"To What Extent Was Louis XIV's Power In France Absolute?" Due to his immense power as the King of France, Louis XIV has always a subject of historical debate and controversy. Many of Louis' contemporaries described his style of rule as 'absolutist'; a term given to a monarch whose power is deemed so great that they are answerable to none, except God Himself. In theory, Louis should have commanded complete, unquestioned obedience from his subjects and had no advice to take advice or follow guidelines of any kind. Historians have long argued the extent to which Louis XIV's powers within France were absolute. Many orthodox historians believe that his powers were virtually absolute. However, revisionist historians have begun to question the validity of this, arguing that although powerful, he was not an absolute monarch.
During the course of this essay, I will discuss the differing views of historians and decide which is the most viable. France in the seventeenth century under Louis XIV had many economical problems to be addressed. Taxation was first and foremost, as it was the Crown's principal source of income. Collecting this efficiently was a problem due to the corruption of provincial officials. So, Louis increased the power of the Intendants. Intendants were hand picked by Louis, and were financial trouble-shooters who gained office through meritocracy, not birth, and "normally had no family or financial connection with their generalities." This meant that they were generally more efficient and loyal, as they could be dismissed at no cost or consequence to the crown.
There were thirty-one intendants for the whole of France, each of which compiled monthly reports and sent them to Louis, who would then have a better overall view of the national financial situation at that point in time. The most prolific intendant, named 'Intendant des Finances' in 1661 was Jean-Baptiste Colbert, who dominated French finances between 1661 and his death in 1683. Gaining the post of Controller-General of Finances in 1665, Colbert streamlined the French financial system by abolishing useless offices, increasing indirect tax and setting up offshore companies to boost trade. Maland once commented that "brutal and ruthless, Colbert's reforms were successful." This is not far from the truth, as his reforms not only increased annual income, but also decreased indirect tax to lessen the burden on the peasantry. Intendants let Louis keep track and differentiate between the financial turn out of each and every province, giving him a much better overall view of the financial position of France. Overall, intendants (especially Colbert) increased Louis' absolutism by strengthening his financial control over the provinces.
France and most of Western Europe was extremely religious during the Seventeenth Century. The church reached every person from the most remote town to the largest city, and hence was an ideal tool for Louis to use to increase his scope of influence. The church created a rudimentary legal court for communities, and even doubled up as a welfare system to care for the poor. Since the Concordat of Bologna in 1516, the king controlled appointment to all abbeys, priories and bishoprics in France; and as church offices were prestigious positions, they proved a lucrative source of patronage to reward and to tame French nobles.
Coupled with this was France's defiant Gallicanism, which decreased Papal influence while increasing Louis' absolutism as both King and head of the French Catholic church. This allowed him not only to manipulate nobility, but also place loyal and trusted nobles into positions of power within the church hierarchy, increasing his power within the church and thus, his absolutism. Louis also boosted his absolutism by trying to enforce a policy of religious uniformity in France. France was a 90% catholic country following the counter-reformation, Protestants, or Huguenots, as they were known in France made up 5-8% of the religious community. The rest were made up of other religious sects such as Jansenists, Jesuits and Calvinists. Louis disliked disorder and non-conformists and considered these sects dangerous, a potential obstacle in his quest for absolutism and an insult to his royal integrity.
As R. Wilkinson points out, "How ridiculous therefore that... [Louis] the hammer of the heretical Dutch should be defied by heretics at home!" . Up until 1687, Louis took a non-aggressive approach, and simply tightened the financial and legal restrictions imposed on them, hoping they would "consider... whether there was any good reason to deprive themselves of the advantages they could have in common with the rest of my subjects." However, following the conversion of the famous Huguenot general and figurehead Turenne to Catholicism, his policies grew dramatically harsher. In 1680, Louis pronounced all conversions to Protestantism illegal and in 1685, Louis signed the Edict of Fontainebleau, which denounced the rights of Huguenots to free worship, separate religious feasts, holidays and so on.
His subjects, who also disliked religious minorities and shared his view that their removal would increase national unity, supported Louis greatly in this. This policy increased popularity and loyalty among the large majority of the people and as such was a success in Louis's earch for absolutism. This view is widely held by more revisionist historians, such as W. C. Scoville who believed post Fontainebleau economic stagnation had more to do with Louis' last two wars than the exodus of Huguenots, and was of no great detriment to France's standing in the European community. The church also provided a sort of social hierarchy in the form of the 'Divine Right Of Kings'.
