Written by Vladimir Moss



     If the liberalism of Northern Europe and North America was the wave of the future, and would in time conquer almost the whole world, nevertheless the seventeenth century was, in political and cultural terms, the century of absolutism. But the development of absolutism was different in different countries. If we compare the English monarchy in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries with the French one in the same period, we see a striking contrast. In England a powerful monarchy becomes steadily stronger, defeating the most powerful despotism of the day in the Spanish Armada, only to be gradually overcome by the wealthier classes and reduced, finally, to the position of symbolic head of an essentially aristocratic society. The vital changes here were the rejection of the papacy and the dissolution of the monasteries, which caused both the temporary increase in the monarchy’s power and its longer-term descent into impotence, especially after Charles I’s loss of the power of taxation. In France, on the other hand, the reverse took place: a weak monarchy besieged by a semi-independent nobility within, and the united Hapsburg domains of Germany, Italy and Spain from without, gradually recovered to reach a pinnacle of fame and power under the sun king, Louis XIV, the longest reigning monarch in European history (1643-1715), who succeeded where his contemporary, th English King Charles I failed, in imposing an absolutist, Divine-right rule over his people.

     In that age of religious warfare, the two kingdoms took different approaches to the vital question of internal religious unity. In England, the monarchy adopted the Anglican middle ground. In France, on the other hand, the monarchy took the Catholic side and persecuted the Protestants (known as Huguenots). The most tolerant French king, Henry IV, had been Protestant, but realized he could not rule in that way and so converted to Catholicism; he famously said that Paris was worth a mass. In England, the Protestant aristocracy first persecuted and then tolerated the diminished and tamed Catholic minority; but the latter’s eventual absorption within the State left a permanent traditionalist stamp on the English national character. In France, on the other hand, while the Catholic monarchy first persecuted, then tolerated and finally expelled the Huguenot minority (400,000 of them), the latter’s heritage left a rationalist stamp on the French national character.

     The fruit of the absolutist theories of Machiavelli and Bodin was the reign of Louis XIV - a true despot in that, like every despot, he tried to gain control of the Church and the State simultaneously. And again like every despot, his favoured method of rule was war – civil war and international war. His reign began with a series of civil wars against the nobility, the law courts and the people between 1648 and 1653 that is called the Frondes. They were waged amidst an international war with Spain that had begun in 1638, while the war of the Spanish succession lasted until 1713. From a psychological point of view, the insecurity of Louis’ early years may have instilled in him a desire to gain control over his surroundings through absolute rule and war. (We see something similar in the lives of Ivan the Terrible and Peter the Great.)

     “The Fronde,” writes A.C. Grayling, was “a civil insurrection against the government of the infant King Louis XIV and his chief minister, Cardinal Mazarin. It was prompted by the burden of taxes that had been raised to pay for the military expenses of France’s participation in the Thirty Years War and war with Spain. The Fronde was a dangerous affair, because the aristocracy sided with the parlements (especially of Paris) in defending the feudal liberties of the latter, which meant in effect that the country had risen against the Crown, in what was a straightforward rebellion. Cardinal Mazarin, a much hated figure, triggered the uprising by arresting the leaders of the parlement of Paris when they refused to pay a new tax. Their arrest brought the citizens of Paris on to the streets; there were barricades, and as turmoil spread through the country it became increasingly violent, turning into a civil war. The troubles continued until the early months of 1653, making nearly five years of unrest and uncertainty in all.

     “The sequence of events constituting the Fronde (the word means ‘sling’; the frondeurs used slings to hurl stones as did the Old Testament’s David) need not be recounted; the important point is its outcome, namely, an eventual victory for the monarchy in the person of Louis XIV, and his determination – highly successful as it proved – to assert absolute rule over France. 

