European Absolutism And Power Politics


Louis XIV (1643-1715) of France is remembered best as a strong-willed monarch who reportedly once exclaimed to his fawning courtiers, "L'etat, c'est moi" (I am the state). Whether or not he really said these words, Louis has been regarded by historians as the typical absolute monarch - a symbol of his era. Similarly, historians have often referred to this period, when kings dominated their states and waged frequent dynastic wars against one another as an age of absolutism.

Absolute monarchy, admittedly, was not exactly new in Europe. Since the

late medieval period, rulers had been attempting to centralize their authority

at the expense of feudal nobles and the church. In the sixteenth and early

seventeenth centuries, however, religious strife blurred political issues and

somewhat restricted developing monarchies. After the Peace of Westphalia,

which ended the era of disastrous religious wars, absolutism rapidly gained

popularity because it promised to restore order and security.

Parallel economic developments encouraged the maturing of absolutism. As

the Spanish and Portuguese overseas empires declined, the Dutch, English, and

French assumed commercial and colonial leadership, bringing the European

economy to a second stage of expansion. The commercial revolution, centered in

northern Europe, generated great wealth and brought increasingly complex

capitalistic institutions, both of which furthered the process of


When the Peace of Westphalia ended the Thirty Years' War in 1648, it

marked a significant turning point in European history. Peace, after such

prolonged religious conflict and political chaos, renewed possibilities for

centralizing royal authority within European states.

The Shift In Fundamental European Values

The era after Westphalia also saw a fundamental shift in European values.

Although many Europeans - both Protestant and Catholic - were still concerned

about personal salvation, they were now also apprehensive about prospects in

this world. Like their Renaissance predecessors, they enjoyed sensual as well

as aesthetic pleasures; but they put more emphasis on profits, power, and the

need for security. With the memory of war and social upheaval still fresh,

they were inclined toward a belief in order, which shaped their other values.

Secularism And Classicism

Although often subtle, the new secular outlook after 1650 was revealed in

many ways. Despite their many expressed religious concerns, kings now

routinely used religion for secular political ends. The prevailing secularism

was also evident in the elegance, frivolity, intrigue, and sexual license that

characterized royal courts and the private lives of the nobility. In educated

circles, secularism was demonstrated in the growing popularity of science,

with its avowed materialism and its implied refutation of scripture. But even

unlearned common people shared a universal boredom with religious contention,

along with the prevailing desire for stable social conditions.

This yearning for stability and order was clearly demonstrated in the

arts. Earlier, during Europe's era of transitional turbulence, the baroque

style had symbolized flamboyant power and restless frustration. Although the

forms of baroque art and architecture remained popular, they were overshadowed

in this era by a return to traditional classicism. Retaining the baroque

deference to power, the revived classical mode emphasized order in its

discipline, formality, and balance. Classicism owed much to the aristocratic

world where it flourished. It reflected the growing scientific faith in an

ordered universe, and it also expressed the political values of absolute

monarchs, such as Louis XIV, who sponsored many artistic endeavors. Indeed,

the French court led Europe's classical revival.

Classical literature was perhaps best exemplified in the polished and

elegant French dramas of Pierre Corneille (1606-1684), Jean Racine

(1639-1699), and Jean-Baptiste Moliere (1622-1673). The first two were the

great tragedians of the seventeenth century. They followed Aristotle's

traditional rules of dramatic unity but produced works noted for psychological

insights and beauty of language. Usually borrowing their plots from Greek and

Roman antiquity, they often depicted heroes and hereoines as idealized

portraits of contemporary courtiers. Moliere, an author of witty comedies,

contrasted the artificiality of his society with the dictates of moderation

and good sense. All three writers were sometimes mildly critical of

established institutions, although their criticism was not direct enough to

offend patrons.

