French Absolutism Essay, Research Paper
In 17th century France, each ruler had very different tactics for gaining and maintaining power. Regardless to the extent of power, each ruler used some absolutist methods in his reign. Although his predecessors are responsible for their own forms of absolutism through politics and war, economics, and religion, Louis XIV was most responsible for the development of the French absolutist state.
For many rulers, the situation in which they start already has problems. In 1589, Henry IV inherited the crown and with that, civil wars. The state of France was very weak at the time: terrible harvests and near starvation, great depopulation, and poor commercial activity. At the time of his crowning, nobles, officials, merchants and peasants wanted peace, order, and stability. Henry provided this as a unique ruler who actually cared about his people, which proved important to absolutism because of the trust the people had in their ruler. Henry appointed the devout Protestant Maximilien de Bethune, duke of Sully, as his chief minister. With the effective actions of Sully, public order in France was restored in only twelve years. Besides a small successful war with Savoy in 1601, Henry maintained peace. After the death of Henry IV in 1610, the queen-regent Marie de’ Medici headed the government for the child-king Louis XIII and appointed Cardinal Richelieu to the council of ministers. Richelieu, who became first minister of the crown in 1628, sought the total subordination of all groups and institutions to the French monarchy. This policy was a major factor in absolutism because it gave total power with no opposition to the monarchy. Richelieu prevented the greatest competitor, the nobility, from gaining too much power by reshuffling the royal council. He also leveled castles, which were symbols of feudal independence, and stopped aristocratic conspiracies with executions. In 1634, Richelieu broke France into thirty-two g n ralit s, districts. He used royal comissioners called intendants for specific tasks and to control the g n ralit s. Special intendants called noblesse de robe were apointed directly by the monarch and were responsible solely to him. These intendants enforced royal orders, and weakened the nobility which was a very important element of absolutism. The foreign policy of Richelieu was aimed at the destruction of Habsburg territories, consequently he supported the Lutheran King Gustavus Adolphus against the Catholic Habsburgs in the Swedish phase of the Thirty Years’ War.
The beginning for Louis XIV was very different than the previous rulers. At the coronation of Louis XIV the clergy asked God to cause the splendors of the French court to fill all who beheld it with awe. The image of the “Sun King” was very glorious and exalting. One of his first tasks, which the nobility supported, was the campaign for repression of the Huguenots. The system of patronage was set up; Louis heavily taxed protestant colonies, and in return he graciously granted the nobility and dignitaries priveleged social status. With this, he secured the nobles’ cooperation which furthered his absolutist state greatly by becoming allies with his only power competitors. Louis is commonly known for his royal court at Versailles. He required all the great nobility of France, under all circumstances, to come live at Versailles for at least part of the year. His court was built with extreme detail, and because of this, he used architecture to overawe his subjects and foreign visitors. This court was so crucial to the king because he used court ceremonials to undermine the power of the great nobility. The subordination of the nobility to the monarchy was greatly exemplified by Louis’ chosing of his council. Louis did not have a first minister and chose middle class councilers because they understand that he held total power, as an absolute monarch. To show off his power, Louis participated in many wars. In 1666, Louis had a professional army created, rather than private nobles, soldiers were employed. Having this large, strong army gave Louis an even greater spread of power, now even outside his territories. His first action was leading men into Holland, which was fought off by the Dutch flooding the countryside. This was a six year war in which Louis gained some territories and found the Holy Roman Empire very weak. Because of this, he seized the city of Strasbourg, and kept on trying to expand. At this time, William of Orange, one of his rivals, became king of England and united with much of Europe against Louis XIV.
