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Ancien Regime France Notes

History Notes > General History X: Europe 1715-99 Notes

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Absolutism Tutorial
The state and political culture -- J. Swann
Politics: Louis XIV -- W. Doyle
Politics: Louis XV -- J. Swann
Politics: Louis XVI -- M. Price

Offices, Corps and a System of State Credit: The Uses of Privilege under the
Ancien Regime -- D. D. Bien

The Parlements -- W. Doyle
The Jansenist Constitutional Legacy in the French Prerevolution -- D. Van Kley
The Bourbon Monarchy: Reforms and Propaganda at the End of the Old Regime
-- V. R. Gruder


Review: The Desacralization of the French Monarchy in the Eighteenth Century
by Jeffrey W. Merrick -- D. Carroll Joynes

Europe in the Eighteenth Century 1713--1783 -- M. S. Anderson
The French Revolution: Aristocrats versus Bourgeois? -- T. C. W. Blanning

The Desacralization of the French Monarchy in the Eighteenth Century -- J. W.


Power and Politics in Old Regime France 1720--1745 -- P. R. Campbell


Absolutism Tutorial


Absolutism v. Despotism
Bodin -- established the idea of sovereignty

~ The king would not be guided by laws but morality

~ Also the issue of personal property
! Montesquieu -- comments on the English mixed monarchy

~ Separation of legislative, executive and judiciary powers

~ France does not have this --> despotism
Comparison with Britain

~ English -- French were slaves because they lived under despotism

~ Major discourse

~ Scottish did not share this feeling
Tocqueville -- there is not so much of a rupture between the
ancien regime and the
! Richelieu -- theorist of absolute monarchy

~ King has absolute power but relies on a powerful first minister to control

~ Louis XIV's understanding derives from this -- yet without the first minister
! 1515 -- Francis I --> beginnings of absolutism
! Bossuet -- Counter--Enlightenment Catholic priest

~ Strong advocate of absolutism and the divine right of kings





Theory of absolutism v. practice of kings
Louis XIV -- last and only absolute king
~ Grew up under a weak regency
~ Financial success -- took control of the aristocracy by making them ruin
themselves by being at the court at Versailles

~ Louis wanted t be away from the rebellions in Paris

~ Yet lack of presentation to the people --> later unpopularity and eventual

Montesquieu -- France is also a despotism because it lacks the intermediary power of the
~ Comparison to England
How absolute was Louis XIV?

! Lack of financial independence

~ Venality -- officer corps --> borrowing

~ Emphasise groups upon which the monarch is dependent

~ Lack of financial edicts -- remonstrances with parlement

~ Issue of lits de justice -- show of force/weakness
! Variations in law and custom --> different applications
! Inheritance of place in parlement

~ Dangerous -- sort of independence

~ Have bought their place in parlement -- king would have to buy it back --> could

not afford to




Parlements did not try to 'stop reforms' -- acted in their own interests --> linked to taxes
~ Used rhetoric of right and despotism
~ Rhetorical tool for forceful requests or hidden agenda against reform?

~ More to do with personal aims
Almost nobody in the 18th century would question the legitimacy of the king being the

! The kings did not arbitrate in these difficulties

~ Louis XIV had presented himself as controlling the Church
Importance of ideology

~ Not just finance

~ Concentrate on the failed government mechanisms within the controversy or the

polemical ideologies that it produced?


! Issue of central bureaucracy -- not really existent
! Provincial interests of the officials
! One man cannot control this great bureaucracy
! French Revolution starts centralising everything e.g. language


Vacillations --> ministerial instability and lack of reform

! Was more absolute than Britain
! Reality of absolutism -- comparison with other countries
! Perception in France -- theory rather than reality
! How did French kings understand themselves as monarchs?





Best selling book in 18th century France -- The Adventures of Telemachus
~ Treatise on how to be a good king
Bossuet -- almost a government paid official --> source of absolutist doctrine
Another source for kingly authority is Machiavelli -- reason of state
~ Louis XIV combined this with divine right
~ 'L'etat, c'est moi'
Issue of debt -- reliance on lenders
~ Major cost of war
th 18 century professional armies
~ Mercenaries -- need to be paid or you will be defeated


The state and political culture -- J. Swann
(Old Regime France 1648--1788 -- W. Doyle (ed.))
(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001)
pp. 139--168


Legislation followed by 'for such is our pleasure'
Third estate had wanted the king to be sovereign in 1614 -- response to the assassination
of Henri IV and the civil wars of the previous century

