Absolutism and Constitutionalism in Western Europe, ca 1589-1715 Before You Begin

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Absolutism and Constitutionalism in Western Europe, ca 1589-1715

Before You Begin

One of the problems with studying history is that to make sense of a period, you have to sort out certain themes, while ignoring others that 'are happening simultaneously. In this chapter, for instance, the Thirty Years' War is mentioned frequently, but it is not completely explained until the next chapter. If this confuses you, go ahead and skim the information in chapter 17 (pp. 562-565) so that you can understand the involvement of the western European states in what started out as a civil war in the Holy Roman Empire.

Watch for the influence of monies and goods coming from the colonies; they often help to finance government expenditures in this era. Also, pay attention to the bigger picture of the shifts in the balance of power within the western European states. The materials in these chapters almost beg for comparison essays, so keep track of similarities and differences in the ways in which western European countries were trying to organize or reorganize themselves during this period.

Learning Objectives

After reading and studying this chapter, you should be able to:

  1. Identify the common crises and achievements of seventeenth-century states.

  2. Discuss the extent of absolute monarchy in both Spain,and France.

  3. Des-cribe the cultural forms that flourished under absolutist governments.

  4. Trace the emergence of constitutionalism in England and the Dutch Republic .


Chapter Key P,~ints

The power of government expanded in response to numerous crises during the years 1589 and 1715, and two new patterns of government emerged in European states: absolute monarchy and the constitutional state.

  1. Seventeenth-Century Crisis and Rebuilding: Compared to the vital growth of the sixteenth century, the seventeenth century was a period of troubled stagnation. As governments sought to deal with various problems, they increased their power through larger armies, new taxes, expanded bureaucracies, and increased state sovereignty.

  2. Economic and Demographic Crisis: As the climate became colder and wetter, both agricultural and industrial production declined. Food shortages threatened the fragile existence of the poor, as indicated by the increased death rate. Desperate, the poor took action through food riots.

  3. Seventeenth-Century State Building: Common Obstacles and Achievements: Both absolute and constitutional monarchs overcame obstacles such as primitive transportation, poor communication, and power rivalries to expand the state's power by increasing taxes, enlarging armed forces and bureaucracies, and compelling greater obedience from subjects.

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Chapter 16: Absolutism and Constitutionalism in Western Europe, ca 1589-1715 39

  1. Warfare and the Growth of Anny Size: France led the way in establishing larger, more disciplined, and loyal professional armies. Such troops characterized the warfare of the seventeenth century and became a building block of expanded state control.

  2. Popular Political Action: As the common people of England, France, Spain, Portugal, and Italy suffered from high bread costs, increased taxation, and warfare, they frequently resorted to armed uprisings to express their political frustrations. Not until the late seventeenth century were central governments powerful enough to effectively deter such upnsmgs.

II. Absolutism in France and Spain: Absolute monarchs maintained that they were chosen ~y God, answered only to God, and therefore had exclusive power. The writings of philosopher Thomas Hobbes and theologian Bishop Bossuet supported such claims.

  1. The Foundations of Absolutism: Henry IV, Sully, and Richelieu: Henry IV and the Duke of Sully showed the French the value of a strong monarch, as they restored peace and stability after the civil wars. Louis XIII and Cardinal Richelieu expanded the king's authority by limiting the nobles and strengthening the bureaucracy, while using forei~ affairs to weaken the Habsburgs. When Cardinal Mazarin tried to continue such policies for Louis XIV, a rebellion erupted. The final compromise preserved nobles' traditional privileges, but left the French appreciating a strong monarch who could impose order.

  2. Louis XIV and Absolutism: The long rule of Louis XIV marked the peak of absolutism based on the concept of "divine right of kings." To achieve greater power, Louis centralized his government using the intendants; stayed personally involved in all government action; kept the nobles politically voiceless by not calling the Estates General; used spying and terror; ended religious toleration; and when political reality dictated the need, used collaboration with the nobles.

  3. Financial and Economic Management Under Louis XlV: Colbert: Believing that the wealth of France should serve the state, the controller general of finances Jean-Baptiste Colbert effectively used the system of mercantilism to build a strong economy that was the basis of France's military and political power. To achieve greater self-sufficiency for France, Colbert supported industry, created a merchant marine, built up New World colonies, and increased tax collection.

