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The myth of absolutism: change and continuity in early modern European monarchy

The Ottoman succession was never secure. In spite of Mehmed II's edict requiring a new sultan to execute his brothers, the empire suffered several usurpations and wars of succession before the "law of fratricide" fell into disuse in the seventeenth century. Did a king rule for life? Not necessarily. Charles I of England was tried and executed in ; his son James II was deposed in , although Parliament declared it an abdication.

Queen Christina of Sweden really did abdicate in she expected to be treated with royal dignity for the rest of her life. Philip V took the unprecedented step of first abdicating in , then reclaiming the Spanish throne after the premature death of his son, Luis. Victor Amadeus of Savoy's abdication in was perceived as a devious ploy to regain the throne with more power it failed when he was imprisoned. Ottoman sultans could not abdicate, but they were regularly murdered, particularly by rebellious Janissaries.

Not all kings were crowned. The Ottoman Empire lacked a coronation ceremony, as did Castile ; in both cases, the ruler was simply proclaimed, and banners unfurled.


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Elsewhere, the coronation ceremony was carefully observed, but the ordines or rules that governed the ritual were always subject to revision. The church had at first resisted the idea that coronation made the king into a holy figure, like a priest. By the early modern period, however, the clergy had given way to royal assertiveness. The coronation was now represented as an ordination, replete with holy oils and chrisms for anointing the king's body. It conferred an aura of sacredness on the royal person. Yet in hereditary monarchies, coronation did not initiate rulership, which began at the death of the preceding monarch.

This contradiction was often noted, never resolved. In the eighteenth century, the legitimizing power of the coronation declined throughout Europe, and it became simply another occasion for display and panoply. While coronation ceremonies usually retained some form of popular acclamation, they tended to reinforce the idea that early modern kings ruled by the will of God rather than that of the people. This was a consistent message, even in Poland, where the king was elected by the nobles and was frequently bullied by them. In practice, however, the will of God could be narrowly interpreted, as the Providence that maintained the king on the throne and gave him victories.

It might also extend to acts of the king that directly invoked the deity, like the miracle of the royal touch in England and France; but when the king laid hands on sufferers to cure scrofula, it was God, not he, who performed the healing. Divine sanction did not mean that the king was a saint although Russian tsars, Louis XIII of France, and the martyred Charles I of England were represented in that way , or that specific acts of royal governance expressed the intentions of the Almighty.

It was often the opponents of monarchs, from the French Catholic League to Belgian patriots of the s, who were most strident in appropriating heavenly favor for their political actions. Kings were usually more wary; after all, they had to deal with the guardians of religion, who resented claims to God's approval that were made without their explicit support. Even the Ottoman sultan was circumspect in his use of the title "caliph" or heir to the prophet. Monarchs gradually became bolder in asserting control over the clergy and religion.

This did not make them more sacred, but it did make them controversial. The attack against Jansenism that was initiated by Louis XIV and continued by his successor created a political furor that lasted sixty years. The most daring offender against religious sensibilities may have been Emperor Joseph II , who dissolved monasteries, gave toleration to Jews , and aroused bitter clerical opposition. As a result, traditionalist church parties formed throughout Europe.

What they had in common was disillusionment with monarchy, causing a distrust that could feed into revolutionary sympathies after If we turn from institutional definitions of monarchy to the theories of political writers, we may be surprised to find how little connection there was between them. Inspired by the ancients, political philosophers usually wanted to write for the ages, not to address specific institutional questions. While they were deeply influenced by what was happening around them, they consciously sought to separate their writings from contemporary circumstances.

The impact of their theories, however, was seldom what they had expected. The main classical sources for European political theory were Roman law , Aristotle often filtered through Cicero , and the Roman historian Tacitus. Roman law dealt directly with the question of imperium, which could be understood variously, as absolute sovereignty the emperor was above the laws or as some sort of limited rulership the emperor was bound by the laws. The civil lawyers often regarded imperium as meaning both simultaneously: that is, the king normally had to observe the laws, but could in special circumstances dispense with them.

