Authority and Its Challengers

In 1800 many Europeans still held ideas about social and political organization, which would have been comprehensible and appropriate four hundred years earlier. The ‘Middle Ages’ no more came to a sudden end in this respect than in many others. Ideas about society and government which may reasonably be described as ‘medieval’ survived as effective forces over a wide area and during the centuries more and more social facts had been fitted into them. Broadly speaking, what has been called a ‘corporate’ organization of society - the grouping of men in bodies with legal privileges which protected their members and defined their status - was still the rule in eighteenth-century continental Europe. Over much of its central and eastern zones, as we have noted, serfdom had grown more rigid and more widespread. Many continuities in political institutions were obvious. The Holy Roman Empire still existed in 1800 as it had done in 1500; so did the temporal power of the pope. A descendant of the Capetians was still king of France (though he no longer came from the same branch of the family as in 1500 and, indeed, was in exile). Even in England, and as late as 1820, a king’s champion rode in full armour into Westminster Hall at the coronation banquet of King George IV, to uphold that monarch’s title against all comers. In most countries it was still taken for granted that the State was a confessional entity, that religion and society were intertwined and that the authority of the Church was established by law. Although such ideas had been much challenged and in some countries had undergone grievous reverses, in this as in many matters the weight of history was still enormous in 1800 and only ten years earlier it had been even heavier.

When all this is acknowledged, it was nevertheless the general European tendency of the three centuries between 1500 and 1800 to dissolve or at least weaken old social and political bonds characteristic of medieval government. Power and authority had instead tended to flow towards the central concentration provided by the state, and away from ‘feudal’ arrangements of personal dependence. (The very invention of the ‘feudal’ idea as a technical term of law was in fact the work of the seventeenth century and it suggests the age’s need to pin down something whose reality was ebbing away.) The idea of Christendom, too, though still important in emotional, even subconscious ways, effectively lost any political reality in this period. Papal authority had begun to suffer at the hands of national sentiment in the age of the Schism and that of the Holy Roman emperors had been of small account since the fourteenth century. Nor did any new unifying principle emerge to integrate Europe. The test case was the Ottoman threat. Christian princes exposed to the Muslim onslaught might appeal to their fellow Christians for help, popes might still use the rhetoric of crusade, but the reality, as the Turks well knew, was that Christian states would follow their own interest and ally with the infidel, if necessary. This was the era of Realpolitik, of the conscious subordination of principle and honour to intelligent calculation of the interests of the state. It is curious that in an age in which Europeans more and more agreed that greater distinctions of culture separated them (to their credit, they were sure) from other civilizations they paid little attention to institutions (and did nothing to create new ones) which acknowledged their essential unity. Only the occasional visionary advocated the building of something which transcended the state. Perhaps, though, it is just in a new awareness of cultural superiority that the explanation lies. Europe was entering an age of triumphant expansion and did not need shared institutions to tell her so. Instead, the authority of states, and therefore the power of their governments, waxed in these centuries. It is important not to be misled by forms. For all the arguments about who should exercise it, and a mass of political writing which suggested all sorts of limits on it, the general trend was towards acceptance of the idea of legislative sovereignty - that is, Europeans came to feel that, provided the authority of the state was in the right hands, there should be no restriction upon its power to make laws.

Even given the proviso, this was an enormous break with the thinking of the past. To a medieval European the idea that there might not be rights and rules above human interference, legal immunities and chartered freedoms inaccessible to change by subsequent law-makers, fundamental laws which would always be respected, or laws of God which could never be contravened by those of men, would have been social and juridical, as well as theological, blasphemy. English lawyers of the seventeenth century floundered about in disagreement over what the fundamental laws of the land might be, but all thought some must exist. A century later the leading legal minds of France were doing just the same. Nevertheless, in the end there emerged in both countries (as, to a greater or lesser degree, in most others) the acceptance of the idea that a sovereign, legally unrestrained law-making power was the characteristic mark of the state. Yet this took a long time. For most of the history of early modern Europe the emergence of the modern sovereign state was obscured by the fact that the most widely prevalent form of government was monarchy. Struggles about the powers of rulers make up much of European history in these centuries and sometimes it is hard to see exactly what is at stake. The claims of princely rulers, after all, could be challenged on two quite distinct grounds: there was resistance based on the principle that it would be wrong for any government to have powers such as some monarchs claimed (and this might be termed the medieval or conservative defence of freedom) and there was resistance based on the principle that such powers could properly exist, but were being gathered into the wrong hands (and this can be called the modern or liberal defence of freedom). In practice, the two claims are often inextricably confused, but the confusion is itself a significant indicator of changing ideas.

Once away from legal principle, the strengthening of the state showed itself in the growing ability of monarchs to get their way. One indicator was the nearly universal decline in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries of the representative institutions which had appeared in many countries in the later Middle Ages. By 1789, most of western (if not central and eastern) Europe was ruled by monarchs little hindered by representative bodies; the main exception was in Great Britain. Kings began in the sixteenth century to enjoy powers which would have seemed remarkable to medieval barons and burghers. The phenomenon is sometimes described as the rise of absolute monarchy. If we do not exaggerate a monarch’s chances of actually getting his wishes carried out (for many practical checks on his power might exist which were just as restricting as medieval immunities or a representative assembly), the term is acceptable. Everywhere, or almost everywhere, the relative strength of rulers vis-a-vis their rivals increased greatly from the sixteenth century onwards. New financial resources gave them standing armies and artillery to use against great nobles who could not afford them. Sometimes the monarchy was able to ally itself with the slow growth of a sense of nationhood in imposing order on the over-mighty. In many countries the late fifteenth century had brought a new readiness to accept royal government if it would guarantee order and peace. There were special reasons in almost every case, but nearly everywhere monarchs raised themselves further above the level of the greatest nobles and buttressed their new pretensions to respect and authority with cannons and taxation. The obligatory sharing of power with great subjects, whose status entitled them de facto and sometimes de jure to office, ceased to weigh so heavily upon kings. England’s Privy Council under the Tudors was at times a meritocracy almost as much as a gathering of magnates.

In the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries this brought about the appearance of what some have called the ‘Renaissance State’. This is a rather grandiose term for swollen bureaucracies, staffed by royal employees and directed by aspirations to centralization, but clear enough if we remember the implied antithesis: the medieval kingdom, whose governmental functions were often in large measure delegated to feudal and personal dependants or to corporations (of which the Church was the greatest). Of course, neither model of political organization existed historically in a pure form. There had always been royal officials, ‘new men’ of obscure origin, and governments today still delegate tasks to non-governmental bodies. There was no sudden transition to the modern ‘state’: it took centuries and often used old forms. In England, the Tudors seized on the existing institution of royal Justices of the Peace to weld the local gentry into the structure of royal government. This was yet another stage in a long process of undermining seigneurial authority, which elsewhere still had centuries of life before it. Even in England, though, noblemen had long to be treated with care if they were not to be fatally antagonized. Rebellion was not an exceptional but a continuing fact of life for the sixteenth-century statesman. Royal troops might prevail in the end, but no monarch wanted to be reduced to reliance on force. As a famous motto had it, artillery was the last argument of kings. The history of the French nobility’s turbulence right down to the middle of the seventeenth century, of antagonized local interests in England during the same period, or of Habsburg attempts to unify their territories at the expense of local magnates, all show this. The United Kingdom had its last feudal rebellion in 1745; other countries still had theirs to come.