It was common belief at the time that Kings themselves were chosen by god to rule their respective territories, which coexisted conveniently with Louis' ideas of absolutism. As a result, clerics all over France constantly stressed the wisdom and divinity of the King, serving as a propaganda tool for Louis' absolutism. However, there were many factors and innate problems within France that limited Louis' potential for absolute rule. One example is found in France's economy. Firstly, as R. Wilkinson points out, in 1661 Europe was experiencing a depression of sorts, an "economic decay" in which wages lessened and prices fell.
This meant that Louis had to scrape together what he could, which was often achieved by levying higher taxes. Unfortunately, the seventeenth century lacked efficient means of communication, transport, record keeping and general accurate flow of information. This made Louis' job tricky as the sheer size of France made it extremely difficult to keep in touch with far away provinces, limiting his knowledge and control, and as a result, his absolutism. Collecting taxes posed another problem for the same reasons; lack of communication, information and very slow response time meant that if provinces didn't pay enough, it could be weeks or even months until Louis knew about it. Also, Pays d'etat provinces posed a problem as they were allowed to negotiate tax rates, which resulted in constant dispute. Not only did this make setting and collecting taxes difficult, but as Maland commented, "made nonsense of Louis' concept of L'etat, c'est moi" and was a blatant insult to Louis' absolutism.
In addition, Louis' absolutism was further impeded by corruption. Much like England at this time, France's state officials were poorly paid, resulting in officials lining their own pockets to suit their needs. Louis' tax farmers were often guilty of this, adding to the already inconvenient state of affairs. Also, indirect taxes such the Gabelle on salt were very unpopular and increased the already heavily increasing tax rates due to Louis' many wars. This added to the hardship of the peasants of the third estate.
From a financial point of view, the estates of seventeenth century France were an innate problem with French society. The first and second estates were exempt from taxation, and ironically were made up of the richest people in society (aristocrats, high-ranking clergy). This left the entire tax burden to the people who could afford it least (the third estate), the peasantry. This led to both unrest and population decline, which in turn needed funding to solve, making matters even worse. Not only was the peasantry slowly declining in size, the nobility was increasing. To French nobility at the time, work was seen as socially unacceptable, unless it was in the army or church, leaving no opportunity for even indirect tax on nobility.
So, to gain extra funds, bureaucratic offices were created and sold to rich merchants and landowners, leaving them exempt from taxation, with bureaucratic jobs that were invariably of the lowest workload and importance. This type of long-term loss for short-term gain policies clogged up the bureaucracy and administration, while urging on the dire financial situation of the state as a whole. France's defiant Gallicanism also caused Louis problems. R. Wilkinson once commented that you did not need to push French clergy very hard "in order to reveal hatred of Roman influence." In 1673 this became blatantly obvious in an altercation between the Pope and Louis over the Regale.
The Regale was a custom by which the king claimed the salaries of vacant bishoprics. While this had already been legal in some areas of northern France, Louis extended it to the whole of France. In response, two French Bishops appealed to Rome, claiming Louis was interfering with Church law. After receiving threats from the pope in support, Louis alerted the Gallican, who by 1682 had published the anti-papal 'Gallican Articles'. A tit for tat dispute ensued in which Louis himself was nearly excommunicated, resulting in the French seizure of Avignon. This was a step too far; it ruined his foreign policy, embarrassed French Catholics and put him blatantly in the wrong.
This reduced his absolutism in more than one way. Firstly, it meant that he was made to look overly aggressive; secondly his people were ashamed and as a result less respectful; and thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, he had to show weakness by making amends and apologising to the Roman Catholic Church. This was because although France retained its Gallican spirit, its church still respected the authority of Rome and as a result, Louis could not officially condemn unwanted religious sects, namely Jansenists and Huguenots. This reduced his absolutism further, as it now appeared that Louis had to appeal for help in exercising the law on his own subjects. Religious sects defied Louis' quest for absolutism and religious uniformity within France at home. Huguenots were tolerated within France due to the conditions described within the Edict of Nantes.
