France Under Louis XIV

The peak of French absolutism was reached during the personal rule of Louis XIV (1661–1715). His authority was fully enshrined in the concept of the Divine Right of Kings as expressed by Bossuet: ‘The person of the King is sacred...all the state is in him; the will of the entire people is contained in his.’1 This hinged on the precept that ‘It is God who establishes Kings.’ Louis XIV was determined to act the part of absolute monarch to the full, referring to kings as ‘fathers of their people’ and emphasizing the importance of a government ‘that is directed by Kings whom God alone can judge’.2 He departed from the more passive role of Louis XIII, who had been content to entrust the use of his prerogatives to a leading minister.

Yet it is possible to oversimplify the significance of Louis XIV's powers in practical terms and to exaggerate the actual range of his authority. Even the theory of Divine Right was circumscribed. Bossuet, for example, warned that ‘Kings, like all others, are subject to the equity of the laws.’1When they were applied, the prerogative powers frequently came up against the forces of tradition and privilege. Louis XIV soon came to realize that the changes he sought to impose from above could rarely be carried to their logical conclusion, and that absolutism would have to accept certain boundaries in practice as well as in theory. Indeed, the very security of his position depended on his being able to establish a degree of balance and harmony within French society. Absolutism was the elevation of royal power above all other levels, but it could be accomplished only by the maintenance of everything in its ‘natural and legitmate order’.3 To destroy all obstacles would upset this balance and would invoke the accusation of tyranny. Louis XIV therefore accepted the continuation of many privileges and traditional powers which actually militated against absolutism.

The main theme of this chapter, the development of royal power encountering the resistance of tradition, can be illustrated by Louis XIV's administrative, economic and clerical policies.

Louis XIV exercised more complete personal authority over the process of government than had any of his predecessors. He openly acknowledged his enjoyment of responsibility and power: ‘Le metier de roiest grand, noble, delicieux’4 and, according to Voltaire, he had ‘trained and inured himself to work’.5 He was, therefore, careful not to appoint a successor to Mazarin, and he insisted that ultimate reference for instructions should be made ‘à moi’. Where Louis XIII had used a Principal Minister, Louis XIV employed Secretaries of State, none of whom were allowed to become too elevated. Colbert, Le Tellier, Louvois and Pomponne did not possess the range of authority entrusted to Richelieu; this was now exercised by the King himself. Nevertheless, there were certain inevitable limitations to his authority. Louis made no major structural alterations in the Royal Councils, which comprised the Conseil d'Etat, the Conseil d'en Haut, the Conseil des Finances, the Conseil des Dépêches and the Conseil Privé. He attempted, as far as possible, to tighten up on the membership of the Conseil d'en Haut, the central body, but the whole system was too well lubricated by the purchase of offices for Louis to consider destroying it. Unlike Frederick the Great of Prussia (1740–86), he made no attempt to stamp his own imprint on the structure or to cut through the upper bureaucracy to ensure more direct control at all levels. The conciliar system remained, even if it was weakened, and Louis XIV's absolutism depended ultimately on what information the ministers chose to feed to him. Total personal supervision was, therefore, out of the question, particularly when Louis XIV removed the centre of his administration from Paris to Versailles. Indeed, one of the many criticisms levelled against Louis towards the end of his reign was that his rule was becoming increasingly disjointed.

In local administration the dichotomy between advancing royal power and the resistance of tradition was even more apparent. On the one hand, it was evident that the intendants were being given greater authority and discretionary powers over the provinces and towns. Under Colbert they had become regular royal agents, thirty in number, supervised by the Royal Councils and assuming financial, military and judicial control over the généralités in which they served. The result was a parallel decline in the powers of the governors and other traditional provincial officials. On the other hand, no attempt was made to reconstruct the local administrative system. Many traditional positions were retained and offered for sale; these included the financial officiers. Nor was there any systematic reorganization of urban government. Although the 1692 statute abolished the right of towns to elect their own officials and extended the powers of the intendants, the former municipal officials were kept to satisfy local aspirations. In general, the new royal officials did not replace the old provincial functionaries. They overlapped them, with the result that two bureaucratic layers were built up, the one impeding the progress of the other.

The reign saw no radical change in the nature of the Paris Parlement. Louis XIV certainly intended to assert his authority over any institution claiming a share in the legislative process and he referred to the Paris Parlement as being ‘in possession and enjoyment of usurped authority’.3Furthermore, ‘The rise of the Parlements in general had been dangerous to the entire Kingdom during my minority. They had to be humbled, less for the harm which they had done than for that which they might do in the future.’3 By the 1673 Letters Patent the Paris Parlement was ordered to register edicts without discussion, thus confirming Richelieu's treatment in 1641. But Louis XIV was careful not to destroy the institution altogether—it was a potential source of danger if provoked too openly, as the First Fronde had proved. The real attempt to overcome the Parlement'schallenge to royal authority did not occur until Maupeou's abolition of the Parlements in 1771.