Taxation, too, because of the danger of rebellion and the inadequacy of administrative machinery to collect it, could not be pressed very far, yet officials and armies had to be paid for. One way was to allow officials to charge fees or levy perquisites on those who needed their services. For obvious reasons, this was not a complete answer. The raising of greater sums by the ruler was therefore necessary. Something might still be done by exploiting royal domains. But all monarchs, sooner or later, were driven back to seek new taxation and it was a problem few could solve. There were technical problems here which could not be dealt with until the nineteenth century or even later, but for three centuries great fertility of imagination was to be shown in inventing new taxes. Broadly speaking, only consumption (through indirect taxes such as customs and excise or taxes on sale, or through requiring licences and authorizations to trade which had to be paid for) or real property could be tapped by the tax-gatherer. Usually, this bore disproportionately upon the poorest, who spent a larger part of their small disposable income on necessities than the wealthy. Nor is it ever easy to stop a landowner from passing his tax burdens along to the man at the bottom of the property pyramid. Taxation, too, was particularly hindered by the surviving medieval idea of legal immunity. In 1500 it was generally accepted that there were areas, persons and spheres of action which were specially protected from invasion by the power of the rule. They might be defended by an irrevocable royal grant in past ages, such as were the privileges of many cities, by contractual agreement such as the English Magna Carta was said to be, by immemorial custom, or by divine law. The supreme example was the Church. Its properties were not normally subject to lay taxation, it had jurisdiction in its courts of matters inaccessible to royal justice, and it controlled important social and economic institutions - marriage, for example. But a province, or a profession, or a family might also enjoy immunities, usually from royal jurisdiction or taxation. Nor was royal standing uniform. Even the French king was only a duke in Brittany and that made a difference to what he was entitled to do there. Such facts were the realities which the ‘Renaissance State’ had to live with. It could do no other than accept their survival, even if the future lay with the royal bureaucrats and their files.

In the early sixteenth century, a great crisis shook western Christianity. It destroyed forever the old medieval unity of the faith and accelerated the consolidation of royal power. What is, over-simply, called the Protestant Reformation began as one more dispute over religious authority, the calling in question of the papal claims whose formal and theoretical structure had successfully survived so many challenges. To that extent, it was a thoroughly medieval phenomenon. But that was not to be the whole story and far from exhausts the political significance of the Reformation. Given that it also detonated a cultural revolution, there is no reason to question its traditional standing as the start of modern history.

There was nothing new about demands for ecclesiastical reform. The sense that papacy and curia did not necessarily serve the interests of all Christians was well grounded by 1500. Some critics had already gone on from this to doctrinal dissent. The deep, uneasy devotional swell of the fifteenth century had expressed a search for new answers to spiritual questions but also a willingness to look for them outside the limits laid down by ecclesiastical authority. Heresy had never been blotted out, it had only been contained. Popular anti-clericalism was an old and widespread phenomenon. It had long prompted demands for a more evangelical clergy. There had also appeared in the fifteenth century another current in religious life, perhaps more profoundly subversive than heresy, because, unlike heresy, it contained forces which might in the end cut at the roots of the traditional religious outlook itself. This was the learned, humanistic, rational, sceptical intellectual movement which, for want of a better word, we may call Erasmian after the man who embodied its ideals most clearly in the eyes of contemporaries, and who was the first Dutchman to play a leading role in European history. He was profoundly loyal to his faith; he knew himself to be a Christian and that meant, unquestionably, that he remained within the Church. But of that Church he had an ideal which embodied a vision of a possible reformation. He sought a simpler devotion and a purer pastorate. Though he did not challenge the authority of the Church or papacy, in a subtler way he challenged authority in principle, for his scholarly work had implications which were deeply subversive. So was the tone of the correspondence which he conducted with colleagues the length and breadth of Europe. They learnt from him to disentangle their logic and therefore the teaching of the faith from the scholastic mummifications of Aristotelian philosophy. In his Greek New Testament he made available a firm basis for argument on doctrine at a time when a knowledge of Greek was again becoming widespread. Erasmus, too, was the exposer of the spuriousness of texts on which bizarre dogmatic structures had been raised.

Yet neither he nor those who shared his viewpoint attacked religious authority outright, nor did they turn ecclesiastical into universal issues. They were good Catholics. Humanism, like heresy, discontent with clerical behaviour and the cupidity of princes, was something in the air at the beginning of the sixteenth century, waiting - as many things had long waited - for the man and the occasion which would make them into a religious revolution. No other term is adequate to describe what followed the unwitting act of a German monk. His name was Martin Luther and in 1517 he unleashed energies which were to fragment a Christian unity intact in the West since the disappearance of the Arians.

Unlike Erasmus, the international man, Luther lived all his life except for brief absences in a small German town on the Elbe, Wittenberg, almost at the back of beyond. He was an Augustinian monk, deeply read in theology, somewhat tormented in spirit, who had already come to the conclusion that he must preach the Scriptures in a new light, to present God as a forgiving God, not a punitive one. This need not have made him a revolutionary; the orthodoxy of his views was never in question until he quarrelled with the papacy. He had been to Rome, and he had not liked what he saw there, for the papal city seemed a worldly place and its ecclesiastical rulers no better than they should be. This did not dispose him to feel warmly towards an itinerant Dominican, roaming Saxony as a pedlar of indulgences - papal certificates whose possessor, in consideration of payment (which went towards the building of the new and magnificent St Peter’s then rising in Rome), was assured that some of the penalties incurred by him for sin would be remitted in the next world. Accounts of the preaching of this man were brought to Luther by peasants who had heard him and bought their indulgences. Research has made it clear that what had been said to them was not only misleading but outrageous; the crudity of the transaction promoted by the preacher displays one of the most unattractive faces of medieval Catholicism. It infuriated Luther, almost obsessed as he was by the overwhelming seriousness of the transformation necessary in a man’s life before he could be sure of redemption. He formulated his protests against this and certain other papal practices in a set of ninety-five theses setting out his positive views. In the tradition of the scholarly disputation he posted them in Latin on the door of the castle church in Wittenberg on 21 October 1517. He had also sent the theses to the Archbishop of Mainz, primate of Germany, who passed them to Rome with a request that Luther be forbidden by his order to preach on this theme. By this time the theses had been put into German and the new information technology had transformed the situation; they were printed and circulated everywhere in Germany. So Luther got the debate he sought. Only the protection of Frederick of Saxony, the ruler of Luther’s state, who refused to surrender him, kept him out of danger of his life. The delay in scotching the chicken of heresy in the egg was fatal. Luther’s monastic order abandoned him, but his university did not. Soon the papacy found itself confronted by a German national movement of grievance against Rome sustained and inflamed by Luther’s own sudden discovery that he was a literary genius of astonishing fluency and productivity, the first to exploit the huge possibilities of the printed pamphlet, and by the ambitions of local grandees.

