Chapter 8: Absolutism

“Absolutism” is a concept of political authority created by historians to describe a shift in the governments of the major monarchies of Europe in the early modern period. In other words, while the monarchs of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries certainly knew they were doing something differently than had their predecessors, they did not use the term “absolutism” itself. The central idea behind absolutism was that the king or queen was, first, the holder of (theoretically) absolute political power within the kingdom, and second, that the monarch’s every action should be in the name of preserving and guaranteeing the rights and privileges of his or her subjects, occasionally even including the peasants.

Absolutism was in contrast to medieval and Renaissance-era forms of monarchy in which the king was merely first among equals, holding formal feudal authority over his elite nobles, but often being merely their equal, or even inferior, in terms of real authority and power. As demonstrated in the case of the French Wars of Religion, there were often numerous small states and territories that sometimes rivaled larger ones in power, and even nobles that were part of a given kingdom had the right to raise and maintain their own armies outside of the direct control of the monarch.

That changed starting in the early seventeenth century, primarily in France. What emerged was a stronger, centralized form of monarchy in which the monarch held much more power than even the most powerful nobleman. Royal bureaucracies were strengthened, often at the expense of the decision-making power and influence of the nobility, as non-noble officials were appointed to positions of real power in the government. Armies grew and, with them, the taxation to support them became both greater in sheer volume and more efficient in its collection techniques. In short, more real power and money flowed to the central government of the monarch than ever before, something that underwrote the expansion of military and colonial power in the same period, as well as a dazzling cultural show of that power exemplified by the French “sun king,” Louis XIV.

France

The exemplary case of absolutist government coming to fruition was that of France in the seventeenth century. The transformation of the French state from a conventional Renaissance-era monarchy to an absolute monarchy began under the reign of Louis XIII, the son of Henry IV (the victor of the French Wars of Religion). Louis XIII came to the throne as an eight-year-old when his father was assassinated in 1610. Following conventional practice when a king was too young to rule, his mother Marie de Medici held power as regent, one who rules in the name of the king, enlisting the help of a brilliant French cardinal, Armand de Richelieu. While Marie de Medici eventually stepped down as regent, Richelieu joined the king as his chief minister in 1628 and continued to play the key role in shaping the French state.

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Cardinal Richelieu, in many ways the architect of absolute monarchy in France.

Richelieu deserves a great deal of the credit for laying the foundation for absolutism in France. He suppressed various revolts against royal power that were led by nobles, and he created a system of royal officials called Intendants, royal governors who were men who were usually not themselves noble but were instead drawn from the mercantile classes. They collected royal taxes and supervised administration and military recruitment in the regions to which they were assigned; they did not have to answer to local lords.

Richelieu’s major focus was improving tax collection. To do so, he abolished three out of six regional assemblies that, traditionally, had the right to approve changes in taxation. He made himself superintendent of commerce and navigation, recognizing the growing importance of commerce in providing royal revenue. He managed to increase the revenue from the taille, the direct tax on land, almost threefold during his tenure (r. 1628 – 1642). That said, while he did curtail the power of the elite nobles, most of those who bore the brunt of his improved techniques of taxation were the peasants; Richelieu compared the peasants to mules, noting that they were only useful for working.

Richelieu was also a cardinal: one of the highest-ranking “princes of the church,” officially beholden only to the pope. His real focus, however, was the French crown. It was said that he “worshiped the state” much more than he appeared to concern himself with his duties as a cardinal. He even oversaw French support of the Protestant forces in the Thirty Years’ War as a check against the power of the Habsburgs, and also supported the Ottoman Turks against the Habsburgs for the same reason. Just to underline this point: a Catholic cardinal, Richelieu, supported Protestants and Muslims against a Catholic monarchy in the name of French power.

Louis XIV – the Sun King

Louis XIII died in 1643, and his son became king Louis XIV. The latter was still too young to take the throne, so his mother became regent, ruling along Richelieu’s protégé, Jules Mazarin, who continued Richelieu’s policies and focus on taxation and royal centralization. Almost immediately, however, simmering resentment against the growing power of the king exploded in a series of uprisings against the crown known as The Fronde, essentially a noble-led civil war against the monarchy (the rebels even formed a formal alliance with Spain). They were defeated by loyal forces in 1653, but the uprisings made a profound impression on the young king, who vowed to bring the nobles into line.