~ Enthusiasm for divine right and other theories stressing sacred nature

~ Estates General of 1614 was the last to meet before 1789

~ Ability to govern without a national representative body was a defining

feature of absolute monarchy
Not considered tyrannical -- authority should be exercised in accordance with divine and
natural law
! Fundamental laws of the kingdom -- inalienability of the royal domain, Salic law of
succession and Catholicism

~ Persuaded the French that they lived under an absolute monarchy but not


King in council
! 1661 -- Louis XIV took the decision to rule as his own first minister

~ Remarkably stable ministerial and conciliar system
Conseil d'en haut -- military and diplomatic policy with a handful of councillors known as
ministers of state

~ Royal invitation only
! Other great council was that of dispatches -- internal affairs

~ As well as the conseil d'en haut, it included the chancellor who was head of the

judiciary and the controller--general of finances
! Below them was the royal council of finances (attended by the king), the privy council
(rarely present) and periodically, councils of conscience and of commerce
! Ministers of Louis XIV and Louis XV -- generals d'Huxelles, Villeroy and Villars
! Leading ecclesiastics including cardinals Fleury and Tenpin
! Louis XIV was reluctant to call on the princes of the blood

~ Viewed the king as first among equals -- accustomed to pursuing their own


~ Compensated them by showing great respect for rank in social and courtly

hierarchy and rewarding their loyalty
! 4 secretaries of state -- war, navy, foreign affairs and the royal household

~ With the chancellor and the controller--general of finances, dominated

government after 1661

~ Title of controller--general was given to Colbert after the fall of the

superintendent of finances, Nicolas Fouquet -- principal victim of Louis XIV's

decision to rule as his own first minister

~ Immense energy and prestige of Colbert -- into most remote areas

~ Yet the position lacked status -- frequent changes of finance minister in the

18th century --> could not restrain spending of the secretaries of state, nor

establish necessary personal authority
! Louis XIV -- those favoured came overwhelmingly from the robe nobility




Ministerial clans engaged in fierce competition but Louis XIV had their undivided loyalty
-- over 54 years he only had to disgrace 3 ministers
'During the 18th century, instability became a feature of government with ministers
dismissed by the score. The old ministerial dynasties began to lose their grip' (p. 142)
~ Louis XIV had never appointed members of the Court aristocracy to the offices of
secretary of state

~ Saint--Simon's quip that they were held by the 'vile bourgeois' -- belief that

government ought to be the preserve of aristocrats like himself
Louis XV was less wary of the great aristocracy -- after 1750 its members were regularly
appointed as secretary of state --> further dimension to factional fighting at Versailles
~ Friction with robe nobility that had traditionally dominated ministerial office

The royal Court
! Louis XIV -- those that the king distrusted, such as the duke de La Rocheoucauld, found
themselves appointed to offices that demanded daily attendance on his person at the
palace of Versailles

~ Unable to maintain the ties of personal loyalty and clientage that had been the

basis of their military power
! Court was terribly expensive

~ Financial gifts from Louis XIV --> financial dependence
Versailles did offer advantages

~ Proximity to the king -- issues of precedence

~ Factionalism

~ Richelieu and Mazarin -- favourites ruling in the king's stead --> fortunes
XIV scrupulously protected the respective ranks of the grandees

~ Balanced distribution of favour

~ Positions in church and state
! 'Louis XIV used every nuance of Court life to his advantage but neither of his successors
had his masterful touch ... Winning control of the ministry [secretary of state] became
one of the principal goals of the Court cabals and the bitterness of their rivalries
undoubtedly contributed to the political instability that preceded the revolution. Louis
XVI, on the other hand, was unable to preserve an image of impartiality. The queen,
Marie--Antoinette, gradually gained control over both ministerial appointments and
patronage, attracting vicious criticism from those secluded from her charmed circle in
the process' (p. 144)
! By withdrawing to Versailles and other palaces, successive kings cut themselves off --
older tradition of monarchy based on regular public display
! 18th century -- neither Louis XV or Louis XVI made more than a handful of trips beyond
the lIe--de--France

~ Failed to cultivate public affection


State and administration
! Absolute in theory -- much more limited in practice

~ No common legal code or administrative system

~ Many of its people did not speak French

~ Individual towns, corporations and provinces had an array of privileges
Before 1789 -- division into historic provinces