Within two years, Luther was being called a Hussite. The Reformation had by then become entangled in German politics. Even in the Middle Ages would-be reformers had looked to secular rulers for help. This did not necessarily mean going outside the fold of the faith; the great Spanish churchman Ximenes had sought to bring to bear the authority of the Catholic monarchs on the problems facing the Spanish Church. Rulers were not meant to protect heretics; their duty was to uphold the true faith. Nevertheless, an appeal to lay authority could open the way to changes which went further perhaps than their authors had intended, and this, it seems, was the case with Luther. His arguments had rapidly carried him beyond the desirability and grounds of reform in practice to the questioning of first, papal authority and, then, of doctrine. The core of his early protests had not been theological. Nevertheless, he came to reject transubstantiation

(replacing it with a view of the eucharist even more difficult to grasp) and to preach that men and women were justified - that is, set aside for salvation - not by observance of the sacraments only (‘works’, as this was called), but by faith. This was, clearly, an intensely individualist position. It struck at the root of traditional teaching, which saw no salvation possible outside the Church. (Yet, it may be noted, Erasmus, when asked for his view, would not condemn Luther; it was known, moreover, that he thought Luther to have said many valuable things.) In 1520 Luther was excommunicated. Before a wondering audience he burnt the bull of excommunication in the same fire as the books of canon law. He continued to preach and write. Summoned to explain himself before the imperial Diet, he refused to retract his views. Germany seemed on the verge of civil war. After leaving the Diet under a safe-conduct, he disappeared, kidnapped for his own safety by a sympathetic prince. In 1521 Charles V, the emperor, placed him under the Imperial Ban; Luther was now an outlaw.

Luther’s doctrines, which he extended to condemnations of confession and absolution and clerical celibacy, by now appealed to many Germans. His followers spread them by preaching and by distributing his German translation of the New Testament. Lutheranism was also a political fact; the German princes, who entangled it in their own complicated relations with the emperor and his vague authority over them, ensured this. Wars ensued and the word ‘Protestant’ came into use. By 1555, Germany was irreparably divided into Catholic and Protestant states. This was recognized in agreement at the Diet of Augsburg that the prevailing religion of each state should be that of its ruler, the first European institutionalizing of religious pluralism. It was a curious concession for an emperor who saw himself as the defender of universal Catholicism. Yet it was necessary if he was to keep the loyalty of Germany’s princes. In Catholic and Protestant Germany alike, religion now looked as never before to political authority to uphold it in a world of competing creeds.

But there was no simple Reformation phenomenon; other varieties of Protestantism had by then emerged from the evangelical ferment. Some drew on social unrest. Luther soon had to distinguish his own teaching from the views of peasants who invoked his name to justify rebellion against their masters. One radical group were the Anabaptists, persecuted by Catholic and Protestant rulers alike. At Munster in 1534 their leaders’ introduction of communism of property and polygamy confirmed their opponents’ fears and brought a ferocious suppression upon them. But of other forms of Protestantism, only Calvinism can be noticed in so general an account as this. It was to be Switzerland’s most important contribution to the Reformation, though created by a Frenchman, John Calvin. He was a theologian who formulated his essential doctrines while still a young man: the absolute depravity of man after the Fall of Adam and the impossibility of salvation except for those few, the Elect, predestined by God to salvation. If Luther, the Augustinian monk, spoke with the voice of Paul, Calvin evoked the tones of Augustine. It is not easy to understand the success of this gloomy creed. But to its efficacy, the history not only of Geneva, but of France, England, Scotland, the Dutch Netherlands, and British North America all witness. The crucial step was conviction of membership of the Elect. As the signs of this were outward adherence to the commandments of God and participation in the sacraments, it was less difficult to achieve such conviction than might be imagined.

Under Calvin, Geneva was not a place for the easy-going. He had drawn up the constitution of a theocratic state which provided the framework for a remarkable exercise in self-government. Blasphemy and witchcraft were punished by death, but this would not have struck contemporaries as surprising. Adultery, too, was a crime in most European countries and one punished by ecclesiastical courts. But Calvin’s Geneva took this offence much more seriously and imposed the death penalty for it; adulterous women were drowned, men beheaded (an apparent reversal of the normal penal practice of a male-dominated European society where women, considered weaker vessels morally and intellectually, were usually indulged with milder punishments than men). Severe punishments, too, were reserved for those guilty of heresy.

From Geneva, where its pastors were trained, the new sect took root in France, where it won converts among the nobility and had more than 2000 congregations by 1561. In the Netherlands, England and Scotland and, in the end, Germany, it challenged Lutheranism. It spread also to Poland, Bohemia and Hungary. Calvinism’s early vigour surpassed that of Lutheranism which, except in Scandinavia, was never strongly entrenched beyond the German lands which first adopted it.

The variety of the Protestant Reformation still defies summary and simplification. Complex and deep-rooted in its origins, it also owed much to circumstance and was varied, rich and far-reaching in its effects and expressions. If the name ‘Protestantism’ can be taken seriously as an indicator of fundamental indentity beneath the disorder of its many expressions, that identity is to be found in its influence and effect. It was disruptive. In Europe and the Americas it created new ecclesiastical cultures founded on the study of the Bible and preaching, to which it gave an importance sometimes surpassing that of the sacraments. It was to shape the lives of millions by accustoming them to a new and an intense scrutiny of private conduct and conscience (thus, ironically, achieving something long sought by Roman Catholics) and it re-created the non-celibate clergy. Negatively, it slighted or at least called in question all existing ecclesiastical institutions and created new political forces in the form of churches which princes could now manipulate for their own ends - often against popes whom they saw simply as princes like themselves. Rightly Protestantism was to come to be seen by friend and foe alike, as one of the forces determining the shape of modern Europe and therefore of the world.

Yet neither Lutheranism nor Calvinism provoked the first rejection of papal authority by a nation-state. In England a unique religious change arose almost by accident. A new dynasty originating in Wales, the Tudors, had established itself at the end of the fifteenth century and the second king of this line, Henry VIII, became entangled with the papacy over his wish to dissolve the first of his six marriages in order to remarry and get an heir, an understandable preoccupation. This led to a quarrel and one of the most remarkable assertions of lay authority in the whole sixteenth century; it was also one fraught with significance for England’s future. With the support of his parliament, which obediently passed the required legislation, Henry VIII proclaimed himself Head of the Church in England. Doctrinally, he conceived no break with the past; he was, after all, entitled Defender of the Faith by the pope because of a refutation of Luther from the royal pen (his descendant still bears that title). But the assertion of the royal supremacy opened the way to an English Church separate from Rome. A vested interest in it was soon provided by a dissolution of monasteries and some other ecclesiastical foundations and the sale of property to buyers among the aristocracy and gentry. Churchmen sympathetic to new doctrines sought to move the Church in England significantly towards continental Protestant ideas in the next reign. Popular reactions were mixed. Some saw this as the satisfaction of old national traditions of dissent from Rome; some resented innovations. From a confused debate and murky politics emerged a literary masterpiece, the Book of Common Prayer, and some martyrs both Catholic and Protestant. There was a reversion to papal authority (and the burning of Protestant heretics) under the fourth Tudor, the unfairly named and unhappy Bloody Mary, perhaps England’s most tragic queen. By this time, moreover, the question of religion was thoroughly entangled with national interest and foreign policy, for the states of Europe drew apart more and more on religious grounds.


This was not all that was notable about the English Reformation which, like the German, was a landmark in the evolution of a national consciousness. It had been carried out by Act of Parliament and a constitutional question was implicit in the religious settlement: were there any limits to legislative authority? With the accession of Mary’s half-sister, Elizabeth I, the pendulum swung back, though for a long time it was unclear how far. Yet Elizabeth insisted, and her parliament legislated, that she retain the essentials of her father’s position; the English Church, or Church of England, as it may henceforth be called, claimed to be Catholic in doctrine but rested on the royal supremacy. More important still, because that supremacy was recognized by Act of Parliament, England would before long be at war with a Catholic king of Spain, who was well known for his determination to root out heresy in the lands he subjugated. So another national cause was identified with that of Protestantism.

