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Absolute Monarchy: Definition, Characteristics & Examples

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  • 0:01 Absolute Monarchy
  • 1:06 France
  • 3:22 Russia
  • 4:48 England
  • 6:14 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor
Patricia Chappine

Patricia has a Ph.D. in Progress, History and Culture as well as a master's degree in Holocaust and genocide studies. She has taught heritage of the western world and U.S. history.

Expert Contributor
Jeffrey Perry

Jeffrey Perry earned his Ph.D. in History from Purdue University and has taught History courses at private and state institutions of higher education since 2012.

During the 17th century, Europe experienced economics crises, religious wars, and civil unrest. Absolute monarchy was but one response to the search for a more ordered society. In this lesson, learn the definition, characteristics and prime historic examples of absolutism.

Absolute Monarchy

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.

France

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.

Russia

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.

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Writing Prompt for Absolute Monarchy:

Writing Prompt No. 1:

Compare and contrast how each monarch discussed in this lesson (Peter the Great, Louis XIV, and Henry VIII) used their authority to shape both church and state (or religious and political authority).

Writing Prompt No. 2:

You are a historian of royal absolutism. Write a brief history of the rise of the concept of absolute monarchy in Europe and Russia from the time of Louis XIV through Peter the Great. You are writing your history for people with no understanding of royal power, so be sure to provide explanations of key concepts such as "divine right." Conclude your history with your thoughts on why monarchs may have claimed royal absolutism, and what affects it may have had on Parliament and rights of the people.

Additional Questions to Consider:

  • According to those who believed in absolute monarchy, a king's power extended to what areas of government?
  • In a limited monarchy, the king would share power with what branch of government?
  • What actions did Cardinal Richelieu take to strengthen the power of Louis XIV?
  • Why did Louis XIV refer to himself as the "Sun King?"
  • What did the Act of Supremacy declare?
  • How could a King's quest to secure royal absolutism be dangerous to the monarchy?

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