Absolute Monarchy Emerges in France Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Taking control of affairs of state in 1661, King Louis XIV, along with his controller general Jean-Baptiste Colbert, accelerated the expansion of the monarchy’s power and prestige to an unprecedented degree. More than any other ruler of the seventeenth century, Louis XIV would eventually embody the idea of absolutism in royal authority.

Summary of Event

The term “absolute monarch” refers to a king who possesses almost unlimited legislative, executive, and judicial powers, unchecked by countervailing forces such as regional leaders or by representative assemblies, courts, or religious institutions. In seventeenth century Europe, there were many defenders of autocracy—including Cardin Le Bret, Le Bret, Cardin Sir Robert Filmer, Filmer, Sir Robert Bishop Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet, Bossuet, Jacques-Bénigne King James I, Cardinal de Richelieu, Richelieu, Cardinal de and King Louis XIV Louis XIV;absolute monarchy and —who accepted the “divine right of kings” theory. [kw]Absolute Monarchy Emerges in France (1661) [kw]France, Absolute Monarchy Emerges in (1661) [kw]Monarchy Emerges in France, Absolute (1661) Government and politics;1661: Absolute Monarchy Emerges in France[2030] Organizations and institutions;1661: Absolute Monarchy Emerges in France[2030] France;1661: Absolute Monarchy Emerges in France[2030] Monarchy, absolute

While condemning arbitrary and tyrannical government, they tended to assume that kings, if properly educated, would promote the general welfare of the population. Only a minority of political thinkers, including François Hotman Hotman, François (1524-1590), a French legal scholar and teacher, and English philosopher John Locke Locke, John (1632-1704), defended an alternative doctrine of constitutionalism, advocating some separation of political powers into political institutions limited by legal documents, traditional customs, or both.

The absolute monarchy of Louis XIV was the result of a long and gradual development. In the Middle Ages, the king’s powers had been severely limited by the prerogatives of the nobility, the Catholic Church, and local political institutions. In contrast to England, however, the French representative assembly of elite groups, called the Estates-General, was ineffective, primarily because of its failure to obtain any veto over spending or taxation. The courts of France, called the parlements, could delay the registration of royal edicts, but they could not veto the edicts. During the sixteenth century, anarchy and violence of the religious wars conditioned the French to assume that a powerful monarch was necessary for peace and prosperity.

King Louis XIV consulting with his ministers.

(Francis R. Niglutsch)

After the end of the Religious Wars in 1598, King Henry IV largely restored the powers that the king had earlier possessed, and the status quo continued into the first two decades of Louis XIII’s Louis XIII reign. In 1614, for instance, the Estates-General failed to acquire institutional authority. From 1624 to 1642, Cardinal de Richelieu, as the king’s chief minister, significantly expanded the centralized powers of the Crown. He eliminated the military strongholds of the regional nobility and the Protestant Huguenots. After 1635, he established royal agents, called intendants, in the provinces as permanent residents to supervise the police force under French marshals. In 1641, after many confrontations with the parlements, he checked their powers to delay royal edicts.

As Louis XIV became king at the age of four, his chief minister, Cardinal Jules Mazarin, Mazarin, Jules entered into a bitter struggle against the disgruntled nobles and the Parlement of Paris. During the civil war known as the Wars of the Fronde (1648-1653) Fronde, Wars of the (1648-1653) , the central government became impotent as the young king was dragged about the country to escape the rebels. After Mazarin finally quelled the revolts, he reestablished the intendants and reasserted the powers of the royal government, although he was unable to dominate the parlements.

Mazarin, who, it was rumored, was married to Anne of Austria Anne of Austria , Louis XIV’s mother, personally supervised Louis’s training, which included religious indoctrination, military skills, and values appropriate to an absolute monarch. Louis was a strong personality. He developed an inveterate hatred for anyone who might seek to limit his prerogatives. Mazarin encouraged him to take an active role in the government. Entering the Parlement of Paris unannounced in 1655, Louis denounced the judges for interfering with the registration of his edicts.

In 1661, as Mazarin’s health declined, Louis began meeting with high officials to discuss affairs of state. On the day after the cardinal died, he astonished his principal ministers by announcing that henceforth he would take personal charge of the government, which was a radical break from his father’s practices. He ordered the chancellor and secretaries of state to not give any orders or sign any documents except by his command. When the president of the Assembly of the Clergy asked to whom he should address for business, Louis replied, “To me, monsieur the archbishop, to me.”

Louis XIV.