Reformation helped the English parliament to survive when other medieval representative bodies were going under before monarchical power though this was far from the whole story. A kingdom united since Anglo-Saxon times and without provincial assemblies which might rival it made it much easier for parliament to focus national politics than any similar body elsewhere. Royal carelessness helped, too; Henry VIII had squandered a great opportunity to achieve a sound basis for absolute monarchy when he rapidly liquidated the mass of property - about a fifth of the land of the whole kingdom - which he held briefly as a result of the dissolutions. Nevertheless, all such imponderables duly weighed, the fact that Henry chose to seek endorsement of his will from the national representative body in creating a national church still seems one of the most crucial decisions in Parliament’s history.

Catholic martyrs died under Elizabeth because they were judged traitors, not because they were heretics - but England was far less divided by religion than Germany and France. Sixteenth-century France was tormented and torn between Catholic and Calvinist interests. Each was in essence a group of noble clans, who fought for power in the Wars of Religion, of which nine have been distinguished between 1562 and 1598. At times their struggles brought the French monarchy very low; the nobility of France came near to winning the battle against the centralizing state. Yet, in the end, their divisions benefited a crown which could use one faction against another. The wretched population of France had to bear the brunt of disorder and devastation until there came to the throne in 1589 (after the murder of his predecessor) a member of a junior branch of the royal family, Henry, king of the little state of Navarre, who became Henry IV of France and inaugurated the Bourbon line whose descendants still claim the French throne. He had been a Protestant, but accepted Catholicism as the condition of his succession, recognizing that Catholicism was the religion most Frenchmen would cling to - a continuing strain in the identity of nationhood. The Protestants were assured special guarantees which left them a state within a state, the possessors of fortified towns where the king’s writ did not run; this very old-fashioned sort of solution assured protection for their religion by creating new immunities. Henry and his successors could then turn to the business of re-establishing the authority of a throne badly shaken by assassination and intrigue. But the French nobility were still far from tamed.

Before this, religious antagonism had been further inflamed by the internal re-assessment of the Roman Church which we remember as the Counter-Reformation. Its most formal expression was the Council of Trent, a general council summoned in 1543 which met in three sessions over the next thirteen years. It was dominated by bishops from Italy and Spain, and that helped to shape it, for Reform challenged the Church little in Italy and not at all in Spain. The Council’s decisions became the touchstone of orthodoxy in discipline and doctrine until the nineteenth century, providing standards to which Catholic rulers would rally. Bishops were given more authority and parishes took on new importance. The Council answered by implication, too, the old question about the leadership of Catholic Europe; from this time, it lay indisputably with the Pope. Like Reformation, though, Counter-Reformation went beyond forms and principles in a new devotional intensity, rejuvenating the fervour of laity and clergy alike. Besides making weekly attendance at mass obligatory, regulating baptism and marriage more strictly, and ending the selling of indulgences by ‘pardoners’ (the very practice which had detonated the Lutheran explosion), it sought, too, to redeem rural districts sunk in traditional superstition and an ignorance so deep that the missionaries who sought to penetrate them in Italy spoke of them as ‘our Indies’, by implication in as great a need of the Gospel as were the heathen of the New World.

Yet a spirituality and spontaneous fervour already apparent among the faithful in the fifteenth century fed the Counter-Reformation too. One of the most potent expressions of its new mood, as well as an institution which was to prove enduring, was the invention of a Spaniard, the soldier Ignatius Loyola. By a curious irony he had been a student at the same Paris college as Calvin in the early 1530s, but it is not recorded that they ever met. In 1534 he and a few companions took vows; their aim was missionary work and as they trained for it Loyola devised a rule for a new religious order. In 1540 it was recognized by the pope and named the Society of Jesus. The Jesuits, as they soon came to be called, were to have an importance in the history of the Church akin to that of the early Benedictines or the Franciscans of the thirteenth century. Their warrior-founder liked to think of them as the militia of the Church, utterly disciplined and completely subordinate to papal authority through their general, who lived in Rome. They transformed Catholic education. They were in the forefront of missionary efforts in every part of the world. In Europe their intellectual eminence and political skill raised them to high places in the courts of kings.

Yet though it brought new instruments to the support of papal authority, the Counter-Reformation (like the Reformation) could also strengthen the authority of lay rulers over their subjects. The new dependence of religion upon political authority - that is to say, upon organized force - further extended the grip of the political apparatus. This was most obvious in the Spanish kingdoms. Here two forces ran together to create an unimpeachably Catholic monarchy long before the Council of Trent. The Reconquest so recently completed had been a crusade; the title of the Catholic Monarchs itself proclaimed the identification of a political process with an ideological struggle. Secondly, the Spanish monarchy had the problem of suddenly absorbing great numbers of non-Christian subjects, both Muslim and Jew. They were feared as a potential threat to security in a multi-racial society. The instrument deployed against them was a new one: an Inquisition not, like its medieval forerunner, under clerical control, but under that of the Crown. Established by papal bull in 1478, the Spanish Inquisition began to operate in Castile in 1480. The pope soon had misgivings; in Catalonia lay and ecclesiastical authority alike resisted, but to no avail. By 1516, when Charles V, the first ruler to hold both the thrones of Aragon and Castile, became king, the Inquisition was the only institution in the Spanish domains which, from a royal council, exercised authority in all of them - in the Americas, Sicily and Sardinia, as much as in Castile and Aragon. The most striking effects had already been what was later called ‘ethnic cleansing’, the expulsion from them of the Jews and a severe regulation of the Moriscoes (converted Moors).

This gave Spain a religious unity unbreakable by a handful of Lutherans with whom the Inquisition found it easy to deal. The cost to Spain was in the end to be heavy. Yet already under Charles, a fervent Catholic, Spain was, in religion as in her secular life, aspiring to a new kind of centralized, absolutist monarchy, the Renaissance state par excellence, in fact and, incidentally, the first administrative organism ever having to take decisions about events all over the globe. The residues of formal constitutionalism within the peninsula hardly affected this. Spain was a model for CounterReformation states elsewhere and one to be imposed upon much of Europe by force or example in the century after 1558, when Charles died after a retirement spent largely in his devotions in a remote monastery in Estremadura.

Of all European monarchs who identified themselves with the cause of the Counter-Reformation as extirpators of heresy, none was more determined and bigoted than Charles’s son and successor, Philip II of Spain, widower of Mary Tudor. To him had come half his father’s empire: Spain, the Indies, Sicily and the Spanish Netherlands. (In 1581 he acquired Portugal too and it remained Spanish until 1640.) The results of his policies of religious purification in Spain have been variously interpreted. What is not open to dispute is the effect in the Spanish Netherlands, where they provoked the emergence of the first state in the world to break away from the old domination of monarchy and landed nobility.