     “In this respect France and the way it was governed in the second half of the seventeenth century represents a step backward, moving against the current… that was running elsewhere, notably in England. The absolute monarchy of Louis XIV brought great prestige and power to France; it became the leading country in succession to Spain, by then much enfeebled, and it so far impressed its culture and language on the world that all the ruling classes of Europe from the Atlantic to the Urals spoke French, and French remained the language of international diplomacy into our own era...”[1] 


     The period of the Fronde was brought to an end, writes Tim Blanning, on June 4, 1654, “when Louis was crowned in the Cathedral of Rheims. On his entry to the city, the Bishop of Soissons greeted him with the assurance that all his subjects prostrated themselves ‘before you, Sire, the Lord’s Anointed, son of the Most High, shepherd of the flock, prince of the Church, the first of all kings on earth, chosen and appointed by Heaven to carry the sceptre of the French, to extend far and wide the honour and renown of the Lily [fleur de lys], whose glory outshines by far that of Solomon from pole to pole and sun to sun, making France a universe and the universe our France.” In 1661, when Louis was twenty-three, Cardinal Mazarin died. Now, as he told his Council, “it is time that I govern myself”. From that time he had complete control executive and legislative control over the kingdom.

     “With this subordination of law-making to the royal will, we seem to have arrived at arbitrary tyranny, or ‘despotism’ as contemporaries called it. Yet advocates of absolute monarchy were careful to maintain that there was a difference in kind between the legitimate exercise of untrammelled authority and the capricious behaviour of a tyrant. The King of France, it was argued, enjoyed a legislative monopoly that could not be challenged by any other human individual or institution, but he was also subject to divine law, whether revealed explicitly in Scripture or implicitly in the form of natural law. For example, the Ten Commandments obliged the king to respect the true religion (‘Thou shalt have no other gods before Me’), to respect the lives of his subjects (‘Thou shalt not kill’), to respect their property (‘Thou shalt not steal,’ ‘Thou shalt not covet…’), and to respect contracts and the due process of law (‘Thou shalt not bear false witness…’). Bishop Bossuet, Louis XIV’s most eloquent mouthpiece on religious matters, maintained that, ‘Royal authority is sacred… God established kings as his ministers and reigns through them over the nation… The royal throne is not the throne of a man but the throne of God himself’, but he denied that this implied that the King could do as he pleased. ’It is one thing for a government to be absolute, and another for it to be arbitrary. It is absolute with respect to constraint – there being no power capable of forcing the sovereign, who in this sense is independent of all human authority. But it does not follow from this that the government is arbitrary, for besides the fact that everything is subject to the judgement of God… there are also [constitutional] laws in empires, so that whatever is done against them is null in a legal sense and there is always an opportunity for redress.’ The laws to which Bossuet was referring were the ‘fundamental laws’ of the kingdom. Three could be defined quite precisely: the Salic law of succession, which excluded women, bastards and heretics from the throne; the integrity of the royal domain, which no king might alienate; and the maintenance of the Catholic faith. More shadowy were the ‘maximes du royaume’, a totality of laws, customs and principles which did not have full status as fundamental laws but which shared in their limiting nature. There was plenty of scope for uncertainty and disagreement here, especially when the frondeur spirit of the Parlements began to revive in the following century…”[2] 

     Louis’ absolutism was not technically, de jure despotic insofar as it was limited by the Catholic religion, whose rights he restored in 1693, and by the fundamental laws. But de facto he was indeed a despot. As a future Prime Minister of France, François Guizot, wrote: “By the very fact that this government had no other principle than absolute power, and reposed upon no other base than this, its decline became sudden and well merited. What France, under Louis XIV, essentially lacked, was political institutions and forces, independent, subsisting of themselves, and, in a word, capable of spontaneous action… The ancient French institutions, if they merited that name, no longer existed: Louis XIV completed their ruin. He took no care to endeavour to replace them by new institutions; they would have cramped him, and he did not choose to be cramped. All that appeared conspicuous at that period was will, and the action of central power. The government of Louis XIV was a great fact, a fact powerful and splendid, but without roots…


     “No system can exist except by means of institutions. When absolute power has endured, it has been supported by true institutions, sometimes by the division of society into strongly distinct castes, sometimes by a system of religious institutions. Under the reign of Louis XIV institutions were wanting as to power as well as to liberty… Thus we see the government helping on its own decay. It was not Louis XIV alone who was becoming aged and weak at the end of his reign: it was the whole absolute power. Pure monarchy was as much worn out in 1712 as was the monarch himself: and the evil was so much the more grave, as Louis XIV had abolished political morals as well as political institutions…”[3]

