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The Enlightenment

Emergence of the
Absolute Monarchs

Keith Tankard
The Time Traveller
Updated: 14 December 2009
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The nature of medieval warfare was army-upon-army conflict. The medieval troops were a mixture of knights on foot and upon horseback, armed with swords, battle-axes, clubs and bows-and-arrows. It was localised war which took place where the armies were situated.

The warfare did not involve the general population who carried on working despite the conflict. The rural population was only ever involved if the battle took place on their fields, in which case their crops were trampled upon and destroyed. Medieval warfare was a battle against another army, not against the general population of a territory.

In a sense, this was in keeping with the general philosophy of the time. The nobility were a fighting nobility. They were knights because of their ability to fight. While the peasants produced the food, therefore, the knights fought the battles.

In that way, warfare during the period from about the 11th to the 14th centuries was very simple. Peasants were not meant to fight battles, just as nobility were not meant to work and reap the fields. Warfare was therefore knight-on-knight conflict, never knight-on-peasant conflict unless, of course, the peasants rose up in armed insurrection.

The purpose of the war, apart from the fact that it was jolly good fun, was to be able to claim booty. Since land was the most precious commodity, the ultimate purpose of warfare was defeat of the army and annexation of its land.

This type of conflict therefore had little impact on the peasants or on the townspeople. The peasants' task was to labour in the fields and that they would do no matter who their master was. For them, life remained unchanged despite the warfare.

In general, life was harsh. A change of master because of military conflict might make life a little more harsh or a little less harsh, but nevertheless it ultimately remained harsh. Politics could not change the everyday nature of life by very much.

Towns on the other hand served a very limited use for the military aristocracy. The aristocracy was concerned with land, not with money, and so they had very little interest in what was happening in the towns.

The towns, and therefore the townspeople, were on the other hand not concerned in the whole feudal process which pertained purely to the countryside. As a result, they were also not at all concerned with the continual warfare that was being waged by the country warlords.

Indeed, the bourgeoisie in particular were more concerned with other things. They were fighting a relentless battle to reduce the influence of the aristocracy over the towns. Their innate philosophy was therefore one of, "Let the aristocracy fight their silly battles as long as they leave the towns alone and as long as the trade routes become safer as a result."

By the 15th century, however, things were beginning to change. Warfare was evolving from knightly clashes to conflict in which the main weapons were cannons and guns. Large armies rather than the skilled medieval armies were therefore becoming important. The more cannons an army possessed, the greater its destructive power.

Such an army was particularly expensive. The old medieval knight could be given a piece of land and be expected to arm and train himself. Canons and gunpowder, however, had to be bought and that took money.

The modern 15th century army therefore relied on money, and on abundant money. Money could buy canons, gunpowder and men to arm the guns. Money could buy ships and sailors.

The more men, even though they be poorly trained, the more chance there would be of victory in battle. Men in large numbers were needed simply to drag, load, aim and fire the cannons.

The place of the old-fashioned warlord was therefore in jeopardy. Smaller warlords could simply not hope to compete in the game of modern warfare, unless they joined together in military alliances. Feudalism was therefore slowly dying.

Its place was being taken by a military alliance system, such as the Schmalkaldic League in Germany during the mid-16th century.

It also meant that a resolute king could tax his people so as to acquire funds to raise armies. But the king could not tax his aristocracy. He could tax the peasants but they could not pay much even if they paid their entire fortunes.

It was the city which housed money in abundance. A wealthy kingdom was therefore one which had wealthy and enterprising towns and cities.

But to be able to utilize that tax meant a greater bureaucracy. The period from the 15th to the 17th century therefore saw the rise of the bureaucratic states. Because the larger and wealthier states were usually the more powerful, the 15th to the 17th century also saw therefore the rise of the larger European states.

Most important would be the big three: Spain, France and England. There were, however, also smaller states which were rising to prominence because of their economic wealth. Holland was important here because of her international trade and overseas colonies, such as the Cape and Batavia.

In north-eastern Germany the little state of Brandenburg was rising to prominence because of its military prowess and philosophy of thrift.


For centuries some kingdoms in Europe had been in a state of gradual expansion. As early as the 10th century, after the collapse of the great Empire of Charlemagne, the French Kingdom started on a slow but inexorable expansion.

The essence of this expansion was warfare against the neighbouring war-lords, inflicting defeat upon them on the fields of battle.

The French monarchs, however, were quick to realise the changing nature of economics and warfare. As early as the 14th and 15th centuries, they were putting their states on a sound economic footing which best utilized the economic philosophy called "mercantilism".

Because France had no natural wealth, the monarchy encouraged the development of manufactured wealth in terms of industry and trade. To do this, the French monarchy was one of the first to utilize the concept of import and export controls, as well as protectionism by means of customs tariffs.