A similar deference for patronage and authority was revealed in classical

architecture and painting. In these areas, France also led the way. A

state-sponsored culture, begun by Richelieu and Louis XIII in the French

Academy, was continued by Louis XIV in academies of architecture, painting,

dance, and music. The latter's palace at Versailles, with its horizontal

lines, ninety-degree angles, and formal gardens, was copied all over Europe.

So was the work of French court painters, such as Charles Le Brun (1619-1690),

who glorified the Grand Monarch and his society in colorful portraits and

panoramic scenes, emphasizing the common values of elegance and order.

The Capitalistic Ethic

The worlds of art and business, apparently so far removed from each

other, shared common perspectives in this era. Traders and bankers, like most

Europeans after Westphalia, felt a sense of relief and some hope for more

tranquil times in the future. They could now more freely follow their own

capitalistic ethic, which usually placed acquisition of profit over humane or

religious concerns. This commercial secularism was also oriented toward

securing order. Social upheavals obviously hurt business, and a strong state

could promote prosperity in an increasingly interdependent world economy.

By the seventeenth century, particularly after mid-century, this economy

depended upon the exchange of bulk commodities, rather than imported gold and

silver. Eastern Europe and the Baltic supplied grains, timber, fish, and naval

stores. Western Europe supplied manufactures for its outlying regions and for

overseas trade. Dutch, English, and French merchant-bankers controlled

shipping and credit. Plantation agriculture in the tropics, particularly the

cultivation of Caribbean sugar, produced the greatest profits from overseas

commerce. The African slave trade, along with its many supporting industries,

also became an integral part of the intercontinental system.

The New World economy widened European horizons while contributing to

European wealth. New foods, such as potatoes, yams, lima beans, tapioca, and

peanuts became part of the European diet. Tropical plantation crops, such as

rice, coffee, tea, cocoa, and sugar ceased to be luxuries. Production from

European industries, particularly metals, coal, and textiles, also increased

noticeably. Although the European economy slowed considerably in the

seventeenth century, some profits remained enormous, particularly in eastern

Europe and on tropical plantations, where production depended on serfs and

slave labor. Lagging wages in western Europe produced similar advantages for

capitalists, who remained in a most favorable economic position.

Such conditions contributed directly to the development of capitalistic

institutions. As the volume of business rose, great public banks, chartered by

governments, replaced earlier family banks like the Fuggers of Augsburg. The

Bank of Amsterdam (1609) and the Bank of England (1694) are typical examples.

Such banks, holding public revenues and creating credit by issuing notes, made

large amounts of capital available for favored enterprises. Another method of

concentrating capital came with joint-stock companies, such as the Dutch and

English East India Companies, which could pool the resources of many

investors. In the late seventeenth century, exchanges for buying and selling

stock were becoming common, as were maritime insurance companies. Lloyd's of

London, the most famous of these, began operations about 1688 and is still in

business. Such capitalistic institutions regularized business and helped

justify materialistic values in the popular mind.

They also fitted into the emerging state systems. The new capitalism

depended upon overseas trade, which, in turn, required government protection

or subsidy. Government policies affected money, credit, and capital

accumulation. If capitalists needed government, governments also needed them.

Powerful states were increasingly expensive, and overseas trade was a vital

source of revenue. Capitalists could often help monarchs acquire foreign

credit. Military force and bureaucratic organization, so important to rising

states, often depended on capitalistic support. This tacit partnership between

kings and capitalists produced a system known as mercantilism. It was most

typical of France, but all absolute regimes were conditioned by the integrated

European economy. Consequently, both profit and power were compatible

subordinates to order in the European value system.

Philosophical Justifications For Absolutism

The prevailing respect for power was most clearly revealed in theoretical

justifications for absolute monarchy. In the past, defenders of royal

authority had employed the idea of "divine right" in claiming that kings were

agents of God's will. This religious argument for absolutism was still quite

common during the period, but it was supplemented by new secular appeals to

scientific principles.

Bishop Jacques Bossuet (1627-1704), a prominent French churchman and the

tutor of Louis XIV's son, produced a classic statement of divine right theory.

