The Trend Towards Absolutism

1) During the 17th century rulers of the main European states had a lot of difficulties trying to keep control. They had power scattered around the country, Territories were all over the continent, and in some cases across the world, the nobles still competed against the king for power and people were more supportive of there own region, than there king, whom many never even seen, let alone met.

For many centuries the feudal system had run supreme across Europe. Power was spread downward with the king at the top. This diagram shows how the feudal system worked:





In theory the king had power over everyone, but the reality was quite different. The knights ruled the peasants, who were the majority in most countries across Europe. If there were any local disputes, the knights sorted it out. The knights collected taxes and enforced the law in their locality. Even the knights didn’t answer to the king. They answered to the lords or nobles of the area. The nobles told them what to do how much tax to collect and what was law. You would think that, to follow the pattern, the nobles took the kings orders. Not so. They were meant to, but if they disagreed with the king they simply ignored him. Corruption was rife on every level of the feudal system. The people who really lost out were the peasants and in a lot of ways the king. The king, during this system of government, always felt like he was walking on eggshells. He relied on the nobles and knights to get him an army in times of war. If he upset the people with power, they could decline the call to arms, or even worse, start a rebellion against the monarchy. So the nobility and feudalism caused European sovereigns.

Many of the continental kings had vast territories that spanned Europe, and in some cases, across the world. The difficulty here was, you never knew what was going on all the time. Communication was of an extremely poor standard so by the time so sent out or received a message, it could take over six-month to get a reply. This was also true in the same country. France had no territories outside it’s boarders but communication was sill a major problem. When messages finally got to the destination the information was usually out dated and obsolete. This was a major problem for kings and it made their jobs much more difficult.

In most European states, regions were almost like small countries, operating their own laws, religions and beliefs. Many of the locals in these regions had never met the king and even less of them swore allegiance to him. There was a strong local patronage to the local noble/knight. A king would have problems running a united country with so much variation and diversity in the same nation.

2) Perry Anderson explained the Marxist view on absolutism in his book ‘Lineages of the Absolutist State’, published in 1979. In it he argues that absolutist states were created to keep the nobles loyal to the king. Nobles would become loyal and obedient the crown, offering services in return for more power over the already heavily oppressed peasantry. This model goes well with the situation in Brandenburg-Prussia, and can be apply, at least in part; to Russia’s experiences under Peter the Great. But when we go into other European states like France, the opposite is true. The nobles were a major opposition t the king.

The fiscal-military view on absolutism is presented by two authors: J. Brewster ‘The Sinwes of power: War, Money and the English State.’ 1989 and G. Parker ‘Europe in crisis 1598-1648’ 1979. Both emphases the role of war in bringing about absolutism. During feudal times the king had to request the nobles to provide mercenaries to fight. This was inefficient and unreliable. There is no doubt that Swedish aggression caused Brandenburg-Prussia to adopt an absolute government. A standing army would be quicker and would be loyal to the king. As well as that, a standing army would be able to suppress opposition within the country, therefore create more power for a central government.

At the moment 17th century governments are in disorder. Absolutist monarchs centralized government, having everything run from one place. A good example of this was Louis XIV. Louis XIV built Versailles, where everything to do with France from foreign affairs to religion was dealt with there. Louis sat on every meeting and every single decision had to be OK’d with him. This version of government was supported by Machiavelli, author of ‘The Prince’ 1513.

3) Bossuet’s views of an absolutist government were based on religion, because he was a Bishop. He was bishop of Meaux from 1681 and he was tutor to Louis XIV son, the crown prince or Dauphin. His major work was titled ‘politics derived from Holy Scripture’ and was published in 1709 after his death (posthumously). In it he identified four essential aspects to the monarchy. These were:

Sacred- he saw the king as a direct subject from God put on the planet to do his work. Bossuet made constant reference to the Bible and ancient Jewish kings David and Solomon. So an act against the king was seen as an act against God. He built on and furthered the Divine right of Kings.

Paternal- Bossuet drew attention to the king being a father to the people. This acted twofold. He was seen as protector of the country, put there to protect the inhabitants from, invasion and internal strife. It was also a role of handing out discipline. He had to show his subjects that they could not get away with things while he was there.

Absolute- this means the kings had absolute power.

In Harmony with Reason- this was a responsibility of the king. He could do what he wanted, as long as it was in the interest of the public, and honorable in the eyes of God.

4) Bishop Bossuet would support the Divine Right of kings for two reasons. Firstly, it kept the church and the king close, and the king would not fight against an institution who’s ‘leader’ put him in power. The king had to respect the church because God put him in the position he is in. Secondly, as a bishop, he can help direct what the king does, making sure he follows God’s law. This put him in a position of power and influence in France.

5) Bossuet’s distinction between absolute and arbitrary is in an absolute state the king works within the law for the good of the people. He uses the laws set down by man and by god to rule effectively and honestly. An arbitrary ruler is a tyrant who uses his subjects as slaves.

6) Thomas Hobbes was a political philosopher who lived between 1588 and 1679. He lived through the English civil war and this is said to have influenced and reinforced his point of view. He followed Galileo’s concept of motion or conflict. Man is naturally striving for self-preservation. This is human instinct. It makes us competitive and distrusting of others. He says of nature is allow to take it’s course then the life of man will be inevitably “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.” Hobbs says that a monarchy with unlimited absolute powers could safeguard society form disorder. He believed the sovereign should be the ultimate authority.

What makes Hobbes view, in some senses radical, was the dismissal of religion in his work. He totally opposed the Divine right of Kings and saw God supernatural. He also thought that religious phenomenon, such as miracles and sightings, would one day be explained in science fact, not religious fiction.

7) Hobbes views were rejected in his own time due to the major dismissal of religion. They are also rejected in more modern times due to the lack of belief in democracy.

Features Of Absolutism


Unlimited Power

The king has total power over his subject’s lives.

Erosion of rights and privileges

Rights ; Privileges of the estates were taken away. Kin’s of France traveled around performing the lit de Justice. This counteracted the law of Remonstrance.


The king put all his countries power in one place to try and regain power. Louis XIV built Versailles.


The economic theory that absolute kings used. Louis XIV placed high tax on foreign goods.


A state and standing army was the first thing an absolute king created. It helped him towards unlimited power

Limits Of Absolutism


Reasons and Customs

Most kings were religious, and this put restraints on what he could do. There respect for reason and custom made absolute power impossible

Fear of Nobles

Few monarchs were willing to be too radical in their reform for fear of serious opposition by the nobles. In France the nobles and the church kept most tax privileges.


This was a major obstacle in trying to get a central government. The intendants in France gathered reports and recommendations. It can be said that they directed much of the French Policy, albeit indirectly


The Habsburg emperor Joseph II ruled over an empire of largely autonomous states which such a huge ethnic and cultural diversity that any centralised government would have had a major struggle. In these cases the absolute government was by nature very weak.

New Political Thinking

As a method of government, absolutism had a very short life span. By the 18th century new political thinking created a new system, and it undermined the absolute system.

9) I don’t think it was possible for a king to be truly absolute. King’s gave to much power to the nobles and to the church letting them in some ways influence pollicies. They relayed heavily on his advisors and never did anything on their own.

The fact that most countries were so large and communication so poor made it difficult for a king to know what was going on all the time. This made it difficult to know if policies were being carried out. Also because absolutist government’s only lasted around a hundred years, made it difficult to make a structured method of government that would last.

Religion also played a part on the absolutist government failing. Most monarchs were restricted by the rules of god, so cold never act totally on there own judgement, for fear of retribution in the afterlife. All these facts show that a totally absolute government would have been impossible at the time.