The Age of Absolutism usually refers to the period in which traditional monarchs consolidated power and attempted to exert almost complete control over their subjects and the state of affairs in their country. The 17th and 18th centuries were the height of absolute rule in Europe.
The Rise of Absolutism
The rise of absolutism is tied to collapse of Latin Christendom. After the Reformation and the collapse of Christian unity, national monarchies arose as the primary form of political organization and stability. Unlike medieval monarchies, national monarchies had centralized governments and demanded the loyalty of all citizens (rather than relying on lords and middle-men).
Religious wars of the 16th and 17th centuries led many to seek order and security, and thus support the increased authority of national monarchies.
Justifications for Absolutism
Monarchs sought to justify their absolute rule.
French political philosopher, Jean Bodin, argued that sovereignty (supreme power) resided in the monarch
Divine Right of Kings – since most Europeans believed that all authority came from God, contemporary political philosophers (Bishop Bossuet, France) argued that political authority also came directly from God; therefore God wanted monarchs to have absolute power.
Displaced the previous belief that God limited the power of secular rulers by placing overall authority in the Catholic Church
Medieval concept of authority: GodChurch(Pope)KingMen(subjects)
Absolutist concept of authority: GodKingchurchmen(subjects)
Englishman Thomas Hobbes supported absolutism for reasons other than religion in his book Leviathan.
According to Hobbes, people originally lived like animals in a lawless “state of nature” characterized by constant war, which was “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short”.
People developed civilization as a contract in which everyone agreed to give up power to a higher authority. If people did not obey the ruler, their natural selfishness would result in disaster.
What makes a successful Absolute Monarch?
(Economic) Successful Mercantile policies, including colonies, bring wealth to the government
(Economic) Require higher taxes in order to bring in wealth; this is especially necessary because new forms of warfare cost more
(Religious) Control the religion of subjects; in order to use religion as a justification for absolute rule, all citizens must share the same religious beliefs
(Political) Centralize government, so that all power falls under the control of the king and his ministers
(Political) Breakdown old feudal ways, such as the power of lords over their vassals. All power must come from king. Lords and nobles seen as threats to king’s power.
(Social)Create a national identity in which monarch represents the nation
The English Challenge to Absolutism
England did not continue a movement towards absolute monarchy after the heavy handed reign of Henry VIII. Despite the attempts of some kings, English monarchs were forced to compromise their absolute authority to the interest of the English nobility.
When she became queen, Elizabeth adopted a national policy of reconciliation/religious toleration.
During the reign of the Catholic Queen Mary, Elizabeth had barely escaped with her life.
She could not rule as a Catholic, because according to the Catholic Church Henry’s heretical marriage to Anne Boleyn made their daughter illegitimate and consequently ineligible for the throne.
As Queen, Elizabeth skillfully managed Parliament, allowing her to enact most of her policies.
She summoned Parliament often, although rarely allowed them to influence her decision – only giving them the impression that they did.
The Stuarts and the English Civil War
The Stuart kings lack the political savvy that Elizabeth had exhibited and relations with Parliament quickly deteriorated
James was dedicated to the idea of rule by divine right and aimed to rule as an absolute monarch
Lacked the common touch; did not relate to his people or Parliament
His absolutism was contrary to the English tradition in which nobles had a say in government
Parliament wanted a greater say in government and resented James’ absolutist attempts at denying them what they considered their inherent rights as Englishmen
James attempted to raise money without the consent of Parliament
Resisted Puritans who wanted to further reform the Anglican Church
Puritans believed the English Reformation did not go far enough and wanted to “purify” the Church of England of all vestiges of Catholicism
Behaved much like his father, but provoked Parliament even further, which resulted in Civil War
When Parliament refused to grant Charles the taxes or army he desired, Charles tried to simply rule without them and even disbanded Parliament for a time.
