The History of France: The Road to French Absolutism

From a lecture series Taught by Professor Andrew C. Fix, Ph.D.

Absolutism was a system of government in which all sovereignty resided with the king, true to Louis XIV’s dictum: “I am the state.” Particularly in France and Germany, the wars of religion had seriously weakened national governments and monarchies. Nobles had regained a great deal of power, peasants were in revolt, and there was really a great need for a political rebuilding of monarchies.

Image of King Louis and his family for article on French Absolutism
King Louis and his family portrayed as Roman gods in a 1670 painting by Jean Nocret

Monarchies in the 17th century attempt to rebuild based on a separation of religion from politics, the ideal of reason of state, the Politique ideal put forward by the French monarchy during the wars of religion in France. That becomes a major starting point for the rebuilding of monarchies across Europe in the 17th century. They rebuild based on political considerations and the needs of state power as their primary goals. One of the results of this rebuilding will be the birth and growth of royal absolutism.

Learn more: French Absolutism—1589–1715

Defining Absolutism

First of all, how do you define absolutism? The easiest way to define it is just to say that it is a system in which all sovereignty resides in the king. The king does not share power and has no real partners in rule. That’s very different from medieval monarchy and even somewhat different from the New Monarchy that preceded it. It is really a new form of government.

In absolutism, the king’s power is virtually unrestrained. It is unrestrained by laws—the king is considered to be above the law. It is unrestrained by nobles, who are subjugated in many cases, and it is unrestrained by parliaments or by national assemblies. The king rules by divine right, which, of course, is itself nothing new; even medieval kings claimed divine right. Now, the king claims to embody the state.

There’s an idea that the king himself is all the authority in the state. There are no independent centers of power outside the king. This growth in power, especially the growth in the power and size of the state, causes a lot of people to become alienated and does actually cause quite a lot of opposition. It’s not an easy road to get to absolutism, but it does succeed in a number of countries.

Five Steps for Building an Absolute Monarchy

To build an absolute monarchy, there are essentially five major steps that a king will want to undertake successfully. Step number one: It is necessary to subjugate the nobility or to get the nobility into an inferior position with regard to the king. Not always easy to do but very important to do, because in absolutism, nobles do not share power with the king at all.

Step number two: It is necessary to build a huge, all-pervasive bureaucracy. That really is the beginning of the bureaucratic state. As part of this building of bureaucracy, kings staff this bureaucracy with middle-class officials—not with nobles. They don’t want to give nobles that kind of stature, and they feel that they can depend more on middle-class officials who are loyal and more willing to carry out the king’s wishes.

Step three: The king needs to collect more in tax money, and the need for taxes is almost unending. It’s always going to increase.

Step four: The king needs to establish a large army. But it has to be an army unlike previous armies. In the past, European kings would muster their army together when there was a war to fight. They would fight the war, and when the war was over the army would be disbanded. This new army is a standing army, on duty, year-round. It’s always ready to pursue the king’s wishes. This army is going to be used for numerous things. Of course, it will be used for defense against foreign foes, but it will also be used as a kind of internal police force to make sure that nobles are subjected and to make sure peasants pay taxes.

Finally, step five is one that may or may not be accomplished. You actually can establish absolutism without doing this. But, if possible, the king should establish religious uniformity, meaning one religion for the whole country, so everyone is unified religiously, and the king, of course, is in a position to control that religion.

Absolute monarchs in the 17th century begin to build the structure of a powerful, military, bureaucratic, modern state. It succeeds in France. It succeeds in a number of the German states, specifically Prussia and Austria. It doesn’t succeed everywhere. Absolutism fails to develop in Spain and it is defeated in England. So we won’t see absolutism developing everywhere.

Learn more: Introduction and the Old Regime Monarchy

Absolutism under King Henry IV

Image of the Coronation of Henry IV of England. From a 15th-century manuscript of Jean Froissart's Chronicles.
The Coronation of Henry IV of England. From a 15th-century manuscript of Jean Froissart’s Chronicles.

Starting in France, we begin with King Henry IV, the victor in the religious wars. After he won the “War of the Three Henries,” he converted to Catholicism, because he knew that a Catholic monarch would be needed to rule the largely Catholic country. His first really big action toward establishing royal power was in issuing the Edict of Nantes, in 1598. That edict gave religious toleration to the Huguenots—the Calvinists in France—and the hope was to end religious disputes, to bring religious peace to the country, and to end the quarreling over religion.

Henry no doubt hoped that the Edict of Nantes would essentially remove religion from the governmental sphere. That hope is not completely borne out right away, but he makes an effort with the Edict of Nantes to get religious disputes out of the realm of government as much as that can possibly happen.

