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Absolutism and State Building in Europe, 1618-1715
To best understand absolutism we need to differentiate between theoretical definitions as postulated by writers such as Thomas Hobbes and practice as applied by the various monarchs of Europe. Although the term absolutism may conjure images of despotic rulers, seventeenth-century kings did not have the resources and power to impose their will on the entire people of their country.
When seventeenth-century political writers such as Jean Bodin refer to the king as having absolute power, they mean that he did not share the power to make laws with national representative assemblies; in other words he was "sole legislator." Absolute monarchs claimed that they held power by divine right. They also claimed that they were above the law and as the highest judge in the land could not be held accountable for their actions. This meant that they acted for reasons of state, i.e. the benefit of the entire kingdom, and therefore could not be expected to observe the rights and liberties of their subjects.
In the seventeenth century, European monarchs took several steps to ensure their authority was held supreme within the state. First, they eliminated or weakened national representative assemblies. Second, they subordinated the nobility to the king and made them dependent on his favor, while excluding him from positions of power. Third, the kings established centralized bureaucracies that collected taxes, recruited soldiers, and operated the judiciary.
The growth of European states in the seventeenth century was largely the result of war. Between 1600 and 1721 Europeans powers were constantly at war. By the end of the Thirty Years' War in 1648, most European countries had a standing army, which could be used in foreign wars as well as in maintaining internal order. In the seventeenth century and early eighteenth century these armies became larger. They were equipped with new gunpowder technology, which required more intensive training. The cost of recruiting soldiers, equipping them with arms and uniforms and training them, was so high that only the state could afford it. The need to meet the financial cost of the military forced states to improve the bureaucracy and tax collection.
The two European countries where royal absolutism first became the form of rule were France and Spain. While France under Louis XIV became the model of an absolutist state, which others sought to copy, Spain established forms of absolutist rule, but never matched the achievements of France.
Efforts to establish the absolute monarchy in France began in response to the chaos of the religious wars. The Huguenot Henry IV (r. 1598-1610) converted to Catholicism when he became king of France. Louis XIII (r. 1610-1643) inherited the throne as a child. The aristocracy took advantage of royal weakness to try and build up its power. Louis XIII and his chief minister, Cardinal Richelieu, worked to centralize power in the hands of the French state. Richelieu suppressed rebellions led by nobles and restricted the independence of the regional supreme courts or parlements. Richelieu improved the administration by establishing a system of professional bureaucrats called intendants to supervise local administration. Richelieu also increased the yield from the taille and imposed a tax on office holders. After Richelieu died, he was succeeded by Cardinal Mazarin (1601-1661). As chief minister during the early reign of Louis XIV (r. 1643-1715), who also became king as a child, Cardinal Mazarin faced a series of revolts against the crown called the Fronde, which began when the judges of Parlement of Paris refused to register a royal edict. Within a decade, however, the French state had recovered from these challenges.
After the death of Cardinal Mazarin, Louis XIV personally took over the government of France. Louis XIV acquired a reputation as the most powerful European monarch of the seventeenth century, both through his policies and through the image he conveyed. Art and architecture was used to convey the enormous power of the king. He built a new royal palace at Versailles in the baroque style, which through its size emphasized the unrivaled power of the king. Paintings, sculptures, and theatre productions always portrayed the symbols of power.
In more practical manner, Louis curbed the power of the nobility, by requiring members of noble families to live at Versailles for part of the year. At court they participated in the ritual of court life that revolved around the person of the king, but were excluded from the running of the government. The offices of state were filled by bureaucrats recruited from the merchant and professional classes. At the local level, intendants ensured the cooperation of city councils, judges, and parish priests to enforce the royal will. Louis also promoted religious uniformity by revoking the Edict of Nantes, forcing the Huguenots to either convert or leave the country. Large numbers of Huguenots emigrated to the Netherlands.
The government took an active role in the economic life of the country. The controller general, Jean Baptiste Colbert, promoted a set of policies called mercantilism to promote the economic expansion of France by improving the transportation network, promoting industry and expanding the merchant fleet.
