Absolutism in France

The Foundations of French Absolutism: When Henry IV became King of France in 1589, he inherited a royal mess. Peasants were on the verge of starvation due to poor harvests; wolves, and bands of demoralized soldiers were a constant danger, and the population shrinking. Everyone in the country yearned for stability. Henry was largely responsible for this recovery. He was the first French Ruler since Louis IX (the real "St. Louis") to genuinely care about his people. When the French Revolution broke out in 1789, his statue was the only one the mob did not tear down.

Henry converted to Catholicism, but issued the Edict of Nantes as a means of winning Protestant support. He kept France at peace (except for one short insignificant war) and sharply lowered taxes. He compensated for the loss revenue from taxes by introducing an annual fee to be paid by royal officials to make sure that their positions would be inheritable, the paulette.

Henry managed to restore financial and political stability in the country, but he was murdered by a fanatic in 1610, which created a crisis. He was succeeded by his son, Louis XIII, who still under age. Louis’ mother, Catherine de Medici, ruled as regent, although the real power lay with a number of feudal nobles. Things changed in 1624 when Catherine arranged to have Armand Jean du Plessis, Cardinal Richelieu appointed to the council of ministers. Richelieu soon became first minister, and used his strong influence over Louis XIII to strengthen the French monarchy. Richelieu single-handedly set in place the foundations for French absolutism.

In 1624, Richelieu managed to reshuffle the royal council and thereby eliminated his political rivals. He leveled castles (a symbol of feudal independence) and had those who opposed him executed summarily. He successfully increased the power of the French state and thereby the power of the King.

Religion was still a point of contention in France, even though the Edict of Nantes had attempted to settle religious disputes. Under the Edict, the Calvinist Huguenots were granted 150 towns where they might practice their faith. In 1627, Louis XIII decided that the Huguenots should be suppressed. He claimed that although they Huguenots demanded freedom of conscience, they did not allow Catholics to worship in their cities, which to him was political disobedience. In 1628, Louis’ forces attacked the Huguenot city of New Rochelle, and destroyed the cities walls. Protestants were allowed the right to worship publicly, but Louis reinstated the Catholic liturgy, and Cardinal Richelieu himself celebrated the first Mass. This was an important step towards the unification of France as a Catholic state.

In foreign policy, Richelieu opposed the Holy Roman Empire which surrounded France, even though it was Catholic and he was a prince of the Church. He allied with Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden in the Swedish phase of the Thirty Years War. At the end of the war, the province of Alsace was French. Many of his actions seemed to contradict his position as a prince of the church; however he justified his policies by stating that "Where the interests of the state are concerned, God absolves actions which, if privately committed, would be a sin."

In 1625, Richelieu gave official recognition to a group of philologists who later formed the French Academy. In 1694, long after Richelieu’s death, the academy published a dictionary which standardized the French language, much as Luther’s efforts in Germany had standardized haupt deutsch as the language of Germany.

Richelieu hand picked his own successor, Jules, Cardinal Mazarin an Italian known for his love of money and finery. When Louis XIII died in 1643, Queen Anne of Austria governed for the new child King Louis XIV who was four years old. She depended heavily upon Mazarin, who became the dominant power of the government. Anne and Mazarin prolonged the Thirty Years War by keeping French troops in the field, the cost of which led to a crisis. To pay the costs of the conflict, Mazarin borrowed heavily from financiers against expected revenue from new taxes and the sale of new offices. However, powerful nobles known as "nobles of the sword" (who owed their title to inheritance as opposed to the "nobility of the robe" who bought their titles) resisted, and tried to regain the influence they had lost earlier. When French forces defeated the Spanish in 1643, the French people believed peace was at hand, and that additional taxes were unnecessary. Ordinary people also joined the fray, demanding that taxes be lowered because of poor economic conditions. The result was a revolt known as the "Fronde" which lasted from 1648 to 1653.

Fronde means "slingshot" or "catapult." Street urchins who threw mud at the coaches of passing rich people were called frondeur. The term was used to describe anyone who opposed the policies of the government. Many groups, including noblemen, resented the increased power of the monarchy under Louis XIII, and Mazarin did not have Richelieu’s ability to control them.

During the Fronde, civil order broke down completely. Violence continued off and on for almost twelve years. Three significant consequences for the future resulted from the Fronde:

The Reign of Louis XIV: In September, 1651, Louis, age thirteen, declared his majority and the right to rule. His reign (1632-1715) was to become the longest in the history of Europe. He knew very little Latin and precious little arithmetic, but was fluent in Spanish and Italian and wrote elegantly. He installed his royal court at Versailles, twelve miles from Paris, and required all the nobility of France to spend some portion of the year there, or face disastrous consequences. Versailles had been begun by Louis XIII as a hunting lodge and as a retreat from a queen whom he disliked. Under his son, it was turned into an architectural masterpiece. The gigantic Great Hall of Mirrors, where the Treaty of Versailles (ending World War One) was negotiated was illuminated by candles and contained a ceiling with allegorical paintings of Louis’ victories.

