French Absolutism and Louis XIV

Henry IV | Richelieu | Louis XIV | Compare France and England

French Absolutism was the doctrine that the Monarch of a nation was all powerful. He or she made the laws, executed the laws, and judged those who violated the laws. It was a form of dictatorship or tyranny combined with the Medieval trappings of monarchy. Its justification was the theory of the Divine Right of Kings.

The Strong King, Henry IV

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When Henry IV took the throne of France at the conclusion of the War of the Three Henrys in 1589 he took a firm grip on the reigns of government. The people of France, in the main, had grown tired of the chaos bred by weak kings, obstreperous nobles, and religious strife. The people were ready for a strong king, or at least strong government from the monarchy. In Henry, this is what they got. In 1598 he effectively put an end to religious strife by issuing the Edict of Nantes, which granted religious toleration to the Huguenots (a Protestant, Calvinist group).

Henry was supported by a strong finance minister, the Duke of Sully. He did much work to bring honesty to the government by revamping accounting practices. Although the tax burden on the productive classes remained heavy, he saw to it that projects expanding the nation's infrastructure were given first priority. Roads, canals and highways were built. This facilitated trade as well as the movement of military forces. It also had the effect of tying the provinces closer to the capital of Paris. On the heels of these improvements Sully devised a system of royal officials, which came to be known as intendants, to wield the king's power throughout the country. This also reduced the power of the local nobility.

The Strong Minister, Richelieu

Henry IV was assassinated in 1610. The loss of the strong king brought chaos to the land. Louis XIII, Henry's son, was only 10 years old at the time of his father's death. His mother, Marie de Medici, became regent and botched the running of the government. The nobles attempted to re-establish their own power. When Louis XIII came into his majority, he had the foresight and intelligence to choose an able man as his first minister, Cardinal Richelieu.

Richelieu continued the process of undermining the power of the nobles through the use of intendants. He also worked to remove the nobility from the levers of the central administration. In 1625 he put down a revolt by Huguenots, and after the siege of La Rochelle, took away the power of Huguenots to maintain fortified positions within France. He was wise enough to continue the policy of religious toleration allowed by the Edict of Nantes.

Although he was a Cardinal of the Catholic church, Richelieu was not a fanatic. When the Catholic Hapsburgs seemed to be winning the Thirty Years War, Richelieu sided with the Protestant forces. He did this from fear of the growing Hapsburg power. He realized with Hapsburgs controlling Germany, Austria, and Spain, as well as the Netherlands, and parts of Italy that France was in danger of being surrounded. France's victory against the Spanish at Rocroi established her as the pre-eminent state in Europe.

The Sun King, Louis XIV

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The death of Louis XIII and Richelieu within months of each other brought another strong minister to power, Cardinal Mazarin. Louis XIV was only five years old when he became king. Of course, his mother, Anne of Austria, ruled as regent until he could reach his majority. However, even the accession of an able minister could not prevent another rebellion of the nobility (1648-1653), taking advantage of the death of Richelieu. The Fronde, a kind of child's slingshot, gave its name to the rebellion. Again the country began a descent into chaos. However, Mazarin was prepared and eventually re-established central control in the name of Louis XIV.

Mazarin died in 1661 and Louis XIV took control of the government for himself. He continued many of the policies of Richelieu and Mazarin, including the intendants. He came up with some innovations of his own. He undermined the power of the nobility by insisting they attend him constantly at his spectacular court at Versailles. However, he gave few of them jobs, reserving powerful positions for men of ability who would owe their advancement directly to him rather than to their own name, title, and family.

Jean Baptiste Colbert was the French Minister of Finance. He worked to streamline the collection of revenues, but in the course of his work instituted several mistaken policies, including mercantilist laws which restricted trade. He supported the corvée (forced peasant labor on the roads) and exorbitant taxes on the lower classes. Meanwhile Louis XIV persecuted the Jansenists, a Catholic sect seeking more purity within the church. He also revoked the Edict of Nantes, which reinstituted persecution of the Calvinist Huguenots. (Over 200,000 Huguenots fled the country.) Eventually, these seeds planted by the absolute monarchy would be the undoing of Louis' heirs.

Map of France in 1704

Most of the reign of Louis was spent in foreign wars. This was another way to keep the nobles occupied and under his thumb. Great efforts were made for very small territorial gains along the border with the Spanish Netherlands and to gain the Franche Comte, near Switzerland. The war of the Spanish Succession was a dynastic struggle. During this time the art of war was dominated by the defensive, mainly due to the emphasis on fortification and the innovations of a brilliant French engineer, Vauban.

Louis XIV identified himself directly with the governing of the nation. His famous statement of this belief rings down the centuries, "L'etat, c'est moi!", meaning, I am the state. This was the ultimate declaration of absolutism. By the end of the reign of Louis XIV absolute monarchy was unquestioned in France.

Comparing France and England

During this time frame there was a struggle for power between the aristocracy and the monarchy in both France and England. The outcomes of these two struggles were very different. In France power became far more centralized than in England. The struggles between the autocratic monarchy and the nobles more and more favored the king. This may have been because there was no real ideological unity within the ranks of the nobility. They still viewed their positions as entirely independent. Dukes and counts wished to be all powerful within their own fiefdoms. They were not fighting for a say in the central government. Alternatively, in the English Civil War men fighting the king were fighting for a say in the central government. They were looking for collective power within Parliament. This difference in outlook probably occurred largely because of the differences between the French and English feudal structures. In France many regions within the country had been semi-autonomous. Nobles long ruled their fiefs largely as they wished. In England this was hardly the case. Lords possessed their own estates, but seldom were there tolls between feudal boundaries. The king's writ was respected throughout most of the country. It is ironic, then, that the more unified England should wind up with distributed power, vested largely in Parliament, while the French wound up with a brittle autocratic rule that would be spectacularly smashed in the French Revolution.

Henry IV | Richelieu | Louis XIV | Compare France and England


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