      “Controlled, disciplined, sensuous, haughty, mysterious, magisterial and visionary, pious and debauched, Louis created the new Palace of Versailles and with it a complex court hierarchy and ritual designed to remove the nobles from their feudal ambitions and regional power centres and concentrate their interests in the person of the king. Versailles itself was designed not only to house the king, court and entire nobility, but also to represent Louis himself: ‘I am Versailles,’ he said, just as ‘l’état, c’est moi’. The nobility competed for a glance, a word with the king: once when the king asked a noble when his baby was due, the nobleman answered, ‘Whenever your Majesty wishes it’.”[4]

     “As we know,” writes John Julius Norwich, Louis XIV “liked to think of himself as the sun – the dazzling light that irradiated all around him. Light there may have been; but there was very little warmth. Let no one imagine that life at Versailles was fun; it was for the most part bitterly cold, desperately uncomfortable, poisonously unhealthy [there was no sanitation], and of a tedium probably unparalleled. The most prevalent emotion was fear: fear of the king himself, fear of his absolute power, fear of the single thoughtless word or gesture that might destroy one’s career or even one’s life. And what was one’s life anyway? A ceaseless round of empty ceremonial leading absolutely nowhere, offering the occasional mild entertainment but no real pleasure; as for happiness, it was not even to be thought of. Of course there were lavish entertainments – balls, masques, operas – how else was morale to be maintained? But absentees were noted at once, and the reasons for their absence made the subject of exhaustive enquiries. Social death – or worse – could easily result…”[5]


     After the Fronde, there was no opposition to Louis' absolutist rule. The secret of his success consisted in three factors: (i) the retention of the absolutist faith of Catholicism as the country’s official religion, (ii) the retention, in accordance with the monarchy’s Concordat with the Vatican, of its control of the Church’s appointments and lands, and (iii), last but not least, the monarchy’s retention of the power of general taxation – although the venal use of it contributed greatly to the regime’s ultimate fall in 1789.[6]

     In relation to the nobility, Louis had already strengthened his position as a result of the sufferings of his early years, during the Fronde. For he was outraged, as Grayling writes “at having been subjected to profound indignities by it; he and his mother, Anne of Austria, had experienced hunger, fear and cold while in hiding during the worst of the uprising. As soon as he could he established his court at Versailles, away from the Parisian mob, and he weakened the aristocracy by making it waste its time, energy and money in pointless attendance at Court. He also diluted the aristocracy by creating thousands of new nobles, much to the old nobles’ disdain. In the event, his doing so only provided extra food for Madame Guillotine during the Terror which followed the Revolution of 1789, itself the long-term consequence of the absolutism that Louis practised.” [7] 

     “The position of the French nobility,” writes Jasper Ridley, “had greatly changed during the previous hundred years. In the sixteenth century the great noble houses of Guise and Bourbon, with their power bases in eastern and south-west France, had torn the kingdom apart by thirty years of civil war; and the fighting between the nobility and the State had started up again in the days of the Fronde, when Louis XIV was a child. But when he came of age, and established his absolute royal authority, he destroyed the political power of the nobles by bribing them to renounce it. He encouraged them to come to his court at Versailles, to hold honorific and well-paid sinecure offices – to carve for the King at dinner, or to attend his petit levée when he dressed in the morning, and hand him his shirt, his coat and his wig. He hoped that when the nobles were not engaged in these duties at court, they would be staying in their great mansions in Paris. He wished to prevent them as far as possible from living on their lands in the country, where they could enrol their tenants in a private army and begin a new civil war.

     “The King governed France through middle-class civil servants, who were mostly lawyers. The provincial Parlements had limited powers, most of which were judicial rather than legislative; but the King could veto all their decrees. The government was administered by the intendants, who had absolute authority in their districts, and were subject only to the directives of their superiors, the surintendants, who were themselves subject only to the King’s Council, where the King presided in person, and might either accept or reject the advice given to him by his councillors.