Louis XIV attempted to transform French culture by his patronage of cultural institutions. To promote the fine arts, Louis XIV granted royal patronage to the Academy of Fine Arts and established the Academy of Music and the theatre company Comédie Française. He also established the Académie Française, which produced the first French Language dictionary. He also founded the Royal Academy of Sciences. Louis also introduced uniformity to the government. His personal life, the royal bureaucracy, and the army were all organized along rational, orderly principles.
Louis XIV waged four of wars to increase the territory of France at the expense of the German states and Spain. These wars led Great Britain, Spain, Austria, and the Dutch republic to form coalitions to stop French expansion and establish a balance of power among the power of Europe. Louis XIV's last war was known as the War of the Spanish Succession (1701-1713). The other powers refused to accept this increase of French power. After a decade of war, the Treaty of Utrecht (1713) allowed Louis XIV's grandson, Philip V, to become king of Spain on the condition the French and Spanish crowns never be unified. Also, the Spanish territories in Italy and the Netherlands were awarded to the Austrian Habsburgs.
In the seventeenth century, Spain faced military defeat, population decline, and economic failure. Spain in the seventeenth century remained a collection of territories with their own separate institutions unified only by the person of the monarch. In the first half of the seventeenth century, the Count-Duke of Olivares (1587-1645) attempted to integrate the various principalities into a more centralized state. He reformed the tax system and required all territories to contribute to national defense. He also attempted to reduce the autonomy enjoyed by the different principalities. His policies produced separatist opposition in the various principalities. Although Spain managed to retain control of Italy and Catalonia, it lost Portugal. In the end he failed to reproduce the absolutist state of France because of military defeat abroad and internal opposition. The seventeenth century is the Golden Age of Spanish letters and art. However, faced with decline and defeat, Spanish culture turned toward nostalgia. Writers like Miguel de Cervantes in his Don Quixote wrote of elusive dreams of military victory.
The military experiences, which created the absolutist states in France and Spain, also contributed to the creation of absolutist states in the German lands and Eastern Europe.
The German lands were a confederation of kingdoms, principalities, and church territories known as the Holy Roman Empire. The empire was not a unified, sovereign state. In 1618 a political incident in Bohemia, known as the Defenestration of Prague, where Protestant members of the Diet threw two royal officials out of a royal castle window, triggered the Thirty Years' War. The war devastated the German lands and retarded economic growth for more than half a century. The war ended with the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648, which allowed the German territories to develop as sovereign states with their own armies and central governments. The two most powerful were the Austrian Habsburg Monarchy and Brandenburg-Prussia.
In 1648 Prussia was made up of a series of territories scattered throughout northern Germany and almost no state bureaucracy. Under the Great Elector Frederick William (r. 1640-1688), King Frederick I (r. 1688-1713), and King Frederick William I (r. 1713-1740) Prussia became a powerful state. The Great Elector secured the support of the Prussian nobles, known as Junkers, by giving them legal power over the serfs on their estates. Prussian rulers, then proceeded to enlarge and centralize the royal bureaucracy in Berlin, improved tax collection and expanded the army.
The Habsburg rulers of Austria were less successful in consolidating their state. The Habsburg territories were made up of several autonomous principalities with their own institutions and privileges, speaking different languages, and following different religious practices and creeds. The Habsburgs were most successful in imposing some aspects of absolutism in the Austrian and Bohemian lands. Bohemia had been defeated at the Battle of White Mountain (1629) and its Protestant nobility was deprived of power. Hungary was able to resist Habsburg attempts to limit its constitutional autonomy.
The military frontier between the Habsburg and Ottoman lands marked both a political and a cultural boundary. The Ottoman Turks were not considered part of the West, as they were Muslims. The Turkish rulers, known as sultans, were considered by Western writers to be despots who ruled over their subjects as slaves. In practice, their power, like that of western absolutist monarchs, was limited by the spirit of Muslim law. Also, Ottoman provinces enjoyed much autonomy. While Ottomans and Europeans were frequently at war, contacts between the two included trade. Although most Europeans viewed the Ottoman Empire as "oriental," it was really a border between East and West.
