The Rise of Authoritarian Monarchies and Absolutism in Europe

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As we saw in the previous units, in Europe, since the end of the 15th century some monarchs (remember that the most common form of government in Europe was the monarchy) managed to regain some power and authority from the other institutions that could hold it, such as the nobility, the church and the cities. This process continued during the 16th century, and we call it the authoritarian monarchies

In the 17th century, monarchs keep that trend, getting more power and authority, and are going to reach a peak to their authority, evolving the political system into what is known as absolutism. Absolutism is a political system in which the king becomes the origin and holder of ALL political power and authority. It is said that they should have absolute control over their kingdoms, hence the name. This was made possible by a few elements:

  • Theoretical justification(or why absolutism was put in place): Some authors and philosophers, such as Bossuet and Hobbes will justify the absolute power of the kings with different theories:

    • Bossuet believed that God was the creator of the universe and humans were made after him, so they should follow his ways in everything they could. In God’s system, he holds absolute power (He’s all-powerful) over the Kingdom of Heaven, with no one else being able to make decisions. He thought that if God is perfect, so his system is perfect, so humans should try to copy it. For Bossuet, the king’s power comes directly from God, so the kings had divine right to hold absolute power.

    • On the other hand, Hobbes thought that the absolutism was good for society, because the king received power from the rest of society through a social contract, in which the king is responsible for the wellbeing of all his subjects, and to accomplish that goal, he needs to hold absolute power, instead of each social group looking after their own wellbeing.

  • Practical means(or how absolutism was put in place): Monarchs managed to get more power through a number of measures:

    • Improving Royal Treasuries: The state’s administration was enlarged and improved, resulting in higher tax revenues for the monarchy. There was a centralization, all decisions were taken in the king’s court and had to be approved by the king

    • Marginalizing Parliaments: Because Parliaments (representatives of the traditional social groups) were used mainly to get more funding (in exchange for control, privileges or new laws that benefited these representatives), the improvement of the administration and Royal Treasuries meant that kings could govern without the need to summon Parliaments

    • Brute force: The improvement of the monarch’s economies meant that they could rely on better, larger and more professional armies, loyal to them, that sometimes were used against those that rebelled against the accumulation of power on the hands of the monarchs

This process was especially intense in France and will allow the country to become the main European power by the end of the century. After some years of resistance and rebellion from both Parliaments and nobles (La Fronde), during the reign of Louis XIV (1643-1715), “The Sun King”, this process reached its peak.

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