When Mazarin died in 1661, Louis ascended to full power (he was 23). Louis went on to a long and dazzling rule, achieving the height of royal power and prestige not just in France, but in all of Europe. He ruled from 1643 – 1715 (including the years in which he ruled under the guidance of a regent) meaning he was king for an astonishing 54 years; consider the fact that the average life expectancy for those surviving infancy was only about 40 years at the time(!). Louis was called the Sun King, a term and an image he actively cultivated, declaring himself “without equal,” and being depicted as the sun god Apollo (he once performed as Apollo in a ballet before his nobles, to rapturous applause – he was an excellent dancer). He was, among other things, a master marketer and propagandist of himself and his own authority. He had teams of artists, playwrights, and architects build statues, paint pictures, write plays and stories, and build buildings all glorifying his image.

Famously, Louis developed what had begun as a hunting lodge (first built by his father) in the village of Versailles, about 15 miles southeast of Paris, into the most glorious palace in Europe, built in the baroque style and lavishly decorated with ostentatious finery. Over the decades of his long rule, the palace and grounds of the Palace of Versailles grew into the largest and most spectacular seat of royal power in Europe, on par with any palace in the world at the time. There were 1,400 fountains in the gardens, 1,200 orange trees, and an ongoing series of operas, plays, balls, and parties. 10,000 people could live in the palace, counting its additional buildings, since Louis ultimately had 2,000 rooms built both in the palace and in apartments in the village, all furnished at the state’s expense. The grounds cover about 2,000 acres, or just over 3 square miles (by comparison, Central Park in New York City is a mere 843 acres in size).

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A contemporary photograph of the Hall of Mirrors in the Palace of Versailles, a spectacular example of baroque architecture and interior design.

Louis expected high-ranking nobles to spend part of the year at Versailles, where they were lodged in apartments and spent their days bickering, gossiping, gambling, and taking part in elaborate rituals surrounding the person of the king. Each morning, high-ranking nobles greeted the king as he awoke (the “rising” of the king, in parallel to the rising of the sun), hand-picked favorites carried out such tasks as tying the ribbons on his shoes, and then the procession accompanied him to breakfast. Comparable rituals continued throughout the day, ensuring that only those nobles in the king’s favor ever had the opportunity to speak to him directly. The rituals were carefully staged not only to represent deference to Louis, but to emphasize the hierarchy of ranks among the nobles themselves, undermining their unity and forcing them to squabble over his favor. One of the simplest ways in which Versailles undermined their power was that it cost so much to maintain oneself there – about 50% of the revenue of all but the very richest nobles present in the town or the château was spent on lodging, clothes, gifts, and servants.

Around the king’s person, courtiers had to be very careful to wear the right clothes, make the right gestures, use the correct phrases, and even display the correct facial expressions. Deviation could, and generally did, lead to humiliation and a sometimes permanent loss of the king’s favor, to the delighted mockery of the other nobles. This was not just an elaborate game: anyone wishing to “get” anything from the royal government (e.g. having a son appointed as an officer in the army, joining an elite royal academy of scholars, securing a lucrative royal pension, serving as a diplomat abroad, etc.). had to convince the king and his officials that he was witty, poised, fashionable, and respected within the court. One false move and a career could be ruined. At the same time, the rituals surrounding the king were not invented to humiliate and impoverish his nobles per se; instead, they celebrated each noble’s power in terms of his or her proximity to the king. Nobles at Versailles were reminded of two things at once: their dependence and deference to the king, but also their own dignity and power as those who had the right to be near the king.

