Absolutism: Derived from the traditional assumption of power (e g. heirs to the throne) and the belief in “divine right of kings”



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  • Absolutism in Western Europe: c. 1589-1715
    Constitutionalism in Western Europe: c. 1600-1725
    Absolutism in Eastern Europe: c. 1600-1740

  • Absolutism in Western Europe: c. 1589-1715

  • Absolutism:

  • Derived from the traditional assumption of power (e.g. heirs to the throne) and the belief in “divine right of kings”

  • Louis XIV of France was the quintessential absolute monarch

  • Characteristics of western European absolutism

  • Sovereignty of a country was embodied in the person of the ruler

  • Absolute monarchs were not subordinate to national assemblies

  • The nobility was effectively brought under control

  • This is in contrast to eastern European absolutism where the nobility remained powerful

  • The nobility could still at times prevent absolute monarchs from completely having their way

  • Bureaucracies in the 17th century were often composed of career officials appointed by and solely accountable to the king

  • Often were rising members of the bourgeoisie or the new nobility (“nobility of the robe” who purchased their titles from the monarchy)

  • French and Spanish monarchies gained effective control of the Roman Catholic Church in their countries

  • Maintained large standing armies

  • Monarchs no longer relied on mercenary or noble armies as had been the case in the 15th century and earlier

  • Employed a secret police to weaken political opponents

  • Foreshadowed totalitarianism in 20th century but lacked financial, technological and military resources of 20th century dictators (like Stalin & Hitler).

  • Absolute monarchs usually did not require total mass participation in support of the monarch’s goals

  • This is in stark contrast to totalitarian programs such as collectivization in Russia and the Hitler Youth in Nazi Germany.

  • Those who did not overtly oppose the state were usually left alone by the government

  • Philosophy of absolutism

  • Jean Bodin (1530-96)

  • Among the first to provide a theoretical basis for absolutist states

  • Wrote during the chaos of the French Civil Wars of the late 16th century

  • Believed that only absolutism could provide order and force people to obey the government

  • Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679): Leviathan (1651)

  • Pessimistic view of human beings in a state of nature:

  • Solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short strong”

  • Anarchy results

  • Central drive in every person is power

  • His ideas became most closely identified with Voltaire in the 18th century: “Enlightened Despotism”

  • Hobbes ideas were not very popular in the 17th century

  • Hobbes did not favor “divine right” of kings, as was favored by Louis XIV in France and James I and Charles I in England

  • Those with constitutional ideas saw Hobbes’ ideas as too authoritarian

  • Bishop Jacques Bossuet (1627-1704)

  • Principle advocate of “divine right of kings” in France during the reign of Louis XIV.

  • Believed “divine right” meant that the king was placed on throne by God, and therefore owed his authority to no man or group

  • The development of French Absolutism (c. 1589-1648)

  • France in the 17th century

  • In the feudal tradition, French society was divided into three Estates made up of various classes.

  • First Estate: clergy; 1% of population

  • Second Estate: nobility; 3-4% of population

  • Third Estate: bourgeoisie (middle class), artisans, urban workers, and peasants.

  • This hierarchy of social orders, based on rank and privilege, was restored under the reign of Henry IV.

  • France was primarily agrarian: 90% of population lived in the countryside.

  • Population of 17 million made France the largest country in Europe (20% of Europe’s population).

  • Accounted for France becoming the strongest nation in Europe.

  • Henry IV (Henry of Navarre) (r.1589-1610)

  • Laid the foundation for France becoming the strongest European power in the 17th century.

  • Strengthened the social hierarchy by strengthening government institutions: parlements, the treasury, universities and the Catholic Church

  • First king to actively encourage French colonization in the New World: stimulated the Atlantic trade

  • First king of the Bourbon dynasty

  • Came to power in 1589 as part of a political compromise to end the French Civil Wars.

  • Converted from Calvinism to Catholicism in order to gain recognition from Paris of his reign.

  • Issued Edict of Nantes in 1598 providing a degree of religious toleration to the Huguenots (Calvinists)

  • Weakening of the nobility

  • The old “nobility of the sword” not allowed to influence the royal council

  • Many of the “nobility of the robe”, new nobles who purchased their titles from the monarchy, became high officials in the government and remained loyal to the king.

