Absolutism in France versus Constitutional Monarchy in England
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In the wake of the Reformation, two countries experienced a century of great change, and whether growth or decline, this change was drastic. After Elizabeth I died at the turn of the century, James I took the throne of England and took absolutism with him. He and the next five successors would oversee the growth of England from an erratic, absolutist monarchy to a working, stable Constitutional monarchy. France was not fortunate enough to experience such growth. In contrast, it experienced great decline because the country did not evolve and continued with absolutism even a century after England had proven that type of governing was not effective.
There are several aspects of each country that are interesting to compare. The foremost of these aspects being the political, economic, religious and social situations. Despite numerous similarities in some of these categories, the extreme differences, in the end, caused them to take different courses in their evolution toward modern government.
The politics of England during the 17th century follow two absolute monarchs, a dictator, two more monarchs, and then the first constitutional monarch ever.
When James I became the first Stuart king of England in the dawn of the 17th century, he was completely unfamiliar with the English Parliament. He believed in the Divine Right of Kings, or the belief that kings had a divine right to their authority and were responsible only to him. He did not feel responsible to Parliament or his people, or that he had to share his power with anyone. In this way he introduced absolutism to England.
His son Charles I became England’s second absolute monarch in 1625. He was similarly foolish in terms of relations with Parliament; however, because of his many foolish wars he needed the money that Parliament guaranteed him. There was already tension because the monarchy was Anglican, while most of Parliament was Puritan. After several quarrels in which Parliament was dissolved and then recalled twice, Parliament sends Charles a document to sign admitting Parliament’s supremacy over the monarch. Because Charles I believed himself an absolute monarch who shared power with no one, he was outraged and thus began the Civil War of England.
This civil war was multi-faceted because the defenders of the king, or Anglicans, were known as Cavaliers and the defenders of Parliament, or Puritans, were known as Roundheads. Oliver Cromwell led the Roundheads to victory in 1646, beheaded the former monarch and formed his own government in England. This government, called the Commonwealth, was a dictatorship in which the military controlled everything, and Cromwell controlled the military. The Commonwealth forbade alcohol, theater, and foul language because of the Puritan basis.
Shortly after Cromwell died in 1658, the Stuart monarchy was restored because of exhaustion from Puritan rules. Charles II was made king, followed by James II. As James intensified his Catholic policies and became increasingly insane though, William of Orange was asked by Parliament to step in as king. No blood was shed in this turn of power because James’ army did not even attempt a fight. They were simply no competition. When William of Orange became the King of England, he became the first Constitutional Monarch. His power was limited to follow the rules of the Constitution and the Parliament had successfully proven its superiority over the monarchy.
For the duration of this century, not only did the politics improve, but so did the economics. England continued to be mainly agricultural with very slow movements toward urbanization and although much money was squandered with James I, Charles I, and the Civil War, Cromwell made sure that did not happen. He was a Puritan, and therefore he believed that your success, or wealth, was a measure of whether you were one of the elect. He, Parliament, and several rulers of the century used a policy called mercantilism in which, government money is poured into exports and colonies are exploited greatly to make money solely for the mother country. It usually includes little or no imports as well. Mostly through mercantilism, England’s economy grew exponentially under his rule. The large state of the treasury was maintained thereafter.
Among these different and yet intertwined aspects of English life during the 17th century was religion. Each monarch had their own religious policies during this hectic century of English history. James I and Charles I promoted a very Roman-Catholic version of Anglicanism. Then, the Civil War took place partly because of religious controversy. When the Puritans came out on top their practices were extremely brutal toward Anglicans and Catholics. Cromwell particularly persecuted the Irish Catholics in a policy called Plantation, where Irish Catholics were thrown off their farms and replaced by English Puritans. Calvinism was imposed on all of England and did not work out because it turned out to be too strict and boring. This Calvinist period is the most notable religious period of the century, but the English ended up needing their theater, their drink and other enjoyments previously not permitted. Anglicanism remained the faith of choice, which is part of the reason that Catholic James II had to abdicate the throne and was replaced by William and Mary who were of the correct faith.
The last of the remarkable changes in England is the change in society. A new middle class was emerging full of the new movers and shakers of English society. The existing classes also underwent a change as they became much more movable and interchangeable. It became possible to make your fortune, rather than inherit it. The English monarchy and Commonwealth rewarded merit; thus, it was generally possible to achieve any class, money or reward if the work put in warranted it. Religious society also became much more integrated. Not only was society formerly divided by wealth, but also by religion. This century wrought an improvement on that as well.
English history saw a very chaotic century that eventually smoothed out into the foundation for their government from that point on. France, on the other hand, witnessed the triumph of absolutism, and consequently the downfall of its greatness.
The absolutism in France is unquestionably embodied by Louis XIV, the king of France for 72 years and the ruling king for 54 years. He was 5 when he became king, but Cardinal Mazarin was the regent until he was 18. At this time Louis decided to rule the kingdom alone by divine right, making him an absolute monarch. This was a surprising choice considering that French kings traditionally had had advisors. An excellent example was his own father Louis XIII, for whom Cardinal Richelieu made most decisions. Louis knew everything about his kingdom and committed himself completely to it.
