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Chapter 9. Am I in Charge? Absolutely!

In This Chapter

• The origins of absolutism

The rise of the Sun King

• The English absolutists

• Civil war rocks England

A revolution that was glorious?

The early years of the seventeenth century featured economic and agricultural events that shaped the politics of the seventeenth century, particularly in western Europe. The economies of many countries slowed. The harvests across Europe yielded less food than usual because of climatic changes and because of war-related damage to farmland. These changes left many people unhappy, hungry, and financially strapped. Politically, all classes jockeyed for position in western Europe. Peasants demanded rights, nobility demanded more power, and monarchs demanded that the peasants and nobles fall in line. The time was right for the rise of the absolutists.

Absolutism was a form of government, usually within a monarchy, in which the ruler exercised absolute power over virtually all facets of his or her kingdom. In other words, absolute monarchs controlled government and law, religion, economic policy, the military, and in some cases the culture of the country. In order to be an absolutist, the monarch needed to eliminate all competition within the country: no courts to overrule his or her decisions, no armies to threaten stability, and no nobles powerful enough to successfully scheme against the crown. Absolutism served to streamline the governing of a nation and reduce the time it took to make and act on decisions. From the perspective of the ruler, absolutism was ideal in times of crisis, war, or revolution.

Define Your Terms

Some historians prefer the term “administrative monarchy to “absolute monarchy."

The absolute monarchs of the seventeenth century took a page out of the proverbial book written by the New Monarchs of the fifteenth century. The New Monarchs included such rulers as Henry VII of England; Louis XI, “the Spider King,” of France; and even Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain. These New Monarchs centralized power, reduced the power of the nobility, and streamlined and revitalized the economy. Ferdinand and Isabella went a step further and took control of religion by chasing Jews and Muslims from Spain. The New Monarchs were Machiavellian and often strict, if not brutal, as was Louis XI.

Planting the Seeds of Absolutism

As the seventeenth century rolled around in France, the situation seemed bleak. The harvests were poor, the economic situation was terrible, and religious tensions still plagued the nation. Peasants throughout France were hungry and the nobility desperately wanted political stability. Simply put, France needed strong, creative leadership to restore order and develop new methods of governing and stimulating the economy.

France got a taste of that leadership with King Henry IV and his chief advisor; unfortunately, Henry’s rule didn’t last long enough. Soon after his passing, one of France’s greatest minds found himself in a position of power from which he could move France forward and turn it into the dominant nation in Europe. But the man who masterminded the transformation of France wasn’t a king but a cardinal. What this cardinal accomplished, though, had its beginnings during the reign of Henry IV.

Henry IV

King Henry IV took over following a dreadful series of religious wars that tore the country apart (see Chapter 7). In 1598, only nine years after he took the throne, Henry IV converted to Catholicism to placate the French Catholics and issued the Edict of Nantes to allow the Huguenots to live in relative peace. Unlike so many French monarchs before him, Henry cared deeply for France and the French people. Henry also appointed a Protestant, Maximilien de Bethune, Duke of Sully (1560-1641), to be his chief minister. Henry could hardly have made a better choice.

In only a dozen years, Henry, who once promised “a chicken in every pot” for the people of France, turned the nation around and put France in a position to benefit from the strategic moves made by his successors. Had Henry not been murdered by a madman in 1610, there is no telling how much farther he could have taken France.

Sully and Richelieu

The Duke of Sully proved to be invaluable during the reign of Henry IV. Under Sully’s leadership, France lowered the taxes for the French peasants. Traditionally, peasants were expected to bear the greatest tax burden in France because there had always been more peasants in France than any other demographic group. The percentage of a peasant’s wages that were eaten up by taxes usually left that peasant in dire straits. To compensate for the drop in revenue, Sully created a fee for officers of the court to guarantee that the royal officials were able to pass the office down through their families. Sully also leased the collection of some taxes to tax collectors.

Would You Believe?

For all he did to improve France, Sully never won any popularity contests. Catholics disliked him because he was Protestant and Protestants disliked him because he remained loyal to Henry IV. Furthermore, contemporary accounts paint Sully as rude and stubborn. Sully's political career ended abruptly with the assassination of Henry IV.

In one of his most brilliant and progressive moves, Sully helped finance the Company for Trade with the Indies, a company specializing in overseas trade. Sully saw the potential for generating endless revenues by overseas trade, as well as increasing revenues by making domestic trade quicker and easier. To bolster domestic trade and commerce, Sully began work on a national system of highways to speed up the transportation of goods. He also drained swamps, began construction of canals, and worked to prevent deforestation. Much of Henry’s success as king must be attributed to Sully.