In Politics Drawn from Scriptures, Bossuet declared:

the person of the king is sacred, and to attack him in

any way is sacrilege ... the royal throne is not the throne

of a man, but the throne of God himself .... Kings should be

guarded as holy things, and whosoever neglects to protect

them is worthy of death .... the royal power is absolute ...

the prince need render accounts of his acts to no one ...

Where the word of a king is, there is power ... Without this

absolute authority the king could neither do good or repress

evil ^1

[Footnote 1: Quoted in James Harvey Robinson, Readings in European History, 2

vols. (Boston: Ginn and Co., 1906), vol. 1, pp. 273-275.]

The most penetrating and influential secular justification for absolutism

came from the English philosopher, Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679), whose famous

political treatise, Leviathan, appeared in 1651. The French religious wars,

the Thirty Years' War, and the English civil war of the 1640s inclined Hobbes

to view order as the primary social good and anarchy as the greatest social

disaster. Unlike Bossuet, he did not see God as the source of political

authority. According to Hobbes, people created governments as protection

against themselves, because they were naturally "brutish," "nasty," "selfish,"

and as cruel as wolves. Having been forced by human nature to surrender their

freedoms to the state, people had no rights under government except obedience.

The resulting sovereign state could take any form, but according to Hobbes,

monarchy was the most effective in maintaining order and security. Any ruler,

no matter how bad, was preferable to anarchy. Monarchs were therefore

legitimately entitled to absolute authority, limited only by their own

deficiencies and by the power of other states. ^2

[Footnote 2: Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan (New York: Liberal Arts Press, 1958),

pp. 106-170.]

Absolutism As A System

Unlimited royal authority, as advocated by Bossuet and Hobbes, was the

main characteristic of absolutism. It was demonstrated most obviously in

political organization but also served to integrate into government most

economic, religious, and social institutions. In this section, we will preview

this general pattern of absolutism before assessing its development within

specific European states.

Government And Religion Under Absolutism

Theoretically, the ruler made all major decisions in a typical absolute

state. Although this was not actually possible, chief ministers were

responsible directly to the monarch, and all of their actions were taken in

the sovereign's name. The monarch was officially the supreme lawgiver, the

chief judge, the commander of all military forces, and the head of all

administration. Central councils and committees discussed policy, but these

bodies were strictly advisory and concerned primarily with administrative

matter. All authority originated in orders coming down from the top and going

out to the provinces from the royal capital.

In conducting foreign policy, monarchs identified their personal dynastic

interests with those of their countries. They usually considered the

acquisition of foreign territory to be legitimate and pursued their objectives

in a competitive game of power politics with other monarchs. This competition

required a large military establishment, sometimes involving naval forces.

Rulers sought to form alliances against the most dominant foreign state,

giving little consideration to moral or religious principles. A concern for

the "balance of power" exemplified the new secular spirit in foreign


Local government was a concern to all aspiring absolute monarchs.

Wherever possible, they replaced traditional local authorities, usually feudal

nobles, with royal governors from other places. Where that could not be done,

local nobles were rewarded so they would support the crown. Sometimes, new

nobles were created and old land grants reassigned. Town governments were

often brought under royal authority through contacts between urban guildsmen

and the king's middle-class servants. Using such means as monopoly grants,

political favors, or bribery, monarchs extended their control over local law

and revenues.

Organized religion remained important under absolutism but lost its

independence of government. Instead of dominating politics, as they had done

earlier, churches - Protestant and Catholic alike - now tended to become

government agencies. Even in Catholic countries, such as France, the king

exerted more political control over the church than did the pope. Although

this had been true of earlier secular rulers, they had faced much more

religious opposition. After Westphalia, monarchs could deliberately use their

clergies as government servants, to enlist and hold popular support. Such

controlled churches exerted tremendous influence in support of absolute

monarchies, not only in the formal services but also in their social and

educational functions.

