CHAPTER FIVE: THE EARLY MODERN STATE: ABSOLUTISM AND CONSTITUTIONALISM
Hundred Years War
Jean Baptiste Colbert
Palace of Versailles
Edict of Nantes
Balance of Power
Hundred Years’ War
House of Lords
House of Commons
Petition of Right
ship money tax
New Model Army
Sir Thomas Fairfax
Battle of Naseby
William and Mary
Glorious Revolution of 1688-1689
Bill of Rights
Can you define what it means for a monarch to be an “Absolute” monarch in the 17th century?
Can you identify some examples of Absolutism in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century France?
Can you define what it means for a monarch to be a “constitutionalist” monarch in the 17th century?
Can you identify some examples of Constitutionalism in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century England?
During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, several important changes in the nature of government took place in various parts of Europe. In short, certain conventions of the exercise of state power during the Medieval Period were transforming into new (yet not always completely different) practices in Early Modern States. What is key to note is that monarchs’ power was continuously challenged during the medieval period. Kings and queens could not always rely on their nobles or their bureaucrats to do what they (the monarch) asked of them, and monarchs regularly had to negotiate or provide incentives to get their subordinates to cooperate. Even then, there were traditions governing the exercise of power in Medieval Europe that stretched back centuries and could not be easily ignored by kings or queens eager to increase their power. Yet as Medieval monarchy faded in the seventeenth- and eighteenth centuries, two theories of governance (and sets of practices to enact them) appeared: Absolutism and Constitutionalism.
Absolutism was a theory of government that argued that state authority ultimately rested in the hands of a sovereign—a king or queen. That is, the king or queen could make all the decisions about how to run the government, without needing to consult other (higher or co-equal) powers. (Absolutism is but one form of authoritarian government or oligarchy, which was the normal way of things all over the world until roughly 225 years ago. There are still many forms of authoritarian government the world over, such as Communist China.) Many rulers justified absolutist rule with the theory of divine right—which held that God had put them in positions of authority, so they were responsible only to God and the people owed them unquestioned allegiance. The monarch was God’s chosen representative in that country and to go against the authority of the monarch was to go against God.
Absolutism took shape in several places, and each of these specific iterations was unique in some respects. However, we can discern some commonalities that can help us understand the general trends. One common feature of absolutism was the monarch seeking to gain control over the nobility. Another common feature is the monarch working to establish a modern bureaucracy to administer a centralized state. These moves to gain control and establish the machinery of state were each frequently justified with recourse to some form of the theory of “divine right,” making this the third feature. A fourth commonality was that absolutist regimes typically tried to modernize or create modern systems of taxation, as well as military forces. Fifth, they also exerted control over religious institutions. Sixth, they implemented mercantilist economic policies. Seventh, they often spend enormous sums of money building new palaces and capitals.
To put it succinctly, all absolute monarchs at least controlled foreign policy, war policy, treaty-making authority, the church, taxation, and economic policy. But absolute monarchies were not totalitarian states like Soviet Russia under Stalin or Nazi Germany under Hitler, regimes that sought to control every aspect of their subjects’ lives. This is not necessarily because absolutist governments were more amiable to individuals and their rights but, rather, simply because no state at this point in time (the Early Modern Period) possessed the means to implement such a level of surveillance and control.
Pause for 60-second Quiz Question 1: Can you define what it means for a monarch to be an “absolute” monarch in the 17th century? Which of the following is true?
Absolute monarchs held power equal to that of their nobles and had to consult with their nobles on certain big decisions.
Absolute monarchs held power equal to that of the Catholic Church and had to consult with Catholic leaders on certain big decisions.
Absolute monarchs held all political power and did not have to consult with any other officials.
Absolute monarchs held complete power over every aspect of their subjects’ daily lives.
French Absolutism became a model for other states in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The beginnings of French absolutism lie in the Hundred Years War, which was fought between England and France over land in France back in the 14th and 15th centuries. England, as we shall see below, had a Parliament – a representative assembly of its nobles and middle-class. By the time of the Hundred Years War, Parliament had gotten control over the allocation of taxes, which in essence gave them somewhat control over the monarch. However, in France the effect was just the opposite. During the war, the French Kings were temporarily given the right to tax without having to go through the French representative assembly known as the Estates-General, which was made up of three estates: the nobility, clergy and the commoners. (More on the Estates-General below.)
The French were the ultimate victors in the Hundred Years War under French King Charles VII, who had been helped greatly by Joan of Ark. Although this right of taxation without consultation of the Estates-General had been an emergency expedient to get through the war with England, the French kings never relinquished that right. It was this control of taxation that sowed the seeds of absolutist rule in France- and ultimately caused the Estates-General to be forgotten. Louis XI, known as the Spider King, ruled France from 1461-1489 and he allowed only one meeting of the Estates-General. At this meeting, he surrounded the meeting hall with his troops and the Estates-General abdicated. The Estates-General would meet only twice following Louis XI, once at the beginning of the reign of Louis XIII in 1614 and the next time was in 1789 at the beginning of the French Revolution. When it was finally reconvened in 1789, it had been so long since it met that no one knew how it was to operate.
Louis XIII (1610-43) and Cardinal Richelieu (first minister, 1624-42) took great strides towards the creation of absolutism in France by consolidating the power of the monarchy over aristocrats and independent-minded Protestant cities. They built up the treasury, but this was done in large part by the selling of royal offices to the highest bidder. Richelieu knew that one thing that was hurting the ability of the king to unite the country under his rule was the power of the nobility in the countryside.
The aristocrats had traditionally been the representatives of the monarchy in the provinces. Richelieu changed this by constructing a bureaucracy throughout the country loyal to the king alone: the intendants. Unlike the hereditary nobles (who inherited their titles, land, and wealth from their families), the intendants relied entirely upon the favor of the king for their position and, consequently, they acted in the best interests of the king (and not in their own best interests, which had always been the prerogative for the nobles).
