Good ol’ Louis XIV (1638-1715) gets credit for epitomizing the ‘absolute monarch.’ The Sun King was not only the supreme power in France, he was the only power in France. What’s more, France dominated European politics, culture, and was the center of gravity during the 17th century.
Unlike many kings before him who were considered “first among equals” with the nobility, he was the state. In other words, he did not govern so much as dictate. He collected the aristocrats around him like satellites and kept them in check by forcing them to vie with each other for his frivolous “honors” (like being spoken to first, or being invited to watch the king dress in the morning).
At age 23, Louis declined to appoint a new chief minister when Mazarin died. Instead, he gathered the heads of all the departments and announced that he would be managing the affairs of the kingdom himself. He magnanimously announced that they could give him their advice…when he asked for it. He insisted that none of them were authorized to sign anything. He would henceforth be the only authority in the realm.
Louis remained the ultimate power in France for the next 54 years, but by all accounts he was not a particularly smart or decisive individual. He surrounded himself with people with even less intellectual horsepower and blundered his way in and out of one war after another. The aristocrats that had a modicum of intelligence loathed their boring and meaningless lives at Versailles.
Louis might epitomize the absolute monarch, but to suggest that he created it would be to give him far too much credit. The notion of a monarch that held unchecked power in a realm was one that had been growing in Europe for over a century. It demanded prerequisites that Louis inherited.
A monarch who wanted to wield total power first had to secure for himself what Max Weber called ‘the monopoly of violence.’ He must be able to have control over war, justice, and taxation. In the middle ages, a king would rely on the feudal lords to raise armies during times of war. That meant that the nobles had the ultimate power of conscription. Furthermore, these armies often survived through pillage which could threaten the peace even within the realm. An absolute monarch needed a standing army that answered only to him.
But a standing army doesn’t come cheap. It takes an enormous resources to maintain. Not only did the monarch need the power to tax independent of feudal lords, he needed a large and diversified economy to support significant revenue-generation. The bureaucrat was born. This new class of people served the added benefit of coming from the bourgeoisie (or the rising classes of merchants from the burg or towns) which further undermined the power of the noble and clergy classes that had been the realm’s ministers.
For Louis XIV, this process started by his grandfather Henry IV (the first Bourbon king) and his minister Sully. However, no one did more to further these aims than the minister Richelieu (1585-1642) who served under Louis XIII. He was militant (literally) about expanding the power of the monarchy at the expense of his subjects and foreign neighbors.
No one suffered at Richelieu’s hand more than the Huguenots. These were Protestant subjects in this Catholic nation. In an effort to keep the peace, they were given unprecedented privileges including the military means to maintain their religious rights. Richelieu saw this as an unacceptable check on the monarch’s sovereign power and ruthlessly put the Huguenots down.
In our pluralistic day, such ruthlessness is seen as tantamount to evil. However, during the 16th century there were strong concerns about whether subjects of a differing sect from the state religion would support their country against a foreign power that shared their religious views. What were the priorities in a subject’s duty of obedience? In an age when the state did not protect the religious rights of its minorities and where wars were so often drawn on sectarian lines, would they follow God or king?
No one tackled these issues with more gusto than Jean Bodin (1530-1596), a member of the French Parlement and a witness of 30 years of civil war driven by sectarian conflict (the so-called Religious Wars). Bodin fell firmly on the side of absolute power. He believed a division in political power led only to conflict, stalemate, and insecurity. He suggested that the central institution of society was the sovereign state. All others could exist, but only in complete subservience to the state.
It could be said that Bodin established the philosophical underpinnings of the modern state…and the the modern state’s most recognizable ancestor is the absolute monarchy.
Louis XIV benefited from the economic, cultural, militaristic, and philosophical foundations that allowed him to become the absolute monarch that he was. Far from the absolute monarchy being a relic of the past however, it is the foundation upon which the modern nation-states rose.