  • Duke of Sully (1560-1641): Finance minister

  • His reforms enhanced the power of the monarchy

  • Mercantilism: increased role of the state in the economy in order to achieve a favorable balance of trade with other countries

  • Granted monopolies in the production of gunpowder and salt

  • Encouraged manufacturing of silk and tapestries

  • Only the government could operate the mines

  • Reduced royal debt

  • Systematic bookkeeping and budgets

  • In contrast, Spain was drowning in debt

  • Reformed the tax system to make it more equitable and efficient.

  • Oversaw improved transportation

  • Began nation-wide highway system

  • Canals linked major rivers

  • Began canal to link the Mediterranean Sea to the Atlantic Ocean

  • Henry was assassinated in 1610 by a fanatical monk who sought revenge for Henry’s granting religious protections for the Huguenots.

  • Led to a severe crisis in power

  • Henry’s widow, Marie de’ Medici, ruled as regent until their son came of age.

  • Louis XIII (1610-43)

  • As a youth, his regency was beset by corruption & mismanagement

  • Feudal nobles and princes increased their power

  • Certain nobles convinced him to assume power and exile his mother

  • Cardinal Richelieu (1585-1642)

  • Laid foundation for absolutism in France

  • Like Henry IV, he was a politique (he placed political issues ahead of religious principles)

  • Intendant System

  • Used to weaken the nobility

  • Replaced local officials with civil servants—intendants—who reported directly to the king

  • Intendants were largely middle-class or minor nobles (“nobility of the robe”)

  • Each of the country’s 32 districts had an intendant responsible for justice, police and finance

  • Gov’t became more efficient and centrally controlled

  • Built upon Sully’s economic achievements in further developing mercantilism

  • Increased taxation to fund the military

  • Tax policies were not as successfully as Sully’s

  • Resorted to old system of selling offices

  • Tax farmers ruthlessly exploited the peasantry

  • Richelieu subdued the Huguenots

  • Peace of Alais (1629): Huguenots lost their fortified cities & Protestant armies

  • Calvinist aristocratic influenced reduced

  • Huguenots still allowed to practice Calvinism

  • Thirty Years’ War

  • Richelieu and Louis XIII sought to weaken the Hapsburg Empire (a traditional French policy dating back to Francis I in the early 16th century)

  • Reversed Maria de’ Medici’s pro-Spanish policy

  • Declared war against Spain in 1635

  • France supported Gustavus Adolphus with money during the “Swedish Phase” of the war

  • Later, France entered the “International Phase” of the war and ultimately forced the Treaty of Westphalia on the Hapsburgs

  • Louis XIV (r. 1643-1715) – the “Sun King”

  • Quintessential absolute ruler in European history

  • Personified the idea that sovereignty of the state resides in the ruler

  • L’ état, c’est moi” (“I am the state”)

  • He became known as the “Sun King” since he was at the center of French power (just as the sun is the center of our solar system).

  • Strong believer in “divine right” of kings (advocated by Bishop Bossuet)

  • He had the longest reign in European history (72 years)

  • Inherited the throne when he was 5 years old from his father Louis XIII (Henry IV was his grandfather)

  • France became the undisputed major power in Europe during his reign

  • French population was the largest in Europe (17 million); accounted for 20% of Europe’s population

  • Meant that a massive standing army could be created and maintained

  • French culture dominated Europe

  • The French language became the international language in Europe for over two centuries and the language of the well-educated (as Latin had been during the Middle Ages)

  • France became the epicenter of literature and the arts until the 20th century

  • The Fronde (mid-late 1640s)

  • Cardinal Mazarin (1602-1661) controlled France while Louis XIV was a child

  • Some nobles revolted against Mazarin when Louis was between the ages of 5 and 11.

  • Competition among various noble factions enabled Mazarin to defeat the nobles.

  • Louis never forgot the humiliation he faced at the hands of the nobles early on and was determined to control the nobility.