Russia also was a border state between East and West. Russia was ruled for several centuries by Asian peoples and did not participate in the European cultural experience. It also followed an Eastern orthodox form of Christianity. Thus, Westerners saw it as "oriental." During the Reign of Peter I, the Great (r. 1862-1725), Russia began to adopt Western ways. Peter the Great established a standing army, trained in Prussian methods, imposed new taxes, created a centralized bureaucracy, and promoted industry. He also built the new city of St. Petersburg as a "window to Europe."
While the absolutist state was being established throughout most of Europe, England and the Dutch Republic successfully resisted centralization on power in the hands of the crown.
The English had a long tradition of relying on Parliament to make laws and levy taxes. The Stuart kings tried to introduce royal absolutism. James I (r. 1603-1625) was a strong believer in the royal prerogative and argued the function of Parliament was only to give advice, but made no attempt to legislate without it. When his successor, Charles I (r. 1625-1649) proceeded to impose forced loans on his subjects, Parliament responded with the Petition of Rights, stating the fundamental rights of the people. In response, Charles did not call Parliament from 1629 to 1640. During this period of personal rule, Charles collected taxes on his own authority. At the same time, his chief religious advisor, Archbishop William Laud, proceeded to restore ritual practices that leaned toward Catholicism. When Charles I tried to introduce this new liturgy to Scotland, it produced a civil war. Desperate for money to fight the Scots, Charles recalled Parliament.
Tensions between Charles and Parliament brought about the first modern revolution. The Long Parliament met from 1640-1649, and it impeached royal officials and judges and declared the taxes not passed by parliament illegal. Suspicions of a political conspiracy resulted in civil war between his critics in Parliament and the Royalists. Parliament's efficient New Model Army defeated the Royalists and took Charles prisoner in 1646. Attempts by Presbyterian members of Parliament to reach a compromise with the king resulted in a yet another civil war in 1648, which was won once again by the New Model Army. Radical members of Parliament put the king on trial. He was convicted and executed in January of 1649. The House of Commons eliminated the monarchy and established a republic. The army's commander-in-chief, Oliver Cromwell (1599-1658), was named Lord Protector of England. When Cromwell died in 1558, the political conflict between the Parliament and the army was renewed. In 1660, the army restored the monarchy.
Charles II and his successor James II both favored absolutism, but neither tried to rule without Parliament. Their policy was to influence Parliament by packing it with their supporters. The major political crisis of Charles II's reign came when a group of members of Parliament known as the Whigs attempted to exclude the king's brother James from succeeding the English throne on the grounds that he was Catholic. The attempt failed and James succeeded the throne when Charles II died 1685. When James II exempted Catholics from the Test Act of 1673, which excluded them from public office, the country revolted against him. James II fled, and Parliament invited his Protestant daughter, Mary, and her husband, William of Orange, to become the new rulers. They were required to accept a Bill of Rights, which limited royal power and excluded Catholics from the throne. These events, known as the Glorious Revolution, shifted the center of power from the king to the aristocracy sitting in Parliament. The Glorious Revolution was justified by John Locke in his Two Treatises of Government. Locke argued that man left the state of nature and established a government to protect his property and avoid chaos. But if the government acted against the interests of the people, they could overthrow it.
The Dutch Republic remained a decentralized state. The provinces formed a loose confederation, sending deputies to the States General. The provinces also remained decentralized. Political power lay in the hands of the wealthy merchants and bakers.
The Dutch Republic played an important role in international trade, serving as the middleman between Europe and the World and among European nations. The Dutch East India Company established trading posts in Asia and the Americas. The Exchange Bank of Amsterdam facilitated international trade transactions by having a monopoly of exchange in foreign currencies. One of the most important contributions of the Dutch to European culture was in the arts. Dutch artists of the seventeenth century turned to producing realistic portraits of merchants and financiers. Among its most famous painters were Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669), Franz Hals (ca. 1580-1666), and Jan Steen (1626-1679). In the early eighteenth century the Dutch Republic lost its economic superiority to the French and English.
Three significant political developments redefined the West: the dramatic and unprecedented centralization of the state; the introduction of absolutism into the West; and the expansion, regulation, and professionalization of state armies.