Clause 61: The Pushback Blog

Because ideas have consequences

The European Age of Absolutism

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The Age of Absolutism is the period in Europe in which monarchs typically sought to wield unrestricted political power over the state and the people in the state. The period ranges from about 1550 to 1790.

The period is sometimes called the Age of Enlightened Despotism, but all of the states involved were too large to be controlled by a king and a small group of courtiers acting by themselves. They needed the assistance of large segments of the population to realize their plans. This would be an important limitation on what the monarchs could achieve.

The central fact in the 1500s is the arrival of cannon:

  • Feudal lords in castles are no longer safe from enemy armies. The cannon can batter down castle walls.
  • Cannon are a bleeding-edge technology and are frightfully expensive. The king must centralize government enough to pay for cannon if he wants to defend the nation.
  • The service-oriented economy of feudalism is no longer sufficient, because it cannot generate the funds to pay for this new military technology. However, the nobility is in no hurry to cede power to the king.

Different European nations experienced the age differently, leading to different outcomes. The age could be a formative period for a nation or the challenge that could not be overcome. With whom will the king make common cause to take the nation into the future? What will the crown’s relationship be to the nobility, the church and the developing middle class in the cities?


The Republic at the Zenith of Power. Golden Liberty. Election in 1573. by Jan Matejko.

The Republic at the Zenith of Power. Golden Liberty. Election in 1573. By Jan Matejko.

Poland is the example of how not to lead your nation forward. Poland fails to develop an effective monarchy with centralized power. The szlachta — the nobility — is able to keep the kings weak and even to control the succession through election. By 1700, Poland is in a state famously described as “anarchy tempered by civil war.” Powerful neighbors who have themselves resolved these issues, Prussia, Russia and Austria, can exploit the weakness of Polish politics and pick Poland apart. The neighbors conduct a series of partitions of Poland in 1772, 1793 and 1795. Poland attempts to reform the nation with the Constitution of May  3, 1791, but it is too late. The Third Partition of Poland eliminates her as an independent nation.


Holy Roman Emperor Joseph II (1741-1790)

Holy Roman Emperor Joseph II (1741-1790)

His highest title was Holy Roman Emperor, but that office did not convey real power. The Emperor was also an elected king. The Habsburgs won the elections because of their power as the dynastic rulers of Austria. Charles V (1530) was the last ruler to be bothered with an Imperial coronation.

By the mid-1700s, the Habsburgs were noticing that their state was economically and militarily backward. They noticed this the way most monarchs noticed: they were being beaten in wars. Frederick II (the Great) of Prussia had helped himself to Silesia in 1740; although Austria tried different diplomatic combinations, she had been unable to retrieve it.

Joseph II, who was sole ruler from 1780 to 1790, sought to impose changes to lead Austria to become a more idealized enlightened nation. These changes included religious toleration, rights under the law for serfs, reduction in restrictions on the press and centralization of power in the empire and its bureaucracy.

However, these changes threatened to deprive powerful and influential groups of power, such as the nobility and the church. They actively opposed Joseph’s reforms. For his part, Joseph seems to be under the misunderstanding that, since he was the Emperor, he could merely issue decrees and his will would be obeyed.

Convinced to my core of the integrity of my intentions, I have the strength to hope that after my death posterity will think of my deeds and examine my aims more favorably, more impartially and consequently more equitably than my contemporaries.
— Joseph II to State Chancellor Kaunitz

His aims were high, but he completely failed to understand power. He was a living example of the Impotent Potentate. He could decree all he wanted but, opposed by interest groups with political clout of their own, he was unlikely to realize his goals.

Joseph’s successor, Leopold II, was forced to rescind many of Joseph’s reforms. By the time Napoleon appeared as a force in Europe, he was describing Austria as “always one year, one army and one idea behind.”