A great cause of unrest in France in the 16th and early 17th century was the struggle in France between the Catholics and the French Protestants known as the Huguenots. The struggle was over the right of the Huguenots to have freedom of worship. They had come to be prevalent in many of the towns in France and Richelieu saw them as a stumbling block to the king establishing absolute control over the country. Therefore, Richelieu reduced the political and military rights of the Huguenots.
Louis XIV (r. 1643-1715)
When Louis XIII died in 1643, his successor was a five-year-old boy named Louis after his father, Louis XIV. Cardinal Richelieu died the year before Louis XIII and into the void that he left stepped another cleric- Cardinal Mazarin. Mazarin ran France during Louis XIV’s minority. While Louis XIV ruled France for 72 years, for the first twenty years the real ruler was Mazarin.
While Mazarin was alive and running the country, Louis was a playboy who did not pay much attention to his studies and did not take much interest in the running of the state. He spent a lot of time crawling across the roofs of the palace to get into the rooms of the Queen’s ladies in waiting. (He had several mistresses.) Yet when Mazarin died in 1661, Louis became a working monarch and there was a 180-degree turn around for Louis. This is the basis for the Alexander Dumas’ novel Man in the Iron Mask, which was made into a movie a few years ago starring Leonardo DiCaprio. The idea for the story was derived from the fact that Louis went from being a playboy who was totally uninterested in anything but women into a good, hardworking monarch. Dumas related that the King must have had a twin brother that had been switched. There actually was a real “Man in the Iron Mask” during the reign of Louis XIV, but it was not an iron mask- it was a velvet mask and he was not the king’s brother; he was probably a double agent.
One occurrence during Mazarin’s rule of France that had a great impact on Louis was the Fronde. This was a series of rebellions between 1649 and 1652 in which segments of the nobility and commoners sought to stop France’s advance towards absolute monarchy. Ultimately, the rebellions failed due to divisions in leadership among rebels. However, for Louis, who was a child of ten when the Fronde began, it made a lifelong impression on him and the desire to prevent another Fronde guided Louis’s actions toward an absolutist system.
Louis XIV was an exceedingly proud, extravagant, and domineering monarch. Not only was he a Proponent of the Divine Right of Kings but he conflated his own desires and welfare with that of the French state, which is neatly expressed in the famous line attributed to Louis, “L’etat, c’est moi” (“I am the state”), which clearly demonstrates the high conception that he held of his own authority. Louis chose the Sun as his emblem, and to indicate his belief that the kingdom received its life through him, just as the planets receive their life from the sun.
Despite his enormous ego, Louis was an able man. He personally supervised every department of government, including the running of his kitchen. He expanded the centralization work that had been started by Cardinal Richelieu and his father, Louis XIII, bringing every aspect of the government under his control. Ministries and councils were established for every purpose. Louis would meet with the councils, listen to what they had to say and then make his own decision.
Louis gained control over lawmaking and foreign affairs of France and served as his own first minister, he never had a Cardinal Richelieu or Mazarin running things for him like during his father’s reign or before he came of age. He also never called a meeting of the Estates-General and, using the intendents, he reduced the power of the local assemblies throughout France known as parliaments. (These were not the same as the English Parliament – see below – but were local governing bodies that played a role in the king’s exercise of his power.) Louis therefore further centralized the government of France around himself, to the point where an argument can be made that he was to blame for the French Revolution (even though the French Revolution did not start for nearly seventy-five years after his death) because the government became so centralized that a king had to be a working king to get the job done. Unfortunately, Louis’ successors, Louis XV and Louis XVI, could not do the work that Louis XIV had done. This led to the decline of France and the revolution. That is, had his successors been as good a monarch as Louis XIV, the Revolution might not have happened. One thing that he did that helped his image was that he gained control of the press. Nothing bad would ever be printed about Louis, which helped his image as the Sun King.
Louis was a big proponent of the Mercantilism theory, which held that state regulation of economic affairs was necessary for the welfare of the country. It was the idea that the state needed a powerful, centralized bureaucracy to encourage their native industries, control production, set quality standards and set tariffs for their industries. Basically, what this is saying is that the state needed to be strong to encourage the industries of the country and make sure that they live up to a certain quality. Under Louis, Mercantilism became one of the prime tenets of absolutism.
One of the big proponents of the Mercantilist theory was Louis’ Finance Minister, Jean Baptiste Colbert. Both Colbert and Louis worked to make sure that French products were produced to a high standard- especially luxury goods like wine. France came to be known as the place for the wealthy from around Europe to acquire their luxury items. Louis’ government would put businesses out of business if they did not meet the standard. French products like wine have kept up this allure to this day- of being the best.
In 1669, Louis decided to build himself a new palace and he began construction on the Palace of Versailles, which was located twelve miles outside of Paris. His father, Louis XIII, had erected a simple hunting lodge on the site, but Louis’ plans for Versailles were much grander. By the time it was built, Versailles cost an estimated $100 million – an enormous figure for the 17th century – and as many as 30,000 workmen could be found working on it at any one time. The gardens at Versailles are still something to see and the fountains, when they turn them on for an hour or so a week are marvelous (it pulls the level down on the River Seine if they run them too long- because they are so numerous). Versailles supposedly could house over 3,000 people combined, between the royal residences and the numerous apartments on the grounds.
The palace was still unfinished in 1682, when Louis decided to move his court and the government of France from Paris to Versailles. Versailles was an integral part of his mercantilist policy, because it was a showplace for French products – everything employed at Versailles, the wine, the tapestries, the paintings, the jewelry, the furniture, the silverware, and the mirrors that made up his great Hall of Mirrors were all French goods. Even the music played had to be by Frenchmen. Only the best of French products were used at Versailles. This encouraged French industry, because Versailles set the styles for the rest of the country, as what was worn, drank, and used at Versailles was emulated throughout the country. For this reason, even though Versailles was very extravagant, it was still helping to make money for France, because it established the supremacy of French goods. Even considering the great cost of building Versailles it was probably the best investment Louis made.
