France in the Seventeenth Century was dominated by its kings; Henry IV, Louis XIII and Louis XIV. Each weakened the power of the magnates and expanded royal absolutism at the expense of the nobility. By the end of the century, France was arguably the major power of Europe and Louis XIV referred to himself as the Sun King – such was his prestige.
The creation of an absolutist monarchy in France was dependent on the personality of the king and the ministers appointed by him to support him in the work that he did. Sixteenth Century France witnessed extremes – powerful monarchs such as Francis I and Henry II who controlled the nobles and weak and ineffectual kings whose weakness was exploited during the French Wars of Religion. The Seventeenth Century started with France stable under Henry IV. His victory in the French Wars of Religion gave him an authority that had eluded the likes of Charles IX and Henry III. Louis XIII was to build on this after 1617 as was his son Louis XIV.
At the top of the government was the Royal Council – also known as the Privy Council or the Council of State. This institution claimed that it expressed royal will. Only the king could appoint people to it and normally only princes of the blood (the most senior nobles), senior prelates and magnates were allowed to join. This institution was too large and unwieldy to formulate policy. This was done by six men who were in the Counseil des Affaires.
The Sixteenth Century had seen a decline in the power of the conciliar committees that had originated to execute royal policy. This was now done by departments, such as the department of justice, finance etc. The Chancellor’s Department dealt with the judiciary and it was also the custodian of the Great Seal to authenticate government decrees.
The Surintendant dealt with royal finance. The Secretaries of State led the departments of the navy, army foreign affairs etc.
The so-called Sovereign Courts had an important role in government. The most important sovereign courts were the parléments and the most important of these was the Parlément de Paris. This parlément had the great advantage of having to register royal edicts to make them valid in areas where they had jurisdiction. The Parlément de Paris had the added power of the “right of remonstrance” – this allowed them to remonstrate (complain) over new laws without fear of punishment from the king. It was this right that gave the Parlément of Paris its claim to be a political and legal body.
Could the Parlement de Paris reject a royal edict? It could temporarily but not indefinitely. The king could hold a lit-de-justice. This was a public event where the king ordered the Parlement de Paris to register a decree. Only a strong king do this and in the Seventeenth Century, France had three strong kings!
In 1641, such was the power and status of Louis XIII, that he forced the Parlement de Paris to register an act that severely curtailed its right to concern itself with administration, finance and the general government of France.