What some call the ‘Revolt of the Netherlands’ and the Dutch the ‘Eighty Years’ War’ has been, like many other events at the roots of nations, a great source of myth-making, some of it conscious. Even this, though, may have been less misleading than the assumption that because in the end a very modern sort of society emerged, it was a very ‘modern’ sort of revolt, dominated by a passionate struggle for religious toleration and national independence. That could hardly be less true. The troubles of the Netherlands arose in a very medieval setting, the Old Burgundian inheritance of the lands of the richest state in northern Europe, the duchy which had passed to the Habsburgs by marriage. The Spanish Netherlands, seventeen provinces of very different sorts, formed part of it. The southern provinces, where many of the inhabitants spoke French, included the most urbanized part of Europe and the great Flemish commercial centre of Antwerp. They had long been troublesome and the Flemish towns had at one moment in the late fifteenth century seemed to be trying to turn themselves into independent city-states. The northern provinces were more agricultural and maritime. Their inhabitants showed a peculiarly tenacious feeling for their land, perhaps because they had actually been recovering it from the sea and making polders since the twelfth century.

North and South were to be the later Netherlands and Belgium, but this was inconceivable in 1554. Nor could a religious division between the two then be envisaged. Though the Catholic majority of the south grew somewhat as many Protestants emigrated northwards, the two persuasions were mixed upon both sides of a future boundary. Early sixteenth-century Europe was much more tolerant of religious divisions than it would be after the Counter-Reformation got to work.

Philip’s determination to enforce the decrees of the Council of Trent explains something of what followed, but the origins of trouble went back a long way. As the Spaniards strove to modernize the relations of central government and local communities (which meant tapping a growing prosperity through more effective taxation), they did so with more up-to-date methods and perhaps less tact than the Burgundians had shown. Spanish royal envoys came into conflict first with the nobility of the southern provinces. As prickly and touchy as other nobilities of the age in defence of their symbolic ‘liberties’ - that is, privileges and immunities - they felt threatened by a monarch more remote than the great Charles who, they felt, had understood them (he spoke their language), even if he was Charles’s son. The Spanish commander, the Duke of Alva, they argued, was further violating local privilege by interfering with local jurisdictions in the pursuit of heretics. Catholic though they were, they had a stake in the prosperity of the Flemish cities where Protestantism had taken root and feared the introduction to them of the Spanish Inquisition. In addition, they were as uneasy as other noblemen of the times about the pressures of inflation.

Resistance to Spanish government began in thoroughly medieval forms, in the Estates of Brabant, and for a few years the brutality of the Spanish army and the leadership of one of their number, William of Orange, united the nobles against their lawful ruler. Like his contemporary, Elizabeth Tudor, William (nicknamed the ‘Silent’ because of his reputed refusal to allow unguarded anger to escape him when he learnt of his ruler’s determination to bring his heretic subjects to heel) was good at suggesting sympathy for popular causes. But there was always a potential rift between noblemen and Calvinist townsmen who had more at stake. Better political tactics by Spanish governors and the victories of the Spanish armies were in the end enough to force it open. The nobles fell back into line and thus, without knowing it, the Spanish armies defined modern Belgium. The struggle continued only in the northern provinces (though still under the political direction of William the Silent until his murder in 1584).

The Dutch (as we may now call them) had much at stake and were not encumbered as their southern co-religionists had been with the ambiguous dissatisfactions of the nobility. But they were divided among themselves; the provinces could rarely come easily to agreement. On the other hand, they could use the cry of religious freedom and a broad toleration to disguise their divisions. They benefited, too, from a great migration northwards of Flemish capital and talent. Their enemies had difficulties; the Spanish army was formidable but could not easily deal with an enemy which retired behind its town walls and surrounded them with water by opening the dykes and flooding the countryside. The Dutch, almost by accident, transferred their main effort to the sea where they could do a great deal of damage to the Spanish on more equal terms. Spanish communications with the Netherlands were more difficult once the northern sea route was harried by the rebels. It was expensive to maintain a big army in Belgium by the long road up from Italy and even more expensive when other enemies had to be beaten off. That was soon the case. The Counter-Reformation had infected international politics with a new ideological element. Together with their interest in maintaining a balance of power on the continent and preventing the complete success of the Spanish, this led the English first to a diplomatic and then to a military and naval struggle against Spain, which brought the Dutch allies.

The war created, almost fortuitously and incidentally, a remarkable new society, a loose federation of seven little republics with a weak central government, called the United Provinces. Soon, its citizens discovered a forgotten national past (much as decolonized Africans did in the twentieth century) and celebrated the virtues of Germanic tribesmen dimly discernible in Roman accounts of rebellion; relics of their enthusiasm remain in the paintings commissioned by Amsterdam magnates depicting attacks upon Roman camps (this was in the era we remember for the work of Rembrandt). The distinctiveness of a new nation thus consciously created is now more interesting than such historical propaganda. Once survival was assured, the United Provinces enjoyed religious tolerance, great civic freedom and provincial independence; the Dutch did not allow Calvinism the upper hand in government.

Later generations came to think they saw a similar linkage of religious and civic freedom in Elizabethan England; this was anachronistic, although comprehensible given the way English institutions were to evolve over the next century or so. Paradoxically, one part of this was a great strengthening of the legislative authority of the state, one which carried the limitation of privilege so far that at the end of the seventeenth century it was regarded with amazement by other Europeans. For a long time this cannot have seemed a likely outcome. Elizabeth had been an incomparable producer of the royal spectacle. As the myths of beauty and youth faded she had acquired the majesty of those who outlive their early counsellors. In 1603 she had been queen for forty-five years, the centre of a national cult fed by her own Tudor instinct for welding the dynasty’s interest to patriotism, by poets of genius, by mundane devices such as the frequent travel (which kept down expenses, since she stayed with her nobility) which made her visible to her people, and by her astonishing skill with her parliaments. Nor did she persecute for religion’s sake; she did not, as she put it, want to make ‘windows into men’s souls’. It is hardly surprising that the accession day of Good Queen Bess became a festival of patriotic opposition to government under her successors. Unhappily, she had no child to whom to bequeath the glamour she brought to monarchy, and she left an encumbered estate. Like all other rulers of her day, she never had a big enough income. The inheritance of her debts did not help the first king of the Scottish house of Stuart, who succeeded her, James I. The shortcomings of the males of that dynasty are still difficult to write about with moderation; the Stuarts gave England four bad kings in a row. Still, James was neither as foolish as his son nor as unprincipled as his grandsons. It was probably his lack of tact and alien ways rather than more serious defects that did most to embitter politics in his reign.

In defence of the Stuarts, it can be agreed that this was not the only troubled monarchy. In the seventeenth century there was a roughly contemporaneous crisis of authority in several countries, and one curiously parallel to an economic crisis which was Europe-wide. The two may have been connected, but it is not easy to be sure what the nature of the connection was. It is also interesting that these civil struggles coincided with the last phase of a period of religious wars which had been opened by the CounterReformation. We may at least assume that a contemporaneous breakdown of normal political life in a number of places, notably the British Isles, France and Spain, owed something to the needs of governments forced to take part in them.

In England the crisis came to a head in civil war, regicide and the establishment of the only republic in English history. Historians still argue about where lay the heart of the quarrel and the point of no return in what became armed conflict between Charles I and his parliament. One crucial moment came when he found himself at war with one set of his subjects (for he was King of Scotland, as well as of England), and had to call parliament to help him in 1640. Without new taxation, England could not be defended. But by then some of its members were convinced that there was a royal scheme to overturn the Church by law established from within and to reintroduce the power of Rome. Parliament harried the king’s servants (sending the two most conspicuous to the scaffold). Charles decided in 1642 that force was the only way out and so the Civil War began. In it he was defeated. Parliament was uneasy, as were many Englishmen, for if you stepped outside the ancient constitution of King, Lords and Commons, where would things end? But Charles threw away his advantage by seeking a foreign invasion in his support (the Scots were to fight for him this time). Those who dominated Parliament had had enough and Charles was tried and executed - in the eyes of contemporaries, an astounding outcome. His son went into exile.