  4. Louis XIV's Wars: Believing thathe should expand the borders of France, Louis XIV kept the nation at war through much of his reign. While minimal territory was gained, the wars proved extremely costly to France because higher taxes reduced the standard of living for the lower classes. The threat of French expansion also led to European coalitions against France and ultimately weakened their international power.

  5. The Decline of Absolutist Spain in the Seventeenth Century: Supported by New World wealth, the Spanish created an absolute monarchy and became a major power in the sixteenth century. As their economic fortunes declined in the seventeenth century, they were unwilling to accept modern solutions to their problems. They quickly became a second-rate power, losing both territory and prestige.

  6. Colonial Administration: Depending on the principles of absolutism and mercantilism, the Portuguese and Spanish kept colonies under roya.l control and governed them for the benefit . of the mother country.

III. 'The Culture of Absolutism: Absolute monarchs used culture, especially the Baroque style, which evolved from the Catholic Reformation, as an expression of their royal power and prestige.

  1. Baroque Art and Music: The Baroque style, best expressed artistically by Peter Paul Rubens and musically by Johann Sebastian Bach, developed first in Rome. The emotional, exuberant style was intended to touch the senses and souls of the Catholic and Lutheran faithful. Resonating with the people of an agitated age, the style soon moved beyond its Catholic ongms.

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40 Chapter 16: Absolutism and Constitutionalism in Western Europe, ca 1589-1715

  1. Court Culture: Louis XIV set the standard for court culture at his palace, Versailles. Not only did other monarchs imitate the architectural style, but they also followed Louis's example in using the palace as a symbol of the king's power and the center of political, social, and cultural life.

  2. French Classicism: French cultural pride dates to Cardinal Richelieu, who used culture to further state centralization. Under the patronage of Louis XIV, a style known as French classicism developed that imitated the standards of classical antiquity and the Renaissance. As French culture became increasingly respected, French gradually became the language of

_ international scholarship and diplomacy.

IV. Constitutionalism: Rather than develop absolute monarchies, England and Holland moved toward constitutionalism, where laws limited the ruler's power. Emphasis was placed on a balance between the government's authority and the rights of the people. However, constitutionalism did not mean that all the people had a voice in the government.

  1. Absolutist Claims in England (1603-1649): Elizabeth exerted strong personal authority primarily through wise political maneuvering. The Stuart ruler, James I, found the English hostile to his ideas of divine right of kings. His ideas of absolute monarchy conflicted with long-standing English liberties and resulted in conflicts between the king and the House of Commons, which controlled finances.

  2. Religious Divides: The king and the House of Commons were also divided over religious issues, as many English turned toward Puritan Calvinism. When the Archbishop of Canterbury William Laud tried to impose greater ritual on the Church in Scotland, the Scots rebelled. Needing to finance his war with Scotland, King Charles I called Parliament in 1640, an act that ultimately led to the English Civil War-a dispute over whether the king or 'Parliament had ultimate power. The king's enemies in Parliament beheaded the monarch.

  3. Puritanical Absolutism in England: Cromwell and the Protectorate: With the abolishment of the monarchy, a commonwealth was established. Oliver Cromwell, with the title of , protectorate, created a military dictatorship. Religious toleration was extended to Protestants, but Catholics were brutally persecuted, particularly in Ireland. Cromwell controlled the economy in an absolutist style. By Cromwell's death, the English were eager to restore a monarchy.

  4. The Restoration of the English Monarchv: Re-establishing a monarchy, the English crowned Charles II king. However, religious conflict and the relationship between the king and Parliament still troubled England. While Charles II made great efforts to work with Parliament, his brother James II's pro-Catholic and absolutist policies angered Parliament. In response, the English forced James II into exile and crowned James's Protestant daughter, Mary, and her husband, Prince William of Orange, the new rulers.

  5. The Triumph of England's Parliament: Constitutional Monarchv and Cabinet Government:

The overthrow of James II, known as the Glorious Revolution, marked the death of absolutism in England. The new rulers accepted the supremacy of Parliament and guaranteed English liberties in the Bill of Rights. The Glorious Revolution was based on the political philosophies of John Locke, who maintained that every government existed to protect the natural rights of the people, and if it failed to do so, the people had a right to revolt.

