“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 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.
- 10.1: 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).
- 10.2: Louis XIV - the Sun King
- King Louis XIV 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. Louis was called the Sun King, a term and an image he actively cultivated, declaring himself "without equal".
- 10.3: 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.
- 10.4: 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.
- 10.5: 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.
- 10.6: Spain
- Practically every other 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.
- 10.7: The English Civil War and the Glorious Revolution
- England was perhaps the most outstanding example of a state in which the absolutist form of monarchy resolutely failed during the seventeenth century, and yet the state itself emerged all the stronger. Ironically, the two most powerful states in Europe during the following century were absolutist France and its political opposite, the first major constitutional monarchy in Europe: the United Kingdom of Great Britain.
- 10.8: The Stuarts and the English Civil War
- While her reign was plagued by these issues, Elizabeth I was a savvy monarch who was very skilled at reconciling opposing factions and winning over members of parliament to her perspective. She also benefited from what was left of the moneys her father had looted from the English monasteries. This delicate balance started to fall apart with Elizabeth's death in 1603.
- 10.9: The Glorious Revolution
- Even as absolutism became the predominant mode of politics on the continent, Britain set forth on a different, and opposing, political trajectory.
- 10.10: Great Britain After the Glorious Revolution
- One unexpected benefit to constitutional monarchy was that British elites, through parliament, no longer opposed the royal government but instead became the government. After the Glorious Revolution, lawmakers in England felt secure enough from royal attempts to seize power unlawfully that they were willing to increase the size and power of government and to levy new taxes. Thus, the English state grew very quickly.
- 10.11: The Overall Effects of Absolutism
- Britain was thus the outstanding exception to the general pattern of absolutism. As an aggregate, the states of Europe were transformed by absolutist trends. Some of those can be captured in statistics: royal governments grew roughly 400% in size over the course of the seventeenth century, and standing armies went from around 20,000 men during the sixteenth century to well over 150,000 by the late seventeenth century.
- 10.12: Conclusion
- The process by which states went from decentralized and fairly loosely organized to "absolutist" was a long one. Numerous aspects of government even in the late eighteenth century remained strikingly "medieval" in some ways, such as the fact that laws were different from town to town and region to region based on the accumulation of various royal grants and traditional rights over the centuries.
Thumbnail: Louis XIV of France (Public Domain; Hyacinthe Rigaud via Wikipedia)