This was the point of view of leading imperial jurists, like Dietrich Reinking. The breakdown of imperial power in the Thirty Years' War, however, led some legal writers, like Hermann Conring and Samuel Pufendorf, to deny that the Holy Roman Empire was descended from ancient Rome. As a result, sovereign authority was held by German territorial rulers, not the emperor.

The empire survived, however, and by the eighteenth century, constitutional equilibrium rather than imperium was the main concern of its civil lawyers. The impact of Aristotle was more pervasive and subtle. His emphasis on personal balance and selfrestraint informed countless manuals on lordly behavior, or "Mirrors for Princes.

The reading of Aristotle and Cicero inspired an abhorrence of despotism and a belief in the public good as the ultimate end of government. Since most of them were priests, they also stressed the supremacy of the church over any secular monarchy. Protestant Aristotelians like Martin Luther himself and Henning Arnisaeus accepted the primacy of religion but were more willing to separate monarchy from popular approval. The third classical strain in early modern European political thought was derived from the historian Tacitus, who excoriated the corruption and decrepitude of the Roman imperial state.

Admirers of Tacitus were not always critical of monarchy; like Henry St. John, Lord Bolingbroke, in the eighteenth century, they might believe that only a strong, heroic ruler could restore decayed virtue. Similarly, Tacitus's view that empires must continually grow or necessarily decay could supply arguments to both opponents and defenders of imperial expansion. The classical tradition gave only limited sustenance to those political writers who wanted a more "absolute" monarchy.

In fact, Aristotle and Cicero could be read as consistent with an interpretation of the Bible that saw kings as responsible to the people rather than directly to God. They vested ultimate authority in the magistrates, in legislatures, or in the people rather the king. Buchanan, like Mariana, even allowed that open resistance to a tyrant might be legitimate. Where could defenders of a stronger monarchy turn? To the Bible, of course, and to Roman history. For the French lawyer Jean Bodin , the sovereignty of a monarch could not be divided, shared, or legally resisted because it rested on the patriarchal power exercised by an all-powerful God as well as by ancient Roman fathers.

The Englishman Robert Filmer carried Bodin a stage further by making patriarchal power "arbitrary," so that the father-ruler could do whatever he wanted, without any right of resistance. This did not entirely rule out some sort of original agreement with the people; but as the Dutch jurist Hugo Grotius pointed out, once such an agreement was made, the people surrendered their sovereignty and had no right to reclaim it. Thomas Hobbes repeated the point in his Leviathan of , which presented government as the convergence of individual wills in an "artificial man," the state.

Hobbes's unorthodox religious and philosophical views ensured that few in England would acknowledge his contribution for the next century. On the other side, only the most radical political thinkers, like John Locke , continued to argue for a right to resistance to monarchs by the end of the seventeenth century, and Locke was not very clear about how it could be activated. The Enlightenment added a new dimension to these debates, by introducing a critical, comparative method. It was best exemplified in Montesquieu's L'esprit des lois ; Spirit of the laws , which sought to replace the ideal categories of classical philosophy with observations of the ways in which peoples were actually governed.

The aristocratic Montesquieu was often read as a proponent of a mixed constitution based on the post English model. Admiration for England was widely held, but it did not wholly sway every enlightened mind Voltaire, for example, continued to praise Louis XIV's powerful, activist monarchy. Foreign observers, moreover, tended to misinterpret the centralist English constitution.

By the late eighteenth century, many enlightened writers Cesare Beccaria and Denis Diderot among them had decided that the form of government was less important than what it accomplished in terms of the public good. Kings, it was hoped, would become reformers: "the first servants of the state," in Frederick the Great 's memorable phrase. They would abolish torture, establish religious toleration, grant freedom of expression, and spread education among the masses.

They might even transform the European empires into federations of sovereign states, a sentiment expressed by several prominent Spanish reformers. The American Revolution complicated such aspirations because it associated reform with republicanism. A renewed threat to monarchy emerged in the writings of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who scorned the "despotism" of kings and suggested that sovereignty rested not in them, but in an abstract conception of the "general will" determined by the whole people.

