Western European Absolutism: The Unexpected Twist

Western European Absolutism: The Unexpected Twist

A twisted combition of politics and divine power.
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As European countries slowly moved out of the age of the Renaissance and the Reformation, deeper internal reforms were taking place behind closed doors, only to emerge prominently in France and England in the age of absolutism in Western Europe. From the development of absolutist ideas of Louis XIV of France, this type of development differed greatly from that of Eastern Europe and these societies were more complex and governed with a strong economy.

Unlike that of the English, French absolutism was compounded by effects of the French Wars of Religion in which Henry IV brought about the use of politique and the issue of the Edict of Nantes in 1598 that provided religious tolerance to the rising protestant unity of the Huguenots. The establishment of the Bourbon Dynasty rid the Valois family, strengthening the French monarchy and moving toward more secular views.


Henry IV

After ending the French Wars of Religion, Henry IV greatly enacted religious tolerance across the land, bringing temporary peace between the Catholics and Protestant worshippers. Meanwhile, he also established a new nobility called "nobility of the robe," who purchased titles from the monarch in order to gain high ranking titles and remain loyal to the king. This purchasing granted a new source of revenue for the French monarchy, capable of paying off royal debt caused by the wars and create a stronger military. The Duke of Sully, the finance minister, also advocated mercantilism, the increased role of a state in its economy in order to achieve desirable trade. This granted the monarch the power to place monopolies on spices such as sugar and salt, giving more power and control over prices.

Cardinal Richelieu

Like Henry IV, Richelieu too was a politique who placed the interest of the state before all others. By creating the Intendant system which replaced local officials with civil servants, Richelieu was able to ensure the loyalty to the monarchy by the civilians. This also lowered the power of the nobility as Intendants were mainly composed of middle-class citizens, creating a more direct link between the monarch and the people. Thus, the government became more efficiently controlled. He increased taxation to fund a stronger military; however, under the Peace of Alais, he revoked Huguenot lands and armies as the Cardinal tried to reinstitute Catholicism in France. Cardinal Richelieu's work became the basis for absolutism in France.

Louis XIV, "Sun King"

Finally, the quintessential absolute ruler in European history, Louis XIV of France sanctioned the official idea of absolute rule in Western Europe. He personified the idea of a sovereign state, leading to the rise of nationalistic ideals; however, claiming the divine right of kings, Louis XIV's famous saying goes, "I am the state." He believed that he was appointed by God to the throne; thus, anyone who objects him would ultimately be rejecting the word of God, granting him the longest reign of European history — 72 years.

Why was he so successful?

Firstly, as a child, Cardinal Mazarin had taken over his spot as Louis XIV had inherited the throne as a toddler. During that time, because of religious intolerance and noble disputes caused by Richelieu, the nobles revolted against Mazarin in the Fronde. Faced with humiliation, Louis XIV vowed to never let this happen again.

A governmental organization was key. Louis recruited chief ministers from the middle class to keep societal order to keep aristocrats from rising from power and continued the Intendant system to keep the nobility in check. Parlements were fearful of Louis XIV as they had already failed during the Fronde; therefore, the French monarch had little opposition. The Estates General was never called into session. He also took control over the peasantry and instituted corvée, a forced labor required of peasants to work on public projects.

To enforce unity among the French, he created a system of one king, one law, one religion. He created a unified law throughout France, uniting the two halves together. Additionally, he also revoked the Edict of Nantes with the Edict of Fountainbleu claiming that the Protestants were the main cause of chaos; therefore, it must be eliminated. Over 200,000 Calvinists fled France, leading to a downfall of its economy.

Versailles Palace

This was Louis XIV's greatest achievement. A palace created of Baroque architecture and a royal court of over 600 people cost 60 percent of the entire French revenue. Using grandeur and gold, he proclaimed himself as the one king and elevated his status. This was a symbol of his wealth and power, attracting more people into his realm and his reign. Here, he gained absolute power over the nobility as they all had to live in the palace as Louis could keep an eye on what the nobles were doing. Here was the epitome of an effective absolute rule.

Cover Image Credit: Pexels

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