Louis had another reason for wanting to move to Versailles. This went back to his memories of the Fronde of his childhood, in which he had to flee from Paris to avoid the Paris mobs. One of the main reasons for moving to Versailles was to remove himself from Paris and establish himself in his own city, where he would not be pushed around by the Paris mobs. This removal of the King from his subjects to a city and a palace where only the most privileged in the country could see him has been cited as another reason for the French Revolution, because the French people, and especially the volatile Parisians, had no connection with the monarch any longer after he moved to Versailles.
Yet another reason that Louis built Versailles was to keep the nobility occupied and out of trouble by requiring them to spend a great amount of time at Versailles in attendance of the King. Very elaborate rituals were developed that were to emphasize the majesty of the king and to emphasize his superiority over the nobility. The result of it all was that the king was elevated almost to the position of a god. All of this backed up the theory of divine right monarchy. The king as god’s anointed ruler.
For example, a noble of high rank was required to dry the king after his bath, while another would clean his tub. Only the most illustrious of nobles were permitted to hand the king his shirt or help him on with his trousers. For the nobles, all these tasks were sought after because they showed the nobles rank -- the closer you were to the king the more power and prestige you had. What this did was to keep the nobles at Versailles at the beck and call of the king, which meant that they could not be out in the provinces stirring up trouble against the king. It meant that the King was in charge- had control. This is important because, historically, nobles in France had exercised much more authority and independence in how they governed their hereditary estates, reaching back into the Medieval period. So as absolutist kings like Louis XIV worked to solidify control over the government of France, these kings had to simultaneously work to diminish the power of the nobles, who might try to resist the king.
One of Louis’ later moves was to centralize religion and enforce religious conformity. As mentioned earlier, one of the great causes of unrest in France in the 16th and 17th century had been the conflict between Catholics and Huguenots. King Henry IV, who had himself been a Protestant, in 1598 temporarily brought an end to the conflict by issuing the Edict of Nantes, which had granted limited religious toleration to Huguenots, allowing them to practice their religion in certain cities and parts of the country.
Louis, like Richelieu, saw the Huguenots as a threat to his power. Louis worried about their loyalty and since he was often engaged in wars with Protestant nations, he feared that the Huguenots might turn against him. It never entered his mind that a man could be a Frenchmen first and a Protestant second.
Louis first tried to persuade the Huguenots to convert to Catholicism by offering them money. Failing in this attempt, he closed their schools and their churches. Next, he tried to terrorize them by stationing troops in their homes and in their communities. Louis thought that he had succeeded in either forcing out the Huguenots or getting them to convert. Thinking that there were only a handful of Huguenots left, he revoked the Edict of Nantes in 1685. With no protection under the law, many of the Huguenots that were firm enough in their faith not to convert, were forced to flee—often for their lives.
The Huguenots migrated to Protestant areas. Some went to Berlin – the top fighter ace on the German side in WWII was descended from Huguenots. Some went to England. Many immigrated to the New World, with Charleston, SC being a prime destination. They became Episcopalians.
In the long run, this hurt France because the Huguenots were by and large made up of the middle classes-- the merchants and the skilled tradesmen—and this caused a serious setback for the French economy and industry. When we talk about the Industrial Revolution, one of the reasons that many historians believe that the revolution happened first in Britain and not France was because those people who were technically and mechanically inclined were the Huguenots, who had been forced to leave France in the 17th century. Many went to Britain where they helped lead the Industrial Revolution.
Another of the tenets of an absolutist system was a powerful army and Louis XIV was no exception to this himself. He had a very professional army. Some of the greatest names in French military history such as Turenne and Conde served Louis.
His military did not sit idly by either during his reign – it was used. For twenty-five of the fifty-five years of Louis’ personal reign (after the death of Mazarin), France was at war. Louis was the aggressor in these conflicts mainly to expand the borders of France. This was mainly done at the expense of the Hapsburgs, who ruled the Austrian-Hungarian Empire. (Another branch of the Hapsburg Family ruled Spain.) Louis was very effective in his foreign policy and his wars and expanded the boundaries of France in the North and the East and acquired for France the territories of Alsace and Lorraine.
However, the fear of Louis’ coming to dominate Europe caused the other states of Europe to put aside their differences and come together to stop him. This is really the beginning of the Balance of Power in Europe, which was so prevalent through the outbreak of World War I. European statesmen formed alliances to ensure that one state will not become dominate over the other states of Europe. Although this occasionally broke down, by and large it was successful.
His armies were generally successful until his final war fought from 1702 to 1713, known as the War of Spanish Succession, which was started over Louis’ attempt to place his grandson on the Spanish throne. The idea of Louis controlling not only France, but also Spain, was hateful to the rest of Europe and a Grand Coalition was formed between England, the Dutch Provinces, and the Hapsburg Empire. The army was led by a brilliant English General named John Churchill, first Duke of Marlborough. He was an ancestor of Winston Churchill. Even though Louis’ armies were defeated in the field, the coalition could not stay together over the formulation of the peace treaty and Louis scored a diplomatic victory with his grandson being able to keep the Spanish throne.
All of Louis’ wars, his extravagant lifestyle and building projects took a lot of money. Louis and Colbert developed the first modern tax system in France to pay for Louis’s extravagance at court and for his wars. Utilizing the intendents, Louis was able to collect taxes more efficiently (nobles no longer involved in tax collection- more money into the King). Unfortunately, the taxes fell most heavily on the peasantry, so as not to alienate the nobility.