Few read Rousseau's Du contrat social Social contract when it first appeared in , but it made a great impact on the subsequent generation. By the early s, some enlightened thinkers throughout Europe held the view that, if kings were not willing to lead the nation and the people into a golden age of reform, they might not be necessary after all.

The works of political philosophers shaped educated minds, but until the late s, they made little difference to the conduct of royal courts. The court was the main arena of royal display and magnificence. In the absence of bureaucratic institutions, it was also the center of monarchical government. Leading members of the king's councils usually held prominent positions at court. Local officials often had to go to court to transact important business. Aristocrats jockeyed at court for positions, titles, honors, and the prestige of personal proximity to the sovereign.

The courts of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries were often peripatetic, moving between royal palaces and cities, or installing themselves temporarily in the houses of prominent nobles. By the late s this had become too expensive and complicated, so courts became more or less fixed in a few big palaces, in or near administrative centers. They also grew. The salaried officials of the French court numbered around one thousand under Francis I; they swelled to eight to ten thousand under Louis XIV.

The Spanish court remained at around fifteen to seventeen hundred persons during the same period, and the English court included about one thousand officers until the Civil Wars. The much smaller Austrian Habsburg court did not exceed six hundred persons from the late s to the late s, but by the second quarter of the eighteenth century it had reached twenty-five hundred.

None of them, however, compared with the 95, employees and officers of the Ottoman court, among them 68, soldiers, 2, doorkeepers, 5, gardeners, and 1, cooks. The main purpose of the court was to bring together the king's principal servants, both government officers and members of his household, in one place. This was particularly vital in composite monarchies, where high-ranking royal officials came from disparate regions and might even speak different languages. The king could not live in all his territories, so he had to call their leading men to him. A court where rewards were to be had was one to which they would flock; a feeble court would indicate a lack of cohesion in the kingdom.

Thus, the court was above all a point of contact between the crown and the elite. It was also a locale for royal and aristocratic display. Kings lived out much of their daily lives in public, and their every move, from rising in the morning to dining to walking in the palace gardens, could be accompanied by elaborate ceremony. Religious observances were particularly important occasions for ritual.

The Russian court, for example, was highly ritualized until the reign of Peter I , because the tsar was expected to perform endless religious duties. Every member of the high aristocracy between 24 and men had a part in these ceremonies. For similar reasons, the Spanish court under the Habsburgs was obsessed with ritual, partly derived from the ordinances of the dukes of Burgundy. The king of Spain's cousins at the imperial court of Vienna , however, were much more relaxed — the emperor even dined privately, with his wife!

English court ritual was never formalized to the same extent, with the exception of the annual Garter Ceremony, a favorite duty of Charles I. Participation in the rituals of the court was determined by etiquette — not a list of behavioral rules, but a ranking of courtiers by precedence.

Etiquette dictated who sat or stood near the king, who handed him his clothes or his towels or his food, who had a right to wear a hat in his presence. A courtier's position might be determined by office, by birth, or by some other distinction, such as the holding of a chivalric order. The king was the ultimate source of precedence, and he could manipulate the system of etiquette as he could the distribution of political positions. Few monarchs, however, made dramatic changes in etiquette or used it arbitrarily to control the aristocracy.

They tended to reward those who already had influence, wealth, and social prestige. The court was not a self-enclosed social system; rather, its etiquette reflected the wider hierarchical society beyond it. Artistic patronage was also based at court. Most kings enjoyed theatrical performances — plays, ballets, operas, masques — that were designed to edify the court nobility.

They might call for the ruler to appear directly on stage, surrounded by obeisant courtiers. Some kings, like Philip IV of Spain or Charles I of England, assembled magnificent collections of paintings, both religious and secular. In evaluating the impact of court art, however, we should remember how restricted the audience usually was. Monarchs spent far more on clothing than on paintings, and no court dominated artistic life as completely as its royal patrons hoped. By the eighteenth century, there were signs that the larger royal courts were in decline. The English court was reduced in size after and lost its centrality in art patronage after The king's old palaces were not updated, and in the end George III had to purchase a new one, Buckingham House, from a subject.

