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10.1: France

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    12496
  • 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.

    Cardinal Richelieu in his red cardinal's robes.
    Figure 10.1.1: 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 oversaw 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.

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