In France, in the aftermath of the Religious Wars, lawyers and philosophers sought to find the truly universal social order that would prevent the chaos and horror of civil war.  Religious faith had seemed divisive and destructive.  Many French thinkers at first hoped law and philosophy would succeed in reestablishing moral and social order where religion had failed.

<>In 1610,  A French judicial scholar name Charles Loyseau spelled out a theory of social order in a much admired book entitled A Treatise on Orders.  Loyseau was attempting to codify--write down as written code--the social system that France and other countries had inherited from the Middle Ages.  The main orders were the church (including bishops, canons, priests, monks, etc.) and the nobility (including kings, dukes, counts, knights, etc.).  Everyone else not in these two orders--the majority of the population-- was not really considered to belong to an order, but they were represented in the medieval Estates General, the Parliament of France, as the so-called "Third Estate." Loyseau hoped that if the French people refocused their attention on the system of hierarchy and honor that ordered medieval society, the harmony of  society would be restored and preserved.  But it seemed that France and Europe generally could not rely on medieval tradition to restore peace.  While the ideals of orders and ranks in society was maintained as an ideal, a new idea gained new favor first in France, and then throughout Europe.  That is the divine right of kings.

The "divine right" idea was used to bolster the idea of the absolute sovereignty of the king. The absolute monarch was seen to transcend-- and in political terms if not social terms--dissolve all orders and ranks.  All were equal under the king;  to exercise power, one must gain the king's favor. This is quite different from medieval political order, where the king was really just the first or greatest of the many lords of the land.  Absolutism has clear advantages and disadvantages.  There is no question as to authority and who has it. On the other hand, centralized authority can be stifling to a vital society.  The clear advantages of political and social order, along with enhanced national power and glory, led the French, Germans, Russians and even the English, for a time, to embrace the ideals of absolutism.

The Implementation of Absolute Monarchy in France

It was perhaps ironic that the system of absolute monarchy owes so much to the capable leadership not of a king, but of a Cardinal, Cardinal Richelieu, who as the book describes, dissolved the Protestants' military power, increased the power of the central government by employing "intendants"--officials directly responsible to the king, and by conducting an assertive foreign policy against France's foreign rivals.  After Cardinal Richelieu died, a faction of nobles revolted against royal power and royal taxation in the 1640s and 1650s.  This fighting only underscored the need for more order in France.

The theory and practice of absolute monarchy reached its greatest height in the reign of Louis XIV (1643-1715).  This is so because Louis was both mentally and physically up to the task.  He was a tall man of impressive bearing, and also shrewd and intelligent.  He understood instinctively how to make himself the indispensable apex and fulcrum of royal government.  He did this by making his every action the ritual centerpiece of royal court, and by making the royal court the center of political life in France.

An essential step in making the himself and the court the center of French life was the building of the magnificent palace of Versailles between 1669 and 1688.  Versailles was virtually a city, where thousands of noblemen and their families could live at court in luxury and splendor.  The courtiers hoped to distinguish themselves in the service of the king in person, and receive due rewards from the king, be it titles, offices, pensions, or other benefits. One of the courtiers, the Duke of Saint-Simon, described the the manner that Louis ruled his court.  A typical morning would go as follows.

At eight the king is awaken by the chief valet, and dressed by chamberlains. At 8:15 the chief Chamberlain would usher in those privileged gentlemen who had been granted the right to attend the king that morning, and there would be a short time to speak with him as the king was presented the holy water and a prayer-book before proceeding into the cabinet room for a short religious service, and then return to the bedroom.  More courtiers privileged enough to attend the king would arrive as the king put on his shoes and stockings and dressing gown, and shaved.  He might chat with those around him as he did this.  After dressing there was more prayer and all would proceed to the cabinet room.  The king would issue instructions to the officers and officials present, then would proceed to a council of state, or of finance, depending on the day.  When he passed through the galleries of the palaces, throngs gathered around him to pay their respects.

Dinners and Suppers, concerts and other occasions were similarly ritualized, with courtiers striving for the eye or ear of the king.  As Saint-Simon writes:

The king made it politically and socially necessary for noblemen to live at court at least some of the time, but he also made certain that it was desirable place to be.  Time there was spend in beautiful surroundings hunting, attending dances and concerts, playing billiards, cards and gambling.  It was like one long party, but with a serious purpose to it all.  One can see from the above description, that being an absolute monarch was hard work indeed, and though Louis XIV was up to the task, his successors were not so capable.

The Theory of Absolutism

King Louis trained his sons carefully in the theory of absolutism.  One of the officials entrusted with the education of Louis's son was Bishop Bossuet, who wrote for his charge a small book entitled Politics Drawn from the Very Words of the Holy Scriptures, which stands as the clearest theoretical statement of the theory of absolute monarchy.  In his text, Bishop Bossuet argued that the Bible makes clear that God has placed kings over nations for their good government, that God has done this for the people's own good (and thus King must rule for the good of the people and not himself), and because royal power is for the good, it must be absolute--that is to say that no person or group should be able to override his authority.  Bossuet makes very clear that absolute rule is not arbitrary rule; it is not simply at the whim of the king.  The king must rule for the good of the kingdom as a whole, and he must exercise his God-given reason in making his judgments.  Bossuet made clear the essential reasoning behind this theory of government:

Disadvantages of Absolutism

With these words in mind, it can easily be understood why Louis XIV took the fateful step in 1685 of revoking the Edict of Nantes, making Protestantism illegal, and forcing the Protestants (Huguenots) to either convert or flee.  Tens of thousands of skilled tradesmen, craftsmen, merchants, seamen, and others chose exile, and the great cost to French industry, trade, and navy was to be long-lasting.  For one thing, after 1685, France was never a match to Great Britain on the high seas, either in shipping or in naval warfare.  The intolerance of absolutism, and the loss of the Huguenots had a lot to do with that.  There was another great disadvantage to the absolutism of  Louis XIV.  While he put an end to internal strife, he committed France to prolonged and costly wars of expansion in an attempt to establish France as Europe's undisputed power, which only succeeded after decades of fighting in adding a few tiny slices of territory to France, while burdening it with a mountain of debt.

In spite of these disadvantages, absolutist France was the greatest and most impressive kingdom of its day, and its system of politics was the envy of Europe.  A strong monarchy seemed to be the key to greatness.  The most important imitators were Frederick William and Frederick III of Prussia, and Peter the Great in Russia.  Peter build a new capital at St. Petersburg and a grand palace in the style of Versailles.  He made the nobility and even the Russian Orthodox Church obedient to his personal rule, and required his courtiers to adopt Western, especially French, manners and dress.  Like Louis and Frederick William in Prussia (northern Germany), he reformed and enlarged his army and engaged in a continual campaign of conquest and expansion.  In England, things were different.  Charles I's efforts to develop an absolutist system had faced stiff resistance, and caused a civil war.  Though Charles himself was executed, absolutism was not entirely defeated, as we shall see.  For much of the 17th and 18th centuries, absolutism was the preeminent theory and practice of government in Europe.  Its advantages of unity, stability and national glory, exemplified by the fabulous court of Versailles, was very persuasive indeed.