Not just nobles participated in the dizzying web of favor-trading, gossip, and bribery at Versailles, however. Perhaps surprisingly, any well-dressed person was welcome to walk through the palace and the grounds and confer with those present (Louis XIV prided himself on the “openness” of his court, contrasting it with the closed-off court of a tyrant). Both men and women from very humble origins sometimes rose to prominence, and made a healthy living, at Versailles by serving as go-betweens for elites seeking royal positions in the bureaucracy. Others took advantage of the state’s desperate need for revenue by proposing new tax schemes; those that were accepted usually came with a payment for the person who submitted the scheme, so it was possible to make a living by “brainstorming” for tax revenue on behalf of the monarchy. Despite the vast social gap between the nobility and commoners, many nobles were perfectly happy to form working relationships with useful social inferiors, and in some cases real friendships emerged in the process.

Some aspects of life at Versailles seem comical today: the palace is so huge that the food was usually cold before it made it from the kitchens to the dining room; on one occasion Louis’ wine froze en route. Some of the nobles who lived in the palace or its grounds would use the hallways to relieve themselves instead of the privies because the latter were so inadequate and far from their rooms. The palace had been designed for display, not comfort.

The costs of building and maintaining such an enormous temple to monarchical power were enormous. During the height of its construction, 60% of the royal revenue went to funding the elaborate court at Versailles itself (this later dropped to 5% under Louis XVI, but the old figure was well-remembered and resented), an enormous ongoing expenditure that nevertheless shored up royal prestige. Louis himself delighted in life at court, refusing to return to Paris (which he hated) and dismissing the financial costs as beneath his dignity to take notice of. At Versailles, life orbited around his person and, by extension, his power, which was never seriously challenged during his lifetime.

Louis did not just preside over the ongoing pageant at Versailles, however. He was dedicated to glorifying French achievements in art, scholarship, and his personal obsession: warfare. He created important theater companies, founded France’s first scientific academy, and supported the Académie Française, the body dedicated to preserving the purity of the French language founded earlier by Richelieu (during Louis XIV’s reign, the Academy published the first official French dictionary). French literature, art, and science all prospered under his sponsorship, and French became the language of international diplomacy among European states.

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The above martial portrait of Louis XIV depicts him, symbolically, in his role as supreme military commander. He is dressed in full (ceremonial) armor, holding a sword, and presiding over a battle in the background.

To keep up with costs, Louis continued to entrust revenue collection to non-noble bureaucrats. The most important was Jean Baptiste Colbert (1619 – 1683), who doubled royal revenues by reducing the cut taken by tax collectors (only a quarter of revenue used to reach royal coffers; he got it up to 80% in some cases), increasing tariffs on foreign trade going to France, and greatly increasing France’s overseas commercial interests. Colbert was the model of a powerful commoner despised by the nobility: not only was he part of the system that held noble power in check, he was a mere shopkeeper’s son.

While Louis’ primary legacy was the image of monarchy that he created, his practical policies were largely destructive to France itself. First, he relentlessly persecuted religious minorities, going after various small groups of religious dissenters but concentrating most of his attention and ire on the Huguenots. In 1685 he officially revoked the Edict of Nantes that his grandfather had created to grant the Huguenots toleration, and he offered them the choice of conversion to Catholicism or exile. While many did convert, over 200,000 fled to parts of Germany, the Netherlands, England, and America. In one fell swoop, Louis crippled what had been among the most commercially productive sectors of the French population, ultimately strengthening his various enemies in the process.

Second, he waged constant war. From 1680 – 1715 Louis launched a series of wars, primarily against his Habsburg rivals, which succeeded in seizing small chunks of territory on France’s borders from various Habsburg lands and in saddling the monarchy with enormous debts. Colbert, the architect of the vastly more efficient systems of taxation, repeatedly warned Louis that these wars were financially untenable; Louis simply ignored the question of whether he had enough money to wage them. The threat of France was so great that even traditional enemies like England and the Netherlands on one hand and the Habsburgs on the other joined forces against Louis, and after a lengthy war, the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713 forced Louis to abandon further territorial ambitions. Furthermore, the costs of the wars were so high that his government desperately sought new sources of revenue, selling noble titles and bureaucratic offices, instituting still new taxes, and further trampling the peasants. When he died in 1715, the state was technically bankrupt.

