Absolutism within France was a political system associated with kings such as Louis XIII and, more particularly, Louis XIV. Absolutism or absolute monarchical rule was developing across Europe during the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries. Important politicians such as Cardinal Richilieu were staunch supporters of absolutism.
Absolute rule meant that the power of the monarch was, in theory, unlimited except by divine law or by what was called ‘natural law’. In an absolute society, the only person who could change the powers of the monarch was the monarch him/herself. As such, it is difficult to think in terms of an absolute monarch diluting his/her own authority and power.
Quotes attributable to Louis XVI
"I have no
intention of sharing my authority"
Absolute rule replaced a system whereby the monarch worked with others. Prior to absolute rule, a king of France worked with the Estates. He was still a powerful ruler but in one sense he shared his authority with them. When this system broke down, a country could descend into civil war.
In a French absolute society, the king’s word was law. He had access to a standing royal army that was loyal only to him. A career in the military appeared to be one worth pursuing for someone with a noble background. The standing army was a symbol of an absolute monarch’s authority and a ruler’s power was based and enforced by it.
For those on the receiving end of absolutism, the army played a key role. In absolutist states, the army invariably collected taxes; a large part of this revenue was invested in the army which got larger and more powerful; a larger army was capable of becoming even more effective at collecting taxes which were then further invested in the army. In this way, the people were trapped: they paid their taxes to a body that expanded as a result and that made it an even better collector of revenue.
Such a system smacks very much of a Twentieth Century dictatorship such as Stalin’s and Hitler’s. However, royal absolutism was justified by a number of eminent philosophers from the time: Bodin, Bousset and Hobbes. It could be argued that their support for an absolute monarch was understandable given the consequences that could have happened to them – however, there was a belief that a country could benefit from an absolute monarch, both internally and externally. As an example, Brandenburg-Prussia under the Great Elector, Frederick William, became a much sort after ally which brought money to Brandenburg-Prussia. Also, in France, there were memories of the chronic dislocation caused by the French Wars of Religion where weak monarchical rule triggered off a noble rebellion.