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.
Louis XIII inherited a very complex government system. His predecessors when they wanted to weaken or bypass an institution’s power, simply created another to duplicate its functions. A forceful monarch could assert his authority over them all. However, a king who was a minor could not and the government institutions that had been controlled by Henry IV suddenly found that after his assassination, they had the space to assert themselves again. At nine years of age, Louis was in no position to assert any authority.
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 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.
The Parlement de Paris had a long history and claimed to be the oldest formal expression of royal will. It recognised the king and chancellor as being superior – but nobody else. It was always at odds with the Royal Council. A strong monarch could control the Parlement de Paris but a minor supported by a regent rarely could. It was the Parlement de Paris that got the nine year old Louis XIII to appoint his mother, Marie de Medici, to be regent in 1610. In 1643, the Parlement de Paris set aside the will of Louis XIII and confirmed his wife, Anne of Austria, as sole regent – the new king Louis XIV was only 4.
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 1632, Louis ordered the Royal Council to annul orders of the Parlement de Paris while he was away campaigning as he believed that these orders by the Parlement de Paris encroached on his authority.
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.