As a natural off-shoot of this economic philosophy, there arose in France the larger towns, housing the townspeople who were dedicated to the production of wealth. The French monarchy fostered this and saw to it that the interests of the townspeople were protected.

Early in its history, therefore, the French bourgeoisie found themselves being called upon to advise the monarch in some of his financial decisions.

Where most of Europe remained feudal, with the rulers being advised by the two Estates of Clergy and Aristocracy, France was evolving into a new political stage.

The monarchy recognised the existence and importance of another Estate, called the 3rd Estate, namely the Bourgeoisie in the towns. Representatives of these people were now being called upon for advice and assistance.

By the 16th century, therefore, a new form of French government was in its embryo. At its head was the king with dictatorial powers which had come to him through traditional feudalism.

He was, however, being advised by a three-chambered parliament consisting of the Clergy, Nobility and Bourgeoisie, called the 1st, 2nd and 3rd Estates. The Estates General, as this triple body came to be called, had no real power except to advise the king and yet it was a step towards modern government.

In Spain things evolved differently. Militarily Spain had long been strong and united. Towards the end of the 15th century, however, something would happen which would ultimately doom Spain to a place of inferiority in the world.

While the French monarch was creating wealth by fostering the townspeople and their industries, Spain found wealth in such abundance that there was no need to foster either trade or industry.

When Christopher Columbus discovered the Americas, they also discovered an immense wealth in gold and silver which the Aztecs and Incas used to decorate their temples. These metals could be smelted down and sent back to Spain where it would provide the Spanish monarch with bullion with which to buy his canons and soldiers.

In the 16th century, therefore, Spain rose to the rank of super-power. For a century or two Spain was able to use this wealth to dominate Europe. But it was easy money and one day it would run out. Because Spain did not have wise rulers, no account was taken to store up the wealth for the time when it would indeed dry up.

Indirectly Spain also dug her own grave. Her super-wealth meant super-armies which threatened neighbouring states like France and England. The monarchies of these two states, because they lacked similar sources of wealth, could only respond by creating wealth in other ways and so turned to fostering trade and industry.

The Spanish threat therefore ensured that countries like France and England would defend themselves through policies of thrift and financial expertise. That in turn would give them the ability to buy arms and armies.

When Spain wealth ran out, therefore, France and England would be left to dominate world politics by means of their industrial wealth.

In north-eastern Germany, a very small state was beginning to emerge. In 1400 the Hohenzollern territory of Brandenburg, with its capital at Berlin, was just one of many insignificant states in Germany.

Through a series of clever military moves, however, its territory was rapidly increased. By the mid-18th Century, what had become the Kingdom of Prussia was already one of the Big Five powers in Europe.

At the centre of Prussia's rapid growth in both size and power was a thrifty monarchy which indulged in none of the money-wasting extravaganzas which were the hallmark of Spain. At the same time Prussia became a military state. Everything about it was military: its philosophy, its society, its budget.

As a result, although small in area and population, it boasted one of the most powerful and efficient fighting forces in Europe which became a match even for the enormous and slick armies of the wealthier states. By the mid-18th century, therefore, Prussia would become a state to be reckoned with.


Perhaps the emergence of a new political system would have been a very natural phenomenon. Between the 15th and the 17th centuries things were dreadfully wrong.

While politics in Europe had always hinged on military might, now it began to take a religious turn. Religion, not politics, became the driving force of the European state.

In the multitude of German states, the princes turned to supporting Luther in his fight with the papacy. Although they had a clear political motive for this support, their support nevertheless dictated that Church and Religion became one and the same thing.

The ruler was the one who determined what the people would believe and anyone who thought otherwise would be hounded down and exterminated.

In the Calvinistic city-states of Switzerland a similar thing was happening. The town-fathers, being the wealthy bourgeoisie, decided on the official religion in their towns. The proletariat were therefore made to work harder so that the bourgeoisie could become wealthier. And it was all part of a religious philosophy.

In France, circumstances were slightly different. The French aristocracy believed they could make use of the German principle to re-gain their independence of the King. They therefore turned to Calvinism and declared their right to independence of the French monarchy.

This resulted in the creation of a whole series of fortified French towns. If their stance was accepted, it would mean the fragmentation of the French state. On the other hand, if the monarch moved against the Huguenots, it would involve France in a devastating civil war.

The French monarchy decided in favour of a united states which immediately plunged France into a civil war. As with the other civil wars which were raging across the length and breadth of Europe, this one bore the guise of a war of religion. It appeared to be a war between a Catholic monarchy against the Huguenot aristocracy.

It was, however, not an old-fashioned feudal campaign. This was modern warfare with modern and expensive armies. Each side therefore needed money and they needed money in abundance. The only source for money were the townspeople, the bourgeoisie.