Upon Henry’s death, the boy-king Louis XIII (1601-1643) took the throne. Because Louis was too young to rule, his mother, Marie de’ Medici, headed the government as queen-regent. She may have held the title, but Marie didn’t do much; the real power lay with the nobles of the royal council. In 1628, though, everything changed with the appointment of Armand Jean du Plessis, Cardinal Richelieu (1585-1642) as the chief minister to the king. Richelieu had plotted against the former chief minister, La Vieuville, and, upon the arrest of La Vieuville, the king moved Richelieu into the vacant position.

Richelieu had two main goals for France and he set out immediately to accomplish each. Richelieu wanted to centralize power and he wanted to weaken the Habsburgs. Richelieu took power away from many of the nobles by creating new positions within the government called intendants. He divided France into 32 regions and placed intendants in each region to carry out royal orders, collect taxes, preside over judicial hearings, and recruit soldiers. The intendants were appointed by the king and were not allowed to serve where they had any family ties or financial interests; Richelieu insisted on this to prevent corruption and conflicts of interest. This system greatly weakened the nobility because the intendants performed many of the tasks previously performed by the nobility. As the nobility lost power, the king gained power.

Richelieu believed that a strong national government could only be achieved after local governments had the backing of Paris. Uprisings, violent protests, and riots had been common for years. Richelieu made it possible for local authorities to respond quickly and severely, with the full support of the French military. An example

Would You Believe?

On one occasion, Richelieu learned of a conspiracy against the government led by a high-ranking and powerful duke. Without a second thought, he had the duke beheaded.

Richelieu hoped to intimidate his enemies with his harsh example.

occurred at the Protestant stronghold of La Rochelle in the 1620s. In the mind of King Louis XIII, the Huguenots there had nearly established political and military independence and the city needed to be brought back in line. Richelieu led the siege of the city himself and won a decisive victory over Protestantism. He destroyed the city walls, dealt with city officials, then celebrated mass in the city. This strong show of force set an example for all of France to see; the national government would not tolerate insubordination of any kind, political or religious.

Richelieu’s biggest domestic challenge probably was the financial situation. Richelieu’s larger, more powerful central government and army cost more money than France had. The government was stronger than ever before, yet it still lacked the power to tax any way it wished. Much of the nobility remained exempt from taxation and many local economies still had the power to vote on taxation. While Richelieu managed to use local governments to help bolster the economy through revenue sharing, the national government still had not reached a state of absolutism.

As for foreign policy, Richelieu recognized the danger in having Spanish Habsburgs to the north and south of France and the Austrian Habsburgs controlling Germany to the east. His sole foreign policy goal was to weaken the Habsburgs. He did this by supporting the enemies of the Habsburgs, even though they were Protestant, in the Thirty Years’ War (see Chapter 8). Richelieu even entered the war on the side of the Protestants. Through his unorthodox and often ruthless tactics, Richelieu succeeded in strengthening the French government, weakening the Habsburgs, and laying the foundation for real absolutism in France. 

Would You Believe?

Richelieu justified his strict policies by claiming that God would allow certain actions by the state that would not otherwise be allowed by private citizens.


As Richelieu approached his final days, he convinced Louis XIII to name Jules Mazarin (1602-1661) as his next chief minister. The king took his advice. Mazarin, an Italian- turned-French-citizen, worked closely with Richelieu and knew his political philosophy well. Soon thereafter, Louis XIII died and a new boy king took the throne. Under Louis XIV (1638-1715), whose mother acted as queen-regent, Mazarin quickly moved into a position of authority. Mazarin worked to continue Richelieu’s anti-Habsburg policy and his centralizing domestic policy.

Mazarin was successful in his foreign policy. He negotiated France’s position in the Peace of Westphalia and in the Treaty of the Pyrenees. He successfully added territory to France and set an expansionist precedent his young king eventually would follow.

As for Mazarin’s domestic policy, he tried to do things the way Richelieu did, but met with little domestic success. Mazarin failed to control the nobility. He also faced a backlash over rising taxes and a failing economy, especially after a period of peacetime. Ultimately, the French rebelled in civil wars known as the Fronde. The king and Mazarin prevailed, but not before Mazarin was chased from France twice. These uprisings, witnessed firsthand by Louis XIV, made an indelible impression on the young monarch.

Mazarin died in 1661 and thus the kingdom was turned over completely to Louis XIV. Historians have argued that Mazarin, perhaps because he was Italian, concerned himself more with foreign policy than with helping the people of France. Regardless, he helped pave the way for the reign of Louis XIV, the likes of which Europe had never seen.

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