In England there was a precedent dating back to Magna Carta which decreed the king could not levy taxes without the consent of his nobles
Charles signed the Petition of Right in 1628, promising not to levy taxes without Parliament’s consent
From 1629-1640 Charles refused to call Parliament and attempted to raise money by finding loopholes; employed ministers to streamline expenses of government offices
“ship money” was a traditional tax on seaports in times of emergency, which Charles turned into an annual collection everywhere
Revolt in Scotland finally forces Charles to recall Parliament (Long Parliament), which has no intention of cooperating, but rather aims to pass legislation to limit the power of the monarch
English Civil War (1642-1649)
The Civil War between Charles and the supporters of Parliament was over the issue of whether sovereignty should reside in the king or in Parliament
Parliament’s army was led by Oliver Cromwell
The New Model Army was well trained in modern tactics
Charles’ supporters known as Roundhead (due to their hairstyle) were eventually defeated
Charles was beheaded for treason against the state in 1649
After the Civil War the kingship was abolished and a new republican government was formed, led by Parliament and Oliver Cromwell as “Lord Protector”
In reality Cromwell and his army controlled the state
Cromwell eventually purges Parliament of non-supporters (Rump Parliament) and establishes the “Protectorate” which rules like a military dictatorship, both absolutist and puritanical
Allowed limited religious toleration, not for Catholics – violently crushing revolt in Ireland
Regulated the economy according to mercantile policies
Raised taxes to fund pay for his army
When Cromwell died in 1658 his sons try to rule in his place, but the military dictatorship collapses, resulting in a return to civilian government and a desire for stability
Charles II and the Restoration of the Monarchy
Charles II was restored to the throne after England became tired of Puritan control, following Cromwell’s death in 1658.
Other returning customs included Parliament meeting only when called by the king and the Anglican Church.
Charles II learned from his father that it was better to work with Parliament rather than oppose it.
Nevertheless, there was tension between Charles and Parliament on the issue of religious toleration.
Charles favored religious tolerance and was secretly sympathetic towards Catholics.
Most in Parliament deeply believed that patriotism was tied to religion.
Parliament passed legislation banning non-Anglicans from participation in the religious and political life of the state.
The Test Act in particular was targeted at Charles’ brother James and required all officials of the crown to take an oath, essentially swearing against the doctrines of Catholicism
James II and Renewed Fears of a Catholic England
James II succeeded his brother in 1685, and quickly was at odds with Parliament. James II did not learn from his father’s fate. He had little use for Parliament. It did not help that he was Catholic with a Catholic wife – causing Protestants to fear a Catholic dynasty.
He repealed the Test Act, dissolved Parliament when they protested, and began appointing Catholics to important political and military positions.
He directly attacked the legal rights and authority of local nobles, landowners, and the church – hoping to subject all English institutions to the power of the monarchy.
The English hopes that James’ Protestant daughter Mary would succeed him were squashed when James’ second wife, a Catholic, gave birth to a son.
Rather than accept a Catholic heir, Parliamentary opponents invited William of Orange to invade English to preserve “traditional liberties” – i.e. the Anglican Church and parliamentary government
The Glorious Revolution
Fearful nobles and parliamentary leaders forced James to abdicate in 1688, known as the Glorious Revolution. The crown was subsequently offered to his daughter Mary and her husband William of Orange.
In Nov. 1688 William of Orange arrived in England with an army. The English people did not oppose him and James was forced to flee to France.
In 1689, Parliament declared William and Mary the new monarchs who had limited powers
William and Mary had to accept the English Bill of Rights which guarantees fundamental freedoms, and established parliamentary supremacy (Parliament can overrule the monarch) – a major step towards constitutional monarchy.
Under the English Bill of Rights, English monarchs were subject to law and ruled by the consent of Parliament, which must be called every three years.
It prohibited Roman Catholics from occupying the throne
In 1701, The Act of Settlement agreed that if Anne (Mary sister and William and Mary’s heir) died without an heir of her own, the throne would go to the House of Hanover in Germany – Protestant heirs.
Absolutism in France
France became the most powerful absolute state in Europe in late 1500s by centralizing government and using force to establish a royal monopoly on power.
When Henry IV was assassinated in 1610, Cardinal Richelieu became the chief advisor to Henry’s young son Louis XIII. Richelieu was determined to make France a strong, absolute power. He brought the nobility under control by destroying castles and replacing them with loyal, well-educated professionals in government. He also attacked Huguenot (protestant) cities on the justification that they formed a “state within a state”
The Fronde, was a rebellion against Richelieu’s policies that took place between 1648 and 1653, led by discontent nobles. During that time the young Louis XIV, who had become king in 1643 at the age of 5, was forced to flee for his life, leaving a lasting impression.
The young king was raised and guided during his reign by his mother Anne of Austria and Cardinal Mazarin (successor to Richelieu).
Louis XIV would become known as the Sun King, signifying that the world revolved around him.
He said “I am the state”, L’etat c’ est moi
Louis XIV reduced the power of his nobility:
first by creating a new set of nobles from the merchant class to serve the government and counteract the old nobility’s power.
Secondly, he required nobles to regularly visit his new palace at Versailles. In this way nobles gained prestige by becoming servants in the kings court (rather than through fighting).