~ Acquisitions of Burgundy, Brittany, Franche--Comte and Lorraine -- kept their
existing privileges










Provinces were divided into 2 different types
~ Pays d'etats -- Artois, Brittany, Burgundy and Languadoc

~ Had preserved the right to assemble local estates
~ Pays d'elections -- privilege had lapsed
Royal authority in the provinces was represented by the governor -- usually a prince of
the blood or a great aristocrat
'The political finesse of Louis XIV, who kept the princes at Court rather than in the
provinces, and the growing strength of the royal army gradually rendered noble revolts
obsolete, but the governors remained important' (p. 145)
~ Could make many civil and military appointments
In theory, the crown had thousands of office--holders to carry out its business
~ Members of the parlements
~ Courts of aids
~ Chambers of accounts
~ Bureaux of finances
~ The grand council
Parlements -- highest courts of appeal within their jurisdictions
~Traditionally policed public order
~ Watched over supply of essentials
~ Supervised the administration of prisons and hospitals
Courts of aids heard appeals against tax assessments and investigated abuse in the
fiscal system -- especially relative to the taille
Chambers of accounts verified the accounts of tax collecting bodies such as the
provincial estates or bureaux of finances
Grand council was a tribunal for the adjudication of disputes within the legal system,
especially those involving the parlements
Sold judicial and administrative offices to the highest bidder
~ Offices came with privileges -- could include hereditary nobility
~ System known as venality
Issue that the only means of removing office--holders was reimbursement -- state of royal
finances stopped even Colbert from achieving that aim
~ Government had to work with them -- often had own interests
~ Large assemblies of office--holders were difficult to manage

~ Did not provide unbiased local information needed
Crown became increasingly attracted to the solution offered by the intendants
~ 1660--1789 golden age of the intendants -- commissioners appointed by the king
~ Sent to regions known as generalities to act in matters pertaining to 'justice,
police and finance'
Majority were recruited from the robe nobility
Colbert and his successors expected an almost daily flow of information
~ Most important in fiscal matters -- drew up the rolls of the taille and later those of
the new direct taxes --> the capitation, tenth and the twentieth







~ Oversaw collection of taxes
~ Variety of other duties -- supervised raising of militia, commercial schemes and
settle local judicial disputes
Turgot, intendant of Limoge or Bertier de Sauvigny, intendant of the generality of Paris,
were amongst the most enlightened administrators of their age
~ Intendants had the greatest freedom to act in pays d'elections
~ Reduced authority in the pays d'etats -- strong tradition of local self--government
End of the old regime -- the 33 intendants were served by over 700 subdelegates
~ Yet it was a large kingdom with a growing population of some 28 million
Intendants needed to cultivate local support -- otherwise opposition to policies and
complaints to masters
~ Problems with raising the militia or arrears in taxation were often explained by
poverty or the paucity of the harvest

~ Issue of ignoring primary duty to serve the king
Pays d'etats -- intendant and governor represented the king at the assemblies of the
provincial estates
~ Presented royal demands to the deputies of the 3 orders
~ Estates had right of consent to taxation

~ Louis XIV found the practice of haggling with subjects demeaning -- had

effectively ended it by the late 1670s

~ Not due to threats or 'absolutism' -- king rewarded them by reducing his

Economist Gurney coined the term bureaucracy in the middle of the 18th century
~ Inspired by teams of clerks and others labouring for the administration

The fiscal military state
! 1660--Revolution only the 1720s were entirely peaceful
! Louis XIV -- great conflicts --> more powerful coalitions against France
! Army rose to a staggering 360k by the early 18th century => military revolution
! Growth of the navy -- briefly challenged the English and the Dutch in the 1680s
! Taille was the principal direct tax -- paid by the third estate

~ Century after 1690 -- direct taxation was extended to include all lay members of

French society
! 1695 introduction of the capitation -- end of noble fiscal exemption

~ Followed by the tenth (1710--17, 1733--6 and 1740--8)

~ Successor was the twentieth (1749--89)

~ Only the Catholic church was able to preserve its independence -- 'free gifts' to

the king
Crown leased the collection of customs and excise duties to syndicates of tax farmers --
paid a cash advance




Often obliged to borrow heavily
At a financial disadvantage to the English and the Dutch -- obtained loans far more easily
~ No parliament and bad reputation
Ruthless exploitation of venality and the wider system of privilege
~ 1689--1713 new offices were created in profusion
Monarchy reinforced the system of venality and privilege that it had created

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