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French government - rule by royal court

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French government - rule by royal court

To understand the problems Louis faced as king it is necessary to understand the nature of European politics at the time. Many nations possessed near-absolutist monarchs in the late 1700s but they generally shared power, willingly or otherwise, with a noble or aristocratic class. This wasn't always an amicable relationship: many nobles manipulated, pressured or bargained with the monarch to secure power and influence for themselves. In Britain this relationship had been formalised and consolidated by long-standing agreements between the monarch and aristocracy (eg. the Magna Carta, 1215) and the power of parliament was consolidated by events such as the Civil War and the Glorious Revolution. The British king still had significant power but took care not to assert it too eagerly or autocratically. In France, Louis' royal power was still nominally absolute.

The French political model had been shaped by the reign of Louis XVI's great-grandfather, Louis XIV, during the late 1600s. As a child of nine this particularly Louis was driven from his palaces by a bitter civil war instigated by the nobility and Paris parlements, against the crown and its ministers. Louis XIV's response was to assume absolute control of the government. The king justified this by proclaiming his rule was given by 'divine right', with the support of God (when asked by a political emissary what comprised state sovereignty in France, Louis' reply was: "Le t'at? C'est moi!" ('The state? That's me!'). The nobility was considered a potential danger to the monarch and its power and influence was drastically curtailed... not only that, Louis believed the aristocrats must be carefully watched and, if possible, controlled. To reduce their influence and their capacity to organise military opposition, Louis XIV based the government at the royal palace of Versailles, outside Paris and required the almost permanent attendance of the nobility. There they would spend their days seeking Louis' acceptance and patronage, engaging in almost pointless court intrigues as well as gambling, hunting, balls and sexual affairs. Kept away from their traditional support base on the estates, the nobility became virtually powerless. In the extravagant mini-city of Versailles, with its 700 rooms and 20 miles of roadway, the Sun King ruled France in virtual isolation from the people but with a close eye on those he saw as his biggest threat (a living embodiment of the epithet 'keep your friends close and your enemies closer').

This tactic may have strengthened the monarch's hold over the nobility but it also isolated him from his subjects. Before the reign of Louis XIV the king had been a mobile and rather visible presence in France; now he was a figure of myth and speculation, isolated at Versailles and rarely seen. The strength of French autocracy was really underpinned by the strong personality of Louis XIV but his predecessors, particularly Louis XVI, were neither interested in or capable of maintaining their control of the nobility through strength of character and court intrigues. In addition, during the reign of Louis XVI the Enlightenment trend of questioning the nature of politics, the function of government and the basis of political power was well established. These philosophes looked at the natural order and using reason instead of tradition, they could find little evidence to support divine-right absolutist monarchy. The nobility, aware of the declining authority of the king, resisted his policies and reforms during the 1780s, partly because they genuinely disagreed but also as a means of eroding the king's power and increasing their own. And from within French society came calls to recognize and formalize the political voice of the Third Estate, which made up 97 percent of the population but was denied representation or participation in government. It was a situation few, if any kings could have found effective solutions for.

All text © Steve Thompson 2006

To reference this page: Thompson, S. vcehistory info (Internet) at Today's date (last access)

Key points:

  • French government was centred around the king, shaped by the autocratic rule of Louis XIV, the 'Sun King'

  • The king remained at Versailles most of the time, a central figure in the court of royalty and nobility

  • Louis XVI lacked the character and personality to impose absolutist rule, at a time when circumstances were dire

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