Forms of Absolutism

The middle ages saw a political balance of power between king (territorial lord), church and parliament (diet). The Reformation destroyed this balance, as the state churches of both Tridentine Catholic and of the various Protestant confessions depended on the territorial lord's support and no longer were capable to balance the power of the latter.
The imbalance created by the elimination of the church from the traditional balance of powers, as much as the confrontational attitude of the Counterreformation Catholic Church, may be regarded the cause of the Wars of Religion.

This imbalance resulted in the development of a number of constitutional models, one of them being absolutism. Absolutism is a historical phenomenon which appeared over three centuries and can be differentiated by period, by the intensity of the ruler's involvement in government, and by the legitimation of absolute rule.

4 periods of absolutism may be distinguished : (1) Early Absolutism, for instance England under Elizabeth I., England and Scotland under Charles I. 1628-1640, France under Louis XIII., (2) Versailles Absolutism (1661-1740), (3) Enlightened Absolutism (1740-1789/96) and (4) Neo-Absolutism (1815-1848).
Queen Elizabeth did not claim any other legitimation for ruling with a strong hand than (a) being her father's daughter. James I. claimed to rule (b) by divine right, a claim upheld by his son Charles I., supported by French bishop Jacques-Benigne Bossuet and maintained by French King Louis XIV. The era of Enlightenment saw monarchs claiming to rule absolute as (c) servants of the state. During the period of Restauration, absolute kings did not regard it necessary to legitimize their rule; the latter was based on the decisions of the Vienna Congress; the Holy Alliance was to guarantee the continued existance of this form of government. Yet, royal absolute rule may have been seen as a form of government (d) preventing the repetition of the chaos and violence the French Revolution had brought.
Among the enlightened absolute rulers, usually Frederick the Great of Prussia, Joseph II. of Austria and Catherine the Great of Russia are listed. Grand Duke Leopold of Tuscany, Gustavus III. of Sweden, and, to a certain extent, Kings of Denmark Frederick V. and Christian VII and Louis XVI. of France also fit the description. In some books, the enlightened rulers are referred to as enlightened despots, am expression which contains a negative connotation and fails to recognize the achievements of the enlightened monarchs, who ruled over a crucial transition period in the history of many European countries.

(I) The King his own prime minister. In a narrow definition, only the rule of King Louis XIV. of France (1661-1715) may be regarded absolute, as he made all major political decisions by himself, notwithstanding the fact that in Jean-Baptiste Colbert, Jacques-Benigne Bossuet and others he had capable administrators.
(II) The King delegating the handling of actual political affairs to a prime minister, minister of state or official mistress. Louis XIII. had Cardinals Richelieu and Mazarin rule in his name; Louis XV. permitted Madame Pompadour to exert great influence on French policy; in Portugal, the Marquis de Pombal became a similarly influential figure. Prime Ministers were the servants of the respective monarch; there were cases in which the king was so confident in his prime minister that the latter had an almost free hand. Yet prime ministers were appointed by kings; in the United Kingdom, this is still the case. And they could be dismissed by the king at any given moment. Parliamentary Rule - the tradition that the king appoints the leader of the majority faction in parliament, is a tradition which was limited to the United Kingdom until 1848.
(Ia, IIa) Rule without a (national) parliament. In England, Charles I. experimented with this 1628-1640; in France the convocation of parliament did no longer happen since the death of Henri IV., the institution habing suffered from the many Huguenot Wars. Louis XVI. reinstated regional parlements, which then obstructed various attempts of financial reform. Austria and Prussia were complexes of territories which did not have a 'state-wide' parliament in the first place. Russia had an autocratic tradition.
(Ib, IIb) Rule with a (national) parliament the powers of which are curtailed, giving the king resp. his prime minister dominance in political decisions. Gustavus III. of Sweden established his rule in a coup d'etat, yet the Swedish Riksdag continued to debate legislation. Gustavus III. decreed many reforms despite the nobles' opposition. To a lesser degree, Spain and Portugal fit in this category, as the Catholic Church, in these countries, still exerted considerable political influence.


This page is part of World History at KMLA
First posted on September 24th 2003, last revised on November 14th 2004

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