     “The nobles had the privilege of having their seigneurial courts in which they exercised a civil and a criminal jurisdiction over their tenants; but the presiding judges in the seigneurial courts were the same middle-class lawyers who presided in the King’s courts, which could on appeal override the decisions of the seigneurial courts.”[8] 

     As for the lower nobility, their energies were channelled into army service, in accordance with their medieval conception of themselves as the warrior class. War was a constant feature of Louis’ reign, together with a crippling burden of taxation. But this did not disturb the nobility, who paid no taxes…

     Having gained control over the nobles, Louis proceeded to wage war for the rest of his reign. For, as Philip Bobbitt writes, “once Louis was secure from internal challenges,… he began to make war on the settlements of Westphalia in order that he might become the arbiter of Europe… Louis’s domination of Europe was largely based on the fact that by 1666 he was able to maintain a force of almost 100,000 men, which he would soon triple.[9] This, however, would have been fruitless without the centralized civilian structure put into place during this period by Louis’s ministers.”[10] So unremitting was the aggression of Louis against neighbouring states that he must be considered the forerunner of Napoleon and Hitler. (Napoleon considered him “the only King of France worthy of the name”). As his most determined opponent, the Dutch King William, said, Louis’ aim in Europe was to establish “a universal monarchy and a universal religion”.[11]

     The other major estate of the land that needed to be controlled for real despotism to be established was the Church. A parish priest of St. Sulpice said that Louis “was so absolute that he passed above all the laws to do his will. The priests and nobility were oppressed; the parlements had no more power. The clergy were shamefully servile in doing the king’s will.”[12]

     In the sphere of religion, Louis had two aims. The first was to make the Catholic Church in France a national, Gallican Church under his dominion, and not the Pope’s. (This, it will be recalled, is what William the Conqueror had tried to do with the English Church after 1066).

      “For thirty years,” writes Norman Davies, “Louis was a true Gallican – packing the French bishoprics with the relatives of his ministers, authorising the Declaration of the Four Articles (1682), and provoking in 1687-8 an open rupture with the Papacy. The Four Articles, the purest formulation of Gallican doctrine, were ordered to be taught in all the seminaries and faculties of France: 

     1. The authority of the Holy See is limited to spiritual matters.

     2. The decisions of Church Councils are superior to those of the Pope.

     3. Gallican customs are independent of Rome.

     4. The Pope is not infallible, except by consent of the universal Church.

But then, distressed by his isolation from the Catholic powers, Louis turned tail. In 1693 he retracted the Four Articles, and for the rest of his life gave unstinting support to the ultramontane [extreme papist] faction…”[13] 

     Nevertheless, write Michael Baigent and Richard Leigh, “through the ensuing vicissitudes of French history, ‘Gallicanism’, with its adherence to ‘Conciliar’ authority, was to characterise the Church in France. By its very nature, it was potentially inimical to the Papacy. Pursued to its logical conclusion, ‘Gallicanism’ would effectively demote the Pope to what he had originally been – merely the Bishop of Rome, one among numerous bishops, enjoying some kind of nominal or symbolic leadership, but not any actual primacy or power. In short, the Church was decentralised. 

     “The opposing position, which advocated the Pope’s supremacy over bishops and councils, became known as ‘Ultramontane’, because it regarded authority as residing with the Papacy in Rome, ‘on the other side of the mountains’ from France…”[14]

     Louis’ second aim was to destroy the protected state within the state that Henry IV’s Edict of Nantes (1598) had created for the Protestant Huguenots. In this way he would have “one faith, one king, one law”.  In 1685 he revoked the Edict, subjecting France’s approximately one million Huguenot Protestants to a reign of terror. For this, Bossuet hailed him as a “New Constantine”… 