Versailles remained magnificent, but under Louis XV its ceremonies became increasingly empty of significance, and it gained a reputation for luxury and corruption. The Swedish court in the "Age of Liberty" was perceived as geriatric and moribund. There were exceptions: the Russian court, removed to St. Petersburg and stripped of much of its Orthodox ritual, presented a brilliant show, albeit one with limited relevance to the wider nation.

It was still possible for a royal court to transform a city, architecturally and culturally, as the kings of Sardinia did at Turin after Courts were never universally admired, even by those who frequented them.


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  8. Throughout the early modern period, they were criticized for waste and vice. It is difficult to judge how effective they were in impressing a sense of royal grandeur on the minds of the people. Yet they were vital instruments of royal power, and it is impossible to imagine early modern monarchy without them. What did the people of Europe know about monarchy? Even in France or Russia , only a fraction of the nobility went to court. As for townspeople and peasants, they may not even have known where the court was. Yet they were exposed to various images of monarchy, and kings made a definite mark on their lives.

    Over time, the ruler's control over them appears to have increased. Subjects who did not live near the court might see the monarch during a royal entry into a town or a progress through the countryside. These were more common in the sixteenth century when courts were peripatetic, but they continued into the eighteenth century. The events of a monarch's life, from birth and baptism to accession, coronation, and eventual death, were marked by public celebrations or mourning.

    Introduction From Monarchism and Absolutism

    Royal funeral ceremonies involved lyings-in-state, processions, grand catafalques, and numerous religious ceremonies that affected large numbers of people. The churches took an active part in almost every public ceremony of monarchy, as well as in the dissemination of royal messages. In France, Te Deum services proliferated in the seventeenth century to commemorate occasions of importance to the crown.

    The Ottoman sultans were regularly blessed at Friday prayers in mosques throughout their empire, just as the English monarchs were on Sundays in Anglican churches. In return, the king took every opportunity to associate himself with religion. Marching behind the Host in the Corpus Christi procession was an important annual ritual for many Catholic monarchs. Graphic images of kings became more available in the late sixteenth century through engravings and woodcuts. Queen Elizabeth of England tried in vain to prevent the sale of unauthorized pictures of herself.

    The market for prints was concentrated in towns, among the urban nobility and bourgeoisie. Peddlers, however, carried prints into the countryside, along with printed chapbooks that might contain idealized images or descriptions of rulers. By the late eighteenth century, newspapers had spread throughout western and central Europe, and the doings of courts were among their favorite topics. While they were often heavily censored, and could be prosecuted for seditious libel even in a relatively tolerant kingdom like Great Britain or Prussia, newspapers gave a regular insight into court life that had previously been available only to a select few.

    They complemented the often scandalous court memoirs that became popular reading material. It would be unwise to argue that the growing awareness of the doings of courts bred disillusionment with royal government, but it certainly encouraged critics, including those French pornographers who invented lurid and wholly fictitious accounts of the orgies presided over by Queen Marie Antoinette.

    Ordinary people often looked to the king's law courts for justice against their aristocratic overlords. In Tudor England, the Court of Star Chamber meted out cheap justice to the poor; and in — , Louis XIV's Assizes of Auvergne passed eighty-seven sentences against gentlemen, "to rescue the people from the oppression of the powerful.

    It made a big impression when Joseph I deposed a German prince after the council had investigated his execution of a peasant without a trial. Distrust of the nobility explains why ordinary people generally seem to have favored a stronger rather than a weaker monarchy. In Stockholm in , for example, crowds eager for a Danish rather than a Russian successor to the throne called out, "One king and not many!

    No Russian puppet! Subjects could prove more rebellious if the king tried to implement policies that were perceived to be despotic or impious, as the revolts of the mid-sixteenth and mid-seventeenth centuries demonstrated. After , however, the privileged classes seem to have become less willing to support serious rebellions.

    This permitted monarchs to extend the state controls that had been building up for the previous two centuries. Reform did not always work; the French monarchs were amazingly ambitious in setting out plans for improving the economic conditions of their kingdom, but almost all of them ended in spectacular failure, due to the power of vested interests. Did European monarchs lay the foundations of the modern state? In a fiscal and military sense, they certainly did; and they came up with the winning formula of controlling the individual by creating allegiance to a distant authority wearing a human face.