Many French Catholics were ashamed of this, as in the seventeenth century it was seen as weak and even blasphemous to tolerate two religions within one state. Louis himself and the rest of Europe saw this edict as a shambles and regarded the very existence of another faith in France as an insult, which he went about eradicating by imposing financial penalties and social restrictions on the Huguenot community. However, in 1679 Louis' more aggressive policies were launched, such as the abolition of Huguenot courts (Chambres de l'Edit) and his ruthless quartering of Dragonnade's in Huguenot households, who were encouraged to make their lives hard. Louvois was even known to have said, "by their refusal to submit to the King's decrees, you need not observe in their case, the restraints which have been prescribed to you, nor can you make too severe and burdensome the quartering of the troops upon them." Eventually, the Edict was renounced in the Edict of Fontainebleau of 1685. While this was popular with the church, it resulted in around 200, 000 Huguenots, many of them artisans, craftsmen and merchants fleeing to Holland, Britain and other European states, at great loss to France's economy and at great gain to its rivals.
The escape of Huguenots to rival nations was in itself a detriment to Louis' absolutism, made worse by the fact many were skilled workers. Also, the brutality with which Huguenot 'heretics' were tortured, executed and paraded through the streets was looked on with disgust by much of Europe and even the Pope himself, irreparably damaging France's international reputation. This is a commonly held orthodox view, and as put across by N. Mitford, "The results of the Revocation were, as might have been foreseen, a disaster." Louis' religious unification policy was further foiled by another sect; the Jansenists. Jansenists believed that salvation could not be gained through a good life and studious worship, but that God had predestined those to be damned and saved, and that no amount of good or evil could change that fact. They angered him for a number of reasons; they were often intellectuals and philosophers, they had high moral standards (criticised Louis' drunkenness and promiscuous sex life), and their headquarters were attached to the Port Royale des Champs convent near Louis' palace in Versailles.
Initially, Louis persecutes the Jansenists and shuts down their schools and making all clergy sign an anti-Jansenist formulary. However, the D'etente and the 'Peace of the Church' from 1668 to 1679, the persecution ends. Once again Louis' absolutism is dented, as he does not gain full support in his persecution (many of provincial elites are Jansenists or their sympathisers) and Pascal's 'Provincial Letters' is published. After the Dutch War ends, persecution resumes, but Jansenists persist, and the publication of a major Jansenist work, Quesnel's 'Moral Reflections on the New Testament' adds insult to injury. Eventually, Louis' absolutism is further reduced when he has to seek papal support against Jansenism in 1693.
This not only shows how little power Louis had over the French Catholic Church, but also how absolute the Roman Catholic Church's power was over his own church. There were many factors that hindered and boosted Louis' quest for absolute power over France. Many were simple logistical problems such as the lack of efficient transport and communication that were not Louis' fault, but made absolute power much more difficult to attain. However, there were many decisions made by Louis that have become the subject of historical debate. For example, orthodox historians such as N. Mitford hold the view that Louis' persecution of the Huguenots was "a disaster", while more revisionist style historians such as W.
C. Scoville put French economic stagnation down to Louis' last two wars; which would seem a more logical explanation. Other areas of debate include whether Louis' treatment of minority religious sects destroyed French international image, and the contribution to absolutism given by intendants and Jean-Baptiste Colbert. Orthodox historians commonly believe that Colbert was fundamental in bringing France's economic position back form near bankruptcy. However, revisionists have challenged this view and criticized Colbert for not developing the agricultural side of France's economy, whose technology and yields, which were stagnating, and were the principal occupation of most of Louis's subjects.
Overall, although Louis' made many steps in the right direction, such as his reforms of the economy and administration structure, his lack of control over papal affairs, corruption, communication and religious sects seriously stunted the extent of his absolute power. So in conclusion, although Louis had a large degree of control over his subjects, it was reduced to the extent that Louis had no control over certain powers both at home and abroad that affected his rule over France, and as such his power was not 'absolute'. BIBLIOGRAPHY "Seventeenth Century Europe" D. H. Pennington Longman Group Limited 1970 ISBN: 0 582 48312 3 "Louis XIV, France and Europe 1661-1715" R. Wilkinson Hodder & Stoughton 1993 ISBN: 0 340 57511 5 "Europe in the Seventeenth Century" D.
Maland Macmillan Education Limited 1966 SBN.