Elsewhere in Europe

Almost everywhere in Europe, other monarchies tried to imitate both the style and the substance of Louis XIV’s court and style of rule. They built palaces based on Versailles even as the early-modern military revolution, not to mention Louis’ constant wars, obliged them to seek out new forms of taxation and reliance on royal officials to build up their armies and fortifications. In most cases, from Sweden to Austria, monarchs worked out compromises with their nobles that saw both sides benefit, generally at the expense of the peasantry.

Prussia

Arguably the most successful absolutist state in Europe besides France was the small northern German kingdom of Brandenburg, the forerunner of the later German state of Prussia. In 1618, the king of Brandenburg inherited the kingdom of East Prussia, and in the following years smaller territories in the west on the Rhine River. From this geographically unconnected series of territories was the country now known as Germany to evolve.

In 1653, the Prussian king Friedrich Wilhelm struck the “Great Compromise” with his nobles . He received a military subsidy in the form of taxes, along with the right to make law independent of noble oversight. In return, the nobility received confirmation that only nobles could own land and, further, that they had total control over the peasants on their land. In essence, the already-existing status of serfdom on Prussian lands was made permanent. Serfs could not inherit property or even leave the land they worked without the permission of their lord. One Prussian recalled being taught, presumably in a church-run primary school, that “the king could cut off the noses and ears of all his subjects if he wished to do so, and that we owed it to his goodness and his gentle disposition that he had left us in possession of these necessary organs.”

In turn, Friedrich Wilhelm supervised the creation of the first truly efficient state apparatus in Europe, with his tax collection agency (which grew out of the war office) operating at literally twice the efficiency of the French equivalent. The major state office was called General Directory Over Finance, War, and Royal Domains; it was perhaps one of the original sources of the stereotypes of ruthless German efficiency. His son, Frederick I (r. 1688 – 1713) further consolidated the power of the monarchy, built up the royal capital of Berlin, and received the right to claim the title of “King of Prussia” from the Holy Roman Emperor.

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Prussia began as the union of Brandenburg and the Duchy of Prussia, eventually growing to become one of the most powerful German states.

His grandson, confusingly also named Friedrich Wilhelm (“Friedrich Wilhelm I” as opposed to just “Friedrich Wilhelm,” r. 1713 – 1740) built on the work of his grandfather and father primarily by concentrating all state power on the military. He more than doubled the size of the Prussian army (from 30,000 to 83,000, making it the fourth largest in Europe), lived modestly in a few rooms in the palace, wore his officer’s uniform everywhere, and occasionally punched out the teeth of judges whose sentences he disagreed with. It was said during his rule that “what distinguishes the Prussians from other people is that theirs is not a country with an army. They have an army and a country that serves it.” Most importantly, Frederick Wilhelm created formal systems of conscription (i.e. “the draft”), meaning more men in Prussia, per capita, served in the military than did men anywhere else in Europe. He also established the first system of military reserves, with reservists drilling for two months a year during the summers. In short, Prussia became the most militarized society in Europe.

Over the course of the eighteenth century, Prussia was embroiled in a series of wars that confirmed its status as a European “great power.” Its version of absolutism, one centered on the authority of the king, the rights of the nobles, and an overwhelming focus on the military, proved effective in transforming it from backwater to the only serious rival to Austria for dominance in Central Europe. Notably, Prussia joined Austria and Russia in dividing up the entire kingdom of Poland in 1772, extinguishing Polish independence until the twentieth century.

Austria

Prussia’s great rival in the eighteenth century was Austria. Austria, as the ancestral state of the Habsburgs, had always been the single most powerful German state within the Holy Roman Empire. The Habsburgs, however, found that the diversity of their domains greatly hampered their ability to develop along absolutist lines. In some cases, they were able to reduce the power and independence of some of their nobles by supporting even more onerous control of peasants: for example, in Bohemia, peasants were made to work three days a week for their nobles, for free, and in return the Bohemian nobles allowed the emperor more control of the territory itself. In other territories like Hungary, however, nobles successfully resisted the encroachment of their Habsburg rulers.