All in all, the reign of Louis XIV was a very prosperous time for France, despite all the money wasted by Louis. Louis’ centralization efforts brought the French monarchy to the apex of its power, but as mentioned before it was this very centralization that under lesser kings like those that succeeded Louis, which was the cause of the downfall of the French Monarchy during the French Revolution. However, his creation of French Absolutism would serve as a model for other states in Europe such as:
Other Absolutist States
Brandenburg-Prussia under the Hohenzollerns:
Frederick William of Hohenzollern (the Great Elector, 1640-88); Frederick I (1701-13), King of Prussia; Frederick William I (1713-40); Frederick II (1740-86), great military leader. Frederick the Great modeled his palace at Potsdam after Versailles.
Habsburg Empire (Austria and Hungary) under the Habsburgs:
Leopold I (1658-1705), Charles VI (1711-40), Maria Theresa (1740-80)
Russia under Peter the Great (1682-1725)
Peter built St. Petersburg and reoriented Russia toward the West. The Tsar’s summer palace at St. Petersburg was built to imitate Versailles. Russian nobility was forced to move to St. Petersburg for the same reason that Louis XIV had the French nobles attend him at Versailles- it kept them out of trouble.
PAUSE for 60-second Quiz #2: Can you identify some examples of Absolutism in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century France? Which of the following is not a correct statement?
French King Louis XIV outlawed the Catholic Church and forced French people to worship him as their god.
French King Louis XIV created a new class of bureaucrats (the intendents) to help him run the country.
French King Louis XIV built a new palace at Versailles and forced nobles who wanted positions of power to spend their time at Versailles, instead of causing the king trouble in their home provinces.
French King Louis XIV built up a very effective army, which waged many wars to expand French power, but which also required large amounts of taxes to finance.
Constitutionalism in England
At the same time as Louis XIV was establishing Absolutism in France, just across the English Channel in England, that country was traveling down a much different path. England was heading down the path towards Constitutional Government or Constitutionalism. Constitutionalism simply means government by a constitution. A constitution guarantees the inhabitants of the country certain rights- meaning that the monarch cannot just do whatever they want. A Constitution does not have to be written (like the US Constitution) but it does have to be a set of laws or traditions that are believed to be more powerful or more sacred than anyone else, whether the whims of a monarch or the demands of a mob.
What is important to highlight here is that Constitutionalism was just one more form of the Early Modern State that wielded more power than Medieval States. During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, most European states were monarchies, and Constitutionalism could indeed be a monarchy – no European state had anything approaching democracy at this time. Yet the supremacy of Absolutist monarchs (that is, they were not negotiating with their nobles or with anyone else; they did what they wanted to do) is in some way mirrored in the power of the Constitutionalist state (here the king does not do whatever he wants to do but the state wields supreme power over its people; it is not negotiating with its people, as long as the state is operating within the bounds of the constitution).
PAUSE for 60-second Quiz #3: Can you define what it means for a monarch to be a “constitutionalist” monarch in the 17th century? Which of the following is true?
A constitutionalist monarch holds supreme authority and does not need to respect any other sources of power.
A constitutionalist monarch must continuously negotiate with the nobility below them, to get the nobility to do what the monarch wants them to do.
A constitutionalist monarch usually claims to hold a divinely inspired appointment to their throne.
A constitutionalist monarch must obey the body of laws and traditions that guarantees certain rights to all subjects.
England (aristocratic oligarchy)
One of the reasons that England went an opposite way than France has to do with geography. England as an island nation was naturally more protected from attacks from other European countries. During Medieval times, England had faced conflicts with the other inhabitants of the British Isles, the Scots, Welsh and Irish, but by the Seventeenth Century, this threat had long since passed. This allowed the Kingdom of England, during the Tudor period in the 16th Century, to begin to concentrate on building up its navy, with which to defend itself from attack (instead of maintaining a standing army). England has not been successfully invaded since William the Conqueror in 1066, so by the Tudor period in the 1500’s things were stable enough that people didn’t want a heavy-handed government- there was no need for it.
France, on the other hand, had less natural protection from the other European countries and had to rely on a strong army to defend itself. A strong army called for a strong monarchy, like the one that Louis XIV created, that could raise the kind of manpower required and could raise enough taxes to clothe, arm and feed the army. Therefore, geography played an important part in why France went the way of absolutism and England went the way of Constitutionalism.
Development of Parliament
Another reason that England went the way of Constitutionalism instead of Absolutism like France has to do with the history of Parliament. Parliament was the representative assembly in England, which had evolved over centuries and centuries from the witan, of the Anglo-Saxon kings who ruled England prior to 1000 AD. The Witan was the council of nobles who advised the king. The monarch was not bound, however, to follow the council’s advice.
However, the nobility scored a victory over the power of the king during the reign of King John (r. 1199-1216) – this is the King John of the Robin Hood tales. John had been defeated in a series of wars in France, trying to hold together the Empire that his father, Henry II had built. (Henry during his reign had controlled more of France than the King of France, plus England as well.) John’s wars were very expensive, and the costs were largely born by the nobility. In May of 1215, war broke out in England between the nobility and the king, with John being defeated and forced to sign the Magna Carta or Great Charter at Runnymede. While this document was largely intended to redress the grievances that the nobility had over taxation, it set a very important precedent: that the king was not above the law and that the king had to consult with his nobles (who later assembled into the Parliament) in order to levy new taxes. It became one of the most important documents in the (unwritten) British constitution. Every monarch of England after John had to agree to uphold Magna Carta to be crowned.
As we saw with the Hundred Years’ War, which took place in the 14th and 15th centuries between France and England, the English Parliament had gotten control over the allocation of taxes, which in essence gave them power to coerce the monarch into doing what they wanted if he wanted to get money for the war. Another thing that occurred during the Hundred Years’ War was the separation of Parliament into two houses, the House of Lords, which contained the nobility – Dukes, Earls, and so forth – and the House of Commons, which was made up of the gentry (essentially wealthy but non-noble landowners). The House of Commons assumed the position within Parliament of controlling the allocation of taxes.
