| Chapter 16: Absolutism and Constitutionalism in Western Europe (ca 1589-1715)
College Division image; link to college web site
College Division image; link to college web site
For LayoutFor Layout
For Layout
For LayoutFor Layout|For LayoutFor Layout|For LayoutContact Us
For Layout
For LayoutChapter 16
For Layout
For Layout
For Layout
For Layout
For Layout
For Layout
For Layout
For Layout
> Chapter 16
Chapter 16: Absolutism and Constitutionalism in Western Europe (ca 1589-1715)

MP3 Chapter Summaries
Listen to Chapter 16 (Houghton Mifflin Flash Player with closed captions)
Listen to Chapter 16 (MP3 file)
Download Chapter 16 (Zipped MP3 file)

Chapter Outline

  • Seventeenth-Century Crisis and Rebuilding
  • Economic and Demographic Crisis
  • The vast majority of seventieth-century Europeans lived in the countryside.
  • Bread was the primary element of most people’s diet.
  • Rural society lived on the edge of subsistence.
  • Poor weather put additional stress on agriculture and industry.
  • Peasants and the urban poor were hit hardest by bad harvests and economic depression.
  • Seventeenth-Century State-Building: Common Obstacles and Achievements
  • Both constitutional and absolutists monarchs attempted to protect and expand their frontiers, raise new taxes, and consolidate state control.
  • State-building faced considerable obstacles.
  • Privileged groups, chiefly the nobility, resisted the centralizing efforts of European monarchies.
  • Most states succeeded, to varying degrees, in overcoming obstacles to achieving new levels of central control.
  • A larger and more powerful state required new sources of revenue.
  • Warfare and the Growth of Army Size
  • The driving force behind seventeenth-century state-building was warfare.
  • Armies grew larger, more professional, and, consequently, much more expensive.
  • Popular Political Action
  • Popular revolts were common in England, France, Spain, Portugal, and Italy in the mid-seventeenth century.
  • In France, urban disorders were so common as to be seen as a fact of life.
  • Authorities often struggled to overcome popular revolts.
  • By the end of the seventeenth century, the state was better able to deal with popular discontent.
  • Absolutism in France and Spain
  • The Foundations of French Absolutism: Henry IV, Sully, and Richelieu
  • Henry IV lowered taxes on peasants and his chief minister, Sully, streamlined tax collection. As the economy revived, tax receipts grew.
  • In 1598, Henry issued the Edict of Nantes.
  • Cardinal Richelieu was appointed to the council of ministers in 1628, during the reign of Louis XIII (r. 1610-1643).
  • Richelieu curbed the power of the nobility by reshuffling the royal council, leveling castles, and executing aristocratic conspirators against the king.
  • Richelieu divided France up into thirty-two generalités supervised and monitored by one intendant each. The intendants were beholden to the king only and generally came from the newer nobility of the robe (not the older nobility of the sword).
  • The intendants recruited soldiers for the army, supervised tax collection, kept an eye on the local nobility, presided over the administration of local laws, and regulated economic activity.
  • In 1627 Louis XIII moved to end Protestant independence, more or less revoking the Edict of Nantes.
  • During the later seventeenth century urban revolts based on resentment of high taxation were common.
  • Following the deaths of Louis XIII and Richelieu, Richelieu’s successor, Mazarin provoked an aristocratic rebellion that became known as the Fronde (1648-1653).
  • The Fronde convinced King Louis XIV, then a boy, that the only alternative to anarchy was absolute monarchy, even as it also informed his decision to make local elites and nobles tax exempt.
  • Louis XIV and Absolutism
  • Louis XIV secured the collaboration of the nobility in projects that increased his prestige and theirs.
  • Louis XIV’s royal court at Versailles was a tool of state policy, overawing subjects and visiting dignitaries. Other European monarchs constructed their own versions of Versailles.
  • French language and culture became fashionable at courts all over Europe.
  • Louis used court ceremonies, entertainments, spies, and informers to reduce the power of the great nobility.
  • Louis staffed his administration with members of the nobility of the robe or the upper middle class, to show that he was not going to share power.
  • In 1685 Louis XIV formally revoked the Edict of Nantes because he viewed it as an affront to his own claims to power.
  • The French monarchy had never intended religious toleration to be permanent.
  • Religious liberty was not a popular policy.
  • The revocation had a negative impact on the economy and foreign affairs.
  • Financial and Economic Management under Louis XIV: Colbert
  • Financial problems weakened Louis XIV’s administration.
  • Tax revenues usually fell fall short of the government’s needs.
  • In Louis XIV’s France, tax exemptions for elites placed the greatest tax burden on the peasantry.
  • Louis’s chief financial minister, Jean-Baptiste Colbert, used subsidies for domestic industries, tariffs, and policies to attract foreign artisans in order to make France self-sufficient and to boost French exports (mercantilism).
  • Colbert expanded the French navy and merchant marine and promoted colonization of French territories in North America.
  • Louis XIV’s Wars
  • Louis was a conqueror¾France was at war for thirty-three of the fifty-four years of his reign.
  • Louis developed a large, efficient, disciplined army subordinate directly to himself.
  • Louis made territorial gains in the Low Countries and Lorraine before his armies ran out of steam in the early 1680s.
  • High taxes to support the military and bad weather from 1688-1694 led to mass starvation in some areas of France.
  • After the death of King Charles II of Spain in 1700, the Spanish throne passed to Louis XIV’s grandson, England, Holland, Austria, and Prussia united against France to preserve the European balance of power and check French maritime expansion in the Americas, Asia, and Africa. This conflict became known as the War of the Spanish Succession.
  • The war, which ended in 1713 with the Peace of Utrecht, checked France, finished Spain as a great power, and expanded England’s overseas empire.
