Back To CourseSupplemental History: Study Aid
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Patricia has a master's degree in Holocaust and genocide studies and 27 graduate credits in American history. She will start coursework on her doctoral degree in history this fall. She has taught heritage of the western world I and II and U.S. history I and II at a community college in southern New Jersey for the past two years.
Absolute monarchy, or absolutism, meant that the ultimate authority to run a state was in the hands of a king who ruled by divine right. Divine right was the claim that a king was given his position by some higher power. The authority of the monarch could include any or all of the following areas: administration, taxes, justice and foreign policy.
One of the most prominent advocates of divine-right monarchy during the 17th century was Bishop Jacques-Benigne Bossuet. According to Bossuet, all governments were ordained by God to allow humanity to live in an organized society. Because kings and queens were given their authority by god, their power was unconditional. Unlike a limited monarchy, the absolute monarch would not share his power with another governing body, such as parliament.
The reign of the French King Louis XIV (reigned 1643-1715) has long been considered the best example of absolutism. In fact, during the 17th century, many other European monarchies imitated the French system. For instance, King Louis XIII was only a child when he ascended to the throne. Because of this, his chief minister, Cardinal Richelieu played a crucial role in policy-making and administration. At the time, the nobility had extreme influence and power in affairs of the state. Recognizing the danger to the king's authority, Richelieu executed many nobles found to be plotting against the king. This greatly strengthened the authority of the monarch.
Louis XIV became king at the age of 23. In keeping with the practice of divine right, Louis XIV referred to himself as the Sun King, an allusion to him as the source of light for his subjects. He immediately made it clear that he intended to make all major decisions on his own, telling his ministers of state, 'I order you not to sign anything, not even a passport.'
Although Louis wanted to retain sole power, the reality was that the nobility still had immense wealth and influence over political affairs. Louis restructured the French government and gave himself decision-making power over all matters of the state. He required the attendance of the nobility at his court so he could keep a close eye on them. His ministers and secretaries could only offer the king advice but had no power to make policy decisions on their own. Louis retained the right to make foreign policy, declare war, oversee religious affairs, and levy taxes. Since Louis was Catholic, he closed down all Protestant schools and banned them from political meetings.
In Russia, Peter the Great ruled from 1689-1725. His reign was also considered an example of absolutism because he both strengthened the central government and reduced the power of the nobility.
He reorganized the government and created a Senate to administer the state. He divided Russia into different provinces to make administration more effective. He forced all landholders to serve in the military or another civil service position. In order to control the Russian Orthodox Church, Peter appointed his own procurator, who made all religious decisions based on his requests.
He also forcefully introduced Western customs to Russian society. For instance, after he witnessed the gender integration of the courts of Europe, he ordered wealthy Russian women to remove traditional veils and mix with the men at social gatherings and court events. He had books of Western etiquette made to introduce these customs to the general population. Peter wanted to create a formidable Russian military by reorganizing the army according to Western practices.
Several notable kings made attempts at creating absolute monarchies but failed. Despite several efforts to consolidate the power of the king, the English system never fully transformed into an absolute monarchy, but remained a constitutional monarchy.
One of these, King Henry VIII (reigned 1509-1547), manipulated the English legal system to separate from the Roman Catholic Church. When he failed to gain permission from the pope to divorce his first wife, he had parliament enact the Act of Supremacy, which declared Henry the head of the Church of England. While Henry gained immense power for himself through this act, he still needed the help of parliament.
Charles I (reigned 1625-1649) also attempted to consolidate the power of the government into his own hands. Throughout his reign, he struggled with parliament. He truly believed he had a divine right to rule and that his power was being unjustly curbed. However, he also failed to eliminate England's constitutional monarchy. Charles' rule ended badly with a trial for treason, which led to his execution.
Absolute monarchy was the principle that the supreme authority to run state affairs rested in the hands of the monarch who ruled by divine right. The reality of this type of government was that the king was still influenced by various political and religious groups.
King Louis XIV of France was considered the best example of absolute monarchy. Immediately after he was declared king, he started consolidating his own power and restricting the power of the state officials. Among his many accomplishments, he retained the power to administer the government, levy taxes, direct religious affairs and declare war. Louis also removed the influence of the nobility from the royal court, thus strengthening his own power.
Peter the Great of Russia took the examples of Western absolute monarchy and used them in his own rule. He strengthened the power of the monarch, changed the structure of the military and assumed control over the Orthodox Church.
While several English monarchs attempted to gain absolute power, they failed to replace England's constitutional monarchy. The popularity of absolutism declined after the French Revolution, which promoted a government based on popular rule instead.
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Back To CourseSupplemental History: Study Aid
1 chapters | 20 lessons