Mercantilism In The Structure Of Absolutism

In typical absolute monarchies, the regulation of state churches was

accompanied by a system of national economic regulations known as

mercantilism. Although it had originated earlier, with the emergence of modern

states, mercantilism was not adopted generally by European governments until

the late seventeenth century. The expansion of overseas trade, expenses

incurred in religious and dynastic wars, and the depression of the middle

1600s accentuated the trend toward mercantilism as states hoped to promote

prosperity and increase their revenues.

The system attempted to apply the capitalistic principle of

profit-seeking in the management of national economies. "Bullionism" was the

fundamental maxim of mercantilist theory. Proponents of bullionism sought to

increase precious metals within a country by achieving a "favorable balance of

trade," in which the monetary value of exports exceeded the value of imports.

The result, in a sense, was a national profit. This became purchasing power in

the world market, an advantage shared most directly by the government and

favored merchants.

Mercantilists believed state regulation of the economy to be absolutely

necessary for effecting a favorable balance. Absolute monarchies used

subsidies, chartered monopolies, taxes, tarriffs, harbor tolls, and direct

legal prohibitions in order to encourage exports and limit imports. For the

same purpose, state enterprises were given advantages over private

competitors. Governments standardized industrial production, regulated wages,

set prices, and otherwise encouraged or restricted consumer purchases.

Governments also built roads, canals, and docks to facilitate commerce.

Because mercantilists viewed the world market in terms of competing

states, they emphasized the importance of colonial expansion. They regarded

colonies as favored markets for home products and as sources of cheap raw

materials. Colonial foreign trade and industries were controlled to prevent

competition with the parent countries. In pursuing such policies, absolute

states needed strong military and naval forces to acquire colonies, police

them, and protect them from foreign rivals. Thus mercantilist policies often

extended beyond commercial competition to international conflict.

Class Structure Under Absolutism

The class structures of absolute monarchies were marked by clear

distinctions, precisely defined by law. Hereditary feudal aristocrats lost

status unless they acquired an official appointment from the monarch. Such

state nobles owed their privileges to their political service rather than

birth. They often came from merchant families; indeed, the state often sold

titles to wealthy commoners to provide income for the monarch. State nobles

served in public administration, inthe army, the church, or as attendants at

court, where they accented the royal magnificence. They usually received tax

exemptions, pensions, titles, and honors. Their legal rights, dress, and way

of life differed markedly from even wealthy non-nobles.

In contrast, commoners, including middle-class townspeople, paid most of

the taxes required by frequent wars and extravagant royal courts. Peasant

landholders usually owed fees and labor dues to local aristocrats. The poorest

peasants in western Europe were hired laborers or vagabonds; in eastern

Europe, they were serfs. Slavery was rare in western Europe, but provided a

major labor force on overseas plantations.

[See Noble And Peasant: The oppression of the peasantry is the subject of this

engraving, which compares the noble and the peasant to the spider and the fly.

The poor peasant brings all he has to the rich noble, who sits ready to

receive all the produce. From J. Lagniet, Recueil de Proverbes, 1657-63]

While tightening legal class distinctions, absolute monarchies also

further downgraded the status of women. The Reformation had offered some

opportunities for self-expression among women, and before 1650 many women had

assumed temporary positions of leadership. The situation changed after

Westphalia. Although a number of queens and regents were able to rule as

absolute monarchs, most aristocratic women could find recognition only as

Catholic nuns, writers, artists, salon hostesses, court gossips, or royal

mistresses, the latter gaining official status in this era. The status of

commoner women did not fall as much or as quickly, but the advent of early

capitalism and the decline of domestic economies was already excluding them

from many industries and enterprises in the latter seventeenth century.

The Gravitational Pull Of French Absolutism

The popular image of Louis XIV as the Sun King symbolized his position in

France but also implied that French absolutism exerted a magnetic influence

upon other European states. Like all such symbolism, the idea was only

partially true. As much as it was a response to French example, absolutism was

accepted because it promised efficiency and security, the greatest political

needs of the time. Yet French wealth and power certainly generated European

admiration and imitation of the French example.