  • The Decline of Absolutist Spain in the Seventeenth Century
  • Spanish absolutism preceded that of the French. In the 1500s, the kingdom of Castile developed the characteristics of an absolute monarchy.
  • Gold and silver from the Americas were the basis for Spanish power.
  • The agricultural crisis, population decline, lack of a middle class (due in part to the expulsion of Moors and Jews), and failure to invest in productive enterprises meant that by 1715, Spain was a second-rate power.
  • Spain extended itself in wars it could not afford in the 1600s.
  • Colonial Administration
  • Spain ruled a vast empire in the Americas.
  • Spain’s New World territories were divided into four viceroyalties.
  • Charles III (r. 1759–1788) introduced the system of intendants.
  • Spanish polices were based on mercantilist principles.
  • The Portuguese governed Brazil in a similar manner.
  • The Culture of Absolutism
  • Baroque Art and Music
  • Rome and the Catholic Church played a key role in the early development of the baroque.
  • The baroque was most fully developed in Catholic countries.
  • Peter Paul Rubens (1577–1640) was the best and most representative baroque painter.
  • Baroque music reached its culmination with Johann Sebastian Bach (1685–1750).
  • Court Culture
  • Versailles set the trends in court culture.
  • Versailles became the center of the French state and a symbol of Louis XIV’s power.
  • All great nobles were required to spend at least part of the year in attendance at Versailles.
  • Access to the king translated into political and economic power.
  • Women played a central role in the patronage system.
  • French Classicism
  • French “classicism” refers to imitation of Roman and Greek artistic models together with the values of discipline, restraint, and balance in art.
  • After the 1660s French artists and musicians generally had to glorify the state and Louis himself.
  • Nicholas Poussin exemplifies French classicism in painting (Rape of the Sabine Women), Jean-Baptiste Lully in music, and Moliere and Racine in theater.
  • Constitutionalism
  • Absolutist Claims in England (1603–1649)
  • In spite of a disordered and bloody seventeenth century, England emerged a constitutional monarchy.
  • Elizabeth I’s successor James I (r. 1603–1625) asserted his divine right to absolute power, antagonizing Parliament.
  • The House of Commons, the members of which were largely members of a new wealthy and powerful capitalist class in England, objected.
  • Religious Divides
  • James and his successor, Charles I (r. 1625-1649) appeared to be sympathetic to Catholicism; Puritans in the House of Commons were suspicious.
  • In 1640 Charles had to summon Parliament to request funding to suppress a rebellion in Scotland (against the imposition of Anglican liturgy).
  • As Parliament passed laws limiting Charles’s powers, an Irish uprising precipitated civil war.
  • In spite of the execution of Charles I in 1649 by Parliament, the civil war did not resolve the problem of sovereignty. England was a military dictatorship run by Parliament’s most successful general, Oliver Cromwell, from 1649-1660.
  • Puritanical Absolutism in England: Cromwell and the Protectorate
  • Oliver Cromwell attempted to create a community of puritanical saints.
  • When he died in 1658, most English had had enough of this.
  • The Restoration of the English Monarchy
  • Charles II (r. 1660-1685), invited back to England from exile in France, attempted to conciliate Parliament by creating an advisory council of five men who were also members of Parliament.
  • When Charles was caught in 1670 in secret negotiations with Louis XIV for subsidies in exchange for a gradual Catholicization of England and an alliance against the Netherlands, panic swept England.
  • When James II (r. 1685-1688), an open Catholic, succeeded Charles II, there was trouble.
  • James placed many Catholics in high administrative positions and declared universal religious tolerance. Seven Anglican bishops responded by refusing to read James’s proclamation. They were arrested but subsequently acquitted.
  • When James’s wife produced a son, there was fear that a Catholic dynasty was now assured. Parliament offered the throne to James’s Protestant daughter Mary and her Dutch husband, Prince William of Orange. In December 1688 James fled to France and William and Mary were crowned king and queen of England.
  • The Triumph of England’s Parliament: Constitutional Monarchy and Cabinet Government
  • The “Glorious Revolution”¾Parliament’s expulsion of James¾was guaranteed by a Bill of Rights passed by Parliament. The Bill guaranteed the independence of the judiciary, the sole power of Parliament to make laws, and freedom of debate in Parliament. All Protestants were granted religious toleration.
  • John Locke’s Second Treatise of Civil Government (1690) was a defense of the Glorious Revolution. Locke maintained that government was a contract between ruled and ruler for the protection of life, liberty, and property.
  • The Glorious Revolution was not a democratic revolution, because few English subjects could vote in the election of Parliament.
  • The cabinet system of government evolved in the eighteenth century. In this system a cabinet of ministers responsible primarily to Parliament governed. The power of the monarch grew weaker and weaker.
  • The Dutch Republic in the Seventeenth Century
  • The Dutch system of government rested on assemblies of wealthy merchants in each of the seven provinces called “Estates.”
  • A federal assembly, or “States General,” ran foreign policy, but was responsible to the provincial “Estates.”
  • The States General appointed a representative or stadtholder in each province. Some men held the post of stadtholder in all seven provinces.
  • The cohesion and power of the Dutch Republic ultimately rested on its immense commercial power and prosperity.
  • The Netherlands was the only realm in early modern Europe with almost complete religious toleration.
  • In 1650, the Dutch owned half of the ships in Europe and controlled much of European trade.
  • In the seventeenth century the Dutch probably had the highest standard of living in the world.
  • Dutch power began to decline around the time of the War of the Spanish Succession.


For Layout