Nobility in the Era of Absolutism

The establishment of absolute rule, by the monarch, went against the interests of the country's nobility, for it excluded the corporate nobility (the diet) either completely from political power or rendered her insignificant, it either excluded the nobility of the sword from public office, replacing her by the nobility of the robe of non-noble origin (France, Denmark) or reduced her to a service nobility (Prussia, Sweden). While the aforementioned measures were intended to secure absolute rule against interference, respectively to secure the loyalty of the administration, other policies, intended to raise the royal revenue (from taxation), because they favoured the tax-generating peasants and cityfolk, often went against the interests of the noblemen - most notably attempts to liberate the peasants, attempts to codify and thus fix the feudal obligations and dues the peasants owed the noblemen (such a codification could be used to forestall excessive demands by the noblemen). Not to be underestimated is the fact, that changes in the lifestyle of noblemen - the court life at Versailles - grew increasingly expensive and ultimately contributed to financially ruin the entire social class. The Era of Absolutism was a transitional period, from a late feudal society in which nobles still occupied a central position, to a capitalist, bourgeois society in which noblemen were an anachronistic remnant from a distant era.

The enlightened monarchs differed most in the ways they treated the nobles and peasants. Louis XIV. of France and the Kings of Denmark attempted to bar the traditional nobility from public office; Frederick the Great of Prussia and Gustavus III. of Sweden attempted to turn the traditional nobility into a service nobility, as effective and loyal as the technocrat nobility of the robe Louis XIV. and the Kings of Denmark created.
Louis XVI., Gustavus III., Joseph II. of Austria implemented policies improving the situation of the peasants, to various degrees. In all three countries, the vast majority of the nobility resisted these policies, as they threatened the economic foundation of their lifestyle. In France, under Louis XVI., in the regional parlements, the nobility blocked attempts of raising additional taxes (at their expense) intended to avoid bankrupcy, and by doing so, forced King Louis XVI. to call for the Estates General to convene in 1789, thus unintentionally triggering the French Revolution.
In Denmark, the frustration of the nobility erupted in the 1772 judicial murder of minister of state Struensee.
In Austria, resistance against Joseph II.'s reform programme was so strong, that in the Austrian Netherlands in 1789 the nobility took a leading role in the Brabant Revolution; in the Danubian lands, Joseph II. cancelled his entire reform programme, with the exception of the abolition of torture and the introduction of religious toleration.
In Swedish Finland, the (ethnically Swedish) nobility conspired to invite Czar Catherine the Great of Russia to take over the country (Anjala Conspiracy 1788), an event forestalled by a Swedish victory in the Russo-Swedish War of 1788-1790. In Sweden, King Gustavus III. in 1702 was assassinated by a nobleman, while attending a masquerade ball in the Opera House of Stockholm.
In Poland, a country not ruled absolute, the Sejm since 1788 discussed thorough reforms, which necessarily would run counter the interests of the hitherto all-powerful magnates; they not only rejected these reforms, but formed the Confederation of Targowice (1793), called for Catherine the Great to intervene, which she did, in the Second Polish Partition (1793), soon followed by the Third (1795); the Polish state was erased from the map.
In Russia, Catherine the Great originally planned to liberate the serfs, but in the course of Pugachev's Revolt (1773-1774) changed her policy by 180 degrees. She signed laws which strengthened the position of the Russian nobility, at the expense of the serfs. The status of the Russian noblemen was envied by the Swedish and Polish nobles and thus contributed to territorial acquisitions, temporary successes as the fact that the stranglehold of the nobility over society and economy was anachronistic, unproductive, artificial.
The absolute monarchy seemingly least affected by resistance of the nobility against political reform was Prussia, where the policy of Frederick the Great had succeeded in turning the Junkers into a service nobility loyal to both the monarchy and the Prussian state.

It should be noted that there were noblemen who realized the anachronism inherent in their status, and among them there were those bold enough to draw the consequences, be it implement reforms running counter to the interests of their own class (Hardenberg in Prussia, from 1808 onward; Hans Järta in Sweden in the same year) or even renouncing their noble status (Hans Järta). This was to take place under the impact of the French Revolution, in the years following the Era of Absolutism.


This page is part of World History at KMLA
First posted on September 20th 2003, last revised on November 14th 2004

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