What was royal absolutism? How did this political system rise in early modern Europe (17th-18th centuries)? What was its theoretical foundation? What were its major components? What policies did monarchs such as Louis XIV of France pursue to expand the power of their governments as well as their personal authorities?

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The decline of aristocratic power in France created a vacuum that successive kings were only too happy to fill. Absolutism arose to fulfill a percieved need in French society for order at a time when the country was riven by religious conflict. It was widely believed—and accepted—that only a powerful...

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The decline of aristocratic power in France created a vacuum that successive kings were only too happy to fill. Absolutism arose to fulfill a percieved need in French society for order at a time when the country was riven by religious conflict. It was widely believed—and accepted—that only a powerful monarch with absolute power could deal with the numerous challenges that France faced and impose much-needed stability in the fractious kingdom.

Right from the outset, then, absolutism in France was intimately linked with the king's religious role. The king was charged with defending what to most Frenchmen was the true religion—Roman Catholicism—from internal and external threats to the kingdom. On the domestic front, the greatest threat came from the Huguenots: French Protestants whose strident demands for religious toleration precipitated a long, destructive civil war that plunged the whole of France into a bloody, bitter conflict.

Under these circumstances, absolutism was understood as the only way that France could be saved from falling into outright heresy. Successive French kings regarded themselves as the protectors of the Catholic faith within their kingdom, and they used this exalted role to expand their personal power—not just in relation to the extirpation of heresy, but also with regards to secular affairs.

This meant that, with no end in sight to religious strife, over time the kings of France were gradually able to arrogate more and more power to themselves. As they did so, they cloaked the developing absolutist system of government in a spiritual garb that made it all the more difficult to challenge from within. After all, if the king of France was God's appointed ruler doing the work of the Lord in fighting Protestant heretics, then who was anyone to defy him?

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Royal absolutism was, as the name suggests, an idea of governance wherein a royal monarch—in the governance of their people—would hold sovereign power, not be answerable to any system of ruling check or balance, and not be beholden to any person or entity.

In the early seventeenth century, Henry IV ruled with a militaristic and absolutist method that was closer to royal absolutism than anything that had come before. A significant display of this absolutism was the suppression of free speech in the press, which, in addition to demonstrating his absolutist power, helped to sustain his rule by forcibly silencing dissent. In the name of "keeping the peace," Henry IV silenced writers and religious figures alike. Despite his efforts, however, he was assassinated in 1610.

After years of the framework for royal absolutism being set in France following Henry IV, it was the reign of king Louis XIV that actualized this system of governance. Louis XIV's aim was to centralize the power of the crown, and he did so by reallocating powers, first at the expense of the papacy and then to the detriment of the aristocracy of France. Through censorship and careful scrutiny of his noble subjects, Louis XIV's reign implemented a complete system of royal absolutism, and he sustained a level of power that no French king had held before him.

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By looking at the term “royal absolutism,” we can get a fairly good idea of what that idea was.  This was the idea that the monarch of a country had and should have absolute power.  This idea stood in stark contrast, for example, to the English idea that the monarch should also have to allow parliament to have some power.   In theory, the monarch in an absolutist system was answerable only to God.  No monarch actually achieved such complete power, but there were monarchies, like that of France, that came close.

The idea of royal absolutism comes from at least two sources.  One of these sources is the idea of the divine right of kings.  This idea held that God had chosen royal families to rule.  Since God had chosen them, no human beings had the right to question them or their decisions.  A second source of support for royal absolutism was found in the political philosophy of this era.  For example, Thomas Hobbes argued that absolute monarchy was necessary.  He said that only a powerful king could prevent society from descending into chaos.  Thus, the idea of absolutism had support from both religious and secular thinkers.

In the transition to absolute monarchy, monarchs like Louis XIV typically tried to reduce the power of the aristocrats.  This allowed more power to flow to the king.  They also took advantage of circumstances.  For example, under Henry IV of France, the French people were tired of chaos and upheaval and were willing to give the government (and, thereby, the king) more power if only it would keep order in society.  This allowed the government to expand its reach.

Thus, royal absolutism is a philosophy, with roots in both religion and political philosophy, that holds that the monarch should have absolute power.

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