There followed in England an interregnum during which the dominant figure until his death in 1658 was one of the most remarkable of all Englishmen, Oliver Cromwell. He was a country gentleman who had risen in the parliamentary side’s councils by his genius as a soldier. This gave him great power - for provided his army stood by him he could dispense with the politicians - but also imposed limitations on him, for he could not risk losing the army’s support. The result was an English republic astonishingly fertile in new constitutional schemes, as Cromwell cast about to find a way of governing through parliament without delivering England to an intolerant Protestantism. This was the Commonwealth.

The intolerance of some parliamentarians was one expression of a manysided strain in English (and American) Protestantism which has been named Puritanism. It was an ill-defined but growing force in English life since Elizabeth’s reign. Its spokesmen had originally sought only a particularly close and austere interpretation of religious doctrine and ceremony. Most early Puritans were Anglicans but some of them were impatient over their church’s retention of much from the Catholic past; as time went by it was to this second tendency that the name was more and more applied. By the seventeenth century the epithet ‘puritan’ also betokened, besides rigid doctrine and disapproval of ritual, the reform of manners in a strongly Calvinistic sense. By the time of the republic, many who had been on the parliament’s side in the Civil War appeared to wish to use its victory to impose Puritanism, both doctrinal and moral, by law not only on conservative and royalist Anglicans, but on dissenting religious minorities - Congregationalists, Baptists, Unitarians - which had found their voice under the Commonwealth. There was nothing politically or religiously democratic about Puritanism. Those who were of the Elect might freely choose their own elders and act as a self-governing community, but from outside the self-designated circle of the saved they looked (and were) an oligarchy claiming to know God’s will for others, and therefore all the more unacceptable. It was a few, untypical minorities, not the dominant Protestant establishment, which threw up the democratic and levelling ideas which contributed so much to the great debate of the republican years.

The publication of more than twenty thousand books and pamphlets (a word which entered English usage in the 1650s) on political and religious issues would by itself have made the Civil War and Commonwealth years a great epoch in English political education. Unfortunately, once Cromwell had died, the institutional bankruptcy of the republic was clear. Englishmen could not agree in sufficient numbers to uphold any new constitution. But most of them, it turned out, would accept the old device of monarchy. So the Commonwealth ended with the restoration of the Stuarts in 1660. England in fact had her king back on unspoken conditions: in the last resort, Charles II came back because Parliament said so, and believed he would defend the Church of England. Counter-Reformation Catholicism frightened Englishmen as much as did revolutionary Puritanism. The struggle of king and Parliament was not over, but there would be no absolute monarchy in England; henceforth the Crown was on the defensive.

Historians have argued lengthily about what the so-called ‘English Revolution’ expressed. Clearly, religion played a big part in it. Extreme Protestantism was given a chance to have an influence on the national life it was never again to have; this earned it the deep dislike of Anglicans and made political England anti-clerical for centuries. It was not without cause that one classic English historian of the struggle has spoken of the ‘Puritan Revolution’. But religion no more exhausts the meaning of these years than does the constitutional quarrel. Others have sought a class struggle in the Civil War. Of the interested motives of many of those engaged there can be no doubt, but it does not fit any clear general pattern. Still others have seen a struggle between a swollen ‘Court’, a governmental nexus of bureaucrats, courtiers and politicians, all linked to the system by financial dependence upon it, and ‘Country’, the local notables who paid for this. But localities often divided: it was one of the tragedies of the Civil War that even families could be split by it. It remains easier to be clear about the results of the English Revolution than about its origins or meaning.

Most continental countries were appalled by the trial and execution of Charles I, but they had their own bloody troubles. A period of conscious assertion of royal power in France by Cardinal Richelieu not only reduced the privileges of the Huguenots (as French Calvinists had come to be called) but had installed royal officials in the provinces as the direct representatives of royal power; these were the intendants. Administrative reform was an aggravation of the almost continuous suffering of the French people in the 1630s and 1640s. In the still overwhelmingly agricultural economy of France, Richelieu’s measures were bound to hurt the poor most. Taxes on the peasant doubled and sometimes trebled in a few years. An eruption of popular rebellion, mercilessly repressed, was the result. Some parts of France, moreover, were devastated by the campaigns of the last phase of the great struggle for Germany and central Europe called the Thirty Years’ War, the phase in which it became a Bourbon-Habsburg conflict. Lorraine, Burgundy and much of eastern France were reduced to ruins, the population of some areas declining by a quarter or a third. The claim that the French monarchy sought to impose new and (some said) unconstitutional taxation finally detonated political crisis under Richelieu’s successors. The role of defender of the traditional constitution was taken up by special interests, notably the parlement of Paris, the corporation of lawyers who sat in and could plead before the first lawcourt of the kingdom. In 1648 they led an insurrection in Paris (soon named the Fronde). A compromise settlement was followed after an uneasy interval by a second, much more dangerous Fronde, led this time by great noblemen. Though the parlement of Paris did not long maintain a united front with them, these men could draw on the anti-centralist feelings of the provincial nobility, as regional rebellions showed. Yet the Crown survived (and so did the intendants). In 1660 the absolute monarchy of France was still essentially intact.

In Spain, too, taxation provoked troubles. An attempt by a minister to overcome the provincialism inherent in the formally federal structure of the Spanish state led to revolt in Portugal (which had been absorbed into Spain with promises of respect for her liberties from Philip II), among the Basques and in Catalonia. The last was to take twelve years to suppress. There was also a revolt in 1647 in the Spanish kingdom of Naples.

In all these instances of civic turbulence, demands for money provoked resistance. In the financial sense, then, the Renaissance state was far from successful. The appearance of standing armies in most states in the seventeenth century did not mark only a military revolution. War was a great devourer of taxes. Yet the burdens of taxation laid on Frenchmen seem far greater than those laid on Englishmen: why, then, did the French monarchy appear to suffer less from the ‘crisis’? England, on the other hand, had civil war and the overthrow (for a time) of her monarchy without the devastation which went with foreign invasion. Nor were her occasional riots over high prices to be compared with the appalling bloodshed of the peasant risings of seventeenth-century France. In England, too, there was a specific challenge to authority from religious dissent. In Spain this was non-existent and in France it had been contained long before. The Huguenots, indeed, were a vested interest; but they saw their protector in the monarchy and therefore rallied to it in the Frondes. Regionalism was important in Spain, to a smaller extent in France where it provided a foothold for conservative interests threatened by governmental innovation, but seems to have played very little part in England. The year 1660, when the young Louis XIV assumed full powers in France and Charles II returned to England, was, in fact, something of a turning-point. France was not to prove ungovernable again until 1789 and was to show, in the next half-century, astonishing military and diplomatic power. In England there was never again to be, in spite of further constitutional troubles and the deposition of another king, a civil war. After 1660 there was an English standing army, and the last English rebellion, by an inadequate pretender and a few thousand deluded yokels in 1685, in no sense menaced the state. This makes it all the more striking, in retrospect, that men remained so unwilling to admit the reality of sovereignty. Englishmen solemnly legislated a series of defences of individual liberty in the Bill of Rights, yet even in 1689 it was hard to argue that what one king in Parliament had done, another could not undo. In France everyone agreed the king’s power was absolute, yet lawyers went on saying that there were things he could not legally do.