Typical Satellites Of France

Among the most obvious satellites of the French sun were numerous German

principalities of the Holy Roman Empire. By the Treaty of Westphalia, more

than 300 were recognized as sovereign states. Without serious responsibilities

to the emperor and with treasuries filled by confiscated church properties,

their petty rulers struggled to increase their personal powers and play the

exciting game of international diplomacy. Many sought French alliances against

the Habsburg emperor; those who could traveled in France and attended Louis'

court. Subsequently, many a German palace became a miniature Versailles. Even

the tiniest states were likely to have standing armies, state churches, court

officials, and economic regulations. The ultimate deference to the French

model was shown by the Elector of Brandenburg; although sincerely loyal to his

wife, he copied Louis XIV by taking an official mistress, displaying her at

court functions without requiring her to perform other duties usually

associated with the position.

The era of the Sun King also witnessed an upsurge of absolutism in

Scandinavia. After an earlier aristocratic reaction against both monarchies,

Frederick III (1648-1670) in Denmark and Charles XI (1660-1697) in Sweden

broke the power of the nobles and created structures similar to the French

model. In 1661 Frederick forced the assembled high nobility to accept him as

their hereditary king. Four years later, he proclaimed his exclusive right to

issue laws. A similar upheaval in Sweden in 1680 allowed Charles to achieve

financial independence by seizing the nobles' lands. These beginnings were

followed by the development of thoroughly centralized administrations in both

kingdoms. Sweden, particularly, resembled France with its standing army, navy,

national church, and mercantilist economy. Although Swedish royal absolutism

was overthrown by the nobles in 1718, the Danish system remained into the

nineteenth century.

States In Irregular Orbits

Unlike the Sandinavian and German states, most European governments

resembled Louis' system more in the way they developed rather than in their

specific institutions. As agricultural economies became commercialized,

restricting the developing interests of monarchs and commoners, rulers sought

to ignore their feudal councils and exercise unlimited authority. Some states

in this period had not yet developed as far in this direction as had France;

others were already finding absolutism at least partially outmoded. All felt

the magnetic pull of French absolutism, but their responses varied according

to their traditions and local conditions.

The process is well illustrated by a time lag in the Spanish and

Portuguese monarchies. United by Spanish force in 1580 and divided again by a

Portuguese revolt in 1640, the two kingdoms were first weakened by economic

decay and then nearly destroyed by the Thirty Years' War and their own mutual

conflicts, which lasted until Spain accepted Portuguese independence in 1668.

Conditions deteriorated further under the half-mad Alfonso VI (1656-1668) in

Portugal and the feeble-minded Charles II (1665-1700) in Spain.

The nobilities, having exploited these misfortunes to regain their

dominant position in both countries, could not be easily dislodged. Not until

the 1680s in Portugal did Pedro II (1683-1706) successfully eliminate the

Cortes (assembly of feudal estates) and restore royal authority. With new

wealth from Brazilian gold and diamond strikes, John V (1706-1750) centralized

the administration, perfected mercantilism, and extended control over the

church. In Spain, similar developments accompanied the War of the Spanish

Succession and the grant to Louis XIV's Bourbon grandson, Philip V

(1700-1746), of the Spanish crown. Philip brought to Spain a corps of French

advisors, including the Princess des Ursins, a friend of de Maintenon's and a

spy for Louis XIV. Philip then followed French precedents by imposing

centralized ministries, local intendants, and economic regulations upon the


Aristocratic limits on absolutism, so evident in the declining kingdoms

of Portugal and Spain, were even more typical of the Habsburg monarchy in

eastern Europe. The Thirty Years' War had diverted Habsburg attention from the

Holy Roman Empire to lands under the family's direct control. By 1700, they

held the Archduchy of Austria, a few adjacent German areas, the Kingdom of

Bohemia, and the Kingdom of Hungary, recently conquered from the Turks. This

was a very large domain, stretching from Saxony in the north to the Ottoman

Empire in the southeast. It was strong enough to play a leading role in the

continental wars against Louis XIV after the 1670s.

