Foundations of French Absolutism
Absolutist monarchs did not necessarily have complete control over government, but they limited participation in government, usually that of the aristocracy or nobility, as lower social classes exercised limited, if any, political participation. At the same time, absolute monarchs preserved social and legal privileges of the aristocracy in order to maintain their support.
Henry IV and Louis XIII helped lay the foundations of absolute rule in France. Henry IV (previously Henry of Navarre) became king of France after his marriage to Margaret of Valois, during a time of religious strife between Catholics and Protestants. Henry was a Protestant, but to help secure his title, he converted to Catholicism and signed the Edict of Nantes in 1598, confirming Catholicism as the state religion, but granting religious tolerance to French Protestants (known as Huguenots).
Henry and his Chief Minister Sully also worked to consolidate the bureaucracy and win support from the nobility. Nobles were exempt from taxes, leaving the tax burden to fall mostly on the peasants. Sully also helped Henry reduce the national debt, build new roads and canals, and revive the economy through industry and agriculture. To raise money, Henry sold titles of nobility, which became known as “robe nobles.”
Louis XIII came to power at the age of 9 after Henry IV was assassinated in 1610. Louis appointed Cardinal Richelieu as Chief Minister in 1624, and Richelieu essentially ruled France until his death in 1642, further increasing royal power. The intendant system divided France into 32 districts run by royal officials called intendants, allowing for greater centralization. Finally, Richelieu supported the Protestants in the Thirty Years War, leading to the defeat of the Habsburgs and allowing France to emerge as the leading European power.
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Louis XIV: The Sun King
Louis XIV and his minister Cardinal Mazarin came to power in 1643. When nobles led a rebellion known as The Fronde in an attempt to limit the monarchy, Louis vowed to control the nobility during his reign.
He is alleged to have proclaimed “L’etat, c’est moi,” meaning “I am the state,” and his title of “Sun King” refers to the idea that French society revolved around him. Memories of the Fronde impelled Louis to build the magnificent Palace of Versailles outside of Paris, where he could exert more control over the nobility. Louis’ finance minister Jean-Baptiste Colbert helped Louis build a centralized state by implementing mercantile policies such as tariffs. However, the tax system remained flawed, which would create problems when Louis needed to fund his many wars of expansion.
Louis also revoked the Edict of Nantes and replaced it with the Edict of Fontainebleau, proclaiming “one king, one law, one faith.” Many Huguenots fled France, depriving France of labor. As previously mentioned, Louis XIV engaged France in a series of wars of expansion against other European nations, causing financial problems that would plague France for decades.
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Russia experienced a “time of troubles” in the 16th century after the reign of the brutal Ivan the Terrible. In order to restore order, the nobles (known as boyars) elected Michael Romanov as tsar. The Romanov Dynasty would rule Russia from 1613 until the Russian Revolution in 1917.
In 1682, Peter the Great assumed the throne, ruling until 1725. Peter was considered an “enlightened monarch,” bringing Enlightenment ideas and reforms to Russia. Realizing Russia had fallen behind Western Europe, Peter acted to modernize the country. He traveled to Holland and England to observe western customs and militaries.
He modernized Russia’s army, bringing German military leaders to train his army and help build a navy. Construction of the city of St. Petersburg began in 1703 as Russia’s “window to the West” and a symbol of modernization and westernization. Peter also launched the Great Northern War against Sweden, taking control of the Baltic Sea from the Swedes in 1721.
Peter also instituted social reforms. Russian women could appear in public without veils, and boyars (nobles) were ordered to shave their traditional long beards and had to serve in the army or in administrative positions. However, these changes also increased the gap between the nobles and peasants, although Peter’s introduction of the potato did help improve agriculture and provided a better food supply for peasants. Catherine the Great succeeded Peter and continued his reforms, most notably in education and territorial expansion.
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