  • Government organization

  • Louis recruited his chief ministers from the middle class in order to keep the aristocracy out of government

  • Continued the intendant system begun by Richelieu

  • Checked the power of French institutions that might resist his control

  • Parlements were fearful of resisting him after the failure of the Fronde

  • Officials who criticized the government could be arrested

  • Louis never called the Estates General into session

  • Control over the peasantry (which accounted for about 95% of the population)

  • Some peasants kept as little as 20% of their cash crops after paying their landlord, government taxes and tithes to the Church

  • Corvée: forced labor that required peasants to work for a month out of the year on roads and other public projects

  • Idle peasants could be conscripted into the army or forced into workhouses

  • Rebellious peasants could be executed or used as galley slaves on ships

  • Versailles Palace

  • Under Louis XIV, the Palace at Versailles became the grandest and most impressive palace in all of Europe

  • The awe-inspiring scale of the palace reinforced his image as the most powerful absolute ruler in Europe.

  • The palace had originally been a hunting lodge for his father, Louis XIII.

  • The Baroque architecture was largely work of Marquis Louvois; the gardens were designed by LeVau

  • The façade was about 1/3 of a mile long; 1,400 fountains adorned the grounds

  • The royal court grew from about 600 people (when the king had lived in Paris) to about 10,000 people at Versailles

  • The cost of maintaining Versailles cost about 60% of all royal revenues!

  • Versailles Palace became in effect a pleasure prison for the French nobility

  • Louis gained absolute control over the nobility

  • Fearful of noble intrigue, Louis required nobles to live at the palace for several months each year in order to keep an eye on them

  • Nobles were entertained with numerous recreational activities such as tournaments, hunts and concerts

  • Elaborate theatrical performances included the works of Racine and Moliere

  • Religious Policies

  • Louis considered himself the head of the Gallican Church (French Catholic Church)

  • While he was very religious, he did not allow the pope to exercise political power in the French Church

  • Edict of Fountainbleau (1685)—revoked Edict of Nantes

  • Huguenots lost their right to practice Calvinism

  • About 200,000 Huguenots fled France for England, Holland and the English colonies in North America

  • Huguenots later gave major support of the Enlightenment and its ideas of religious toleration.

  • Louis supported the Jesuits in cracking down on Jansenists (Catholics who held some Calvinist ideas)

  • Mercantilism

  • State control over a country’s economy in order to achieve a favorable balance of trade with other countries.

  • Bullionism: a nation’s policy of accumulating as much precious metal (gold and silver) as possible while preventing its outward flow to other countries.

  • French mercantilism reached its height under Louis’ finance minister, Jean Baptiste Colbert (1661-83)

  • Colbert’s goal: economic self-sufficiency for France

  • Oversaw the construction of roads & canals

  • Granted gov’t-supported monopolies in certain industries.

  • Cracked down on guilds

  • Reduced local tolls (internal tariffs) that inhibited trade

  • Organized French trading companies for international trade (East India Co., West India Co.)

  • By 1683, France was Europe’s leading industrial country

  • Excelled in such industries as textiles, mirrors, lace-making and foundries for steel manufacturing and firearms.

  • Colbert’s most important accomplishment: developing the merchant marine

  • Weaknesses of mercantilism and the French economy

  • Poor peasant conditions (esp. taxation) resulted in large emigration out of France

  • Louis opted for creating a massive army instead of a formidable navy

  • Result: France later lost naval wars with England

  • War in later years of Louis’ reign nullified Colbert’s gains

  • Louis was at war for 2/3 of his reign

  • Wars of Louis XIV

  • Overview

  • Wars were initially successful but eventually became economically ruinous to France

  • France developed the professional modern army

  • Perhaps the first time in modern European history that one country was able to dominate politics

  • A balance of power system emerged

  • No one country would be allowed to dominate the continent since a coalition of other countries would rally against a threatening power.

  • Dutch stadholder William of Orange (later King William III of England) was the most important figure in thwarting Louis’ expansionism

  • War of Devolution (First Dutch War), 1667-68

  • Louis XIV invaded the Spanish Netherlands (Belgium) without declaring war.

  • Louis received 12 fortified towns on the border of the Spanish Netherlands but gave up the Franche-Comté (Burgundy)

  • Second Dutch War (1672-78)

  • Louis invaded the southern Netherlands as revenge for Dutch opposition in the previous war.

  • Peace of Nijmegan (1678-79)

  • Represented the furthest limit to the expansion of Louis XIV.