By the accession of the Tudors to the English throne in 1485, it was an established fact that Parliament was a co-authority with the king. Under the Tudors, especially Henry VIII and his daughter, Elizabeth I, the monarch had a good working relationship with Parliament. However, both monarchs had their own source of funding so that they did not have to ask for a lot of money from Parliament. Henry, after his break with the Roman Catholic Church in the early 1530’s, began a dissolution of all the (Catholic) monasteries in England. The monasteries were quite wealthy and owned approximately ¼ of all the land in England, which Henry promptly seized and sold to raise revenue. (Most of this land he sold to the gentry, which made those gentry in the Parliament even more happy to get along with Henry.)
By the time of Elizabeth’s reign, another source of revenue (aside from taxes) had become important: piracy. Elizabeth had an agreement with the English buccaneers – Sea Dogs, mainly pirates, like Sir Francis Drake, who were attacking Spanish Gold Ships coming back from the New World. Elizabeth secretly supported them in their ventures and in return she got a share of the booty. For this reason, Elizabeth, like her father, got along well with Parliament because she did not need a lot from them, and therefore they could not really force her to do anything. She could do what she wanted because she had the money from the Sea Dogs.
Ingenious as this solution may appear, it was also Elizabeth, the Virgin Queen, who contributed mightily to the near fall of Constitutionalism in England. Elizabeth ruled England magnificently from 1558 and 1603 and is considered one of the greatest of English monarchs. However, she never married or produced an heir, so at her death in 1603, the throne passed to her cousin, James VI, King of Scots. James was the only son of Mary, Queen of Scots, a distant relative of Elizabeth but one whom Elizabeth had executed after she had taken part in several plots to overthrow Elizabeth. (Mary had fled to England from Scotland due to a rebellion of the nobles up there against her).
Reign of James I (1603-25)
This gets a little confusing, but King James VI of Scotland (son of Mary, Queen of Scots) would later be crowned King James I of England, because Queen Elizabeth of England had no heirs. The background is very long and rather confusing but, in short, James’s mother Mary (see above) was related to Elizabeth, Queen of England, which made James VI, King of Scotland, also related to the royal line of England, and in a position to succeed to the English throne when Elizabeth died.
James came to the throne in 1603 as King James I of England (he was still King of Scotland as well- but never went back there). After the splendor and magnificence of Elizabeth, Englishmen were a little disappointed in James. His Scottish accent was strong and unappealing to them. He sort of stumbled along when he walked and had bad posture. He had a rolling eye and was not a very clean person, even by the standards of that day. His tongue appeared to be too large for his mouth, he had very few teeth and he constantly drooled. He wore these big, stuffed pleated britches, that made him look like a pumpkin with little legs sticking out. The English people rolled on the ground when they first saw him.
James’ biggest problem was his ego and his lack of understanding of English customs and traditions and how things worked in his new Kingdom. As King of Scots, James had become accustomed to Scotland's weak parliamentary tradition since assuming control of the Scottish government in 1583, so that upon assuming power south of the border, the new King of England was genuinely affronted by the constraints the English Parliament attempted to place on him in exchange for money. Despite this, James' personal extravagance meant he was perennially short of money and had to resort to extra-Parliamentary sources of income.
James was the first English monarch to believe in divine right monarchy- even a charismatic and powerful king like Henry VIII had not had the audacity to state that his power was evolved from God. This just did not sit well with the English people- they did not like it. The English people had put monarchs on and off the throne for centuries, so James’ assertion that to go against him was to sin against God was very ludicrous in England- especially to Parliament. Instead, James believed that he was above the laws of England and above Parliament and his desire was to establish Absolutism in England. Of course, this did not at all sit well with Parliament.
When James’ first Parliament met in 1604, there began a running battle between the king and Parliament over who had supreme power in England. Both the king’s officials and Parliamentary lawyers researched into the records to find a precedent in the laws to give their side more credibility. By this time, Magna Carta had largely been forgotten, but it was dragged out and became a precedent for the claims of Parliament over the king. The problem for James was constantly money. He was not as good with money as Elizabeth had been, he led an extravagant lifestyle and had many favorites who looted the royal treasury at will. However, due to his obsession with divine right monarchy and the establishment of Absolutism, James had a great amount of trouble throughout his reign trying to get funds out of the House of Commons, which was made up of the gentry.
At this time, it was the prerogative of the king to call and dismiss Parliament at will. James called Parliament after Parliament during his reign to ask for a grant of taxes so that he could run his government, but the response was always the same. The House of Commons would start debating all the grievances that they had with the king and would give him little to no money. He would have to wind up dismissing the Parliament to keep them from causing him more trouble.
Things got so bad for James that he began to sell titles of nobility. If you were a member of the middle class, who were the merchants and businessmen of England- who were rich, but had no noble title, then you could buy one from James. James even invented a new title, that of Baronet, which was a junior noble, that sold for 1095 pounds, payable in three installments. James’ sell of noble titles resulted in his doubling the number of nobles in the House of Lords.
Reign of Charles I (1625-1649)
James died in 1625 and was succeeded by his son, Charles I. Charles was certainly more handsome than his father, although the portraits of him were more flattering of him than reality. Apparently, he was a small man with a speech impediment, and he had a constantly red nose.
At first, Charles was very popular among the English people. However, it was not long before the English came to realize that like his father, Charles was a firm believer in Divine Right Monarchy. Neither James nor Charles ever tried to win the popularity of the English people, which is something that the Tudor Kings and Queens had been very good at. James' personal extravagance was tempered by his peaceful disposition, so that by the succession of his son Charles I to the English and Scottish thrones in 1625 the two kingdoms had both experienced relative peace, both internally and in their relations with each other, for as long as anyone could remember. Charles hoped to unite the kingdoms of England, Scotland, and Ireland into a new single kingdom, fulfilling the dream of his father. Many English Parliamentarians had suspicions regarding such a move because they feared that setting up a new kingdom might destroy the old English traditions which had bound the English monarchy. As Charles shared his father's position on the power of the crown (James had described kings as "little gods on Earth", chosen by God to rule in accordance with the doctrine of the "Divine Right of Kings"), the suspicions of the Parliamentarians had some justification.
