Absolutism or absolute monarchy is the form of government where the king possesses complete control of the government and people in his country; the king’s word is law. Many factors lead to Absolute Monarchy in France, and the style of Absolute Monarchy under Louis XIV differed from traditional Absolute Monarchy.
The political and cultural history of France from 1498 to 1661, that is, from Louis XII’s accession to the throne to Louis XIV’s personal assumption of power can be divided into three major phases. The first, up to the death of Henry II in 1559, looked to Italy as a land ripe for conquest and as an inspiration for France’s own Renaissance. The second period (1562-1598) saw the region disturbed by eight civil wars–the Wars of Religion–as France struggled with the Protestant Reformation. The Reformation was both a theological dispute about the proper understanding, and practice of Christianity, and a political controversy about the legal status of the new Reformation churches. In France, the conflict took on a further political dimension when members of the high nobility attempted to take advantage of the chaos to extract power from the king. Factions tore each other apart. The weakened monarchy had to reconquer Paris (1594) and drive the Spanish from the kingdom (1597). Henry IV finally reestablished the monarch’s legitimacy when he legally recognized French Protestants and gave them freedom of worship. Henry IV’s conversion to Catholicism in 1594 inaugurated a new era and a new dynasty of French kings, the Bourbons. Through a governance as militaristic and absolutist as that of any predecessors, Henry censored writers and preachers in the name of public peace. Ironically, he would be assassinated in 1610, falling victim to the very violence and religious passions he sought to extinguish. During the half-century that followed, Cardinal Richelieu (1585-1642) organized the royal government’s reconquest of domestic control. The monarchy reinforced its monitoring of printing, totally restricting the emerging press. The French language itself became an object of government concern through the newly created Academie Francaise, a fitting example of Richelieu’s overall program of state control over politics and culture. Once the last rebellion of the feudal nobility was suppressed, the framework and mechanisms of Absolute Monarchy were in place, needing only the arrival of Louis XIV to complete the scene.
Louis XIV’s style of absolutism differed from the traditional Absolute Monarchy. He was the most powerful person in his government, but some power still existed in his advisers, ministers, and the vast bureaucracy that he created. Louis XIV’s brand of absolutism constructed an effective government bureaucracy in France. Louis’s bureaucracy started with the division of France’s government into committees, subcommittees of the councils, and bureaus run by various ministers and secretaries of state. Louis’s government was actually run by many governments. To make sure that his government ran well, Louis XIV used intendants to watch over officials, report on their actions, and if necessary take over their posts. With this framework, Louis XIV was able to run France efficiently. The efficiency of France’s tax collection system, which had a bureaucracy of tax collectors in twenty-six different districts, helped France gain economic stability.
Louis XIV’s absolutism carried through his bureaucracy, helped to bring economic stability to France. Louis XIV used his power to contribute to the French economy through many mercantile policies. An example of his policies was an edict he issued commanding that all lace sold in France must be made in France. Another way that the economy was stimulated by Absolute Monarchy was the elimination of the freight tax on the French. To further help French shipping, Louis XIV also used his power, as an absolute monarch, to prolong ships in French ports from hostile countries competing for limited trade. With these and other improvements that Louis XIV instituted, the French economy was able to grow to great stature.
With economic stability, which brought the French government tax revenue, and a bureaucratic structure to disrupt it efficiently and effectively, Louis XIV helped raise France to the pinnacle of high civilization in the seventeenth century. Under Louis XIV’s absolutism, Paris grew into a worldly city; many institutions of high culture were established, and architecture was greatly enhanced. Louis XIV contributed to the greatness of Paris by providing the funds to clean up the city, institute a police force, and pave the streets. Louis also built several institutions of high culture, which included the Louyre, Academy of Sciences, and the Observatory. He contributed to architecture by commissioning architects, like Bernini from Rome, to build large and extravagant structures; one of the greatest architecture achievements was Louis XIV’s palace, Versailles. These projects instituted by Louis XIV, helped to lift France to the peak of civilization.
For the most part, Louis XIV’s absolutism was positive for France in the seventeenth century. Many critics believe Louis XIV ignored human right issues and did not care about the French people as a whole. On the contrary, Louis XIV wrote a letter to his Heirs where he describes the joy he has with serving his people. In addition, Louis XIV actions counter the charge that he neglected human rights. During his rule he passed laws to protect blacks from France’s African colonies. Louis XIV is summed up by many as king who did or tried to make his country more flourishing. Louis XIV did more for his people than twenty of his predecessors put together.