French law experienced a similar combination of royal encroachments and the persistence of tradition. New legal codes introduced, mainly during the administration of Colbert, included the Civil Ordinance (1667), the Criminal Ordinance (1670), the Ordinance of Commerce (1673), the Ordinance of Marine (1681) and the Code Noir (1685). Despite these examples of innovation, considerable local diversity remained, especially between the northern region's common law and the Roman law applied in the south. Absolutism did not, therefore, confer legal uniformity. This was to be the achievement of the French Revolution and Napoleon I.

The increase in royal authority had mixed effects on finances. There were considerable improvements in the methods of tax collection, but not in the structure of the fiscal system. Under Louis XIV France was taxed as if she were permanently on a war footing, but the numerous inconsistencies and privileges resulted in chronic wastage.

Louis XIV authorized and supported the extensive reforms of Colbert. These included the use of intendants to assess the level of taxation in the généralités, frequent surveys to reduce the incidence of petty corruption, and the increase of indirect taxes, like the gabelle, in order to extract more revenues from the wealthier sections of society. Careful planning, and the removal of numerous blockages, resulted in a series of balanced budgets, virtually unheard of in the seventeenth century. But Colbert's proposals for more radical reform were ignored by Louis XIV. The result was that the inequalities and privileges remained basically untouched. The Church escaped direct taxation on payment of an annual ‘free gift’. The nobility claimed exemption on the ground that they served France militarily. Louis was reluctant to challenge the status quo, for fear of provoking the First and Second Estates into active resistance to absolutism. He was also opposed to interfering with local exemptions and the uneven application of the taille, gabelle, tariffs and excise duties. When, in the 1690s, Vauban proposed a basic solution to the financial problems of France by the assessment of an income tax at 7 per cent on all classes, Louis was predictably hostile. Faced with this unwillingness to challenge the system, Colbert's successors had to make do with hand-to-mouth methods in dealing with ever increasing war debts. The result was a state of constant financial crisis. Between 1708 and 1715, for example, the total expenditure of the government was 1,915 m. livres, while the revenue collected was not more than 461 m. By 1715 the total deficit probably stood at 3,000 m. livres. Louis XIV's failure to push absolutism through the barrier of economic privilege created an intolerable situation of prolonged semi-bankruptcy for the eighteenth century, which had much to do with the eventual destruction of royal absolutism.

Between 1667 and 1683 French commerce and industry were under the capable direction of Colbert, as Controller General. He adopted the view that the best means of increasing ‘the power and the glory of His Majesty and lowering that of his enemies and rivals’6 was by a policy of mercantilism involving more extensive state controls. This was achieved by a variety of methods. Colbert stimulated the growth of the French merchant marine and imposed heavy tariffs on imports in an effort to eradicate English and Dutch competition. To encourage French commercial expansion he established several Royal Companies, directed by the State. These included the East India Company (1664), the West India Company (1664), the Northern Company (1669) and the Levant Company (1670). He also increased the scope of state intervention in industry, greatly diversifying the range of manufactures and forming a series of Manufactures Royales. It might be thought, therefore, that Louis XIV's reign provided a thoroughly effective mercantilist system. There were, however, two serious shortcomings. One was that the reforms of Colbert and the policies of his successors failed to overcome either the numerous privileges of the trade guilds or the inconsistencies of internal customs barriers which enabled some of the eastern provinces to trade more easily with Germany than with the rest of France. Another was that royal intervention was frequently of the wrong kind, being concerned with the quality of manufactures and the quantity of exports rather than with the encouragement of a more efficient capitalist system. Consequently, the Régime failed to liberate fully the productive forces of French industry and commerce. As Adam Smith later observed: ‘The industry and commerce of a great country he (Colbert) endeavoured to regulate upon the same model as the departments of a modern office.’7 This was seen as early as 1685 by Des Gilleuls, who believed that ‘le plus grand secret est de laisser toute liberte dans le commerce’.8 The natural conclusion, therefore, was that the reign failed to destroy the anomalies and restrictions of the commercial and industrial sectors while at the same time imposing excessive restraint on free enterprise.