Another thing that hurt Charles was that he married a French Catholic Princess named Henrietta Maria, who was the sister of King Louis XIII, and therefore the aunt of Louis XIV. She was not popular among the people and their dislike of her extended to Charles. This was especially true of the Puritans, the radical Protestants that were becoming more and more of a force in the House of Commons. Puritans were Protestants, so technically members of the Church of England, but they wanted to “purify” the church of what they saw as lasting problems held over from Catholicism. Puritans tended to try to make the Church of England simpler, plain, with more fire and brimstone preaching, talking about morality, and so forth. Thought that the Anglican Church, which was the official English church after Henry VIII broke with the Roman Catholic Church in 1536, was much too ornate -- like the Catholic Church.
At the time, the Parliament of England did not have a large permanent role in the English system of government. Instead, Parliament functioned as a temporary advisory committee and was summoned only when the monarch saw fit to summon it. Once summoned, a parliament's continued existence was at the king's pleasure since it was subject to dissolution by him at any time. Yet despite this limited role, Parliament had, over the preceding centuries, acquired de facto powers of enough significance that monarchs could not simply ignore them indefinitely. Without question, for a monarch, Parliament's most indispensable power was its ability to raise tax revenues far more than all other sources of revenue at the Crown's disposal. By the seventeenth century, Parliament's tax-raising powers had come to be derived from the fact that the gentry was the only stratum of society with the ability and authority to actually collect and remit the most meaningful forms of taxation then available at the local level. This meant that if the king wanted to ensure a smooth collection of revenue, he needed the co-operation of the gentry. For all of the Crown's legal authority, by any modern standard, its resources were limited to the extent that, if and when the gentry refused to collect the king's taxes on a national scale, the Crown lacked any practical means with which to compel them.
Therefore, to secure their co-operation, monarchs permitted the gentry (and only the gentry) to elect representatives to sit in the House of Commons. When assembled along with the House of Lords, these elected representatives formed a Parliament. Parliaments, therefore, allowed representatives of the gentry to meet, primarily (at least in the opinion of the monarch) so that they could give their sanction to whatever taxes the monarch expected their electorate to collect. In the process, the representatives could also confer and send policy proposals to the king in the form of bills. However, Parliament lacked any legal means of forcing its will upon the monarch; its only leverage with the king was the threat of its withholding the financial means required to execute his plans.
When Charles’ Parliament met, he was faced with the same hostility from the Commons that his father faced, and they were very frugal with giving him money. When Charles went to war with Spain, he desperately needed money. Things got so bad for Charles by 1627 that he pawned the crown jewels and mortgaged crown lands. Charles then tried to collect “forced loans” from many of his wealthy subjects. Some refused to pay, and Charles had them imprisoned. Of course, this was taxation without the consent of Parliament, which totally violated the traditional English rights. Late in 1627, Charles got into an argument with his brother-in-law, Louis XIII of France and war broke out between England and France. Charles, meanwhile, decided to send an expeditionary force to relieve the French Huguenots whom French royal troops held besieged in La Rochelle. Military support for Protestants on the Continent was popular both in Parliament and with the Protestant majority in general, and it had the potential to alleviate concerns brought about by the King's marriage to a Catholic. However, Charles's insistence on having his unpopular royal favorite George Villiers, the Duke of Buckingham, assume command of the English force undermined that support. Unfortunately for Charles and Buckingham, the relief expedition proved a fiasco, and Parliament, already hostile to Buckingham for his monopoly on royal patronage, opened impeachment proceedings against him. Charles responded by dissolving Parliament. This move, while saving Buckingham, reinforced the impression that Charles wanted to avoid Parliamentary scrutiny of his ministers.
Having dissolved Parliament and unable to raise money without it, the king assembled a new one in 1628. (The elected members included Oliver Cromwell and Edward Coke.) Charles was now at war with both France and Spain and was desperately needed more funds. This new Parliament was more hostile to him than any he had faced and would not vote for new taxes unless Charles agreed to address some of their grievances. These were written into a document known as the Petition of Right. Among those rights that Parliament demanded Charles respect were the right of the English people to only be taxed with the consent of Parliament, and the right of the English people to not be arbitrarily imprisoned. Charles reluctantly agreed to the petition but almost immediately broke the petition by again levying taxes without going through Parliament. However, the Petition of Right stands alongside Magna Carta in placing constitutional limits on absolute monarchy.
The Parliament became so hostile in 1629 that Charles had to dissolve it and he would not call it again until 1640, when he was forced to call it due to the outbreak of war with Scotland. Sensibly, he did make peace with both France and Spain in 1629 but, between 1629 and 1640, Charles ruled England alone and tried to revive every Medieval custom for raising revenue. In the process, Charles lost more of the respect of the English people, who (rightly) saw this as the imposition of absolutism. This period (during which Charles I was avoiding calling a Parliament) became known as the "personal rule of Charles I", or the "Eleven Years' Tyranny.” During this period, Charles's lack of money determined policies. First and foremost, to avoid Parliament, the King needed to avoid war. Charles made peace with France and Spain, effectively ending England's involvement in the Thirty Years' War. However, that was far from enough to balance the Crown's finances.
Unable to raise revenue without Parliament and unwilling to convene it, Charles resorted to other means. One method was reviving certain conventions, often long outdated. For example, a failure to attend and to receive knighthood at Charles's coronation was a finable offence with the fine paid to the Crown. The King also tried to raise revenue through the ship money tax, by exploiting a naval war-scare in 1635, demanding that the inland English counties pay the tax for the Royal Navy. Established law supported this policy, but authorities had ignored it for centuries, and many regarded it yet another extra-Parliamentary (and therefore illegal) tax. Some prominent men refused to pay ship money, arguing that the tax was illegal, but they lost in court, and the fines imposed on them for refusing to pay ship money (and for standing against the tax's legality) aroused widespread indignation.
