Absolutism was the practice of absolute monarchy, which meant rule by a king who claimed to have divine authority to rule. The king claimed that ultimate authority was placed into his hands by divine right and that the king alone had the power to make laws, levy taxes, conduct foreign policy and control all aspects of the state. The best example of absolutism is the reign of Louis XIV (1643-1715). During the reign of Louis XIV, French culture came to influence and dominate all facets of European society. Even though the reign of Louis XIV is held up as the standard of absolutism in 17th century Europe, it was not in practice a true absolute monarchy.
To understand the justifications for the practice of absolutism it is important to consider the events that preceded the emergence of absolutism. For many years before the reign of Louis XIV and indeed for many years after, landed aristocrats and the nobility class played a large and often outsized role in sovereign affairs. The practice of absolutism required a centralized government administered either by the king directly or his handpicked ministers and carried out by a far-flung web of bureaucrats. However, to create a powerful enough nation-state that could exert its will on ones neighbors an absolute monarch was often necessary. Competing interests among the various nobility would often lead to political paralysis and severely weakened a nation-state from seeking alliances, trade concessions or expansion of territory. In most cases and especially in regard to war and territorial expansion, an absolute monarch was needed to conduct the foreign policy and affairs. More often than not the head of the various ministries went to nobility as a way to assuage the egos and often conflicted interests of the nobility.
To be a truly successful absolute monarch, the king had to absorb the power of the nobility while maintaining their allegiance. More often than not this proved to be too difficult. In early 17th century Denmark, the king was elected by the nobles, creating a weak monarch who owed his power to the very nobles he was elected to rule. It wasn’t until Christian V in the latter half of the century that a centralized administration was developed but even then, the nobles were the ministers and officeholders. Charles XI of Sweden was able to weaken the nobility’s grip on power by increasing the power of the army and navy, reducing the influence of the church and the Riksdag (parliament). His son Charles XII was left a monarchy approaching absolutism but his military losses led to his weakening grip on power as the ever-present nobility continually searched for a return to power. Cardinal Richelieu, the chief minister for Louis XIV’s father understood this and was careful in “humbling the pride of great men.” Cardinal Richelieu was able to establish and strengthen the power of the crown. Cardinal Richelieu’s successor Cardinal Mazarin was disliked by the nobles but was able to survive two revolts by the nobles. This led the majority of the population of France to look to the crown and the still young king Louis XIV as the best hope for a stable and prosperous France.
The true power of Louis XIV laid in his administration of the government from his royal court at Versailles. Like a magician using misdirection to fool the audience, Louis XIV removed the troublesome nobles from important posts and kept them entertained and jostling for position and currying favor with the royal court. Louis XIV use of handpicked minsters and secretaries who owed their position to him alone and not their nobility gave him absolute control of the mechanisms of the central government and the levers of power. Even this power turned out to be somewhat of an illusion. Local government with its myriad groups of often competing interests and the entrenched bureaucracy proved to be too formidable for even a king like Louis XIV to have absolute control over the daily lives of his subjects. Even held up as the standard for absolute monarchy in 17th century Europe, Louis XIV was in many ways not an absolute monarch. And much like other 17th century monarchs who chased after absolutism, in the end the absolute power of Louis XIV was weakened and eventually fatally wounded by one of the powers granted by absolutism, the power to make war.
The decline of the power of absolute monarchs throughout Europe in the late 17th and early 18th centuries is contrasted with the events happening in England during the 17th century. With the end of the Tudor dynasty in 1603, the accession of the Stuart dynasty began with James I of England. The Tudors had successfully followed a different approach to ruling. The Tudor dynasty shared power with Parliament and ruled England as a “balanced polity.” With the accession of James I came the theory of absolutism to England. James’ religious policies also alienated vast swaths of England. Many of those alienated included Puritans who made up a large part of the bureaucracy that is so important to the rule of centralized government. As seen throughout so many kingdoms of the 17th century, a strong centralized government loyal to the king is an essential part of maintaining power. James’ son Charles I completely lost control of Parliament and tried to rule without them. Another example of the limitations of absolutism and the importance of having the nobility and religious interests support. Successful absolute monarchies have been able to marginalize either the nobility, the church or both, though often only for relatively brief periods of time. As shown by his beheading in 1649, Charles I was not a successful absolute monarch. His successor Oliver Cromwell, while not a monarch in name, tried to rule as an absolute monarch using the military as his source of power. He too failed as many monarchs before him and led to the return of the monarchy in the form of Charles II, the son of the deposed and beheaded Charles I. Once again failure to heed the lessons of the past led Charles II to commit many of the mistakes of his father. Chief among these mistakes was the alienation of the religious constituency. His successor, James II would further stoke the flames of religious conflict. As a Catholic in a country with an unpleasant to say the least history with Catholicism, Charles II insistence of placing his faith above his duty to country led directly to the Glorious Revolution. But it was not the removal of James II that was critical in ending absolutism in 17th century England. The confirmation of William and Mary to the throne of England came from the Revolution Settlement, which included the Bill of Rights, establishing Parliament’s authority and duties and forever changing the way monarchy in England would rule. Even more important to us today than the events of the Glorious Revolution is what came out of it. John Locke, a prominent English political thinker, used his experience during this period to write “Two Treatises of Government.” This work led to many of the ideas that underpinned both the American and French revolutions. These revolutions are perhaps the greatest rebuke of Absolutism and they can be traced to the events and policies of 17th century Europe and the experimentations with absolutism.
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