Absolutism in Early Modern Europe 1. The theory and language of absolutism
Absolutism – ruler holds absolute/total power over law-making institutions and mechanisms of gov., but not subject to those laws.
Notion of ‘absolutism’ unknown before French Revolution – a pejorative label used after 1789; ‘Whig’ history – used it as a way of justifying English ‘exceptionalism’ following Civil Wars and Revolution of 1688. English nation on path to progress.
Power to make legislation = characteristic of sovereign: ‘the first mark of the sovereign prince is the power to give law to everyone in general, and to each person in particular … without the consent of anyone greater than he is, equal to himself, or lower than himself’.
‘It is the distinguishing mark of the sovereign that he cannot in any way be subject to the commands of another’.
Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan (1651)
Argues that man in a state of nature
Leviathan = a form of contract. Power to be transferred to an absolute sovereign in order to achieve security and stability.
Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet, Bishop of Evreux (1627-1704) – a ‘Spokesman’ for French Absolute Monarchy
4 characteristics: ‘First, subjects are born slaves, truly serfs; and among them are no free persons. Second, nothing is owned as property: everything belongs to the prince. Third, the prince has the right to dispose at will of the lives as well as the goods of his subjects, as would be done with slaves. Finally there is no law but his will’.
‘The myth of absolutism’
Roger Mettam warns of anachronism of imposing idea of ‘absolutism’ on early modern states.
Peter H. Wilson, in Absolutism in Central Europe (2000): ‘Not only did Louis XIV or his emulators in Europe fail to deliver an absolutist agenda, but they never had such pretensions’.
Nicholas Henshall, The Myth of Absolutism (1992): achievements of ‘absolutist’ states in line with other states of age, and with dynastic predecessors.
Rulers still accountable to law of God; ‘Absolutist’ ideology also found in states without ‘absolutist’ rulers, e.g. Republics (Machiavellianism).
centralisation & hereditary monarchy; legal reform, curbing power of church & estates/representative institutions; increase in army & navy; increase/reforms in finance; development of bureaucracy; curbing power of old nobility; mercantilist policy (restrictions and taxation on trade).
Composite monarchies faced challenges from:
Reformation – who controlled the church?
Representative institutions - local and regional assemblies (e.g. Cortes, Parlements, Parliament)
The nobility – dominate local government and responsible for raising taxation and troops
Huge amount of military pressure in Early Modern Europe: Italian Wars (1494-1599); Dutch Revolt (1566-1609/48); Thirty Years War (1618-48) = European-wide conflicts.
Concerns that both Charles II and James II rule without consent. Both rule in 1680s without summoning parliament; also concerns that they are packing it with Court supporters or by trying to regulate elections to ensure a compliant Parliament.
French style government? Worries about emulation/admiration of Louis XIV
Charles II enters into alliance with France to support wars against Dutch Republic.
1688: The First Modern Revolution?
James II deposed in Dec. 1688; William III and Mary II begin joint rule of England
Steve Pincus (2011): England enters into a phase of modern democracy; change in English governance and rebalancing of powers between Crown and Parliament
Revolution introduces: Constitution – Bill of Rights; Frequent Parliaments; Ideology of consent and liberty; Religious toleration
A ‘Dutch invasion’?
Popular violence against catholic targets – violence esp. in Ireland and Scotland until 1692
1707 Formal union between England and Scotland; 75 per cent of Scots opposed to union.
War with France 1689-97 (Nine Years’ War) – cost £49 million (three times average expenditure during James II’s reign)
1702-1714 War of Spanish Succession – 170,000 British troops in Europe > unprecedented taxation (three times level under Charles II, £5m raised in taxes each year)
Huge growth of national debt.
Did the eclipse of absolutism mean a free state?
Paradoxically, leads to a stronger ‘fiscal-military’ state.