During the "Personal Rule," Charles aroused most antagonism through his religious measures: he believed in High Anglicanism, a sacramental version of the Church of England, theologically based upon Arminianism, a creed shared with his main political advisor, Archbishop William Laud. In 1633, Charles appointed Laud as Archbishop of Canterbury and started making the Church more ceremonial, replacing the wooden communion tables with stone altars. Puritans accused Laud of reintroducing Catholicism; when they complained, he had them arrested. In 1637 John Bastwick, Henry Burton, and William Prynne had their ears cut off for writing pamphlets attacking Laud's views—a rare penalty for gentlemen, and one that aroused anger. Moreover, the Church authorities revived the statutes passed in the time of Elizabeth I about church attendance and fined Puritans for not attending Anglican church services.
The end of Charles's independent governance came when he attempted to apply the same religious policies in Scotland. The Church of Scotland, reluctantly episcopal (meaning it had a hierarchal structure, where bishops supervised local churches) in structure, had independent traditions. Charles, however, wanted one uniform Church throughout Britain and introduced a new, High Anglican version of the English Book of Common Prayer to Scotland in the middle of 1637. This was violently resisted; a riot broke out in Edinburgh, which may have been started in St Giles' Cathedral, according to legend, by Jenny Geddes. In February 1638, the Scots formulated their objections to royal policy in the National Covenant. This document took the form of a "loyal protest," rejecting all innovations not first having been tested by free parliaments and General Assemblies of the Church.
In the spring of 1639, King Charles I accompanied his forces to the Scottish border to end the rebellion known as the Bishops' War. But, after an inconclusive military campaign, he accepted the offered Scottish truce: The Pacification of Berwick. The truce proved temporary, and a second war followed in the middle of 1640. This time, a Scots army defeated Charles's forces in the north, then captured Newcastle. Charles eventually agreed not to interfere with Scotland's religion and paid the Scots' war-expenses.
In the summer of 1640, the war with Scotland went badly and a Scots army invaded the North of England and occupied the two northern counties of Durham and Northumberland. When Charles agreed to a treaty with the Scots, he had to agree to pay them to leave England. Charles was forced to pay £850 per day to keep the Scots from advancing. If he did not, they would "take" the money by pillaging and burning the cities and towns of Northern England. For this reason, he was forced to keep Parliament in session. Charles found that Parliament was just as uncooperative as ever, even though it had not met in eleven years.
Parliament by now had had enough of Charles and his attempts to impose absolutism. They began passing laws designed to make absolutism in England an impossibility, such as the Triennial Act, which stated that Parliament was to meet every three years whether it was summoned by the king or not, and that Parliament could not be adjourned by the king without its consent. Remember that, up to this point, it had been the king’s prerogative to call and dissolve Parliament at will. This was changed. Eventually, Parliament became divided between the Puritans who wanted to limit the king’s powers and to radically reform the Anglican Church, and those who supported the church and the king. The supporters of the King and church wound up pulling out of Parliament so that it was dominated by the Puritans.
English Civil War (1642-49)
In early January 1642, accompanied by 400 soldiers, Charles attempted to arrest five members of the House of Commons on a charge of treason. This attempt failed. When the troops marched into Parliament, Charles enquired of William Lenthall, the Speaker, as to the whereabouts of the five. Lenthall replied, "May it please your Majesty, I have neither eyes to see nor tongue to speak in this place but as the House is pleased to direct me, whose servant I am here." In other words, the Speaker proclaimed himself a servant of Parliament, rather than of the King. Things got so bad that in early 1642, a civil war broke out in England between the forces of the Puritan-controlled Parliament, which were called the Roundheads (led by Oliver Cromwell) and the forces loyal to the King, who were known as Cavaliers.
The first several years of the war were inconclusive, with one side winning a battle then the other. However, in 1645, Cromwell totally reorganized the Roundhead army into what was known as his New Model Army. The army became a professional, standing army, which was a first for England. Before this the militia was just called out when it was needed. The New Model Army was a standing army in that it did not dissolve. It had very strict discipline and the soldiers received regular pay, which made them want to train and fight, but which also meant that they could devote all their time to training and fighting. (This is the major disadvantage of militias, because those soldiers only train and fight when called out, and spend most of their time doing other things, meaning militias usually fare poorly on the battlefield against a standing army.)
Cromwell tried out the New Model Army for the first time in June of 1645 at the Battle of Naseby and the result was a crushing defeat for the Cavalier army, which was commanded by Charles himself. This was really the end for Charles, as he lost most of his veteran forces and did not really have the personnel, equipment, or money to rebuild his army. The war did not end immediately after Naseby but, from this point, the New Model Army was mopping up remaining pockets of Cavalier resistance. The Parliamentarian troops captured Charles’ personal baggage, including a secret stash of letters that indicated that Charles was going to attempt to get military support from Catholic nations elsewhere in Europe. The publication of these letters in a (by now) largely Protestant England only hurt Charles’s popularity. After another military defeat in the summer of 1646, Charles was captures by a Scottish army that was allied with the Parliamentary army (both were Protestant; both opposed the pro-Catholic, pro-Absolutist Charles I). Charles was brought back to England, put on trial, and executed by the Parliament. This act of regicide was shocking, and England suddenly was no longer a monarchy – it was a Republic, ruled by the Parliament.
Radicalization and “Glorious Revolution.”