    Nevertheless, most rulers were resistant to the next, crucial step in state formation: the dissemination of national identities. Frederick the Great was hailed as a German patriot by his admirers, but did not take the idea seriously.

    Joseph II tried to force the German language on his recalcitrant Hungarian subjects not because he was a patriot, but because he thought it would be more efficient. Charles III of Spain failed to appreciate the patriotic opposition to his Italian advisers, until riots in forced him to dismiss them.

    Catherine was lucky enough to rule over a country where they were embryonic. Louis XVI was not so fortunate; his people wanted a patriot king, and when it became evident that he was not prepared to be one, popular disillusionment contributed to revolutionary anger.

    In the next century, of course, monarchs would willingly become national icons. Their initial hesitation to commit themselves to nationalism, however, was well considered. Identification with a particular nation meant the end of the composite state with which early modern monarchy was so closely associated. It also meant that the ruler was now beholden to a national community, that is, to the people; and if he failed them, as so many monarchs did at the end of World War I , he could not expect to retain their allegiance. Adamson, John, ed. London, Beautifully illustrated collection of important essays.

    Asch, Ronald G. Birke, eds. Oxford, Contains a wide selection of articles on court rituals and politics. Bertelli, Sergio. Translated by R. Burr Litchfield. University Park, Pa.

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    Wideranging theoretical approach to monarchy. Bloch, Marc. The Royal Touch. Translated by J. New York , Hugely influential study of thaumaturgic power to heal scrofula in England and France. Dickens, A. The first significant collection of articles on court history in English. Giesey, Ralph E. Geneva, Interprets effigy in funeral ceremony as representing king's undying, corporate body.

    Kantorowicz, Ernst H. Princeton, Highly influential work; argues that European kings were endowed with both a natural and an immortal corporate body. New Haven , A comparative study. Oresko, Robert, G. Gibbs, and H. Scott, eds. Cambridge, U. Handsome collection of important essays. Wortman, Richard S. Authoritative work on tsarist rituals. Cite this article Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

    September 24, Retrieved September 24, from Encyclopedia. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list. Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, Encyclopedia. It is a form of government in which supreme authority is vested in a single person, the monarch, who is consecrated in office and whose right to rule is generally hereditary and lifelong. By contrast, a republic is a form of government that does not have a monarch.

    A monarch typically reigns as a permanent head of state with varying formal and ceremonial powers. If the monarch is only a nominal ruler, then a regent will govern in his or her name. In contrast, the head of state in a republic is usually an elected president, who is chosen for only a limited period of time. Monarchs have traditionally based their claim to the throne in terms of blood descent from a reigning or dynastic family, or even from a god e. Some European monarchs were originally elected by the ruling nobility e.

    Legitimacy was formally conferred by a solemn religious ceremony, the coronation, in which the monarch was given a crown as a symbol of office upon his or her succession to the throne. Hereditary monarchy was justified on the grounds of royal birthright, religion, history, and tradition. Today monarchy is more likely to serve as a symbol of national unity and continuity — with powers ranging from nominal to absolute. Most modern monarchies are constituted by tradition or are codified by law so that the crowned sovereign has little real practical authority, but in others the monarch holds considerable or even absolute power.

    But even where the monarch's will is law and the royal court is the acme of political power and prestige, the king or queen must still rule by custom. In ancient Greece , the philosopher Plato — BCE believed that a monarchy ruled by a sagacious philosopher-king was the best form of government. For Plato's pupil Aristotle — BCE , monarchy was a benevolent dictatorship, under which power is vested in a person of exceptional virtue and wisdom who rules for the benefit of the entire people.

    But Aristotle admitted that monarchy can degenerate into tyranny, a corrupt and unstable form of government, under which rulers exercise undivided power for the benefit of themselves alone, ignoring the will of the people. Monarchy is the oldest form of government, whose origins can be traced to the primitive kingship of early tribal chiefs.