(R. S. Peale and J. A. Hill)

For the next fifty-four years, Louis tried to control all aspects of his government, from the administrative system to the etiquette at court. Although he perhaps never said “L’état, c’est moi” (I am the state), he claimed a divine right to rule and identified himself with the state’s operations in the Mémoirs he wrote for his son. He exercised great discretion in making decisions with a small group of trusted ministers, especially Jean-Baptiste Colbert, Colbert, Jean-Baptiste a financial genius who worked to create an economic system later called “mercantilism,” Mercantilism which sought self-sufficiency with regulations of commerce, the awarding of monopolies to large companies, and massive constructions of roads, canals, and ports. The minister of war, the marquis de Louvois, Louvois, marquis de expanded the peacetime army to 100,000 soldiers and made it more professional by limiting the purchase of officers’ commissions. Military;France

Among his efforts to rein in the nobility, Louis lured them to establish residence at his court, where he encouraged a complex web of intrigue and competition for his attention. He frequently utilized his authority to issue lettres de cachet, which were officially sealed orders to arrest individuals without any explanation or judicial oversight. Although his conscience usually kept him from abusing this power, there were very few legal restraints on his right to punish enemies, as illustrated by the notorious example of the unknown “man in the iron mask.” Louis’s power struggle with the parlements continued until 1673, when he denied their right to make remonstrances against his edicts. Following his death, however, the Parlement of Paris nullified his will and reasserted the prerogative of approving or disapproving royal edicts before they became law.

Like most rulers of the century, Louis assumed that religious unity was necessary for peace and prosperity. In 1685, he revoked the Edict of Nantes, Nantes, revocation of Edict of (1685) which had guaranteed the religious liberty of Huguenots. The revocation produced a wave of persecutions, driving thousands of refugees into the arms of France’s enemies. Persecution, religious;Huguenots in France Since so many of the Huguenots were competent entrepreneurs and skilled artisans, the revocation did considerable harm to the nation’s economy. Also, his refusal to allow Huguenots to settle in Canada limited the colony’s growth and development.

Louis always consulted with advisers, but he personally made the final decisions about war and peace. In 1667, he invaded the Spanish Netherlands, claiming that they were the rightful inheritance of his wife. Although he expanded the size of France in his first war, his success produced the enmity of the other European states. In two later wars, especially the Wars of the Spanish Succession, Louis would lose nearly all the territory he had earlier gained.


Although Louis XIV in theory asserted the prerogatives of an absolutist monarch, in practice his powers were only “absolute” in a relative sense. He was never able to ignore public opinion, the threat of rebellion, and myriad customary privileges that had long been recognized as part of France’s unwritten constitution. Still, Louis could increase taxes without the interference of a representative assembly. He could simply order the arrest of his critics. From 1673 until his death, the courts presented no significant obstacles to whatever edicts he chose to issue.

With his dedication to bringing glory to France, he built the magnificent palace of Versailles Versailles and was the generous patron of numerous artists and writers. However, the costs of these cultural achievements, combined with the expensive wars that he initiated, left the country bankrupt and weakened. His religious intolerance also harmed the economy. Following his death, his legacy would encourage many observers to conclude that absolutism should be replaced by a constitutional system with strict limits on the powers of the Crown.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Beck, William. Louis the Fourteenth and Absolutism. New York: Bedford/St. Martin Press, 1999. A good introduction to Louis, followed by important historical documents.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bercé, Yves-Marie. The Birth of Absolutism: A History of France, 1598-1661. Translated by Richard Rex. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1996. This work argues that absolutism, rather than being a legacy of the Middle Ages, was a modern creation developing from the wars and disorders of the century before 1661.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bernier, Oliver. Louis XIV: A Royal Life. New York: Doubleday, 1987. An entertaining biography that refutes many traditional criticisms of Louis’s reign.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bonney, Richard. Limits of Absolutism in Ancient Régime France. Portland, Oreg.: Ashgate, 1995. A collection of scholarly essays by an outstanding historian of the field, emphasizing that absolutism existed only in theory, not in fact.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lossky, Andrew. Louis XIV and the French Monarchy. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1994. A comprehensive and well-written political biography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Mettam, Roger. Power and Faction in Louis XIV’s France. London: Basil Blackwell, 1988. Emphasizing the role of powerful families and other factions, this scholarly book argues that absolute monarchy was an aspiration rather than a reality.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Miller, John, ed. Absolutism in Seventeenth-Century Europe. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1990. A collection of relatively brief discussions about the practice of absolutism in major countries during the century, showing that customs and factions put major limits on political power.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Strayer, Brian. Lettres de Cachet and Social Control in the Ancient Regime, 1659-1789. New York: Peter Lang, 1992. A fascinating examination of an institutional practice that was symbolic of the criminal justice system under an absolutist regime.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Treasure, Geoffrey. Mazarin: The Crisis of Absolutism in France. New York: Routledge, 1995. A comprehensive political biography of Cardinal Mazarin.
Related Articles in <i>Great Lives from History: The Seventeenth Century</i>

Anne of Austria; Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet; Jean-Baptiste Colbert; James I; Louis XIII; Louis XIV; Marquis de Louvois; Marie-Thérèse; Jules Mazarin; Cardinal de Richelieu. Monarchy, absolute

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