Leopold I (1657-1705) was primarily responsible for strengthening the

Austrian imperial monarchy during this period. In long wars with the French

and the Turks, Leopold modernized the army, not only increasing its numbers

but also instilling professionalism and loyalty in its officers. He created

central administrative councils, giving each responsibility for an arm of the

imperial government or a local area. He staffed these high administrative

positions with court nobles, rewarded and honored like those in France. Other

new nobles, given lands in the home provinces, became political tools for

subordinating the local estates. Leopold suppressed Protestantism in Bohemia

and Austria and kept his own Catholic church under firm control. In 1687, the

Habsburgs were accepted as hereditary monarchs in Hungary, a status they had

already achieved in Austria and Bohemia.

In the eighteenth century, Maria Theresia (1740-1780) faced Leopold's

problems all over again. When she inherited her throne at the age of

twenty-two, her realm was threatened by Prussia and lacking both money and

military forces. In the years after Leopold's time, the nobles had regained

much of their former power and were again building their own dominions at the

expense of the monarchy. Maria was a religious and compassionate woman, known

as "Her Motherly Majesty," but she put aside this gentle image to hasten much

needed internal reforms. Count Haugwitz, her reforming minister, rigidly

enforced new laws which brought provincial areas under more effective royal


Despite its glitter and outward trappings, the Austrian Habsburg monarchy

was not a truly absolute monarchy. The economy was almost entirely

agricultural and therefore dependent upon serf labor. This perpetuated the

power of the nobles and diminished revenues available to the state. In

addition, subjects of the monarchy comprised a mixture of nationalities and

languages - German, Czech, Magyar, Croatian, and Italian, to name only a few.

Without real unity, the various Habsburg areas stubbornly persisted in their

localism. Even the reforms of Leopold and Maria Theresia left royal authority

existing more in name than in fact. Imposed on still functioning medieval

institutions, it resulted in a strange combination of absolutism and


While Habsburg absolutism wavered in an irregular orbit, Poland was in no

orbit at all. Local trade and industry were even more insignificant in its

economy; the peasants were more depressed; and land-controlling lesser nobles

- some 8 percent of the population - grew wealthy in supplying grain for

western merchants. Nobles avoided military service and most taxes; they were

lords and masters of their serfs. More than fifty local assemblies dominated

their areas, admitting no outside jurisdiction. The national Diet (council),

which was elected by the local bodies, chose a king without real authority. In

effect, Poland was fifty small, independent feudal estates.

Western Maritime States

Although impressed by French absolutism, the agricultural states of

eastern Europe were not yet capable of applying it. At the other extreme,

England and Holland rejected the system, partially beause they had outgrown

it. Yet both states felt the pull toward absolutism in their internal


The Dutch Republic, in the seventeenth century, was a confusing mixture

of medievalism and modernity. Its central government was a federation of seven

nearly independent states. The stadtholder, as chief executive, led the

military forces but had no control of budget or revenues. Neither did the

States General, the legislative body, which could act only as a council of

ambassadors from the provinces. These were governed by local estates, which

limited the authority of their own executives. The main difference between

this system and Poland's was the political weakness of the aristocracy.

Although rural nobles were strong in some provincial assemblies, the cities,

particularly those in the province of Holland, provided revenues that

maintained the government. Thus wealthy bankers and merchants, who dominated

the major town councils, held the real power.