  1. The Dutch Republic in the Seventeenth Century: With the flowering of culture in the independent United Provinces of the Netherlands, those states developed a constitutional model. Even though it was controlled by the wealthy, the Dutch government was a republican cbnfederation that practiced religious toleration and successfully used commercial prosperity to defend its ind~pendence.

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Chapter 16: Absolutism and Constitutionalism in Western Europe, ca 1589-1715 41

Review Questions

Check your understanding of this chapter by answering the following questions.

  1. How did conditions worsen for Europeans in the seventeenth century? How did these events create an economic and demographic crisis? What was the impact on the lower classes, and how did they react?

  2. What obstacles existed in the seventeenth century to building a strong state? What basic achievements did governments accomplish that worked toward the goal of expanding the power of the state?

  3. How did France change the basic nature of the military in the seventeenth century? How did these changes work to expand the growth of the state?

  4. What factors conttibuted to the frequent political uprisings by the common people in the seventeenth century?

  5. How did each of the following contribute to the growth of absolutism in France: Henry IV, Duke of Sully, and Cardinal Richelieu?

  6. What was the Fronde? Discuss both its causes and results.

  7. What is absolutism? How did Louis XIV administer his government so that his government is considered the peak of absolutism? In what ways did Louis XIV not actually have absolute

. control?

  1. Discuss Jean-Baptiste Colbert. Define mercantilism. How did Colbert's economic policies strengthen France?

  2. What was the primary goal of Louis XIV's wars? How successful was he in meeting this goal?

What was the impact of Louis XIV's wars on the French economy and society?

  1. How had Spain achieved absolutism so early? What factors led to the decline of absolutist Spain in the seventeenth century?

  2. How did Spain and Portugal administer their colonies? How was this administration reflective of absolute monarchy?

  3. What is meant by the term Baroque style? Where did it flourish? Discuss the works of Peter Paul Rubens and Johann Sebastian Bach in light of the Baroque style.

  4. What was the influence of Versailles on cdurt culture of the seventeenth century?

  5. What is French classicism? How did the influence of French culture expand in the seventeenth century?

  6. Discuss the issues and ideas that led to the conflict between James I of England and the House of Commons.

16. What role did religion play in the political controversies of seventeenth-century England? 17: What were the causes of the English civil war? Who won and how? What were the results?

  1. Who was Oliver Cromwell, and how did he rule England?

  2. Why were the English ready to restore the monarchy after Cromwell's death? What issues remained unresolved by the Restoration? How and why did these issues reach a crisis during the reign of James II?

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42 Chapter 16: Absolutism and Constitutionalism in Western Europe, ca 1589-1715

  1. What was the Glorious Revolution? Identify both the Bill of Rights and John Locke.

  2. Describe the Dutch system of governmenLHow was it different from that of other western European states? What was unusual about the Dutch attitudes toward religious beliefs?

  3. The Dutch experienced commercial prosperity and rising standards of living in the seventeenth century. On what was this economic success founded? What were the social and political implications?

Multiple-Choice Questions

  1. Which ofthe following was not a cause of the seventeenth-century economic crisis?

  1. A long period of global cooling

  2. Higher government taxes

  3. Wars and revolts

  4. Inflation of prices

e. Reoccurring bubonic plague outbreaks

  1. Barriers to communication, lack of a common language across a single country, and slow overland transportation were problematic for the

  1. average rural peasant-farmer.

  2. average urban worker or artisan.

  3. plans of centralizing rulers.

  4. traditional local elites.

e. members of the diplomatic corps.

  1. To be an absolute monarch, one had to monopolize all the following except

  1. courts of justice and making of laws.

  2. a state military force.

  3. the type and high offices of a single religion.

  4. access to social standing ..

e. access to education and its curriculum.

  1. Henry IV of France instated the Edict ofNantes and his grandson Louis XIV revoked it. What issue was at stake for both rulers?

a. Limiting the power of the nobles of the sword and robe

b .. Limiting the power of the bourgeoisie in urban areas

  1. Regulating the economic activities of the investors in overseas colonies

  2. Religious toleration for non-Catholic Christians -

e. The power and even the existence of the Estates-General

  1. Richelieu used the rationale of "raison d' etat" ~o justify

  1. the revocation ofthe Edict ofNantes.