One major obstacle to absolutism is the power of the nobles. To combat this Louis acted very intelligently and worked to make them see each other as the enemy rather than him. He lured them to his new, beautiful palace of Versailles, which was made the seat of the government in 1682. It was there that his plan was fulfilled. He tricked them into making their life dependent on satisfying him. Once this goal had been satisfied, he was securely the absolute monarch.
On his deathbed Louis XIV admitted, “I have loved war too much”. In 1667 he invaded the Spanish Netherlands, which he thought of as his wife’s territory. He was forced to withdraw his forces after the English helped and the Dutch fought extremely hard. He re-entered the Netherlands in 1672 with England now helping him, but this time against the Netherlands, Spain, Spain, and the Holy Roman Emperor. In 1678, he signed the treaty of Nijmegen victorious.
In 1688 William of Orange became William III of England and this drastically changed things because England was no longer his ally, but his enemy. In 1688 England, the Netherlands, and the Holy Roman Emperor joined together to resist Louis and this time he was not as fortunate. The Treaty of Rijswijk, signed in 1697, returned part of his recently acquired territories and forced him to recognize William III as king of England, despite his belief that the Stuart kings should be absolute monarchs due to the divine right of kingship.
Yet another war loomed on the horizon for Louis in 1700 when Charles II of Spain left Louis’ grandson Philip V his territories. Louis had no choice but to accept even though it mean that another war was inevitable. In the War of Spanish Succession Louis was up against England and the Holy Roman emperor because he did not want the territories to become theirs. The three treaties necessary to end this war decided that France could keep its own territory, but it lost its supremacy. The costs of this war almost reversed any progress that had taken place during the previous years of his rule.
Politics and economy are particularly intertwined for France during the second half of the 17th century and early 18th century because the economy had to be very good to support so many wars. Louis XIV hired Jean-Baptiste Colbert to improve the country’s economy even though Colbert was never to be given a title for the purpose of emphasizing the fact that Louis alone held the power. Colbert was firmly believed that mercantilism was the way to improve France’s economy. Once again, mercantilism has two parts. One part is sinking government money into industries that will prove to be good exports and the other part is taking all profits from colonies and putting them into the mother country. France imported almost nothing during this period and exported everything possible. It was still a basically agriculturally based country so that was the majority of the exports. The profits from their colonies were endless because of the rich pelts that were available in the New World.
This use of mercantilism was effective because it made France the money that it needed. Louis also had the ability to raise taxes if more money was necessary. This money was not kept, however, because of the costly wars that Louis continued to wage and his expensive habits such as building palaces like Versailles and his patronage of the arts.
Religion and politics were also very related for Louis XIV’s reign. He was an ardent Catholic. In 1785 he even went as far as revoking the Edict of Nantes, which gave Huguenots, or French Protestants, the right to worship in specified towns around the country. He greatly persecuted any non-Catholics. This made Protestants very angry, including foreign Protestants. For instance, William III of England was not happy with Louis’ decision to take away the Huguenots’ freedom of worship, which was part of the reason for so many wars with England.
Society during the reign of Louis XIV was very traditional and did not change very much. The social classes remained very rigid and stratified. The arts, however, flourished under his rule because of his great patronage and the French Renaissance was at its pinnacle.
France went through a great decline because of absolutism. Once Louis died, his illegitimate successor that he had chosen was not accepted among the powerful French Parlement. With no real successor to take his place, Louis left the fate of the destructive Revolution.
In terms of politics, England and France were polar opposites. England went from absolutism to Constitutional Monarchy, which laid the foundation for the modern-day government. France, on the other hand, continued in the absolutist vain and in turn after the only great absolutist ruler died, they were left with no one as powerful. While England had evolved to the next level politically, France had refused to move forward to its own detriment. Both countries waged unnecessary wars, but the results of France’s wars were far more disastrous.
Economically, the two countries are the most similar. Both countries use extreme mercantilism to benefit their countries and to fund their wars. England and France each used their colonies to profit the mother country and put enormous amounts of money into exports, while accepting almost no imports. These similar techniques were used, but while England kept the majority of its money safely in the treasury, France wasted its money on more fruitless wars.
The religious policies of the rulers of each of the countries were identical. Louis XIV was extremely intolerant of non-Catholics and most rulers of England in the 17th century were intolerant of people of a different religion; none were more so than Oliver Cromwell, however. They were identical in their treatment of other religions, but while Louis persecuted non-Catholics, Cromwell persecuted Catholics. Oliver Cromwell was even more extremely intolerant of Catholics than Louis was of non-Catholics. Thus, they are conversely identical.
Socially, the two countries are not as similar. Once again, France stuck rigidly by the traditional stratified classes, while England moved forward and merged the classes religiously and economically. While it was possible to improve upon your class in England, that was utterly impossible in France. England also had an influential middle class that was nonexistent in France. In each country, however, the peasants were treated horribly.
Absolutism did not work in England for several reasons, which worked to their eternal benefit. The development of the first Constitutional Monarchy was the first step toward Democracy and modern day governing. France accepted absolutism and even revered it in the form of Louis XIV, which led them to a much slower and harder transformation to any type of modern government.