- Actually, the First and Second Estates paid no taxes whatsoever. This meant that one hundred per cent of the tax burden fell on the Third Estate. To make matters worse, as a means of raising money to finance his several wars, Louis XIV had begun the practice of creating new titles of nobility which were sold for a handsome price. Those who purchased titles of nobility, known as "nobility of the robe" enjoyed all the privileges of the more traditional "nobility of the sword," including freedom from taxation; plus the titles were inheritable. Thus, when one purchased a title of nobility, one freed both himself and his heirs in perpetuity from taxation. The end result, of course, was to reduce the tax base while expenses continued to mount.
Among the other advantages held by the upper estates:
- The First Estate (the clergy) were about 100,000 in number but owned roughly ten percent of all the land. They did not pay tax, but did contribute a "voluntary gift" to the government. The Clergy themselves collected a ten per cent tax from the Third Estate which the upper clergy (all nobility) used to maintain a lifestyle which many described as luxurious and extravagant.
- The Second Estate (nobility) numbered about 400,000 and owned twenty five percent of the land. They paid no tax, but did tax the peasants who lived on their lands. They also had exclusive hunting and fishing rights; owned monopolies on mills, wine presses, even bakery ovens. They received a fee for the use of any of these resources. They also enjoyed the right to wear a sword on public occasions as a mark of distinction to separate them from the lower classes.
The clergy and the nobility (also called the First Estate and the Second Estate, respectively) were privileged both in terms of economics and political power.
Economically, we should not think that all of the first two estates and none of the third were wealthy. Many in the third estate were wealthy because they were merchants or professionals. However, the great majority of the tax burden fell only on the Third Estate because the first two enjoyed many exemptions from taxes.
Politically, the first two estates had much more power than they should have had based on their numbers. In the Estates General, each estate was represented equally. This was true even though the Third Estate had something like 98% of the population. Thus, the first two estates had political power far beyond what they should have had.