France Under Louis XIV
Louis XIV destroyed the power of the Hugenots, who had been protected under the Edict of Nantes. In 1685, Louis XIV revoked the edict and outlawed Protestantism, causing over 200,000 French to flee France (with their wealth and skills)
Louis also reformed the old feudal tax structure by appointing Jean-Baptiste Colbert as financial minister. His reforms strengthened the French treasury by reducing the government’s debt and simplifying the tax system. He tried to abolish internal tariffs, but with limited success. (these made it difficult to move goods internally)
Louis wanted to expand French territory, so he rebuilt the army, making him the most powerful ruler in Europe.
France was subsequently at war four times between 1667 and 1714. At the end of the third war France was under tremendous financial strain, yet he fought a fourth and most costly war to try and place his grandson, Philip of Anjou, on the Spanish throne.
The War of Spanish Succession was fought between Louis and the rest of Europe. After many defeats across Europe, Louis accepted the Treaty of Utrecht. Philip did get the Spanish throne, but Louis gave up much of the territory he had taken and agreed that Spain and France would never be ruled by the same monarch
Absolutism in Russia
For over a hundred years the Mongols had dominated Russia. Russia gained its independence in 1480. The grand dukes of Moscow took the title of czar, which is Russian for “caesar”. Russian rulers enjoyed absolute rule from the mid-1400s
Prior to the emergence of Russia as an active European power, Russia had been considered a part of Europe only by courtesy. It was on the peripheral both geographically and politically, with no warm water ports to ease communication and trade. The White Sea port of Archangel was icebound for much of the year. Russia did however possess vast and largely undeveloped natural and human resources.
Ivan the Terrible
Ivan IV came to the throne as a child, and began his personal rule at the age of 16.
Ivan IV consolidated the power and absolute authority of the czars. He began by appointing able advisor and reorganizing the army.
In 1560 he underwent a drastic personality change and began to distrust everyone around him. Surrounded by a small group of advisors and a loyal military force, he became known as “The Terrible”.
Ordered the death of his oldest son in a fit of rage.
Decided to check the power of the nobles (boyars) by ordering the execution of the most powerful nobles and redistributing their estates among the lower nobility.
Determined to extend his territory, he fought against the remaining Mongols in the south and east, incorporating these areas into the Russian empire. He then spent vast amounts of money attacking Poland, Lithuania and Sweden, but with little success.
Time of Troubles
Ivan’s death began of period of turmoil in Russia known as the Time of Troubles, which lasted from 1584 to 1617. Ivan’s younger son was too weak to keep the throne, and the empire fell into a civil war in which several groups fought to gain power. Finally, the nobles elected Michael Romanov, Ivan’s grandnephew, as czar. The Romanovs would rule as absolute kings for the next 300 years.
Became czar violently in 1682 at the age of 10. A period of violence over a disputed succession led to the victory of the streltsy (Moscow garrison) who crowned young Peter and his half-broth Ivan V co-emperors (half-sister Sophia, the regent, overthrown in 1689)
Streltsy expected to be rewarded. Peter learned that he must secure the czar’s power from the jealous and greedy boyars and streltsy who would seek to gain power at the crown’s expense.
Peter was fascinated by Western Europe and aimed to modernize Russia by introducing new western ideas and techniques.
He traveled West “secretly”, worked in a Dutch shipyard and learned about the English tax system by talking to ordinary people.
When he returned to Russia he became a program of westernization, specifically aimed at copying western European methods and culture. Peter’s reforms continued under his daughter, empress Elizabeth, and her daughter-in-law, the German-born Catherine the Great.
Peter’s Objectives in modernizing Russia
Tame the boyars and streltsy.
Boyars forced to abandon customary long beards for western-styles
1722 Table of Ranks equated a person’s social position and privileges with service to the state (in the bureaucracy or army)
Secular Control of the Church
Sought to quiet religious opponents who had support of the people
Replaced the Patriarch of Russian church with a synod (council) headed by a laymen to rule the church, in accordance with needs of the state
Encouraged iron industry in Ural Mountains, became leading iron producer in Europe
Warm Water Port
A warm-water port would allow Russia to trade with the west and be part of European affairs
Reforms designed to support a strong army
Defeated Sweden in 1709. By 1721 he had gained access to the Baltic Sea and there decided to build his new capital, St. Petersburg, calling it his “Window on the West”.
Not everyone was thrilled by Peter’s reforms. The Russian Orthodox Church objected to interference in traditional church practices. The nobility resented the restructuring of government in which the army held the highest position. The nobility further resented Ivan’s attempts to reduce their status by tying their official status to their government post they held rather than tradition titles. He required them to build homes in St. Petersburg at spend time at court.
Peter died in 1725 without a successor (his only son Alexis had been imprisoned after a quarrel and mysteriously died in 1718).