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Royal Absolutism in France: Monarchical Power & Louis XIV

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  • 0:02 What Is an Absolute Monarchy?
  • 1:08 Absolutism in France
  • 3:00 Epitome of Absolutism
  • 6:28 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Amy Troolin

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.

In this lesson, we will study France's absolute monarchy. We will learn its characteristics, examine its rise, and meet Louis XIV, the 'Sun King,' who brought royal absolutism to its height.

What is an Absolute Monarchy?

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.

Building Absolutism in France

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:

  • Centralized the government and created an efficient bureaucracy loyal to the king.
  • Diminished the power of the nobility and established the supremacy of the king's law.
  • Made France a world power by fighting and winning against the royal Habsburg family, which controlled the Holy Roman Empire and other parts of Europe.
  • Opposed the French Protestants and removed many of the rights that had been given to them by King Henry IV.

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.

The Epitome of Absolutism

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.

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