Back To CourseAP European History: Exam Prep
27 chapters | 244 lessons
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Amy has MA degrees in History, English, and Theology. She has taught college English and religious education classes and currently works as a freelance writer.
We'll begin by comparing two kings. The first king is limited in his powers. He rules in cooperation with a legislative body and must obey a written constitution. His subjects respect him and his royal authority, but they know that he is not completely in control. He shares his power with others and does not always have the final say in how the government is run. This king reigns in a constitutional monarchy.
The second king claims unlimited, ultimate authority in his nation. He believes that he rules by God's will or divine right. If a legislative body exists, it is subject to the king, who does not have to cooperate with it or abide by any written constitution. This king demands and receives the power to make laws, tax his subjects, control the government, regulate relations with foreign nations, command the army, and administer justice. He may consult with the country's nobility about certain matters, but he does not have to follow their advice or share his power with them. This king reigns in an absolute monarchy.
By the end of the 16th century, France was well on its way to an absolute monarchy. Visions of a united Europe had faded in the religious conflicts following the Protestant Reformation, and the French were tired of violence. King Henry IV stepped up to try to soothe and repair his broken, exhausted country, and he figured that if he could increase his own power in the process, that would not be a bad thing. In 1598, for example, he issued the Edict of Nantes, which allowed tolerance to French Protestants and earned him a few more allies.
When Henry was assassinated in 1610, the throne fell to nine-year-old Louis XIII. Because the new king was too young to govern, his key minister, Cardinal Richelieu, had almost full reign to shape France as he saw fit. He immediately began building an absolute monarchy, picking up where Henry left off and adding innovations of his own. Over the next few years, Richelieu:
By the time Richelieu died in 1642, France was just about an absolute monarchy. When Louis XIII died the following year, his five-year-old son, Louis XIV, assumed the throne. The king's new minister, Cardinal Mazarin, continued to follow in Richelieu's strategy, and by the time Louis was ready to rule in his own right in 1661, he was truly an absolute monarch.
Louis XIV was determined to reign supreme. He made that very clear when he began his active reign, calling himself the 'Sun King,' who shined his light on France and insisting that he himself was the state personified. This was the manifesto of an absolute monarch, and over the next few years Louis worked hard to strengthen his position even further. In his reign, France reached the epitome of absolutism.
First, Louis put the French nobility firmly in its place. Relegating the nobles to ceremonial functions, he refused to consult with them about matters of the state, but he did keep them busy serving him at his grand palace in Versailles. The nobles learned to jump at Louis' every whim, and they followed elaborate rituals as they waited on Louis from the time he woke up until the time he went to bed. Versailles itself reinforced Louis' image of absolute power with its grand luxury, expensive buildings and furnishings, and ornate gardens.
Even though the nobility may not have been completely happy in their new role, Louis had them firmly under his thumb. He worked to control the common people, too. To those who served him as administrators or lawyers, he gave the title 'Nobles of the Robe' and offered an opportunity for social mobility, also securing their loyalty. On any commoner who dared to rebel, the king's wrath fell swiftly and harshly.
Louis was also firm in his authority over religion. France would have one faith, namely, Catholicism. With the Edict of Fontainebleau in October of 1685, Louis revoked all tolerance of Protestants. He also tried to push his way into the affairs of the church, attempting to limit the authority of the pope and claim his own rights to appoint clergy and control church revenues.
In terms of the government and the economy, Louis followed in Richelieu's path. He allowed the bureaucracy to manage day-to-day affairs as long as they remained completely loyal to him. The king's financial minister, Jean Baptiste Colbert, developed an economic plan designed to bring in the money Louis needed to support his lifestyle. Colbert boosted French industry and trade and developed the country's transportation system, but he also instituted a system of high taxes that fell directly on the common people because the nobles refused to pay. The seeds of discontent were already being sewn.
Louis had to have money because he liked to go to war, hoping to increase his power in France by increasing France's power in the world. From 1667 to 1713, France took part in four European wars. Louis developed a massive and costly army, but in the end, his efforts were mostly useless, for England came out on top.
Louis enjoyed being an absolute monarch, but in the long run many of his choices hindered France's development. By the time the king died in 1715, France was impoverished, plagued by starvation and misery, and surrounded by enemies. Even Louis realized that he had made some mistakes, for he advised his successor, 'Try to remain at peace with your neighbors. I loved war too much. Do not follow me in that or in overspending. Take advice in everything; try to find the best course and follow it. Lighten your people's burden as soon as possible, and do what I have had the misfortune not to do myself.'
In an absolute monarchy, the king reigns supreme, claiming unlimited, ultimate authority in his nation. By the end of the 16th century, France was well on its way to an absolute monarchy. Henry IV built power and gained allies with moves like the 1598 Edict of Nantes, which allowed tolerance to French Protestants. After his death, Cardinal Richelieu, governing in place of the underage king, continued to build absolutism, centralizing the government, diminishing the power of the nobility, making France a world power, and opposing the Protestants.
Cardinal Mazarin, who assisted the young Louis XIV, followed the same path, and after he began to reign on his own, Louis was determined to reign supreme. He worked hard to control both nobles and commoners; to make France a completely Catholic country, especially with his 1685 Edict of Fontainebleau; to keep the government and the economy on the right track; and to establish France as a world power through war. In the end, however, absolutism weakened France, and before another century had gone by, forces would rise up that would eliminate the country's absolute monarchy forever.
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Back To CourseAP European History: Exam Prep
27 chapters | 244 lessons