    The kingdoms of antiquity claimed divine descent for their monarch, who — as the embodiment or descendant of God — could do no wrong. The king of Babylon and the pharaoh of Egypt were each considered a living god with supernatural powers, and the pharaohs even married their sisters or daughters so that royal authority could remain within the sacred family. Later monarchs, such as the tyrants of ancient Greece, the Roman emperors, or the kings of the Franks, also claimed to be God's annointed, but derived their authority from the consent of the warrior aristocracy.

    As the chosen agents of God's will and defenders of the Christian faith, the medieval European monarchs were crowned by the church, but their power was still dependent on the nobles. With the democratic revolutions of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, absolute monarchy began to decline, and although many monarchs kept their life tenure and remained symbols of national unity and state-hood, real power gradually passed to representative assemblies.

    Many of the countries retaining monarchy as a form of government turned into limited or constitutional monarchies — that is, a monarchy in which the central authority of the sovereign is limited by the provisions of a constitution and the acts of a legislature. The figurehead monarch is legally obligated to follow the advice of his or her government ministers and is always politically neutral.

    After the French Revolution of most countries eventually abolished their monarchies and became instead presidential or parliamentary republics. Today many remaining monarchies are figurehead constitutional monarchies in which the monarchs have a largely symbolic and ceremonial role, such as those found in Europe. A popular referendum in empowered the regnant prince of Liechtenstein to dismiss the cabinet government at will, making him by far the most powerful constitutional monarch in Europe, but this probably temporary shift in constitutional authority could be easily reversed by another referendum.

    The British queen, Elizabeth II , also holds significant potential power as head of state, nominal head of the Anglican Church, and leader of the British Commonwealth of Nations , but like all titular heads of state, she only symbolically represents her nation — mostly by receiving foreign dignitaries, giving speeches on ceremonial occasions, and formally approving decisions made by elected officials. As in most limited monarchies, the head of government — the British prime minister , who is elected by parliament — is the real working executive responsible for the day-to-day operation of the cabinet government.

    But many constitutional monarchs retain certain important residual powers, under which they could potentially exercise considerable political influence. These so-called prerogative powers, which could be used in a political emergency to protect the constitution from abuse and partisan manipulation, include formally nominating the head of government, convening or dissolving the legislature, and signing enacted legislation into law. In absolute monarchies, by contrast, there are no constitutional restrictions on the prerogatives of the autocratic ruler, who is theoretically above the law.

    In Jordan and Morocco, the king still wields substantial despotic power independently of his formal role within the constitutional framework. The traditional monarchies that survive today are probably doomed unless they can eventually transform themselves into limited monarchies. Failure to do so led to the overthrow of traditional monarchies and their replacement by radical revolutionary regimes in Egypt, Iraq , Libya , Ethiopia , Cambodia, and Iran during the second half of the twentieth century.

    After failing to crush a stubborn Maoist insurgency, the king of Nepal was forced to give up absolute rule and surrender all his powers as head of state to the prime minister in December The monarchical institution is believed to have performed an integrative function, holding together diverse social groups during the difficult period of democratization. But these sectors are also monarchist in orientation, and if the king or queen is seen to support democracy, the traditional sectors of society will also go along with it. The monarchy thus facilitated the transition from the traditional political system of the late Middle Ages to the democratic political system of today Lipset , pp.

    For instance, King Juan Carlos I of Spain defeated an attempted military coup in when he went on national television to declare that he was defending democracy and expected the armed forces to do the same. Following his public rebuke, the rebellion collapsed for lack of military backing; even the staunchly antimonarchist Spanish Communist Party announced its support for the monarch. By proclaiming his loyalty to the new democratic institutions, the king united the fractious sectors of Spanish society in defense of democracy, including those that had previously been revolutionary and antimonarchist.

    Bendix, Reinhard. Kings or People: Power and the Mandate to Rule. Berkeley: University of California Press. Lipset, Seymour Martin. Slavin, Arthur Joseph. Boston: Heath. Tomlinson, Richard. Boston: Little, Brown. Have you read this? Please log in to set a read status Setting a reading intention helps you organise your reading. Read the guide. Your reading intentions are private to you and will not be shown to other users.

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