The History of France: The Road to French Absolutism

From the Lecture Series: The Renaissance, the Reformation, and the Rise of Nations

By Andrew C. Fix, PhD, Lafayette College

Absolutism was a system of government in which all sovereignty resided with the king, true to Louis XIV’s dictum: “I am the state.” Particularly in France and Germany, the wars of religion had seriously weakened national governments and monarchies. Nobles had regained a great deal of power, peasants were in revolt, and there was a need for a political rebuilding of monarchies.

King Louis and his family portrayed as Roman gods in a 1670 painting by Jean Nocret
King Louis and his family portrayed as Roman gods (Image: By Jean Nocret – Chatêau de Versailles/Public domain)

Monarchies in the 17th century attempted to rebuild based on a separation of religion from politics, the ideal of reason of state, or the Politique ideal, put forward by the French monarchy during the wars of religion in France. That became a major starting point for the rebuilding of monarchies across Europe in the 17th century. Rebuilding was based on political considerations and the needs of state power as their primary goals. One of the results of this rebuilding was the birth and growth of royal absolutism.

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Defining Absolutism

First of all, how do you define absolutism? Simply, it is a system in which all sovereignty resides in the king; he does not share power and has no real partners in rule. That’s a very different system from a medieval monarchy, and even somewhat different from the New Monarchy that preceded it. It’s a new form of government altogether.

In absolutism, the king’s power is virtually unrestrained: It is unrestrained by laws—the king is considered to be above the law; unrestrained by nobles, who are subjugated in many cases; and unrestrained by parliaments or by national assemblies. The king rules by divine right, a view even claimed by medieval kings. But now, the king claims to embody the state.

This is a transcript from the video series The Renaissance, the Reformation, and the Rise of Nations . Watch it now, on The Great Courses.

It was an idea that the king himself has all the authority in the state; there are no independent centers of power outside the king. This growth in power, especially the growth in the power and size of the state, alienated many people and caused quite a lot of opposition. It’s not an easy road to get to absolutism, but it did succeed in several countries.

Five Steps for Building an Absolute Monarchy

To build an absolute monarchy, there are essentially five major steps that a king will want to undertake successfully. First, it is necessary to subjugate the nobility or to get the nobility into an inferior position concerning the king. In absolutism, nobles do not share power with the king at all.

Second, it is necessary to build a huge, all-pervasive bureaucracy. This was the groundwork for the bureaucratic state. As part of this structure, kings staff this bureaucracy with middle-class officials—not with nobles. They don’t want to give nobles that kind of stature, and they feel that they can depend more on middle-class officials who are loyal and more willing to carry out the king’s wishes.

Third, the king needs to collect more tax money, and the need for taxes is almost unending, meaning it continues to increase.

The king’s fourth step is to establish a large army, but it has to be unlike previous armies. In the past, European kings mustered their army together when there was a war to fight. They would fight in the war, and when it ended, the army would be disbanded. This new army is a standing army, always ready to pursue the king’s wishes. This army was used for numerous things, including defense against foreign foes, but it will also be used as a kind of internal police force to make sure that nobles are subjected and to make sure peasants pay taxes.

Finally, the last step is one that may or may not be accomplished. Absolutism can be established without doing this, but if possible, the king should establish religious uniformity. This means one religion for the whole country, with the population unified religiously, and the king, of course, in a position to control that religion.

Absolute monarchs in the 17th century begin to build the structure of a powerful, military, bureaucratic, modern state. It succeeded in France and a number of the German states, specifically Prussia and Austria, but it wasn’t successful everywhere; it failed to develop in Spain and was defeated in England.

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Absolutism Under King Henry IV

Image of the Coronation of Henry IV of England. From a 15th-century manuscript of Jean Froissart's Chronicles.
The Coronation of Henry IV of France. (Image: Jean Froissart’s Chronicles/Public domain)

Starting in France, King Henry IV was the victor in the religious wars. After he won the “War of the Three Henries,” he converted to Catholicism, because he knew that a Catholic monarch was needed to rule the largely Catholic country. His first significant action toward establishing royal power was issuing the Edict of Nantes in 1598. It gave religious toleration to the Huguenots—the Calvinists in France—with the hope to end religious disputes, to bring religious peace to the country, and to end the quarreling over religion.

Henry no doubt hoped that the Edict of Nantes would essentially remove religion from the governmental sphere. That hope was not completely borne out right away, but he made an effort with the Edict to remove religious disputes out of the realm of government as much as was possible.

To further build up the power of his monarchy, one of the first things Henry did was to restore order in the wake of the religious wars. There were still, out in the countryside, a few factions of rebellious nobles, loyal to the Holy League: the alliance between the Guise and Philip II of Spain. Henry took to the battlefield and defeated those noble factions one by one, and in doing so, reduced the opposition to his monarchy.