Versailles was soon considered a reflection of French genius. The Russian Czar. Peter the Great (my hero) imitated it when he built his palace known as the Peterhof. Frederick the Great also constructed his palace at Potsdam after its design. He even gave it a French name: Sans Souci ("without care.") You should see it: I have. French soon became the language of polite society and the vehicle of diplomatic exchange. Nobles at the Imperial Russian Court spoke only French to each other—they were actually more fluent in French than in Russian. George I of England, German by birth, was fluent in French, but spoke no English, and refused to learn it. French also became the language of scholarship and learning, replacing Latin.

At times, over 10,000 persons were in attendance at Versailles. Those nobles who were especially favored had the rare honor of assisting Louis when he dressed in the morning. It was a special privilege to help him put on his shirt, or to deliver to him the chaise percé ("chair with a hole in it.")

Louis was a shrewd judge of character, and surrounded himself with men of talent, but avoided dependence on any single person, as had his father. At times he could be unscrupulous, spying on nobles and opening their letters to discover their plans. During a visit to an unpopular finance minister, Louis was served with solid gold flatware and saw pools filled with seawater and large saltwater fish. He had planned to get rid of the minister anyway, and for this display of grandeur ordered him arrested, and kept the mansion for himself.

Louis kept the propaganda machine going, which portrayed him as a glorious monarch. In 1662, he chose the sun as his emblem, and declared himself nec pluribus impar ("without equal.") To him, the son represented everything virtuous about an absolute monarch: firmness, benevolence, and equity. He was often depicted as Apollo, the Greek/Roman god of the sun, and was often called the "Sun King."

Financial and Economic Management Under Louis XIV: Financial management was Louis’ greatest weakness. While he was a master at extracting revenue from his subjects, his greatest talent was spending it with dizzying speed. His financial excesses and poor financial management put the monarchy into a financial tailspin, and set in motion the events which would lead to the French Revolution. Louis aptly predicted: Après moi, le deluge. ("After me, the flood.")

An old agreement between the Crown and the nobility provided that the King could tax the common people freely provided he did not tax the nobles. This was actually something of a quid pro quo; since the nobles did not pay taxes, they could not claim any legitimate say in how tax revenues were spent. The middle classes had numerous tax exemptions, so that they paid very little. As a result, Louis failed to tap substantial sources of revenue, and the weight of taxes fell most heavily on those who could least afford it, the peasants.

: Louis appointed Jean Baptiste Colbert as controller general of finances. Colbert was a financial genius who soon managed the entire royal administration. His central principal was that the wealth and economy of France should serve the state; and he therefore rigorously instituted a mercantilist system on France.

Mercantilism is that economic theory in which a nation’s international power is based on its wealth, particularly its gold supply. Since resources are limited, government intervention is needed to secure the largest part of a limited resource. In order to accumulate gold, a nation must always sell more goods abroad than it buys abroad. It was this economic practice in Great Britain which led to the Navigation Acts, Tea Act, etc. of the American colonial period.

Colbert attempted to make France self-sufficient by supporting old industries and creating new ones. He constructed roads and canals, imposed high foreign tariffs and eliminated many domestic tariffs to make purchase of domestic goods more attractive. His most important accomplishment was the creation of a powerful merchant marine to carry French goods. The French merchant navy increased from 18 unseaworthy vessels in 1661 to 276 frigates, galleys, and ships of the line in 1681. He hoped to make Canada part of the French empire and sent four thousand peasants there to populate Quebec. The city of Quebec was established in 1608, one year after the founding of Jamestown. Colbert also established the French East India Company in 1664, but it could not effectively compete with the Dutch and English East India Companies, which were more efficiently run. The government had to bail out the company, and later revoked its charter.

Colbert’s policies made France the leading industrial nation of Europe at the time. The textile industry, particularly production of woolen goods, grew at a prodigious rate. However, the French economy was largely agricultural, and it was the peasants who worked the soil (Thomas Jefferson’s chosen people) who were taxed mercilessly.

