful writings about the little sparrows he would watch from his window than he is by annals of his triumphs over the Parthians. However, every time I see a tweet suggesting Donald Trump’s lack of a pet is necessary evidence of his callousness, I get a vision of Blondi the German Shepherd, looking up with undinted affection at her master as he reached the apotheosis of his inhumanity and madness in the depths of the Führerbunker.

One of the routes of my daily, sanity-maintaining ambles takes me past the Memorial to Animals in War. It is an arc of Portland stone sadly marooned on a Park Lane traffic island. On it are inscribed the words ‘THEY HAD NO CHOICE’. This conjures up the images of those beasts of burden who suffered so much on battlefields and on the roads that lead to them, especially in the horrors of recent, mechanised war; but I like to think it applies to Richelieu’s cats and those other furred bit-players in the human drama as well. Their lives were equally tied to the ups and downs of a human career as any pack horse; had the Cardinal’s enemies succeeded they would have been gambolling in the Luxembourg Palace one minute and thrown into the Seine the next. It is fortunate, I suppose that those creatures, both great and small, which are caught up in the midst of either human wickedness or human glory have no sense of history: ‘they had no choice’ after all.

Yet, this seems to be a strange way to delineate the animals from you or me. It is odd to suggest that it is our ability to navigate our own course over the tides of history which sets us apart from the rest of creation. Did the men and women affected by the plans of Richelieu or Hitler or Marcus Aurelius really have a choice either? Ours is an era where our choices are curtailed by everything from our selection of mobile phone to the decisions of public health officials. Most of those curtailments are ones we judge as necessary as trade-offs for our comfort or safety. It was ever thus: even Richelieu was constrained by events. As much as I love my own pets and value their role as companions in and observers of my own, much lower stakes, human dramas; I, in truth, find it hard to be sentimental about these historical animals by virtue of their lack of free will alone; ‘THEY HAD NO CHOICE’ might just as well be engraved on memorials to many a soldier and statesman as well.

As I wandered back through the smart streets to the south of Hyde Park, en route to my necessary current confinement, I observed a cat – a handsome dappled thing – squeeze through the railings of a private garden in the middle of the square, pad about wherever he pleased, and then disappear through the railings again, free to go to his next adventure. Freedom comes in many guises.


Fergus Butler-Gallie