King Louis XIV of France (1639-1715)

King Louis XIV of France (1639-1715)

The Bourbon kings of France would gain the reputation as the most stellar and powerful of the absolute monarchs of the age. However, like many aspects of France in the period, there was some degree of stagecraft and illusion masking what was really going on at the time.

Louis XIV, often called “the Sun King”, was believed to be the highest refinement of the Enlightenment absolute monarch. As is typical of the time, Louis believed that he was God’s representative on earth. Yet he was unable to take on many challenges directly. Instead of curbing the power of the nobility through legal means, he set up a court at Versailles that was dazzlingly expensive. A nobleman who wanted to maintain his social position would have to build his own palace nearby and appear with the king. All this was staggeringly expensive and diverted time and resources of nobles away from building power bases in the countryside. Yet, it did not establish the precedent of the true subordination of the nobility to the central power of the nation. Much as in Austria, the nobility was a force somewhat outside the government, opposed by the bureaucracy acting in the name of the king. The nobility retained its privileges, most notably the exemption from taxation.

We now believe that Louis never actually said, “L’etat c’est moi.” If he had, he would have had to eat his words by 1709. The endless wars were bleeding France dry and the Allies were coming in for the kill. They had attempted to dictate peace terms that would have required Louis to throw his own grandson off the Spanish throne. The winter had been the coldest in memory; seeds froze in the ground and livestock died in the fields. Facing famine at home and defeat in war, Louis appealed directly to his people.

I have come to ask for your councils and your aid in this encounter that involves your safety. By the efforts that we shall make together, our foes will understand that we are not to be put upon.
— Royal Proclamation, 1709

The people responded, contributing both money and men. Louis was able to extricate himself from his difficulty and obtain an honorable peace. But one cannot be an absolute monarch when times are good and a man of the people when one’s back is to the wall. The two do not go together. Eighty years later, the people would hand Louis’ successors the bill for their support, in the form of the French Revolution.


The Bill of Rights Ratified at the Revolution by King William, and Queen Mary (1689). By Samuel Wale.

The Bill of Rights Ratified at the Revolution by King William, and Queen Mary (1689). By Samuel Wale.

By contemporary standards, the British monarchy was not a success. Charles I had been executed by his own subjects, who then went eleven years with no king at all. After they thought it over and brought the king back, they still did not get this absolute rule business. One of his sons, James II, was chased out of his realm when his subjects conspired with the Dutch to invade England. Then, to top it all off, the subjects interfered with their new king, producing a Bill of Rights that restricted what he could do as king.

Charles had gone to the scaffold maintaining that he, as a king, was not accountable to his subjects, but, one severed head later, there was the proof that he was wrong. This is really the point here. Absolutism was practically unworkable. Both Louis XIV and Joseph II found out that they needed not just the compliance but the active support of their subjects.

The Stuart kings may not have been successful as absolute monarchs, but the British government proved an unqualified success at bringing the country into the modern world. Britain had steered between the extremes of anarchy and excessive centralization of power. The great noble families of the late feudal era — Beaufort, Neville, Mowbray — were gone by 1550. Power was held by the minor nobility and the gentry, who gradually became the government. Instead of a bureaucracy attempting to force the king’s will on a recalcitrant upper class, the British upper class was the government and was fully vested in the success of policy.

Britain would avoid being pulled down by external competitors like Poland or slow decline like Austria. Britain would not be convulsed by revolution and terror like France. The next constitutional crisis for Britain was after 1830, and was precipitated by competition for power between town and countryside. Which is another story entirely.

Why Do We Care?

All this is great history, but what does it mean? The stories of the period illustrate that, already in the Enlightenment, the ruler needed the active participation and support of the ruled. The kings did not have the means to issue orders contrary to the will of the subjects and force changes on a nation that did not want them.

This also shows a test issued by history, with a narrow gate through which the successful nation must pass. Miss on the side of decentralization and be overwhelmed by the neighbors. Miss on the side of centralization and provoke either rebellion or ossification.



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