Louis also raised money by selling titles of nobility, ecclesiastical offices, as well as government and military positions. This not only raised money easily, it also enhanced loyalty, as those to whom he sold the office were legally bound to him. One minister commented rather dryly: "As soon as the crown creates an office, God creates a fool willing to buy it." In one Edict of 1696, Louis sold 500 offices and titles. Few noble families could trace their titles back more than a few generations. This led to tense differences between the nobles of the sword (who could trace back their ancestry many generations) and the nobles of the robe (who were the new comers). One noble of the sword denounced those who bought and paid for their offices and worked for the King as the "reign of the bourgeoisie."

Louis XIV and Religion: Although Louis was relatively pious, he had little interest in theology; however as he grew older, he brought into his inner circle a group of ministers who were extremely devout Catholics. He also brought into his bedroom a mistress who was also fervently religious. (Apparently her fervency did not extend past the first five commandments.) Louis reversed the policies of his predecessors, and began a campaign of persecution against French Huguenots. He closed most Protestant churches and attempted to force the Huguenots to convert to Catholicism. In 1685, he issued an Edict which revoked the Edict of Nantes, which had guaranteed religious liberty to the Calvinist Huguenots:

We now see with the proper gratitude that we owe to God…for the best and largest part of our subjects of the so-called reformed religion have embraced Catholicism, and now that, to the extent that the execution of the Edict of Nantes remains useless, we have judged that we can do nothing better to wipe out the memory of the troubles, of the confusion, of the evils that the progress of this false religion has caused our kingdom…than to revoke entirely the said Edict.

Although Louis pleased his Catholic subjects with the revocation (the Edict of Nantes had never been popular) almost 200,000 Huguenots emigrated to England, Prussia, Holland, and South Africa, despite an order from the king that forbade them from leaving the country.

Louis also persecuted a weird group known as the Jansenists, named for Cornelius Jansen, the Bishop of Ypres who died in 1638. The Jansenists came close to accepting Calvin’s doctrine of predestination, so much so that their enemies called them "Calvinists who go to Mass." Unlike the Calvinists, who believed that one was called to a particular vocation, the Jansenists believed one should withdraw completely from the world. They disapproved of anything frivolous, and were particularly offended by the gaudy displays of Versailles. They particularly disapproved of the idea of repeated penance, or of deathbed conversions. Their most determined enemies were the Jesuits, who persuaded the Pope to condemn them in 1653. Louis ran into some opposition from the Parlement of Paris, and died before he had completely eliminated the sect.

The Concept of "Balance of Power:" The idea of a "balance of power" held that great powers should be in equilibrium with each other; no one power should be allowed to become too powerful. The decline of one power could threaten the balance of. Power if as a result, the power of another state was considerably enhanced. It arose largely at the end of the era of religious warfare, and became the dominant cause of warfare: to prevent any one country from becoming too powerful or dominating too much of the continent.

Together with the idea of a balance of power was born the concept of International Law. Many nations/people were horrified at the devastation of the Thirty Years War, and scholars thus laid the groundwork for modern diplomacy. Legal principles for times of peace and war were promulgated, primarily by a German Protestant, Samuel von Pufendorf, who wrote Of the Law of Nature and Nations. Pufendorf argued that only a defensive war was justified, and arbitration should be used to settle peacetime disputes.

French expansionism was a major concern to the surrounding nations of Europe during the reign of Louis XIV, who kept France at war for thirty three years, half the time of his personal rule. He had created a modern professional army, and took personal command of it himself.

In 1667, Louis used an excuse to invade Flanders, which was part of the Spanish Netherlands. He acquired twelve towns including Lille, and Tournai. Five years later, he led an army into Holland; the Dutch saved themselves only by opening the dikes and flooding the countryside. At the end of the war, Louis gained additional Flemish towns. Encouraged by his success, he seized the city of Strasbourg and later the province of Lorraine. He seemed invincible at this point.

Louis’ successes led to an alliance against him. William of Orange the Dutch prince, became King of England in 1688, and joined the League of Augsburg, which included the Holy Roman Emperor, the Kings of Spain and Sweden and the electors of several German principalities. The ensuing conflict was the War of the League of Augsburg, fought in North America as King William’s War, one of the four French and Indian Wars. Those allied against him also had considerably stronger financial support that Louis. To raise money for the war, Louis ordered all the nation’s silverware be handed over to the mint to be melted down; but this was not nearly enough. Again, the weight of taxation fell on the peasants.

The burden of taxation and a series of bad harvest resulting in famine led to widespread peasant revolts. Statistics indicate that as much as one tenth the population died. The problem was exacerbated by a decline in the French economy, and Louis was forced to sue for peace at any price. The peace only lasted for five years.