One thinker at least, the greatest of English political philosophers, Thomas Hobbes, showed in his books, notably in the Leviathan of 1651, that he recognized the way society was moving. Hobbes argued that the disadvantages and uncertainties of not agreeing that someone should have the last word in deciding what was law clearly outweighed the danger that such power might be tyrannically employed. The troubles of his times deeply impressed him with the need to know certainly where authority was to be found. Even when they were not continuous, disorders were always liable to break out: as Hobbes put it (roughly), you do not have to live all the time under a torrential downpour to say that the weather is rainy. The recognition that legislative power - sovereignty - rested, limitless, in the state and not elsewhere, and that it could not be restricted by appeals to immunities, customs, divine law or anything else without the danger of falling into anarchy, was Hobbes’s contribution to political theory, though he got small thanks for it and had to wait until the nineteenth century for due recognition. People often acted as though they accepted his views, but he was almost universally condemned.

Constitutional England was in fact one of the first states to operate on Hobbes’s principles. By the early eighteenth century, Englishmen (Scotsmen were less sure, even when they came under the parliament at Westminster after the Act of Union of 1707) accepted in principle and sometimes showed in practice that there could be no limits except practical ones to the potential scope of law. This conclusion was to be explicitly challenged even as late as Victorian times, but was implicit when in 1688 England at last rejected the direct descent of the Stuart male line, pushed James II off the throne and put his daughter and her consort on it on conditions. Already, one of the indexes of the strengthening of Parliament had been the growth for a century or more of the need for the Crown to manage Parliament; with the creation of a contractual monarchy England at last broke with her ancien regime and began to function as a constitutional state. Effectively, centralized power was shared; its major component lay with a House of Commons which represented the dominant social interest, the landowning classes. The king still kept important powers of his own but his advisers, it soon became clear, must possess the confidence of the House of Commons. The legislative sovereign, the Crown in Parliament, could do anything by statute. No such immunity as still protected privilege in continental countries existed nor any body which could hope to become a rival to Parliament. The English answer to the danger posed by such a concentration of authority was to secure, by revolution if necessary, that the authority should only act in accordance with the wishes of the most important elements in society.

The year 1688 gave England a Dutch king, Queen Mary’s husband, William III, to whom the major importance of the ‘Glorious Revolution’ of that year was that England could be mobilized against France, now threatening the independence of the United Provinces. There were too many complicated interests at work in them for the Anglo-French wars which followed to be interpreted in merely constitutional or ideological terms. Moreover, the presence of the Holy Roman Empire, Spain and various German princes in the shifting anti-French coalitions of the next quarter-century would certainly make nonsense of any neat contrast of political principle between the two sides. Nevertheless, it rightly struck some contemporaries that there was an ideological element buried somewhere in the struggle. England and Holland were more open societies than the France of Louis XIV. They allowed and protected the exercise of different religions. They did not censor the press but left it to be regulated by the laws which protected persons and the state against defamation. They were governed by oligarchies representing the effective possessors of social and economic power. France was at the opposite pole.

Under Louis XIV, absolute government reached its climax in France. It is not easy to pin his ambitions down in familiar categories; for him personal, dynastic and national greatness were hardly distinguishable. Perhaps that is why he became a model for all European princes. Politics was reduced effectively to administration; the royal councils, together with the royal agents in the provinces, the intendants and military commanders, took due account of such social facts as the existence of the nobility and local immunities, but the reign played havoc with the real independence of the political forces so powerful hitherto in France. This was the era of the establishment of royal power throughout the country and some later saw it as a revolutionary one; in the second half of the century the frame which Richelieu had knocked together was at last filled up by administrative reality. Louis XIV tamed aristocrats by offering them the most glamorous court in Europe; his own sense of social hierarchy made him happy to caress them with honours and pensions, but he never forgot the Frondes and controlled the nobility as had Richelieu. Louis’s relatives were excluded from his council, which contained non-noble ministers on whom he could safely rely. The parlements were restricted to their judicial role; the French Church’s independence of Roman authority was asserted, but only to bring it the more securely under the wing of the Most Christian King (as one of Louis’s titles had it). As for the Huguenots, Louis was determined, whatever the cost, not to be a ruler of heretics; those who were not exiled were submitted to a harsh persecution to bring them to conversion.

The coincidence with a great age of French cultural achievement still seems to make it hard for Frenchmen to recognize the harsh face of the reign of Louis XIV. He ruled a hierarchical, corporate, theocratic society which, even if up to date in methods, looked to the past for its goals. Louis even hoped to become Holy Roman Emperor. He refused to allow the philosopher Descartes, the defender of religion, to be given religious burial in France because of the dangers of his ideas. Yet for a long time his kind of government seems to have been what most Frenchmen wanted. The process of effective government could be brutal, as Huguenots who were coerced into conversion by having soldiers billeted on them, or peasants reluctant to pay taxes who were visited by a troop of cavalry for a month or so, both knew. Yet life may have been better than life a few decades previously, in spite of some exceptionally hard years. The reign was the end of an era of disorder, not the start of one. France was largely free from invasion and there was a drop in the return expected from investment in land which lasted well into the eighteenth century. These were solid realities to underpin the glittering facade of an age later called the Grand Siecle.

Louis’s European position was won in large measure by success in war (though by the end of the reign, he had undergone serious setbacks), but it was not only his armies and diplomacy which mattered. He carried French prestige to a peak at which it was long to remain because of the model of monarchy he presented; he was the perfect absolute monarch. The physical setting of the Ludovican achievement was the huge new palace of Versailles. Few buildings or the lives lived in them can have been so aped and imitated. In the eighteenth century Europe was to be studded with miniature reproductions of the French court, painfully created at the expense of their subjects by would-be ‘grands monarques’ in the decades of stability and continuity, which almost everywhere followed the upheavals of the great wars of Louis’s reign.

There were between 1715 and 1740 no important international tensions to provoke internal change in states, nor were there great ideological divisions such as those of the seventeenth century, nor rapid economic and social development with their consequential strain. Not surprisingly, therefore, governments changed little and everywhere society seemed to settle down after a turbulent century or so. Apart from Great Britain, the United Provinces, the cantons of Switzerland and the fossil republics of Italy, absolute monarchy was the dominant state form. It remained so for most of the eighteenth century, sometimes in a style which came to be called ‘enlightened despotism’ - a slippery term, which neither has nor ever had a clear meaning any more than terms like ‘Right’ or ‘Left’ have today. What it indicates is that from about 1750 the wish to carry out practical reforms led some rulers to innovations which seemed to be influenced by the advanced thought of the day. Such innovations, when effective, were imposed none the less by the machinery of absolute monarchical power. If sometimes humanitarian, the policies of ‘enlightened despots’ were not necessarily politically liberal. They were, on the other hand, usually modern in that they undermined traditional social and religious authority, cut across accepted notions of social hierarchy or legal rights, and helped to concentrate law-making power in the state and assert its unchallenged authority over its subjects, who were treated increasingly as an aggregate of individuals rather than as members of a hierarchy of corporations.

