France from 1461 to 1515 saw the start of the rise of absolute rule that continued to the reign of Francis I, Henry II and saw a backlash from the nobility who tried to reclaim their lost power in the French Wars of Religion which finally ended with the reign of Henry IV who, ironically, ruled as an absolute monarchy.
The kings in this era were : Louis XI (1461 to 1483)
Charles VIII (1483 to 1498)
Louis XII (1498 to 1515)
The seeds of absolute monarchy were sown in the reigns of these three kings. Absolutism is a belief that as a king you have a right to do as you wish without your authority being challenged by others. This is mixed in with the belief in the divine rights of monarchs which stated that the king was king as a result of God’s will and that if a king did something it was because God wanted it done and as God was infallible the actions of the king carrying out these actions had to be carried out in the name of God. Not to do so would be tantamount to heresy. There were those in France (the senior aristocracy) who were willing to support these ideas when they knew that any action taken by the king would have no impact on them especially if those actions were financial ones. However, this era does see a number of occasions when the senior magnates did feel that their position was being threatened and reacted accordingly. These threats were invariably short-lived as both ‘sides’ needed the other and the monarch could always fall back on an appeal to the people to help to support the word of God. In basic terms, there were a lot more common people who were very religious than there were senior nobility.
Natural unrest did not serve the purposes of anybody as it could lead to civil war which would have a devastating impact on French society. It served the king’s purpose and the nobility’s to have a positive relationship and the Valois kings adopted a policy of consulting the nobility on policy matters. This made the nobility feel as if they had a stake in policy making and it also served to give both sides a common aim – the greatness of France. The widely held view at this time was that a France lead by a strong king would be beneficial to all especially the nobility as they could engage in a possibly lucrative expansionist foreign policy. The common target at this time was Italy.
The states in northern Italy were seen as both a strategic and financial entity desirable to both Spain and France. Charles VIII needed no great encouragement from the nobility as he was a hot-head whose domestic policy was overshadowed by his desire to achieve greatness abroad and this he tried to achieve in the Italian Wars. Louis XII was likewise mesmerised by Italy but his domestic policy was relatively different to those of his predecessors as he did seem to genuinely care about his people. While many kings from many countries acquired money from the poor when it was needed, Louis reduced taxation when he had the opportunity to do so. This was unusual then as it was almost a tradition carried on throughout the centuries that the rich did not pay tax, the church as an entity did not pay tax but the poor did. That Louis XII challenged this probably explains why he received the title “Father of his People” from the French people.
This era also witnessed clashes between the Catholic Church and the crown. The position of the king in this was difficult. He was Catholic and was expected to uphold the catholic Church in his kingdom. But what if the power of the Catholic Church was seen to be encroaching on the power of the crown ? Where would the loyalty of the monarch be then ? To Rome or to Paris ? The Valois kings were very explicit in their beliefs – they wanted France before Rome. There was never a spiritual challenge to the power of the pope but his political power was always being challenged and reduced in France. The clash had started a early as 1438 with Charles VII and eventually ended with the Concordat of Bologna under Francis I. The kings did have to move carefully as the people of France had all but been indoctrinated into believing in the power of the Catholic Church as represented by the pope. Thus the popes could call on the people of a country to rid that country of a heretical king. It is worth noting that the first crusade was declared in France which resulted in many Frenchmen in joining it as the pope had declared that anybody killed on the crusade would be guaranteed a place in heaven. Thus the grip the church had over the uneducated was potentially massive and the most backward and conservative believers tended to be in the rural regions and France had huge expanses of agricultural land.
In the provinces royal power was extended at the expense of noble power by the use of royal officers whose duty it was to uphold the power of central government. These men were called ballis or senechaux. Ironically these men were to form their own provincial power bases and a number of these positions were to fall into the hands of the great noble families. The Italian Wars took out of France some of the more de-stabilising nobles and absorbed their energies. There was also a chance that such nobles would get killed in battle thus removing a problem but without harming the crown.
The Parlement de Paris was the supreme judicial court of France and because it withdrew cases from both noble and church supervision, it weakened their power and strengthened the power of the crown as long as both had a harmonious relationship. The Parlement could bolster the king’s power at a legal basis so it was ill-advised for a king to take on such a powerful body especially as this body was filled with highly educated men who were experts in the law of the land. Do note that at this time the old established nobility were not always educated and they lived on the assumption that their lifestyle would continue regardless – hence why they saw the advance of the ‘new blood’ nobility as a threat to them as many of the latter group wereeducated and were frequently members of the regional parlements that existed in Aix, Rouen, Dijon, Tolouse, Bordeaux and Grenoble. Some even sat in the Parlement de Paris. The parlements chief purpose was to register a royal edict and when they did this they became binding on the people of France. If the parlements refused to register an edict for whatever reason then a king could pass a lit de justice which would force it through. This was rarely done as it was an obvious source of conflict. If the parlements did feel aggrieved, they could pass the offending edict but they would do so in Latin which was the traditional way of voicing their disagreement with a royal edict but passing it without offending the king.
The crown constantly sought to free itself from the power of the senior noble families. The main opponents to the Valois kings were the Anjou, Bourbon and Orleans families. One way of diluting the power of the “old blood” families was to create a new class of nobility – the “new blood” – who would, in theory, owe their new status to the king and therefore would be loyal to him. On paper this was a sound theory but it could falter on the desire of the new nobility to copy the lifestyle of the old nobility in an attempt to enhance their status.
The kings came to rely on the Royal Council for advice and this advisory body was gradually freed from the domination of the old families and filled with ‘king’s men’. For a number of years the nobility and the church (though you cannot separate the two when assessing the power of the senior clergy who were to all intents senior nobility by the very fact that they were archbishops) had been able to put pressure on the kings by using the States-General as a protest body. However, the Valois kings got around this by calling it less and less and relying on the Royal Council for advice.
As early as 1439 the nobility had given the king the right to maintain a standing army and to raise the taillewhich was a tax to pay for the army. Whereas in England Parliament had tried to control the king by the use of the purse, the States-General had no such power over the Valois kings. Once a standing army existed it could be used if the king had the resolve to do so – but it needed a king who was prepared to invest large sums of money into this army and any obvious increase in its size was matched if possible by the senior nobility which could only make worse any potentially destabilising situation. Logic dictated that within France a royal standing army would almost certainly be used almost exclusively against subjects who had become too high and mighty.
The nobility may well have done a lot to undermine its own power. By paying no taxes they paid little attention to royal fiscal policy. Also each noble family seemed to be only interested in its own territorial base as opposed to noble strength throughout the kingdom.
In fact, the undermining of one major family by the crown was usually well received by other noble families as they saw this as an opportunity to advance their own family claim in that area once controlled by the family which had been condemned by the crown. In theory the whole of the country could be represented at a meeting of the Estates. There were three Estates in France : the senior nobility, the church and the people.
Legally, the Estates-General could meet (a right given to it in 1439) but it rarely did and this was blamed on the vast size of France and the huge difficulties which would be experienced if one was to be organised.