What is an Absolute Monarch?
Between 1500 and 1650, many of the major European powers were ruled by absolute monarchs. An absolute monarch is a ruler who claims that they were made rulers by God and thus had a divine right to rule. Often times, these absolute monarchs would consolidate their power by marrying into other families that were absolute monarchs of other lands. The children of each monarch would marry each other and would then combine the two nations to form a larger nation. Growing strength of monarchies led to a strong sense of nationalism, which in turn caused conflicts among separate nations. Towards the end of the absolute monarch period, enlightened despots came to power as a result of a nations people wanting a more benevolent and tolerant leader. These despots often allowed various freedoms and fostered interests in the arts, sciences, and literature.
Between 1550 and 1650, most of the major European powers were lead by absolute monarchs, or rulers who claimed a divine right to rule. So these absolute monarchs were rulers who said that they were chosen by God to be the ruler, and the people also believe that this person was destined by God to be their ruler, and so they followed them for that reason. And they were the absolute monarch, so they kept most of the power. Very little of the power was checked by any other kind of governing agencies, or by the people. So for the most part, they ruled absolutely.
These European monarchies often consolidated power by marrying into one another. So, a monarch in one nation might say, ok my son can marry your daughter, and then our two nations can combine and be one big nation. And that happened very often because then these monarchies could consolidate power. Whenever the children married, and grew up, their country, the nation they ruled would be even bigger because it would encompass two nations. And they could do the same thing with their children, and so on and so forth as long as this period went on. So one way for European nations to peacefully combine and form into bigger nations was to marry into one another. The strength of the monarchies promoted a renewed spirit of nationalism which consequently led to more frequent conflicts between nations.
So these monarchies were very strong, and did create a renewed spirit of nationalism. Which meant that people were going to have more of a sense of pride in their histories, in their language, in their shared culture. And so as a nation they would have pride about their country. Now, if they were taken over by another ruling monarch, that doesn’t mean that they would instantly change over. Their spirit of nationalism would still be tied to the nation that they originated with, the nation they shared a history with. So this did lead to more frequent conflicts between nations. Because whenever one nation tried to take over another nation by conquering them, not through a peaceful way like marrying into one another’s families, if one nation just said I want the nation to the west of me, I’m going to go over and conquer it. Well, they might succeed, but the people who lived in that conquered nation would still have that spirit of nationalism toward their old way of life, toward their personal language, and their shared language and culture and history, and they wouldn’t respond well to this new ruler. So there were a lot more frequent conflict between nations.
In 1500, Spain was probably the most powerful nation in Europe because of her lucrative colonies and impressive armada. So Spain was one of the first nations to start sending out colonization parties. And once they started establishing colonies in India, in Africa, and then in the Americas, they had a greater source of trade goods. Those colonies would ship goods into Spain, and Spain could then trade them within Western Europe, and so they were going to become very wealthy that way. And one of the reasons their colonies were so successful was because of their impressive armada. They had a great fleet of ships. And these ships were going to be the most advanced designs of that time, and they were going to need ships that could travel very long distances, so they needed to be very seaworthy ships. So these ships would take people to colonies all the way across the Atlantic Ocean, so they had to be good ships. And they didn’t want to lose trade good so they wanted to make sure they would be good ships that would be able to get back across the Atlantic bringing heavy loads of trade goods back to Spain. In addition, the armada served as a military aid because they could also fight on the water better than a lot of the other countries because they had this impressive fleet of shifts. So this made Spain very powerful, probably the most powerful nation in Europe in 1500.