     Louis XIV died in 1715; his was the longest reign in European history. “It was the end of an epoch: there can have been few people in France who remembered the reign of his father. It was also, from the cultural point of view, a Golden Age: the age of France’s greatest playwrights, Corneille, Racine and Molière; of philosophers like Pascal and moralists like La Rochefoucauld and La Bruyère; of diarists like Saint-Simon and letter-writers like Madame de Sévigné; of painters like Poussin and Claude, of architects like Mausart, of gardeners like Le Nôtre. But there was a downside too: even Louis’s younger contemporary the Duc de Saint-Simon wrote that when he died ‘the provinces, in despair at their own ruin and prostration, trembled with joy. The people, bankrupt, overwhelmed, disconsolate, thanked God with scandalous rejoicing for a release for which it had forsworn all hope’, and a popular prayer went into circulation: ‘Our Father who art in Versailles, thy name is no longer hallowed; thy kingdom is diminished; thy will is no longer done on earth or on the waves. Give us our bread, which is lacking…’ By the time Voltaire wrote his Le Siècle de Louis XIV in 1751, few historians had a good word to say about the Sun King. Even Versailles itself had been a dangerous mistake: the emasculation of the nobility by bringing it wholesale to the palace and reducing it to impotence had twice – for the first time in 1690 and then again I 1709 – reduced his kingdom to the point where he himself had to watch, while his gold and silver, his plate and even his throne were melted down into bullion…”[15]

     Lord Norwich, aristocratic Francophile that he is, argues that the brilliance of the civilization, and the fact that “in all its history Europe had never seen such majesty, such splendour; nor would it ever be seen again,”[16] outweighs these defects. But I beg to differ. “Civilization” is a far lower value than true religious culture. For “What does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses his own soul?” Compared with the external lack of glamour, but wealth of sanctity, of the Orthodox autocracy of Merovingian France one thousand years before, Louis XIV’s despotism was poor indeed. The difference between Orthodox autocracy and Catholic absolutism of the French kind is that while the former welcomes the existence of truly independent institutions, such as the Church, and institutions with limited powers of self-government, such as provincial councils or guilds, the latter distrusts all other power bases and tries to destroy them. The result is that, as the absolutism weakens (as weaken it must), institutions spring up to fill the power vacuum which are necessarily opposed to the absolutist power and try to weaken it further, leading to revolution. The art of true monarchical government consists, not in ruling without support from other institutions, but in ruling with their support and with their full and voluntary support of the monarchy. Moreover, the supremacy of the monarchy must be recognised de jure, and not merely de facto. When the majority of the people ceases to believe that their monarch has the right to rule them, or when he believes that his right to rule is limited by nothing except his own will, then his regime is ultimately doomed, however dazzling the external trappings of its power. The Sun king’s despotism bewitched Europe, and for centuries the influence of French culture was paramount throughout the western world (and to a considerable extent in the Orthodox East as well). But the terrible atheist revolution of 1789 was already latent in Louis’ assumption of sole and absolute power after the death of Cardinal Mazarin in 1661… 

May 29 / June 11. 2020.

[1]Grayling, The Age of Genius, London: Bloomsbury, 2017, pp. 277-279.

[2]Blanning, The Pursuit of Glory. Europe 1648-1815, London: Penguin, 2008, pp. 208, 209-210.

[3] Guizot, The History of Civilization in Europe, London: Penguin, 1847, 1997, pp. 140-141.

[4]Montefiore, op. cit., p. 257. However, he wrote to his grandson when he was leaving to become king of Spain: “Never favour those who flatter you most, but hold rather to those who risk your displeasure for your own good.”

[5]Norwich, France. From Gaul to De Gaulle, London: John Murray, 2019, pp. 162-163.

[6]Fukuyama, The Origins of Political Order, London: Profile, 2012, chapter 23.

[7]Grayling, The Age of Genius, London: Bloomsbury, 2017, p. 279.

[8] Ridley, The Freemasons, London: Constable, 1999, p. 62.

[9]By 1693 his army numbered 320,000 men. (V.M.)

[10] Bobbitt, The Shield of Achilles, London: Penguin, 2002, p. 123.

[11]Robert Massie, Peter the Great, London: Phoenix Press, 2001, p. 193.

[12]M.J. Cohen and John Major, History in Quotations, London: Cassell, 2004, p. 467.

[13]Davies, Europe, London: Pimlico, 1996, pp. 620, 621.

[14]Baigent and Leigh, The Inquisition, London: Penguin, 1999, p. 195.

[15]Norwich, op. cit., pp. 173-174.

[16] Norwich, op. cit., p. 174.

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