What is an Absolute Monarch?
Hi, and welcome to this overview of the European Monarchies of 1500 to 1650. In this video, we’ll provide an introductory overview of the structure of the monarchies of Western Europe in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Using the examples of England, France, and Spain, we’ll look at how these kingdoms transitioned feudal systems to become absolute monarchies. Let’s get started!
Now, when we talk about an absolute monarchy, we’re talking about a form of monarchy where the leader holds supreme autocratic authority. This was underpinned by a doctrine known as absolutism. The foundations for absolutism were laid by the so-called “new monarchies” of the late fifteenth century. Interestingly, these occurred almost concurrently in England, France, and Spain.
In England, Henry VII triumphed in the War of the Roses and spent several years strengthening his power in the aftermath. The marriage of Isabella of Castille and Ferdinand of Aragon united their crowns and created the Kingdom of Spain. In France, Louis XI, oversaw infrastructure and trade efforts, working to organize and centralize the government.
The monarchs who followed these rulers strengthened the crown’s grip on power by organizing their kingdoms around a permanent bureaucracy. This bureaucracy was drawn from the bourgeoisie, a growing class of wealthy merchants and lawyers. Along with such organization came revisions to the legal systems centered around a revival of old Roman laws.
The centralization of the kingdoms made it possible to collect taxes on a national level, greatly boosting the coffers of the crown. In France the taille royale was a land tax which accounted for a majority of the king’s income by the late 16th century. Other lucrative royal ventures included the sale of offices and monopolies, royal factories in France, and chartered companies in England. Most of these fund-raising efforts were centered upon financing the incessant wars of the era. In fact, Charles V’s naval expeditions against the Ottoman Empire swallowed up nearly 80% of the money raised by the state.
Standing armies became a feature of this time period as monarchs fought enemies home and abroad, and it became increasingly common to employ foreign mercenaries instead of arming locals. For instance, Kett’s Rebellion, an uprising in East Anglia in 1549, was suppressed in part by some 1200 Landsknechts, German mercenaries. Technological advances in gunpowder also helped to strengthen military advances. Artillery could make short work of castle walls, and the excessive cost of the new guns left them to only the wealthiest rulers.
Another key development from this era was the discovery of the Americas at the turn of the 15th century. Spain and Portugal were the earliest colonial powers and the flow of precious metals from Spanish expeditions helped fund Charles V and Philip II’s ambitions back home. The first English and French colonies in the Americas did not fare quite as well in the late 16th century. A settlement of French Protestants in Florida was overrun by the Spanish, while the English colony in Roanoke disappeared without a trace. Despite the early setbacks, both kingdoms managed to establish permanent footholds in North America during the early 17th century.
The establishment of colonies in distant lands coincided with greater emphasis upon trade and the rise of mercantilism. Put simply, mercantilism is the philosophy of maximizing exports while minimizing imports. This period also saw the rise of international politics and the establishment of permanent embassies and formal relations between kingdoms. A delicate balance of power was maintained between the kingdoms through alliances and calculated diplomacy. In 1536, France established such a diplomacy with her enemy’s enemies. Scotland was a long-standing ally against England while the Ottomans, despite the religious difference, had a mutual foe in the Habsburgs.
The alliance between the Muslim Ottomans and the Catholic French was highly controversial, but it goes some way to illustrating the decline in influence of the Vatican. As the Reformation spread throughout Europe, Henry VIII severed ties with Rome with the establishment of the Church of England. France and Spain remained Catholic and persecuted Protestants, but relations with the pope in Rome were often hostile. France began the third Italian War as an ally of Rome in 1508 but ended it as an enemy in 1516. A few years later, Spanish and German troops serving Charles V sacked Rome in 1527 in a dispute over pay. As monarchs grew in power and were no longer willing to accept the demands of the church, the doctrine of absolutism began to take full reign.
Ok, before we go on, let’s look at a couple of review questions.
1. Which of the following was not a feature of the absolute monarchies?
A. Centralized bureaucracy
B. National taxation
C. Religious freedom
D. None of these
The correct answer is C, religious freedom.
2. The legal systems of the time were adapted from which ancient civilization?
A. The Persians
B. The Greeks
C. The Carthaginians
D. The Romans
The correct answer is D, the Romans.
That’s all for this review! Thanks for watching, and happy studying!