  • France took Franche-Comté from Spain, gained some Flemish towns and took Alsace

  • War of the League of Augsburg (1688-97)

  • In response to another invasion of the Spanish Netherlands by Louis XIV in 1683, the League of Augsburg formed in 1686: HRE, Spain, Sweden, Bavaria, Saxony, Dutch Republic

  • Demonstrated emergence of balance of power

  • William of Orange (now king of England) brought England in against France.

  • Began a period of Anglo-French military rivalry that lasted until Napoleon’s defeat in 1815.

  • War ended with the status quo prior to the war

  • France remained in control of Alsace and the city of Strasbourg (in Lorraine).

  • War of Spanish Succession (1701-13)

  • Cause: The will of Charles II (Hapsburg king) gave all Spanish territories to the grandson of Louis XIV

  • European powers feared that Louis would consolidate the thrones of France and Spain, thus creating a monster power that would upset the balance of power

  • Grand Alliance emerged in opposition to France: England, Dutch Republic, HRE, Brandenburg, Portugal, Savoy

  • Battle of Blenheim (1704)

  • A turning point in the war that began a series of military defeats for France

  • England’s army, led by the Duke of Marlborough (John Churchill—ancestor of the 20th century leader Winston Churchill) and military forces of Savoy (representing the HRE) were victorious

  • Treaty of Utrecht (1713)

  • Most important treaty between the Treaty of Westphalia (1648) and the Treaty of Paris (1763)

  • Maintained the balance of power in Europe

  • Ended the expansionism of Louis XIV

  • Spanish possessions were partitioned

  • Britain was the biggest winner

  • Gained the asiento (slave trade) from Spain and the right to send one English ship to trade in Spain’s New World empire

  • Gained the Spanish territories of Gibraltar and Minorca.

  • Belgium (Spanish Netherlands) given to Austria

  • Netherlands gain some land as a buffer against future French aggression

  • Though Louis’ grandson was enthroned in Spain, the unification of the Spanish and Bourbon dynasties was prohibited.

  • Kings were recognized as such in Sardinia (Savoy) and Prussia (Brandenburg)

  • Costs of Louis XIV’s wars:

  • Destroyed the French economy

  • 20% of the French subjects died

  • Huge debt would be placed on the shoulders of the Third Estate

  • French gov’t was bankrupt

  • Financial and social tensions would sow the seeds of the French Revolution later in the century.

  • The Spanish Empire in the 17th Century

  • The Golden Age of Spain” in the 16th century

  • The reign of Ferdinand and Isabella began the process of centralizing power (“New Monarchs”).

  • The foundation for absolutism in Spain was laid by Charles V (1519-1556) and Phillip II

  • Spain’s power reached its zenith under Philip II (r.1556-1598)

  • Madrid (in Castile) became the capital of Spain

  • Built the Escorial Palace to demonstrate his power

  • A command economy developed in Madrid

  • Numerous rituals of court etiquette reinforced the king’s power

  • The Spanish Inquisition continued to persecute those seen as heretics (especially Jews and Moors)

  • Decline of the Spanish economy in the 17th century

  • The Spanish economy was hurt by the loss of the middle class Moors and Jews

  • Population of Spain shrank from 7.5 million in 1550 to 5.5 million in 1660.

  • Spanish trade with its colonies fell 60% between 1610 and 1660

  • Largely due to English and Dutch competition.

  • The Spanish treasury was bankrupt and had to repudiate its debts at various times between 1594 and 1680.

  • National taxes hit the peasantry particularly hard

  • Many peasants were driven from the countryside and swelled the ranks of the poor in cities.

  • Food production decreased as a result

  • Inflation from the “price revolution” hurt domestic industries that were unable to export goods.

  • A poor work ethic stunted economic growth

  • Upper classes eschewed work and continued a life of luxury.

  • Many noble titles were purchased; provided tax exemptions for the wealthy

  • Capitalism was not really prevalent (as it was in the Netherlands and England)

  • Political and military decline

  • Symbolically, England’s defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588 is seen by some historians as the beginning of the decline of the Spanish empire.

  • However, Spain had the most formidable military until the mid-17th century.

  • Poor leadership by three successive kings in the 17th century damaged Spain’s political power

  • Philip III, Philip IV and Charles II (one of worst rulers in Hapsburg history)

  • Spain’s defeat in Thirty Years’ War was politically and economically disastrous

  • Spain officially lost the Netherlands
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