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What else does Henry do to build up the power of the monarchy? One of the first things he has to do is a little bit of a mop-up operation in the wake of the religious wars. There are still, out in the countryside, a few factions of rebellious nobles, loyal to the Holy League: the alliance between the Guise and Philip II of Spain. Henry has to take to the battlefield and defeat these noble factions one by one, and in doing so, reduce the opposition to his monarchy.

After that, Henry takes steps to reduce the influence of nobles in his government. In particular, he takes steps to replace the influence of nobles in his royal council, which is the group of the king’s closest advisers, maybe similar to our presidential Cabinet, but even closer than that to the king. Henry is trying to replace nobles in the royal council with middle-class advisers, middle-class ministers, middle-class bureaucrats. And in doing so—he can’t completely do this; some nobles are still on the royal council—he creates a new administrative class, based in the middle class, that will be the governmental class.

Learn more: Henry IV—All the King’s Men

Sully: The Brilliant Finance Minister

Another big step Henry takes is hiring the duke of Sully as his finance minister. Sully is a kind of financial genius. That’s what every absolute monarch needs, because every absolute monarch needs lots of money. Sully comes in. He starts to get royal finances in good order. He increases taxes, and he does a number of things to raise money.

Portrait of Maximilien de Béthune, duc de Sully.
Maximilien de Béthune, duc de Sully.

One of the things that he does to raise money that is most important is he uses the sale of government office. Many government offices, royal offices, are up for sale to the highest bidder. This has a couple of obvious benefits. Number one, it raises revenue and becomes a main source of royal revenue, and it creates and staffs a bureaucracy. But it has problems.

One of the problems is inflation of office. The more you sell, the less each one is worth. Another disadvantage to the sale of office is that the offices become the personal property of the person who buys them. And that person can then do with the office whatever he wants.

The sale of office has been around since Philip Augustus in the 13th century and it has been a problem ever since. There has never been a very good solution to the difficulties involved. Henry and Sully do attempt to do something about this.

Sully establishes a new tax, which he called the “Paulette” Tax. He says to officeholders, “If you do your job, and do what the king wants you to do, I will allow you to pay the king this tax. And if you pay the king this Paulette Tax, you can then hand your office down in your family, to your sons, grandsons, etc. If you don’t do what the king wants you to do in this job, we won’t let you pay the tax, and when you die, your office comes back to us.” That was actually a pretty good incentive to get officeholders to do at least part of the job they were supposed to be doing. Every office holder wants to hand this office down to his heirs, because, after all, he considers it like any other personal property. That establishes some control on the part of the king of these venal officeholders.

Sully is also very well known also for the economic theory that he adhered to, an economic theory known as “mercantilism.” Mercantilism was the predominant economic theory in early modern Europe, and at least until the end of the 18th century most governments adhere to mercantilism as a way to finance the country.

Mercantilism holds that there is a limited amount of wealth in the world. Therefore, each country, each government, has to get as big a share of this wealth as it possibly can, and obviously, it wants to get a bigger share of the wealth than rival nations. How do you do that? You export more goods than you import, and when that happens, you establish a flow of bullion into the country.

Essentially, this favorable trade balance will bring money into the country. The money will largely go to businesses and industries, increasing the size of the tax base. Then the king can get at that money through taxation, and the money ultimately ends up in the royal government.

Louis XIII’s Capable First Minister

Image of King Louis XIII as a boy.
King Louis XIII ascended the throne in 1610

In 1610, Henry IV was assassinated. He is followed on the throne by a 19-year-old boy who becomes King Louis XIII. King Louis XIII does not have very much interest in governing the country. He’s not just disengaged; he really isn’t very interested and not really very talented at governing. Luckily, he has an extremely capable first minister by the name of Cardinal Richelieu, and Cardinal Richelieu takes a number of giant steps on the way to absolutism. This is quite interesting, because Richelieu wasn’t the king. He was a minister of the king, but he becomes one of the greatest builders of absolutism. He serves his royal master in ways that are very valuable, and he serves his nation in ways that he believes are very valuable and in doing so, he is building up the absolute monarchy.

He does a number of things to accomplish this. He increases the size of the bureaucracy, as almost every succeeding king is going to do. But he also increases the king’s control over this bureaucracy so that the bureaucracy will be more responsive to the king’s wishes. That’s often difficult to do. Furthermore, Richelieu increases the sale of office, bringing in additional revenues. And he figures out a kind of unique way to deal with nobles.

