State Building In Europe

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State Building in Europe

State Building in Europe

Absolutism and State Building in Europe, 1618-1715

The Nature of Absolutism

To best understand absolutism we need to differentiate between theoretical definitions as postulated by writers such as Thomas Hobbes and practice as applied by the various monarchs of Europe. Although the term absolutism may conjure images of despotic rulers, seventeenth-century kings did not have the resources and power to impose their will on the entire people of their country.

The Theory of Absolutism

When seventeenth-century political writers such as Jean Bodin refer to the king as having absolute power, they mean that he did not share the power to make laws with national representative assemblies; in other words he was "sole legislator." Absolute monarchs claimed that they held power by divine right. They also claimed that they were above the law and as the highest judge in the land could not be held accountable for their actions. This meant that they acted for reasons of state, i.e. the benefit of the entire kingdom, and therefore could not be expected to observe the rights and liberties of their subjects.

The Practice of Absolutism

In the seventeenth century, European monarchs took several steps to ensure their authority was held supreme within the state. First, they eliminated or weakened national representative assemblies. Second, they subordinated the nobility to the king and made them dependent on his favour, while excluding him from positions of power. Third, the kings established centralized bureaucracies that collected taxes, recruited soldiers, and operated the judiciary.

Warfare and the Absolutist State

The growth of European states in the seventeenth century was largely the result of war. Between 1600 and 1721 Europeans powers were constantly at war. By the end of the Thirty Years' War in 1648, most European countries had a standing army, which could be used in foreign wars as well as in maintaining internal order. In the seventeenth century and early eighteenth century these armies became larger. They were equipped with new gunpowder technology, which required more intensive training. The cost of recruiting soldiers, equipping them with arms and uniforms and training them, was so high that only the state could afford it. The need to meet the financial cost of the military forced states to improve the bureaucracy and tax collection.

The Absolutist State in France and Spain

The two European countries where royal absolutism first became the form of rule were France and Spain. While France under Louis XIV became the model of an absolutist state, which others sought to copy, Spain established forms of absolutist rule, but never matched the achievements of France.

The Foundations of French Absolutism

Efforts to establish the absolute monarchy in France began in response to the chaos of the religious wars. The Huguenot Henry IV (r. 1598-1610) converted to Catholicism when he became king of France. Louis XIII (r. 1610-1643) inherited the throne as a child. The aristocracy took advantage of royal weakness to try and build up its ...
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