The contrasts among French absolutist leaders was also apparent in their approach to the economy. Under the influence of Sully, Henry IV accomplished many economic achievements. He sharply lowered taxes on the overburdened peasents, but in compensation for the lost revenues, in 1602-1604 he introduced the paulette which was an anual fee by royal officials to guarantee hereditary in their offices. Also, indirect taxes were placed salt, sales and transit. The collection of these taxes was leased to financiers. The tax reduction gained Henry the people’s support, and the indirect tax allowed for revenues to be collected without the brazen tax increases. Sully also appreciated overseas trade and started the Company for Trade with the Indies. Reforms such as this, and the building of a country-wide highway system proved Henry’s rule to be very progressive, and in only twelve years restored social order and laid the foundations for economic prosperity. With the death of Henry, and the division of France into g n ralit s, a new system was adopted. Louis XIII put the intendants in charge of finance and tax collection for each region. These intendants regulated commerce, trade, the guilds, and marketplaces. The intendants reported directly back to the monarch, thus giving the King superior power. The main fault in Richelieu’s system was the process of taxation. Because of the division into g n ralit s, the rights of some assemblies in some provinces to vote their own taxes; the hereditary exemption from taxation; and the royal pension system drastically limited the government’s power to tax. As a temporary solution, Richelieu secured the cooperation of local elites, but the government never gained all the income it needed. Because the French monarchy could not tax at will, it never completely controlled the financial system, therefore, French absolutism was limited.
Much like the previous economic system, finance was a grave weakness of Louis’ absolutism. An expanding professional bureaucracy, the court of Versailles, and military reforms cost a great amount of money. The French method of collecting taxes failed to produce enough revenue. Tax collectors pocketed the difference between what they collected from the people and what they handed over to the state. Also unjust was the old agreement with the nobility wherein the king could freely tax the common people provided he did not tax the nobles. Because of this, the nobility relinquished a role in government, which strengthened absolutism. Because they did not pay taxes, they therefore could not decide how the taxes were spent. Things were not going well for Louis until he named Colbert the controller general of finances. Colbert’s main principle was that the economy of France should serve the state. He applied mercantilism, which is a collection of government policies for the regulation of economic activities by the state. Colbert believed that a successful economy was one that exported more than it imported, so he insisted that France only export, and import nothing. With the wealth of the nation increased, its power and prestige would be enhanced, giving Louis more control. To ensure a high-quality finished product, Colbert set up a system of state inspection and regulation. To ensure order within every industry, he compelled all craftsmen to organize into guilds, and within every guild was a master with total control.
Religion also played a major factor in control. Rulers such Henry IV compromised his religious preference to better himself, and the state. Henry IV converted to Catholicism for better relations with the Pope. He tried to gain protestant support be issuing the Edict of Nantes which allowed Huguenots to practice publically in only 150 selected cities. This edict was very important because it created temporary and provisional religious tolerance in order to secure “religious and civil concord” which was that all French people were united under the king’s religion. In Henry’s decision, he gave money to each of the protestant cities to protect themselves. This did not further his absolutist state because it created independent powers. Because of this, in 1627, Louis XIII ended protestant military and political independence because he thought it was “a state within a state.” He attacked the Protestant city La Rochelle, and it fell in 1628. This was significant because it weakened the influence of aristocratic Calvinism, and put France a step closer to a unified state.
Louis IV shared goals with previous rulers to wipe out Protestantism. As mentioned earlier, he had a campaign for the repression of the Huguenots. In 1685 Louis XIV revoked the Edict of Nantes. The new law ordered the destruction of churches, the closing of schools, the Catholic baptism of Huguenots, and the exile of Huguenot pastors who refused to renounce their faith. The reasons for the repression dates back to the writing of the Edict of Nantes. The religious tolerance was only suppose to be temporary. Also, religious liberty was not a popular policy at the time. The consequences of this were that it conformed the people under one religion thus strengthening absolutism, but tens of thousands of Huguenot craftsmen, soldiers, and business people emigrated, depriving France of huge tax revenues.
The many rulers of France used many different, and a few similar techniques toward the absolutist state. Some rulers, such as Louis XIII, were limited in absolutism because they never completely controlled politics, economics, and religion. Louis XIV, with the help of Colbert, was most responsible for the French absolutist state.