  2. siding with Protestant rebels in the Thirty Years' War.

  3. encouraging settlement and economic exploitation of North American colonies.

  4. the building of a powerful merchant marine fleet.

e. the creation ofthe Five Great Tax Farms.

  1. The belief that limiting imports and expanding exports would create a wealthy economy was a key tenant of which of the following theories?

  1. Popular sovereignty

  2. Capitalism

  3. Raison d'etat

  4. Divine right theory

  5. Mercantilism

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Chapter 16: Absolutism and Constitutionalism in Western Europe, ca 1589-1715 43

  1. Some historians assert that the treaty of Utrecht of 1713 facilitated a diplomatic revolution in western Europe because it

  1. allowed the Spanish Hapsburgs to expand their holdings in central Europe.

  2. shifted the crown in Spain from a Hapsburg to a Bourbon dynasty.

  3. shifted France's colony of Canada to the British.

  4. shifted control of the Atlantic Slave Trade from Spain to the British.

e. ·cemented. the alliance of the British with the Dutch in face of Catholic absolutist powers.

  1. The most important long-term result of the widely implemented Reformation policy of the dissolution'ofthe monasteries and convents resulted in

  1. the enrichment of nobles and wealthy bourgeoisie who purchased the lands.

  2. a sharp increase in the amount of food produced and a subsequent drop in food prices across

Protestant lands,

  1. a large immigration of Catholic families to lands run by Catholic monarchs.

  2. the founding of rural banking institutions by peasant-farmers to purchase the lands.

e. a sharp decrease in the literacy rates among western Europeans.

  1. The main issue that caused the English Civil War was ultimately whether

a. the Parliament or the king held the right to tax.

b, England should adhere to the Anglican, Catholic, or Calvinist Church,

  1. an archbishop of the Anglican Church, and by extension the monarch of England, had the authority to make ecclesiastical laws in Scotland and Ireland.

d, the government of England should be a republican commonwealth or a constitutional


e, Parliament had the authority to decide who should be the heir to the English throne.

10, The Dutch became the most powerful economic force in Europe in the s~venteenth century for all

of the following reasons except their .

  1. policies of religious toleration.

  2. extraordinarily wealthy financial and business institutions.

  3. virtual monopoly of trade routes in the Indian Ocean and Baltic Seas.

  4. extensive colonial possessions in the West and East Indies.

  5. political alliance with the British after the Glorious Revolution.

Essay Questions Artistic

  1. Compare the baroque art of the absolutist' and Catholic countries with the seventeenth-century art of the constitutionalist countries. For example, consider Rubens, Bernini, Velasquez, Rembrandt, van Dyke, Peeters, and Vermeer. How do these artistic styles mirror the values of the societies for which they were produced?

  2. What were the political, social, and economic functions of the great palaces and royal complexes built in.the seventeenth century? For example, consider Versailles, St. Petersburg, Schoenburg, and so forth. To fully answer this question, you will need information from the next chapter of your textbook.


  1. To what extent were the successes of both constitutional and absolutist forms of government in the seventeenth century based on the power of the middle classes? Use at least three countries in your explanation.

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44 Chapter 16: Absolutism and Constitutionalism in Western Europe, ca 1589-1715


  1. Analyze the reasons for the high numbers of popular revolts and civil unrest in the seventeenth century in terms of political, economic, and religious causes. Discuss specific examples from at least two countries.

  2. Assess the validity of the following claim: "Louis XIV succeeded because he co-opted and convinced the nobles, rather than by crushing their power."


  1. Describe and analyze the requirements for becoming an absolute ruler. Use specific examples.

  2. Compare the constitutionalist governments established in England and the United Provinces.

  3. Explain and analyze the institutions that were established by absolutist rulers to undermine the power and authority of the nobility. Use specific examples from at least two countries.