He then took steps to reduce the influence of nobles in his government. In particular, he replaced the nobles in his royal council—the group of the king’s closest advisers, maybe similar to our presidential Cabinet, but even closer than that to the king. Henry tried to replace nobles in the royal council with middle-class advisers, middle-class ministers, middle-class bureaucrats. Some nobles, however, remained on the royal council; his efforts created a new administrative class, based in the middle class, that was now the governmental class.

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The Duke of Sully: The Brilliant Finance Minister

Another piece Henry put in play was to hire Maximilien de Béthune, the Duke of Sully, as his finance minister. De Béthune was a kind of financial genius, which every absolute monarch needs for their treasurey to grow. De Béthune was installed and he starts to get the royal finances in good order: He increases taxes and he does many things to raise money.

A 17th century portrait of Maximilien de Béthune, duc de Sully.
Maximilien de Béthune was King Henry IV’s finance minister. (Image: By Unknwon/Public domain)

One of the important efforts that he does to raise money is he uses the sale of the government office. Many royal government offices are up for sale to the highest bidder. This has a couple of obvious benefits: Firstly, it raises revenue and becomes a main source of royal revenue, and it creates and staffs a bureaucracy, but it has problems.

One of these problems is inflation of office. The more you sell, the less each one is worth. Another disadvantage to the sale of office is that the offices become the personal property of the person who buys them, and that person can then do with the office whatever he wants.

The sale of office has existed since Philip Augustus in the 13th century and it had been a continuous problem. There had never been a good solution to the difficulties involved. Henry and De Béthune attempted to do something about this.

De Béthune established a new tax, which he called the “Paulette” Tax. He tells the officeholders, “If you do your job, and do what the king wants you to do, I will allow you to pay the king this tax. And if you pay the king this Paulette Tax, you can then hand your office down in your family, to your sons, grandsons, etc. If you don’t do what the king wants you to do in this job, we won’t let you pay the tax, and when you die, your office comes back to us.”

That was a pretty good incentive to get officeholders to do at least part of the job they were supposed to be doing. Every officeholder wanted to hand their office down to their heirs, because, after all, they consider it like any other personal property. This measure established some control on the part of the king over these venal officeholders.

De Béthune is also well known for the economic theory that he adhered to, known as “mercantilism.” Mercantilism was the predominant economic theory in early modern Europe, and at least until the end of the 18th century, most governments adhered to mercantilism as a way to finance the country.

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Mercantilism holds that there is a limited amount of wealth in the world. Therefore, each country, each government, has to get as big a share of this wealth as it possibly can, and obviously, it wants to get a bigger share of the wealth than rival nations. They accomplish this by exporting more goods than they import, and when that happens, it establishes a flow of bullion into the country.

Essentially, this favorable trade balance will bring money into the country. The money will largely go to businesses and industries, increasing the size of the tax base. Then the king can get at that money through taxation, and the money ultimately ends up in the royal government.

Louis XIII’s Capable First Minister

Louis XIII’s Capable First Minister

Portrait of King Louis XIII as a boy by 
Frans Pourbus the Younger 1611.
King Louis XIII ascended the throne in 1610. (Image: By Frans Pourbus the Younger – User:Jean-Pol GRANDMONT (2013)/Public domain)

In 1610, Henry IV was assassinated. He was followed on the throne by a 19-year-old boy—King Louis XIII. King Louis XIII did not have much interest in governing the country; he wasn’t just disengaged—he was uninterested and untalented at governing. Luckily, he had an extremely capable first minister by the name of Cardinal Richelieu, who took several giant steps on the way to absolutism. This was an interesting development as Richelieu wasn’t the king. He was a minister of the king, but he became one of the greatest builders of French absolutism. He served his royal master and his nation in ways that he believed were valuable, and in doing so, he is built up the absolute monarchy.

To accomplish this, Richelieu increased the size of the bureaucracy, as almost every succeeding king does. But he also increased the king’s control over this bureaucracy to make it more responsive to the king’s wishes, an often difficult task to accomplish. Furthermore, Richelieu increased the sale of office, bringing in additional revenues, and he figured out a kind of unique way to deal with nobles.

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Many nobles were disgruntled by the fact that they no longer appeared to have very important roles in the government. Richelieu realized that these people were still too powerful to ignore, powerful enough that he didn’t want to put them in a sensitive position in the government if he didn’t have to. He decided to give those disgruntled nobles government jobs, but jobs where they were essentially harmless, where they wouldn’t be able to create real problems for the king. In the end, the nobles were more subjugated and made inferior, now out of the king’s way.