The War of the Spanish Succession: It was an open secret in Europe that the King of Spain, Charles II was mentally incompetent and sexually impotent. In 1698, the European powers, including France, agreed to a treaty in which they agreed to divide Spain’s possessions between France and the Holy Roman Emperor, who was Charles II’s brothers-in-law. But when Charles died in 1700, his will left the Spanish throne and all of Spain’s worldwide empire to Philip of Anjou, Louis’ grandson, then aged seventeen. Louis saw the opportunity to join Spain and France under a single ruler, and thus reneged on the treaty of 1698, and accepted the terms of the will. Louis claimed that he was following both Spanish and French national interests in doing so. He once introduced his grandson to the Spanish ambassador and said, "You may salute him as your king."

Obviously the juncture of the French and Spanish thrones under a single ruler would upset the balance of power, and the other European powers had no intention of allowing this to happen. In 1701, the English, Dutch, Austrians and Prussians formed the Grand Alliance against Louis. They claimed that they were fighting to prevent France from becoming too strong in Europe. A secondary motive was the expansion of French territory in North America, which they hoped to stop.

In the war which followed two important soldiers dominated the alliance against France: Eugene, Prince of Savoy represented the Holy Roman Empire, and John Churchill, later the Duke of Marlborough, represented England. Louis suffered several defeats at the hand of each. The war was also fought in North America where it was known as Queen Anne’s War. The war concluded with the Treaty of Utrecht (1713) Under the terms of peace, Louis’ grandson became the first Bourbon king of Spain, but there was an understanding that the French and Spanish crowns would never be united. France surrendered Newfoundland, Nova Scotia, and the Hudson Bay territory to England, which also acquired Gibraltar, Minorca, and control of the African slave trade from the Spanish. The Peace of Utrecht represented the balance of power principal in operation.

Louis XIV kept France at war for thirty three of his fifty-four years of personal reign. He is reputed to have said on his deathbed, "I have gone to war too lightly, and pursued it for vanity's sake." There is some thought that he made this statement as part of his last confession knowing that his end was near. Under any circumstances, there can be no question but that he acted in accordance with his earlier observation that "the character of a conqueror is regarded as the noblest and highest of titles."

The Peace of Utrecht marked the end of French expansionism and Louis quest for military glory. The legacy of his efforts was widespread misery in France. To raise revenue to fight his wars (since European Bankers charged France such high rates of interest) Louis sold 40,000 additional offices, which increased the number of families exempt from future taxation. By 1715, France was on the brink of bankruptcy. Louis died on September 1, 1715, at which time one of his critics wrote:

Those….wearied by the heavy and oppressive rule of the King and his ministers, felt a delighted freedom…Paris…found relief in the hope of liberation---The provinces…quivered with de light…[and] the people, ruined, abused, despairing, now thanked God for a deliverance which answered their most ardent desires.

French Classicism under Louis XIV: The artists and writers of late seventeenth century France deliberately imitated the subject matter and style of classical antiquity. Their work resembled that of Renaissance Italy and contained the classical qualities of discipline, balance, and restraint. Although Louis made it the official style of his court, Classicism had peaked before 1661, the year in which he began his personal reign.

Nicholas Poussin (1594 - 1665) is generally considered the best example of French classicist painting. Most of his work was done before 1661. He spent most of his creative life in Rome because he did not care for the atmosphere of Paris. His masterpiece, The Rape of the Sabine Women, exhibits the qualities of noble action in a logical and orderly but not realistic fashion. 

After Louis' ascension to the throne, absolutism influenced French classicism. Works of art were required to glorify the state as personified by the king, rather than expressions of individualism. Precise rules governed all aspects of culture; the goal being "formal and restrained perfection." Louis' contemporaries said that he never ceased playing the part of the grand monarch on the stage of his court. He never fully relaxed from the part he considered himself playing, but did enjoy music and the theatre, and occasionally used them as backdrops for his court.

Louis favored the music and orchestral works of Jean-Baptiste Lully (1632-1687) who composed court ballets and several operas. Another favorite was Mac-Antoine Charpentier (1634-1704) who wrote several Te Deums ("praise to thee, O God") as thanksgiving to celebrate French military victories. Louis loved the stage, particularly the plays of Moliere and Racine.

Moliere was born Jean-Baptiste Poquelin, the son of a prosperous tapestry maker. He refused to join his father's business and took the stage name Moliere. His work often exposed the hypocrisies and follies of society through caricature. Among his works were the Bourgeois Gentilhomme, and Les Femmes Savantes ("The Learned Women.") While he made fun of social mores, his contemporary, Jean Racine, analyzed the power of love. He based his dramas on Greek and Roman legends, with a persistent theme of the conflict of good and evil. Among his works are Andromaue, Berence, and Britannicus. The latter was one of Louis' favorites because of the grandeur of its themes.