Even in this political environment, absolutism was a political force. As

successful military leaders, the Dutch stadtholders appealed to popular

loyalties. The House of Orange supplied so many successive stadtholders that

the office became virtually hereditary in the family. By the 1640s,

stadtholders were addressed as "your highness" and intermarried with European

royalty, including the English Stuarts. They created a political machine that

controlled some provincial systems. Arguing for efficiency, they gained the

right to name their councilors as working ministers. From 1618 to 1647 and

again from 1672 to 1703, monarchists controlled the state. In the latter

period, William III built a highly efficient army and centralized


The Dutch state outdistanced contemporary monarchies in creating the

first northern European empire overseas. Between 1609 and 1630, while at war

with Spain and Portugal, the Dutch navy broke Spanish sea power, drove the

Portuguese from the Spice Islands of Southeast Asia, and dominated the

carrying trade of Europe. In this same period, the republic acquired Java,

western Sumatra, the spice-producing Moluccas of Indonesia, and part of

Ceylon. The Dutch East India Company took over most European commerce with

ports between the Cape of Good Hope and Japan. Elsewhere, the Dutch acquired

the Portuguese West African slaving stations, conquered most of Brazil, and

established New Amsterdam (present-day New York City and the Hudson River

valley) in North America. Dutch commercial and colonial predominance ended

after 1650, but the Dutch Asian empire lasted into the twentieth century.

As Dutch commercial and imperial fortunes declined, England became the

main rival of France for colonial supremacy. The two nations were already

traditional enemies and different in many respects. While France was

perfecting a model absolute monarchy, England was subordinating its kings to

Parliament. Before 1688, however, England also felt the strong attraction of

French absolutism.

The period from 1660 to 1688 was marked by increasingly severe struggles

between English kings and Parliament. England had earlier been torn by fanatic

religious controversy, political revolution, bloody civil war, the beheading

of a king, and rigid military dictatorship. Almost everyone

welcomed the new ruler, Charles II (1660-1685), called back from exile in

France and restored to the throne, with his lavish court and his mistresses.

But Charles, the cleverest politician of the Stuart line, exploited this

common desire for normality to violate the terms of his restoration, which

bound him to rule in cooperation with Parliament.

Charles almost succeeded in becoming an absolute monarch. With the help

of his favorite sister, Henrietta Anne, who had married Louis XIV's brother,

Charles negotiated the secret Treaty of Dover, which bound him to further

English Catholicism and aid France in war against Holland. In return, Charles

received subsidies from France that made him independent of Parliament. He

then used all of his deceit and cunning to create a political machine. This

precipitated a political crisis, forcing him to back down. Ultimately, he

dismissed four Parliaments. After 1681, Charles governed without Parliament,

taking advantage of a strong desire among the propertied classes to avoid

another civil war.

Charles' brother James II (1685-1688) proved to be a more determined

absolutist. Like Charles, he was an admirer of Louis XIV and a known Catholic.

His wife, Mary of Modena, had been persuaded by the pope to marry James as a

holy commitment to save England for Rome. Having been repeatedly insulted by

Protestants at Charles' court, she was now determined to accomplish her

mission. James was quite willing to cooperate. Early in his reign, he

suppressed an anti-Catholic rebellion in southwest England. With his

confidence thus buttressed, he attempted to dominate the courts, maintain a

standing army, take over local government, and turn the English church back to

Catholicism. Most of this was done in defiance of the law while Parliament was

not in session.

In 1688, after James had unsuccessfully tried to control parliamentary

elections, the country was roused to near revolt by the birth of a royal

prince, who might perpetuate a Catholic dynasty. A group of aristocrats met

and offered the crown to the former heir, Mary Stuart, the Protestant daughter

of James by an earlier marriage. Mary accepted the offer with the provision

that her husband, William of Orange, be co-ruler. William landed with an

efficient Dutch army, defeated James, and forced him into exile. This

"Glorious Revolution" pushed England in the direction of limited monarchy.

After 1688, England turned away from French-styled absolutism but

continued to follow mercantilist principles in building a worldwide empire. By

enforcing the Navigation Act of 1651 and other similar laws passed under

Charles, England sought to regulate foreign trade and exploit colonial


L'Etat, C'Est Moi
Date: 1998

You Might Also Like