Richelieu Solves the Huguenot Problem

Richelieu had another big problem: The Huguenots. According to the Edict of Nantes, the Huguenots could arm themselves and fortify their towns. They had become one of the last real significant obstacles to absolute royal power. Richelieu couldn’t have a state within a state in absolutism, nor could he have somebody out there with an independent army that was not the royal army. The solution was to assemble the French army, go onto the battlefield, defeat the Huguenots, and take away those privileges.

Many years were spent battling the Huguenots until, finally, in 1628, he captured their port city of La Rochelle, the last major Huguenot bastion, and the Huguenot problem was solved, at least in one sense. They were no longer allowed to bear arms or fortify their cities, but live like any other subjects in the kingdom. The only privilege that the Huguenots retained—that Richelieu allowed them to retain—was that he guaranteed them religious toleration. They could still worship freely without fear of persecution, but we have to consider the fact that they could not defend themselves against persecution. The situation had been dramatically altered with the victory over the Huguenots, but it’s considered to be one of Richelieu’s greatest achievements, and it removed one of the greatest remaining obstacles to the drive toward absolutism.

A New Kind of Royal Official

Portrait of Cardinal of Richelieu by Philippe de Champaigne 1642
Cardinal Richelieu was King Louis XIII’s chief minister in 1624. (Image: By Philippe de Champaigne/Public domain)

Richelieu achieved much financially, in terms of increasing finances and tax collection, and making the government wealthier.

The Cardinal did something, though, that was very important in dealing with the venal tax collectors. Venal tax collectors who bought their office had the bad habit of not passing on to the king all of the tax money that he was due from their tax collection. Of course, that cuts into royal revenues. The venal tax collector would simply keep the tax money for himself as a profit of his office, and there wasn’t much the king could do about that.

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Richelieu, however, instituted a new kind of royal official, called the intendant. It was not going to be an office that could be sold. Intendants would be appointed by the king; they would be paid salaries by the king; they would do what the king required. If they didn’t do what the king commanded, they were fired. As a result of this system, the intendant is loyal and responsive to the king’s wishes and more efficient in conducting the royal government than any venal official could ever be. The creation of this position was a huge step toward exercising more royal control over the country.

Tax Farmers and the Royal Army

These intendants acted as the chief royal agents in most local areas and districts, holding an important number of jobs. Among the many, tax collecting, of course, is central to absolutism. The intendants increased the collection of taxes tremendously, but they did so without actually collecting taxes themselves. They hired rich bankers, known as “tax farmers,” who would advance to the king the full sum of taxes owed to him upfront. Then, the intendant would guarantee the tax farmer the right to go out and collect taxes in a local area, so that the tax farmer could pay himself back for all of the money he had advanced to the king and also make a profit on this business.

The way the intendant guaranteed the collection of taxes was by using the royal army. He would simply tell the tax farmer, “The army is behind you; you can collect the full sum of taxes you’re due and make your profit and pay yourself back, because you gave the money to the king like you were supposed to do before. And we are going to make sure you are paid back for that.” Tax collecting then became more efficient.

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But the intendant had other jobs, as well. He recruited troops for the army in the local area; enforced royal decrees, like a sheriff, would or an executive of some kind; and he dealt with local nobles, trying to make sure that they were subjugated, or at least kept at arm’s length, and kept out of the king’s hair as much as possible.

Passing Absolutism to the Next Generation

Because of their efficient exercise of state authority, intendants were hated by peasants and nobles alike, both of whom revolted periodically from the 1620s through the 1670s in hopes of stopping the expansion of royal power. Despite the unrest, Richelieu had done his job very efficiently.

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Cardinal Richelieu died in 1642, followed a year later by Louis XIII. This left five-year-old Louis XIV on the throne and Cardinal Mazarin as Richelieu’s hand-picked successor as first minister. French absolutism was about to reach its climax.

Common Questions About French Absolutism

Q: What exactly is French Absolutism?

French Absolutism was a style of monarchy where the monarch had absolute power based on divine right. In other words, God gave the monarch the right to rule however and whenever from anywhere.

Q: What led to absolutism in France?

Absolutism was flourishing across Europe in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. It was essentially a major power grab but had roots in philosophy, as many contemporary philosophies supported it as well. There was the additional worry that there would be a civil war, with the government and the estates, in the event of a change of King; therefore, if the King was the only head of state it would simply transfer and keep the country intact, theoretically.

Q: Who is most associated with absolutism?

King Louis XIV is generally the face of absolutism in France with his famous quote “I am the state” and his flair for personal aggrandizement. He also held a tight grip on the country and was highly successful in organizing a functioning state.

Q: What led to the end of absolutism?

Hunger and revolt ended absolutism as the French Revolution sent a stark message to the ruling class about the needs of the underclass.

This article was updated on October 6, 2020

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