A new phase of warfare had therefore erupted. The townspeople were no longer innocent bystanders. They were now heavily taxed so as to pay for the infernal conflicts.

They were no longer working hard merely to store up a nest-egg for a rainy day but were working hard to pay for the nonsensical wars being waged by the power-crazy aristocrats, each of whom claimed a religious reason for the war.

The bourgeoisie in Switzerland and Holland had once evolved an economic system called Capitalism out of an economic embryo that had been fertilized by a religious sperm-cell.

During the 17th century, however, the bourgeoisie in France saw the need to evolve a new type of political philosophy that would allow them to determine their futures in peace.

The French bourgeoisie therefore gave birth to a new political philosophy that would eventually be called Absolute Monarchies, or the Divine Right of Kings. The adherents to this philosophy would be known as Politiques.

Essentially the Politiques believed that only a united state could be a strong and peaceful state. Since it was religion that was destroying the harmony within the state, the Politiques began to claim that religion must hold no place whatsoever in the political system.

Far better, the Politiques proclaimed, to have a strong and effective monarchy than to have economic dislocation through civil war. All power must therefore be in the hands of a wise and benevolent ruler who would rule on behalf of his people.

All the people, including the warlike aristocrats, must be subjugated under the authority of the Absolute Monarchy.

Essentially, therefore, the concept of Divine Right of Kings was major step towards what Karl Marx would later call the Revolution of the Bourgeoisie. The concept of Absolute Monarchy an invention of the Bourgeoisie.

The Bourgeoisie would throw their support and money behind the installation of an Absolute Monarch. That in turn would lead to their ultimate triumph over the despised aristocracy who were interfering with their ability to trade and prosper.

In essence, the concept of Divine Right of Kings was a natural evolution from Calvinism, the Bourgeois philosophy, and is dependent upon the belief in predestination.

Each person is predestined by God not only to salvation but also to his or her rank in society. Kings are therefore not made kings through human volition but are ordained to be kings by God's own intention.

A king is a king because God willed him to be a king. A king therefore rules by divine right. It is therefore a defiance of the divine order not to obey a king.

Essential to this belief was another principle which accepted religious toleration. Since it was religion that was tearing the state apart, religion must no longer be allowed to be a major factor in politics.

The Politique philosophy therefore gave birth to the concept of religious toleration. A king was leader by Divine Right. He would rule his people wisely and benevolently.

The people would obey their king as the manifestation of the wisdom of God. The people would therefore lay down their weapons and accept the principle of religious toleration.


The 17th century therefore saw the bourgeoisie in France throwing their support behind the monarch's actions in suppressing the destructive force of the aristocracy. At the same time, when Henry IV became the first Bourbon king in France, he bowed to the philosophy of the politiques.

Henry IV was a Huguenot and not a Catholic. He quickly conceded that his Calvinist religion would be a divisive force in France and so he renounced it and became a Catholic.

At the same time, one of his first acts as king was to issue the Edict of Nantes which declared that it was everybody's right to belong to the religion of their choosing.

Henry thereupon moved rapidly against those towns and cities which were not prepared to accept his authority. His short reign was marked by a suppression of aristocratic opposition and to the consolidation of French monarchical authority.

Henry, however, was assassinated at the early age of 29. His son, Louis XIII, was too young to take on the mantle of authority. France therefore fell under a regent, Marie d'Medici who could easily have allowed Henry's gains to slip.

She fell under the influence of a strong clergyman, however, and appointed him her chancellor. Cardinal Richelieu then moved rapidly to suppress all opposition to the state. Under him, therefore, the concept of Divine Right of Kings was taken a huge step forward.

Richelieu and Louis XIII died almost simultaneously. The new king, Louis XIV, was also too young to rule and so another chancellor, Cardinal Mazarin, ruled in his stead. Mazarin, a pupil of Cardinal Richelieu, continued the battle against the aristocracy.

By the time that Mazarin died, Louis XIV was of age and so assumed the mantle of office. He immediately dispensed with the office of chancellor and assumed the title King of France, ordained by Divine Right.

He became the personification of everything that the politiques had fought for: A king who united all power into his own hands. A king who suppressed almost the last vestige of aristocratic opposition. A king who rule for his people: The State? I am the State.

Louis' example would be emulated by the other monarchs of Europe. Very quickly the rulers of Prussia, Austria and Russia would proclaim that they ruled, not by will of the aristocracy but by Divine Right.

For a short time, therefore, Europe would indulge a series of monarch who would be regarded as benevolent, enlightened, and rulers by the authority of God alone.

They would be the last flowering of monarchy in Europe. The bourgeoisie would be preparing their next campaign: to seize all political power into their own hands. But that is another story.

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