Absolutism

Absolutism is a political theory that advocates transferring as much power as possible to the monarchy as opposed to any other power within the state. According to Max Beloff, the age of absolutism can be narrowed down to the period 1660-1815.

The divine right of kings is a key element of absolutism as it states that all political power is derived from God, and that therefore the king is a minister of God and his lieutenants on earth. This claim was a continuation of one of the tenets of early modern monarchies, as the monarchs claimed they were anointed by God and therefore were the representatives on earth of the King of Kings. This belief was best articulated by Bishop Bossuet, who presented these ideas supported by popular biblical arguments and examples.

The ideal Christian monarchic ruler should be guided by three main principles, according to Erasmus. Firstly, he should uphold the true religion. Second, he should live by the five classic or Roman virtues put forward by Plato: pietas, justitia, prudentia, constantia and fortitudo. Lastly, he should use Christianity as a guide in all dealings with his subjects and other Christian rulers based in other countries.

Absolutism came to the fore as monarchs of the 16th and early 17th centuries began wanting to expand their authority over their citizens. This was especially due to the increasing number of intra-European wars, increased colonization of newly discovered parts of the world, such as Africa or the Orient, and therefore the need to raise funds through taxes but also by attacking the "rich" church. Monarchs took control over ever-broadening areas of policy, with less leniency and flexibility for nobility, the church or fledgling democratic institutions like parliaments. In the 16th century, the main monarchs who were responsible for creating the foundation for this shift were Henry VIII and Elizabeth I in England, Phillip II in Spain and Francis I in France, who all influenced policies that strengthened their monarchic powerbase at the expense of their competitors and enemies.

In Britain, the age of absolutism began with the reign of King James I on the throne, announcing his divine right to rule. Following on from the reign of Henry VIII, the reformation and the creation of the Church of England successfully challenged the pope's authority as sole earthly head of the church because the monarch was able to impose his own religious preferences in place of state policy according to the idea of "cuius regio, eius religio" ("whose realm, his religion").

In France, the child King Louis XIII was assisted by his cunning chief minister Cardinal Richelieu in creating a political powerbase where absolutism could thrive. Richelieu extended the monarch's power into the French provinces, which weakened the power of the nobility. He also took over the Protestant Huguenots at La Rochelle in 1628, which removed their political influence, but did give them freedom of worship. Richelieu's policies to strengthen the monarchy were continued after his death by Cardinal Mazarin. By this time, there was a growing series of popular revolts (know as the Fronde) against these royal policies, but Louis' power continued to grow stronger until Mazarin's death in 1661. Thereafter he was able to rule France with absolute authority; the fact that the famous statement "L'état, c'est moi" ("I am the state") was attributed to him -- even if this may not be historically accurate -- attests to his reputation for supreme confidence. The biblical justification for the manner of his rule came from Bossuet, who argued that complete obedience was needed from the people to the king because of his divinely sanctioned authority.

It can be argued that absolutism ultimately brought about its own destruction. With so much power concentrated in the hands of the monarchy, it is no surprise that eventually a backlash would occur where the people would rebel against the monarchy and overthrow it, replacing it with a more tolerant and democratic ruling structure. A good example of this is when the French monarchy was replaced by Napoleon. In England, a brief civil war ensued where Oliver Cromwell and his democratic supporters briefly tried and failed to replace English monarchist rule with a parliamentary rule during the reign of King Charles I.

Selected full-text books and articles on this topic

The Age of Absolutism, 1660-1815
Max Beloff.
Hutchinson's University Library, 1954
Absolutism in Central Europe
Peter H. Wilson.
Routledge, 2000
The Establishment of French Absolutism,1574-1610
Franklin Charles Palm.
F.S. Crofts, 1928
The Making of Russian Absolutism, 1613-1801
Paul Dukes.
Longman, 1990 (2nd edition)
The New Monarchies and Representative Assemblies: Medieval Constitutionalism or Modern Absolutism?
Arthur J. Slavin.
D.C. Heath, 1964
The History of Government from the Earliest Times
S. E. Finer.
Oxford University Press, vol.3, 1999
Class and State in Ancien Régime France: The Road to Modernity?
David Parker.
Routledge, 1996
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 1 "Approaches to French Absolutism"
Understanding the French Revolution
Albert Soboul.
International Publishers, 1988
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 1 "Reform or Revolution? On the Historical Function of Enlightened Absolutism"
French 'Absolutism'?
Parker, David.
History Review, No. 29, December 1997
Absolutism and the Scientific Revolution, 1600-1720: A Biographical Dictionary
Christopher Baker.
Greenwood Press, 2002
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