What was Louis XIV's attitude to French society? He was determined to prove that he was unquestionably in authority over all classes. But in his concern to eliminate the possibility of rivalry and criticism from any source he contributed to the growth of an unbalanced and stratified system which could not be maintained indefinitely as the basis of absolute monarchy. He created a neutralized but potentially dangerous aristocracy. His attempts to withdraw all offices of state from the grasp of the noblesse d’épée and to concentrate its leading members at Versailles meant that a substantial sector of the Second Estate became increasingly non-productive and was regarded as parasitic by the rest of society. The structure of the Third Estate was also adversely affected. Louis XIV carried to its logical conclusion Richelieu's promotion of members of the bourgeoisie into state offices as a new nobility. This beheaded the productive body of the bourgeoisie by encouraging a scramble for offices among those who had achieved commercial successes. It also heaped upon this new nobility the accumulated resentment of the noblesse anti-Dutch . Saint Simon, for example, referred to Louis XIV's choice of officials as ‘la regne de vile bourgeoisie’. The lower section of the Third Estate, the peasantry, continued to be regarded as the inexhaustible source of direct taxation, and Louis XIV ignored the warnings provided by the numerous rebellions which occurred during his reign. If anything, the conditions of the peasantry worsened. Absolutism, far from conferring benefits by destroying the remnants of feudalism, actually allowed it to regain ground between 1660 and 1670 as the nobility were enabled to increase their seigneurial powers; this forestalled the possibility of aristocratic revolt, but the eventual price was rural upheaval such as occurred in 1789.

The most complex sequence of events during the reign concerned religion. As a Gallican, Louis quarrelled with the Pope; on becoming an Ultramontanist, he opposed Gallicanism; and, as a devout Catholic, he attacked minority movements like Protestantism and Jansenism. The nature of these conflicts and the shifting ground upon which he stood are an indication that firm, decisive and consistent royal policy was lacking.

The Crown was quite capable of increasing its authority by draconian measures, as can be illustrated by three examples. First, Louis ensured himself a firm base of support by nominating only Gallican bishops and by insisting on extending the right of régale to all dioceses within France. This precipitated a conflict with the papacy which was not finally resolved until 1693. Second, the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes (1685) imposed extremely harsh punitive measures against the Huguenots at a time when most other European monarchs had accepted a more enlightened and moderate policy. The Edict was the culmination of a long campaign against Protestantism which had included the expulsion of Huguenots from all offices and trade guilds (1681) and the use of the Dragonnade system (1684). Louis clearly believed that he was acting from a position of great strength and that the removal of a compromise agreement (such as the Edict of Nantes) with a dissident minority would be an open indication of the success of absolutism. Bossuet seemed to uphold this view when he enthused: ‘The work is worthy of your reign and of yourself … Heresy is no more. May the King of Heaven preserve the King of Earth.’ Third, Louis XIV tried similar measures against Jansenism, on the assumption that royal absolutism had an inherent obligation to prevent the growth of further heresy in the future; his destruction of Port Royal in 1711 was an indication of the lengths to which he was prepared to go to maintain orthodoxy.

Yet Louis XIV always seemed to stop short of full clerical control and often retreated, after a while, to a less authoritarian position. For example, he had an ambivalent attitude to the activities of the Assembly of the Clergy in 1682. On the one hand, he secured the passage of the Four Articles, guaranteeing basic Gallican liberties. On the other, he prevented the discussions on separatism from going too far and he promptly disbanded the Assembly when the issue of a separate Patriarchate in France came up. This apparent inconsistency is easy to explain and it shows the limits to which royal power was prepared to go. Too extreme an assertion of Gallicanism would benefit the Assembly of Clergy and the Paris Parlement rather than the king himself. This was because the direct transfer of power from Rome to Paris would inevitably be followed by demands from the Assembly and the Parlement for greater control over the Church than the king would wish to grant. Louis therefore sought safety, by moving deliberately towards an Ultramontane position, and blocked the aspirations of the Assembly and the Parlement by reintroducing some of the influence of the Pope by 1693. At no time, therefore, did Louis XIV ever attempt to push absolutism to the point of a direct challenge to papal supremacy, and he stopped well short of the policies of Napoleon I.

Louis XIV did not say ‘l’état, c'est moi’; this myth was probably started by Voltaire. It would not even have been true. The very isolation of the monarchy, the supposed guarantee of its power, was a major source of weakness. For, while the king balanced the classes against each other, juggled with his ministers and retained certain privileges as safeguards against protest, he lost the opportunity of establishing a more systematic bureaucracy. As Frederick the Great later proved, it was only by means of carefully structured and integrated layers of officialdom, shorn of traditions and venality, that a king could exercise the kind of personal control to which Louis XIV aspired.

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