  4. Compare the ways in which the Spanish and the Dutch set up colonial administrations.

  5. Compare how the French and Spanish crowns staffed and used their administrative councils.


  1. Compare the political theories of Hobbes and Locke, taking into account their positions toward the English Civil War, as well as their theories of human nature. You will need to refer to outside sources, in addition to your textbook, to fully answer this question. -

  2. Explain and analyze the economic concept of mercantilism and its function within the seventeenth-century political landscapes. Use specific examples ..

  3. How did the plays of Moliere and Racine, as well as the introduction of opera, bolster the power of the French state in general?


  1. Evaluate the extent to which enforcing religious uniformity was a building block of absolutism in the period between 1589 and 1715. Answer this question using two of the following countries:

France, Spain, Russia, or Austria / Holy Roman Empire (see next chapter for Russia and Austria). Consider domestic and international policies.

2: Consider the painting by Tiepolo, The Triumph of Spain, on page 535 of your textbook. Explain

and analyze the function of the three standing figures on the lower left.

  1. Explain and analyze the role thatreligious disputes played in the English Civil War.

  2. Explain and analyze the connection between Dutch commercial prosperity and its religious toleration.


  1. In the mid-seventeenth century, "Spain, France, Germany [Holy Roman Empire], and England all experienced great economic difficulties." (See page 525 of your textbook.) What caused these economic difficulties, and how were they compounded by other events of the mid-seventeenth century? You might need to consult chapter 17 for the Holy Roman Empire piece of this question.

  2. Explain how Spain, with all the wealth from the Americas, still had to devalue her coinage and declare bankruptcies over the course of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

  3. Explain and analyze the rise of the Dutch to a world power between approximately 1648 and 1713. Consider political, religious, and economic causes.

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Chapter 16: Absolutism and Constitutionalism in Western Europe, ca 1589-1715 45


Use Outline Map 16.1 to answer the following questions.

  1. On Outline Map 16.1 below, and using Map 16.1 in the textbook as a reference, mark the territory added to France as a result of the wars and foreign policy of King Louis XIV.

  2. Explain how each of the territories was acquired and from whom.

  3. What territories did France try and fail to gain? What can you tell about his ultimate goals, from the total number of regions Louis wished to control?

  4. What changes in the balance of power occurred as a result of the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713?

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46 Chapter 16: Absolutism and Constitutionalism in Western Europe, ca 1589-1715

Outline Map 16.1

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Chapter 16: Absolutism and Constitutionalism in Western Europe, ca 1589-1715 47

Map Features

Use Map 16.3 in your textbook to answer the following questions.

  1. How would you describe and define the Dutch Empire in terms of area-ports involved and products? Which products appear to be the most important to the Dutch?

  2. What geographical explanations can you give for the success of the Dutch Empire?

  3. With what other states might the Dutch come into conflict? Why?

Answers to Multiple-Choice Questions

  1. e. Reoccurring bubonic plague outbreaks (See pages 524-525.)

  2. c. plans of centralizing rulers. (See page 526.)

  3. e. access to education and its curriculum. (See page 526.)

  4. d. Religious toleration for non-Catholic Christians (See pages 529 and 531.)

  5. b. siding with Protestant rebels in the Thirty Years' War. (See page 531.)

  6. e. Mercantilism (See. pages 532-533.)

  7. b. shifted the crown in Spain from a Hapsburg to a Bourbon dynasty. (See page 534.)

  8. a. the enrichment of nobles and wealthy bourgeoisie who purchased the lands. (See page 543.)

9. a. the Parliament or the king held the right to tax. (See page 544.)

10. e. political alliance with the British after the Glorious Revolution. (See pages 549-553.)

Thinking Ahead

Except for England, all of the western European countries in chapter 16 were involved in the Thirty Years' War, which is discussed in detail in chapter 17. After studying chapter 17, you will have to look back to chapter 16 and put together the discussions to see the total picture.

The theme of the development of absolutism as a form of government continues in the next chapter with discussions about absolutism in Russia, Hapsburg Austria, Prussia, and the Ottoman Empire. Be re~dy to look back to chapter 16 for comparative essay topics.

Chapter 17 begins with a discussion of the institution of serfdom. Whereas serfdom died out in western Europe, it continued to exist in eastern Europe. Again, be ready to make comparisons across chapters on this important social and economic theme in European history.

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