Now that Parliament oversaw the country, under Cromwell’s leadership, new problems appeared. Now that the king was gone, Members of Parliament (apart from those who had supported the king) no longer had a common enemy. As a result of differences in political priorities, Parliament fractured further as some of the religious radicals also want this political revolution to bring forth a social revolution, delivering things such as freedom of speech, religious tolerance, and the creation of a democratic republic. But Cromwell was more conservative on these social and cultural questions, even as much as he was a political radical for opposing the king. Thus, Cromwell wanted no further changes in the structure of English society, since he had achieved his objective in eliminating the threats of a monarch abusing power and returning England to Catholic faith.
These difficulties with Parliament prompted Cromwell to dissolve the Parliament in 1653. (Remember who was the last person to dissolve the Parliament?) In its place, Cromwell established his own military dictatorship, in which he ruled via martial law and imposed taxes as he saw fit, without consultation with Parliament. That is, Cromwell had overthrown an Absolutist monarch only to become one (or something close to one) himself. When Cromwell died in1658, Parliament is scared and does not want Cromwell’s son to succeed and take over (this would be a dynasty, like a king!). But in its desperation, Parliament asks Charles I’s son, Charles II, to come out of exile and be crowned King of England. This becomes known as the “restoration” of the monarchy.
Charles II (r1660-1685) and Parliament proceeded to rule together but Parliament still jealously guarded its new-found powers, suspicious of that this king might secretly desire to undue the effects of the English Civil War. Charles II mad made a secret deal (the Treaty of Dover) in 1670 to receive a large subsidy of money from French King Louis XIV in exchange for converting himself and England back to Catholicism. When Charles II dies in 1685, his brother James succeeded him. This new king, King James II (r.1685-1688) was an open Catholic and thus posed a real threat, in Parliament’s eyes, to return to his father’s (Charles I’s) disastrous policies.
Because Parliament feared a return to a Catholic, Absolutist, monarchy, they invite William, Duke of Orange (from the Netherlands), who was husband of Charles II’s daughter, Mary, to invade England and oust Charles II. William and Mary assent, and Charles II flees as soon as the invasion begins. After a short military campaign, William and Mary are crowned King and Queen of England – this is called the “Glorious Revolution of 1688-1689.” This “revolution” was not really about the form of government, as England remained a Constitutionalist state where the monarchy governed alongside the Parliament. Rather, the issue at hand in 1688 was who would succeed to the throne. Importantly, William and Mary had to promise to accept the “Bill of Rights” (1689) as a precondition of ruling the country. This English “Bill of Rights” spelled out similar ideas as the earlier “Petition of Right” (see above), issues like Parliament’s right to approve new laws, approve new taxes, approve the creation of armies, as well as English people’s rights to keep and bear arms, have a trial by jury, and petition their king for redress of grievances. (Look familiar?) In the end, this event solidified Constitutionalism in England as a set of principles all kings and queens were expected to follow.
PAUSE for 60-second Quiz #5: 4. Can you identify some examples of Constitutionalism in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century England? Which statement is NOT true?
The Tudor Kings and Queens governed amiably with Parliament, which is an example of Constitutionalism.
James I angered Parliament by attempting to govern without consulting them, which was a breach of Constitutionalism.
Charles I went to war against France to Protect Parliament’s right to govern England, which was an example of Constitutionalism.
William and Mary pledged to respect the Bill of Rights before taking the throne, which was an example of Constitutionalism.
The Early Modern State
As way of wrapping this chapter up, we should pause to think not just about how we can see the Absolutist state as different from the Constitutionalist one, but also how we can see them as similar. Both innovations in governance were responding to the weaknesses of Medieval states’ exercise of power. Both Early Modern theories of governance were trying to build a state where the authority of that state (whether exercised by a monarch alone, or by a monarch sharing power with an assembly) was above question. That is, for both Absolutist and Constitutionalist states, the state’s power was centralized, supreme, and the state held a monopoly on law, justice, and violence.
It is only when we think about the source of that state’s authority that we see clear differences between Absolutism and Constitutionalism. Frequently, Absolutist kings and queen claimed to have a divine sanction behind their power but, interestingly, some political philosophers believed that Absolutism could be an effective from of government without religious undertones. English philosopher Thomas Hobbes theories that, in the absence of a state, people would like in chaos and disorder, which could only be quelled by the people voluntarily handing over their sovereignty and natural rights to a sovereign, who would rule as a (secular) Absolutist monarch. This was not very far from the explanation put forward by the leading supporter of Constitutionalism, John Locke. Locke argued that yes, people lived in disorder and needed some form of government to keep the peace and protect peoples’ lives and property. However, Locke’s major challenge to Absolutism was the idea that the people voluntarily gave up their sovereignty and natural rights to a monarch only temporarily – the people still held those rights, and could reclaim them (by force, if necessary) when the monarch ceased to recognize the limits of their power. (This is more-or-less what happened in the English Civil War.)
Key for 60-second Quizzes:
C. This is the very definition of Absolutism – the monarchy has sole authority, without the need to consult or ask permission from anyone else.
A. While the king did create bureaucrats and armies to carry out his wishes, and while he did build the extravagant palace at Versailles, he did not try to ban the Catholic Church. The Catholic Church was supportive of Louis XIV, especially since he wanted to crack down on Huguenots.
D. This is the definition of Constitutionalism – laws and traditions that must be obeyed by everyone, including the king.
C. Charles I went to war *against* Parliament, to defend *his own* right to rule (without Parliament).
Primary Source Exercise
After you have read the two primary sources listed above (as well as Chapter 5), answer the following questions, based on what you have learned so far:
What do you think is important to know about the authors of these two texts? What can you learn from the words each wrote on their pages? What can you infer or piece together from the background information in the textbook chapter? Why is this important?
What were each author’s goals in writing their texts? To whom did they address them? What purpose did they serve? Can you point to one or more examples to support this analysis?
What, if any, hidden assumptions can you detect in each text? That is, can you find word choices, phrasing, innuendo, or other examples of the authors’ (explicit or implicit) bias with regard to the subject matter? Does this bias (or these assumptions) affect how you understand and react to the authors’ words? Why or why not?