The long-term pattern was that, especially after the Treaty of Westphalia that ended the Thirty Years’ War in 1648 rendered the political structure of the Holy Roman Empire virtually meaningless, “Habsburg” meant “Austrian.” The Habsburgs ruled Austria itself and exercised real control over the constituent kingdoms of their empire like Hungary and Bohemia, but had virtually no authority over the other Holy Roman states. With the Spanish branch of the family dying off in 1700 (the last Spanish Habsburg, Charles II, died without an heir in 1700), this identification was even stronger.

Despite being unable to impose absolutism across the vast breadth of their territories, the Habsburg line produced highly effective rulers in the eighteenth century in particular. The empress Maria Theresa (r. 1740 – 1780), the only surviving heir to the Habsburg throne when her father died, proved a skillful administrator who rationalized the offices of the Austrian state, shored up the loyalty of her non-Austrian subjects, and even won the grudging admiration of the Prussians. Her rule represented a nearly impossible balance in the gender expectations of the time. She was on the one hand a devoted wife (to a king “consort” – her husband held no power over the empire) and mother to some sixteen children (not all of whom survived infancy, however). On the other hand, she successfully projected an image of royal power that included her direction of Austrian forces during war and of practical administration during peacetime. Her son Joseph II was obliged to rule alongside his mother until her death in 1780, inheriting the empire at the height of its power and prosperity.

Spain

Practically every kingdom in Europe saw at least an attempt by a king or queen to reorganize the state along the absolutist lines followed by France. From Sweden, to England, to Spain, monarchs tried to consolidate royal power at the expense of their nobles and on the backs of their peasants. Those efforts were at least partly successful in places like Sweden and Denmark, but were disastrous failures in places like Spain and England.

Spain had been the most powerful kingdom in Europe in the sixteenth century. Thanks to its takeover of Central and South America, it had enormous reserves of bullion in the sixteenth century, and thanks to shrewd marriages by the Habsburgs, Spain was part of the largest dynastic system in Europe. However, both the failed invasion of England in 1588 and the ongoing debacle of the Dutch Revolt resulted in enormous losses of both wealth and prestige by the Spanish. By the 1620s and against the backdrop of the Thirty Years’ War, the monarchy was bankrupt and Spain itself was divided between numerous small but mostly independent kingdoms and territories. Spain became almost like a smaller version of the Holy Roman Empire, with the Spanish king only directly ruling the central territory of Castile (it was the Castilian dialect, centered on Madrid, that became the official Spanish language).

Spanish nobles came to hold their own kings in contempt and asserted their own sovereignty against the pretensions of the monarchy. Attempts by royal officials to enact reforms similar to those undertaken by Richelieu in France met with failure; even as Spain was losing the Dutch Revolt, it was trying to bankroll the Catholic forces of the Thirty Years’ War, thereby undermining its own financial reserves and stretching its military power to the breaking point. The regional parliaments of various Spanish territories revolted against the central monarchy in the mid-seventeenth century, with Portugal achieving complete independence in 1640.

Simultaneously, there was little economic dynamism in Spain. There was a small middle class, and Spain’s conservative nobility succeeded in preventing non-nobles from achieving positions of authority within the Spanish royal bureaucracy. The earlier assaults on Jews and Muslims had already driven out the most dynamic economic elements from Spain, and the attack on the Moriscos and Conversos (descendants of the Muslims and Jews who had converted to Catholicism) drove many of them away as well. Spain’s vast empire continued to produce great wealth, but relatively little of that wealth ended up in the coffers of the monarchy, and the sheer scale of the slave-based extraction of precious metals from the New World ran up against simple economics laws: by the seventeenth century this bullion-based system was in dire straits thanks to the inflation silver imports introduced to the European economy.

There was a strong mood of depression and nostalgia among elite Spaniards of the time, most memorably expressed in one of the great works of Spanish literature, Miguel Cervantes’ Don Quixote (published in two parts, 1605 and 1615), portraying a delusional minor nobleman trying to live out a glorious tale of fighting giants and dragons while actually attacking windmills. Especially as its royal line grew moribund in the second half of the seventeenth century, and following the inconclusive end of the Thirty Years’ War Spain had largely financed, the power of the Spanish state grew ever weaker.

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