Modern history


Despite the brilliant inventiveness and cultural éclat surrounding Louis XIV’s Versailles, the French state was far more than the king’s personal creation. It constituted a palimpsest of power rituals, traditions, conventions and practices, some of which were thought to date from the times of Clovis, the leader of the Merovingian Franks, crowned king of ‘Francia’ at Reims in 496 as heir to the Roman imperium. Louis XIV’s words contrasting his own mortality with the destiny of the state, for example, formed a kind of latterday homage to an extremely ancient constitutional adage, namely, that the king never died. He possessed two bodies, one physical, the other ceremonial, and while the former decayed and passed away, the latter was timeless and untouchable by human mortality. In the Middle Ages, it had been the practice to express this doctrine of the king’s two bodies by creating a wax effigy of the defunct ruler around which the ceremonial business of state continued to be conducted, whilst his successor was hidden away, only to be allowed to partake in the full exercise of regal authority after the burial of the dead king and the destruction of the effigy. This practice had fallen into disuse after the Renaissance, partly because it made the monarchy fragile at the time of changeover of power. More crucially, the temporal schema implicit in the doctrine of the king’s two bodies also clashed with Louis XIV’s mythic present. In the Sun King’s body politics, there was only one body, his own, which the crown’s ceremonial regime and hyperbolic immortalizing rhetoric represented as beyond the reach of biological time.

Louis was a Bourbon, the third branch of the Capetian dynasty founded by Hugues Capet in 987 on the demise of Frankish power, and continued by the Valois branch from 1328 through to 1589, when the first Bourbon, Henry of Navarre, succeeded as Henry IV. The latter dynastic shift occurred at the height of the Wars of Religion which had plagued France since 1560, and it was to Henry’s lasting credit that he brought these civil wars to an end, notably through allowing the Protestant (or Huguenot) minority within France rights of toleration by the Edict of Nantes of 1598. Henry and his successors – Louis XIII from 1610 to 1643, then Louis XIV – drew on pre-existent political traditions, but gave them a distinctive Bourbon twist. The Bourbon polity prided itself on ensuring tranquillity at home while fighting with vigour and determination for state expansion abroad. This entailed matching the armed forces of France’s international competitors, notably the Habsburg dynasty, one of whose members sat on the throne of Spain, while another combined Austrian rule with headship of the sprawling Holy Roman Empire which covered Germanic and central European territory.

This dual task of internal pacification and external aggression required a greater concentration of monarchical authority than the Valois had been able to command, and the Bourbons were associated from the start with energetic attempts to achieve these ends through maximizing royal authority in the name of ‘absolute’ power. Theories of absolute monarchy had roots in Antiquity, but had again come to the fore during the Wars of Religion. Political theorists such as the humanist and legist Jean Bodin boldly asserted the ‘absolute’ claims of the ruler as a way out of the paroxysms of political and confessional strife which were threatening to engulf the kingdom. Bodin deemed the king of France’s power as absolute in the sense that the ruler was ‘absolved’ by divine sanction from legally binding liens and restrictions. That ‘sovereign’ power, absolutism’s ideologists argued, could not legitimately be challenged, let alone shared, by any human agency. Raison d’état (‘state reason’) required that all bodies and individuals within France should bow the knee, while even international powers such as the pope and the Holy Roman Emperor should acknowledge the superiority of the ruler’s political rights on French territory. Rulers by divine right, French monarchs were, as Henry IV noted, ‘sovereigns’ who ‘render account of their rule to God alone’.12

Part of the absolutist aura with which the Bourbons refurbished monarchical power was thus a dynastic claim to quasi-divinity. Again, this was not sheer invention on Louis XIV’s part, but rested on a doctrine of divine right whose origins were lost in the mists of the Middle Ages and which were ceremonially rooted in the coronations of French monarchs. The ancient coronation liturgy held close similarities to the consecration of a bishop: the king thereby became ‘bishop from without’ (évêque du dehors), and head of the French (or Gallican) church. As such, under terms agreed with the pope in the Concordat of Bologna in 1516 and then significantly enlarged by the Four Gallican Articles of 1682, he enjoyed wide powers over ecclesiastical affairs, including a virtual monopoly of appointment to major posts and benefices within the church. In addition, as a sign of God’s mission for the ‘Most Christian King’, he also received the grace of healing. Monarchs were anointed with the chrism, or consecrated oil, held to have been brought down from heaven by a dove at the conversion and baptism in 496 of Clovis, the Frankish king. Miraculously moist, the chrism was kept in an ampulla in Reims cathedral where the coronations of the kings of France were held. The sacred substance allegedly accorded the monarch thaumaturgic powers over the disease of scrofula, or the ‘King’s Evil’. The ‘Royal Touch’, accompanied by the words, ‘God cures you, the King touches you’ (‘Dieu te guérit, le Roi te touche’), sufficed to trigger the healing miracle.13 The presence of pathetic files of the scrofular waiting on the royal presence thus completed the coronation rituals – Louis XIV, for example, had nearly 3,000 such petitioners for the ‘Royal Touch’ following his coronation in 1654 – and it thereafter passed into the king’s ceremonial repertory, to be systematically practised and its representation widely propagated.