There are a lot of nobles around who are very disgruntled by the fact that they don’t seem to have very important roles in the government anymore. Richelieu realizes that these people are still too powerful to ignore. And they are still powerful enough that he really didn’t want to put them in a sensitive position in the government if he didn’t have to. What Richelieu decides to do is to give these disgruntled nobles government jobs, but government jobs where they will be essentially harmless, where they won’t be able to create real problems for the king. In the end, the nobles were more and more subjugated and more and more made inferior, and they were gotten out of the king’s way.

Learn more: Privilege—Old Regime Society

Richelieu Solves the Huguenot Problem

Richelieu had another big problem, and that problem was the Huguenots. According to the Edict of Nantes, the Huguenots could arm themselves and fortify their towns. This had led to a situation where the Huguenots had become one of the last real significant obstacles to absolute royal power. He couldn’t have a state within a state in absolutism, and he certainly couldn’t have somebody out there with an independent army that was not the royal army. What Richelieu realizes he has to do is get the French army together, go onto the battlefield, defeat the Huguenots in battle, and take away these privileges.

He spends a good many years battling the Huguenots until, finally, in 1628, he captures their port city of La Rochelle, which is the last major Huguenot bastion, and the Huguenot problem is solved, at least in one sense. It is solved in the sense that they will no longer be allowed to bear arms or fortify their cities. They will just be subjects like any other subjects in the kingdom. The only privilege that the Huguenots do retain—that Richelieu allows them to retain—is that he still guarantees them religious toleration. They can still worship freely, and they still should not be persecuted for their religion. They maintained that, but you have to consider the fact that now they have no ability to defend themselves against persecution. The situation has been dramatically altered with the victory over the Huguenots, but it’s considered to be one of Richelieu’s greatest achievements and it did remove one of the biggest remaining obstacles to the drive toward absolutism.

A New Kind of Royal Official

Cardinal of Richelieu
Cardinal of Richelieu

Richelieu also was very important in the financial area. He did a lot in terms of increasing finances, increasing tax collection, and making the government wealthier.

Richelieu does do something, though, that is very important in dealing with the venal tax collectors. Venal tax collectors who bought their office had the very bad habit of not passing on to the king all of the tax money that he was due from their tax collecting. And, of course, that really cuts into royal revenues. The venal tax collector would simply keep the tax money for himself as a profit of his office, and there’s not a lot the king can really do about that.

What Richelieu does, though, is he institutes a new kind of royal official, called the intendant. This new royal official is not going to be venal. It is not going to be an office that is sold. Intendants will be appointed by the king; they will be paid salaries by the king; they will do what the king says. If they don’t do what the king says, they will be fired. As a result, the intendant is loyal and responsive to the king’s wishes and a lot more efficient in conducting royal government than any venal official—except maybe the most perfect one—could ever be. The intendant was a very, very big step toward exercising more royal control over the country.

Tax Farmers and the Royal Army

These intendants acted as the chief royal agents in most local areas and districts, and they had a number of important jobs. I will start out with tax collecting because tax collecting, of course, is central to absolutism. The intendants increased the collection of taxes tremendously, but they did so without actually collecting taxes themselves. They hired rich bankers, known as “tax farmers,” who would advance to the king the full sum of taxes owed to him up front. And then the intendant would guarantee the tax farmer the right to go out and collect taxes in a local area, so that the tax farmer could pay himself back for all of the money he had advanced to the king and also make a profit on this business.

The way the intendant guaranteed the collection of taxes was by using the royal army. He would simply tell the tax farmer, “The army is behind you, and you can collect the full sum of taxes you’re due and make your profit and pay yourself back, because you gave the money to the king like you were supposed to do before. And we are going to make sure you are paid back for that.” Tax collecting becomes really a lot more efficient.

But the intendant has other jobs, as well. He recruits troops for the army in the local area. He enforces royal decrees, kind of like a sheriff would, or an executive of some kind. And he deals with local nobles, trying to make sure that they are subjugated, or at least kept at arm’s length, and kept out of the king’s hair is much as possible.

Passing Absolutism to the Next Generation

Because of their efficient exercise of state authority, intendants were hated by peasants and nobles alike, both of whom revolted periodically from the 1620s through the 1670s in hopes of stopping the expansion of royal power. Despite the unrest, Richelieu had done his very efficiently, and was one of the major builders of absolutism in France.

Learn more: Louis XIV and Versailles

Cardinal Richelieu died in 1642, followed one year later by Louis XIII one year later. This left five-year-old Louis XIV on the throne and Cardinal Mazarin as Richelieu’s hand-picked successor as first minister. French absolutism was about to reach its climax.

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From the Lecture Series: The Renaissance, the Reformation, and the Rise of Nations
Taught by Professor Andrew C. Fix, Ph.D.

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