Not surprisingly, it is almost impossible to find an example which in practice perfectly fulfils this general description, just as it is impossible to find a definition of a ‘democratic’ state today, or a ‘fascist’ state in the 1930s, which fits all examples. Among Mediterranean and southern countries, for example, Naples, Spain, Portugal and some other Italian states (and even at times the papal states) had ministers who sought economic reform. Some of these were stimulated by novelty; others - Portugal and Spain - turned to enlightened despotism as a way to recover lost status as great powers. Some encroached on the powers of the Church. Almost all of them served rulers who were part of the Bourbon family connection. The involvement of one of the smallest of them, Parma, in a quarrel with the papacy led to a general attack in all of these countries on the right arm of the Counter-Reformation papacy, the Society of Jesus. In 1773 the pope was driven by them to dissolve the Society, a great symbolic defeat, as important for its demonstration of the strength of advanced anti-clerical principles even in Catholic Europe as for its practical effects.

Among these states only Spain had any pretension to great power status and she was in decline. Of the eastern enlightened despotisms, on the other hand, three out of four certainly had. The odd man out was Poland, the sprawling ramshackle kingdom where reform on ‘enlightened’ lines came to grief on constitutional rocks; the enlightenment was there all right, but not the despotism to make it effective. More successfully, Prussia, the Habsburg empire and Russia, all managed to sustain a facade of enlightenment while strengthening the state. Once more, the clue to change can be found in war, which cost far more than building even the most lavish replica of Versailles. In Russia, modernization of the state went back to the earliest years of the century, when Peter the Great sought to guarantee her future as a great power through technical and institutional change. In the second half of the century, the Empress Catherine II reaped many of the benefits of this. She also gave the regime a thin veneer of up-to-the-minute ideas by advertising widely her patronage of letters and humanitarianism. This was all very superficial; the traditional ordering of society was unchanged. Russia was a conservative despotism whose politics were largely a matter of the struggles of noble factions and families. Nor did enlightenment much change things in Prussia, where there was a well-established tradition of efficient, centralized, economical administration, embodying much of what reformers sought elsewhere. Prussia already enjoyed religious toleration and the Hohenzollern monarchy ruled a strongly traditional society virtually unchanged in the eighteenth century. The Prussian king was obliged to recognize - and willingly did so - that his power rested on the acquiescence of his nobles and he carefully preserved their legal and social privilege. Frederick II remained convinced that only noblemen should be given commissioned rank in his army and at the end of his reign there were more serfs in Prussian territory than there had been at the beginning.

Competition with Prussia was a decisive stimulus to reform in the Habsburg dominions. There were great obstacles in the way. The dynasty’s territories were very diverse, in nationality, language, institutions; the emperor was King of Hungary, Duke of Milan, Archduke of Austria, to name only a few of his many titles. Centralization and greater administrative uniformity were essential if this variegated empire was to exercise its due weight in European affairs. Another problem was that, like the Bourbon states, but unlike Russia or Prussia, the Habsburg empire was overwhelmingly Roman Catholic. Everywhere the power of the Church was deeply entrenched; the Habsburg lands included most of those outside Spain where the Counter-Reformation had been most successful. The Church also owned huge properties; it was everywhere protected by tradition, canon law and papal policy, and it had a monopoly of education. Finally, the Habsburgs provided almost without interruption during these centuries the successive occupants of the throne of the Holy Roman Empire. In consequence they had special responsibilities in Germany.

This background was always likely to give modernization in the Habsburg dominions an ‘enlightened’ colour. Everywhere practical reform seemed to conflict with entrenched social power or the Church. The Empress Maria Theresa was herself by no means sympathetic to reform which had such implications, but her advisers were able to present a persuasive case for it when, after the 1740s, it became clear that the Habsburg monarchy would have to struggle for supremacy with Prussia. Once the road to fiscal and consequently administrative reform had been entered upon, it was in the end bound to lead to conflict between Church and State. This came to a climax in the reign of Maria Theresa’s son and successor, Joseph II, a man who did not share the pieties of his mother and who was alleged to have advanced views. His reforms became especially associated with measures of secularization. Monasteries lost their property, religious appointments were interfered with, the right of sanctuary was removed and education was taken out of the hands of the clergy. So far as it went, this awoke angry opposition, but mattered less than the fact that by 1790 Joseph had antagonized to the point of open defiance the nobles of Brabant, Hungary and Bohemia. The powerful local institutions - estates and diets - through which those lands could oppose his policies paralysed government in many of Joseph’s realms at the end of his reign.

Differences in the circumstances in which they were applied, in the preconceptions which governed them, in the success they achieved and in the degree to which they did or did not embody ‘enlightened’ ideas, all show how misleading is any idea that there was, anywhere, a ‘typical’ enlightened despotism to serve as a model. The government of France, clearly touched by reforming policies and aspirations, only confirms this. Obstacles to change had, paradoxically, grown stronger after the death of Louis XIV. Under his successor (whose reign began as a minority under a regency), the real influence of the privileged had grown and increasingly there grew up in the parlements a tendency to criticize laws which infringed special interest and historic privilege. There was a new and growing resistance to the idea that there rested in the Crown any right of unrestricted legislative sovereignty. As the century wore on, France’s international role imposed heavier and heavier burdens on her finances and the issue of reform tended to crystallize in the issue of finding new tax revenue - an exercise that was bound to encourage resistance. On to this rock ran most of the proposals for reform within the French monarchy.

Paradoxically, France was in 1789 the country most associated with the articulation and diffusion of critical and advanced ideas, yet also one of those where it seemed most difficult to put them into practice. But this was an issue which was Europe-wide in the traditional monarchies of the end of the eighteenth century. Wherever reform and modernization had been tried, the hazards of vested historical interest and traditional social structure threw obstacles in the way. In the last resort, it was unlikely that monarchical absolutism could have solved this problem anywhere. It could not question historical authority too closely for this was what it rested upon itself. Unrestricted legislative sovereignty seemed still in the eighteenth century to call too much in question. If historic rights were infringed, could not property be? This was a fair point, though Europe’s most successful ruling class, the English, seemed to accept that nothing was outside the sphere of legislative competence, nothing beyond the scope of reform, without fears that such a revolutionary idea was likely to be used against them.

With this important qualification, though, enlightened despotism, too, embodies the theme already set out - that at the heart of the complex story of political evolution in many countries over a period of three centuries, continuity lies in the growth of the power of the state. The occasional successes of those who tried to put the clock back almost always proved temporary. True, even the most determined reformers and the ablest statesmen had to work with a machinery of state which to any modern bureaucrat would seem woefully inadequate. Though the eighteenth-century state might mobilize resources much greater than had done its predecessors it had to do so with no revolutionary innovations of technique. Communications as the eighteenth century ended depended just as they had done three hundred years earlier on wind and muscle; the ‘telegraph’ which came into use in the 1790s was only a semaphore system, worked by pulling ropes. Armies could move only slightly faster than three centuries earlier, and if their weapons were improved, they were not improved out of recognition. No police force such as exists today existed in any country; income tax lay still in the future. The changes in the power of the state which are already observable came about because of changes in ideas and because of the development to greater efficiency of well-known institutions, rather than because of technology. In no major state before 1789 could it even be assumed that all its subjects would understand the language of government, while none, except perhaps Great Britain and the United Provinces, succeeded in so identifying itself with its subjects as to leave its government more concerned to protect them against foreigners than itself against them. Nowhere else on the eastern side of the Atlantic did any sovereign power look much like a modern nation-state.

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