The Development of Monarchical Nation States: the Rise of Power

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  • 0:01 The Way It Was
  • 0:43 Shattered Dreams of Unity
  • 2:17 A New Type of State
  • 3:31 Rising Nation-States
  • 6:01 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 the rise of powerful kings in Western Europe. We will look at the transition from feudalism to the nation-state and examine four countries in which this transition took place.

The Way It Was

Prior to the 16th century, feudalism dominated the European landscape. Noble lords ruled over the serfs or tenants who worked the lands of their large estates. Their lords, in turn, paid tribute and swore oaths of loyalty to the monarchs who granted them their manors or fiefs. Very few people would have identified themselves as citizens of a nation. Their loyalties were far more individualized. They might be subjects of a king or dependents of a noble lord, or they might be residents of a city-state or village. In any case, their focus tended to remain fixed on their local community and the individuals who governed it.

Shattered Dreams of Unity

There were some people, however, who dreamed of unity in Europe. These ambitious men wanted to somehow gather up all the fiefs, all the lords, all the serfs, and all the little towns into one big dynasty. For centuries, the Roman Catholic Church was the focal point of this dream, in which the Church and secular rulers would work together to peacefully preserve, teach, and spread the Christian faith.

The Holy Roman Empire nearly made the dream a reality. Founded in 800 A.D., it consolidated over 300 European states and territories under a dynasty of emperors who worked in conjunction with the Catholic pope. By the middle of the 16th century, however, the Protestant Reformation shattered these dreams of unity, for there was no longer one Christian church or one set of Christian beliefs. Conflict broke out across Europe as Catholics and Protestants battled each other, and Protestants fought other Protestants.

These clashes reach their climax in the Thirty Years' War from 1618 to 1648. The war severely weakened the Holy Roman Empire, sharply decreasing both its population and the dominance of the emperor. In fact, the Treaty of Westphalia, which ended the war, handed power over to individual states, whose rulers would reign nearly independently. The empire remained but was reduced to a shell of its former self, and the door stood open for the further development of a new type of state.

A New Type of State

A nation-state is a political organization that is made up of a group of people with a firm national identity who live within a particular territory and maintain a national government. It is independent of other powers, and its people are generally loyal to their nation and their rulers. In Western Europe, developing nation-states were ruled by monarchs, whose power increased as feudalism weakened and the Thirty Years' War changed the political landscape.

As the years passed, cities and towns continued to grow, commercial activities and trade expanded, and a group of middle-class merchants emerged. These merchants were not loyal to any noble lords, and their views extended beyond their cities and villages, so they turned to the monarch for protection and guidance.

Monarchs, for their part, centralized their governments, established national bureaucracies, made laws that applied on a national level, consolidated military power, and regularized taxes and the economy. They usurped the powers once held by noble lords, and soon many people began to identify themselves as loyal citizens of a particular nation instead of residents of a manor or village.

Rising Nation-States

To better grasp the rise of the nation-state, let's look at some specific examples:

In England, King Henry VII began building a nation-state after he won a civil war in 1485. He consolidated power in his own hands and worked to earn the loyalty of his subjects. His son and successor, Henry VIII, took control over England's religious life, making himself the head of the English church. Queen Elizabeth I, who reigned from 1533 to 1603, united the country in war, trade, and colonization. By this time, England was truly a united nation, and most of its people identified themselves as English men and women.

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