However, from 1500-16000, England and France would emerge as the dominate powers in the region. Now, England and France quickly followed Spain’s lead, and they started colonizing as well. Whenever they started colonizing, that meant they were going to be coming up with pretty good ships, they were going to be having more goods coming in from colonies, and so they were able to become wealthy and develop pretty good navies as well. So from 1500-1600, England and France kind of caught up, and they became the dominate powers in the region. Now, the German states, and we say German states because at this point Germany was not one united country. The German states in the area which would have encompassed Germany were a series of city-states that did not function all together as one unit. It was several different areas each functioning as their own city-state. So the German states was just a disconnected group of states in the German region. So the German states and Russia, though largely excluded from shipping, were still powerful during this period. So the German states and Russia didn’t get involved in the colonial expansion like England and France and Spain did. They didn’t have shipping. They didn’t have a lot of trade going out on the water. But they had some natural resources, and they were still large countries or nations in the area. And so they were still fairly powerful during this time. Just not as powerful as Spain, England or France.
Now looking a little later into this period of absolute monarchs, we have the monarchs of the Enlightenment. And the Enlightenment was a period toward the end of the period of absolute monarchs. And that would be approaching 1650. And these monarchs found themselves under increasing pressure to be benevolent and tolerant. So they were supposed to be kind and look out for the best interest of their people. And they were supposed to be tolerant of what their people believed. Before, your original absolute monarchs had absolute power. Everyone was just going to listen to what they said, do what they were told. They weren’t going to ask questions, they were just going to do it. And the absolute monarch didn’t have to consider whether it was in the subject’s best interest or not. But in the enlightenment period, people were learning more, they were wanting more, they were wanting to express themselves more, and the monarchs had to evolve with that, and they had to change or they wouldn’t have been accepted as well.
So in Western Europe, rulers known as enlightened despots governed in order to promote the best interest of their subjects. So these were still monarchs, but they were known as enlightened despots. Because while they were monarchs, and they did pretty much function the same way, they were more interested in the best interest of their subjects, and they were doing things they knew that their people would appreciate and would like because they didn’t want the people to go against them. These enlightened despots often allowed religious tolerance, freedom of speech and of the press, and the right to hold private property. So the enlightened despots said ok, you might not be practicing the same religion as I am or what we see as the national religion, but I’m going to be tolerant of that. They let people practice whatever religion they wanted. And this was a big deal because around this time there was a lot of persecution because of the religion you chose. So the fact that the enlightened despots were being tolerant toward different religions was a big move, and a big step in the way toward pleasing the people.
Freedom of speech and the press. So instead of only saying what the ruler might like to hear, people were allowed to actually express their opinions and that would be allowed, and other people could read or hear about it, and appreciate that and comment on it themselves without fear of retribution. And the right to hold private property. The system that had come before absolute monarchs was usually in most nations, feudalism, where basically the king owned the whole country. The monarch there was going to own the whole country, and then he would say ok there are lords below me and I’m going to let each lord control a certain part of land. And so those lords would be vassals to the king. And then each lord would say, oh well I’ve got this big plot of land. I’m going to elect three other lords below me to take care of this land for me, and so those three lords would be a vassal to the first lord. So the vassals were the people who reported to the lords and took care of their land. The lords were the ones who were supposed to be controlling the land. And it went on and on and on. But no one owned the land except for the king. The ruler was the one who was supposed to own the land.
So around 1650, as we approach that area, and we have these enlightened despots, they allowed people to have private property. If it was property they had been living on for a long time, then it might become their property. Not the property they were working for some lord, but their private property. And then most rulers also fostered interest in the arts, sciences, and literature. And like I said, the Enlightenment period was a time when people were learning, they were becoming smarter, more informed, and this was encouraged. So the rulers would also encourage the interest in arts, sciences, and literature, because they wanted their people to become smarter, and they wanted to be doing what was in the people’s best interests. So your absolute monarchs started as people who were chosen by God and that’s how they saw themselves, and that’s how their subjects saw them.
And so everyone did whatever the absolute monarch told them to do. From 1500-1600, Spain, England and France were your most powerful monarchies, but the German states and Russia were also powerful during this time. And then toward the end of this period came the Enlightenment where your absolute monarchs became enlightened despots where they were allowing the people more freedom, more tolerance, and they were looking out for what was in the best interests of their subjects.