The range of prerogatives which the absolute, divine-right rulers of France laid claim to enjoy, untrammelled by the objections of their subjects and unimpeded by any other temporal power, included the right to make law (only the king passed general ordinances, and arbitrated matters of war and peace); to hold a monopoly of armed force; and to stand at the head of the administration of justice – a headship symbolized by the power to issue pardons over and above judicial process and to imprison at will, through sealed orders, known as lettres de cachet. These prerogatives were not, however, to be exercised arbitrarily. Bodin stated for example that the king’s ‘absolute’ authority was subject to the laws of God and nature.14 In the latter were grouped what Bodin referred to as ‘conventions’ and which from the late sixteenth century were increasingly referred to as ‘fundamental maxims’ or ‘fundamental laws’. There was no exhaustive or agreed list of these. Some were technical points about the succession: that the crown was hereditary, for example, accorded by primogeniture, and worn by a male and a Catholic. At the coronation, kings swore oaths which stressed the fundamental laws, including the upholding of justice, the maintenance of the church in its rights, the banishment of heresy and so on.

In the absence of the kind of written constitution which was to be introduced by the French Revolutionaries later in the century (before becoming the rule for all modern states), other fundamental laws were less legislative fiats than customs, practices and procedures, hallowed by time and embedded in ritual. Their flexibility and informality meant that they could be subject to varying interpretation. Indeed, political life consisted in the ways those practices and rituals were conducted and interpreted, and the claims which they appeared to justify and legitimate.

Though sovereignty was widely represented as being located indivisibly within the physical frame of the ruler, power was in practice very widely diffused within society. The idea of centralized and personalized legislative sovereignty which lay at the heart of the Bourbon polity was balanced by complicated patterns of collective participation. Since the Middle Ages, France had developed into a ‘society of orders’, that is, an environment in which a complex set of institutions and corporative bodies enjoyed distinct legal status. The state was sometimes figured as a body with the king as head and the other elements of the kingdom functionally disposed within the organism. At other times, it was represented as a kind of Great Chain of Being, a complex, vertically disposed hierarchy of bodies (corps) from high to low, each enjoying rights enshrined in ‘private laws’ (leges privatae, or ‘privileges’) endorsed by the crown. These corps might take the form of an ‘order’ or ‘estate’: society was traditionally divided into the clergy, the nobility and the ‘Third Estate’ (i.e. those not encompassed in the first two orders), each of which had its own privileges. Other corps included territorial units (provinces, towns, parishes), professional groupings (colleges of physicians or bodies of attorneys, for example), trade collectivities (such as guilds) or institutions (universities, hospitals, vestries, cathedral chapters, etc.). All of these had varying powers of self-regulation under the overall surveillance of the monarch. The clergy’s affairs, for example, were regulated by its Assembly of the Clergy, meeting quinquennially to deal with matters of common concern. Cities had their municipal assemblies, while many provinces – especially relative latecomers to the French state such as Brittany, incorporated from 1491 – retained provincial assemblies (or ‘estates’) of the three orders.

So thoroughgoing was the infiltration of collective rights within the polity that the bulk of the king’s own bureaucracy was formed of corporative bodies enjoying their own privileges. Thus there were, for example, bureaux of state financial officials within a particular tax constituency (or généralité), while bodies of magistrates were similarly viewed as constituting corps. Significantly, members’ rights included the possibility of treating these posts as their own private property. Under the system of venality of office which had developed in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, state servants purchased their posts, and in return for a small annual payment (the droit annuel or paulette) could sell them or bequeath them to their heirs like so many chunks of real estate. This secured the investment for the holder, but the system had political advantages for the state too: it ensured regular cash infusions into the royal treasury, while the emergence of a state patronage network reduced the scope for noble grandees developing private clienteles.

If with one hand the Bourbon monarchy reinforced and endorsed the corporatist mould of the ‘society of orders’, with the other it sought to strengthen its own powers within the corporatist realm. This entailed outright war against a diffuse tradition of political contractualism which in the past had periodically surfaced as counterweight to notions of centralized authority and indivisible sovereignty. A spasmodically convoked national parliament, the Estates General, comprising elected members of the clergy, nobility and Third Estate, had been in existence since 1302, a relic of the feudal duty of offering counsel to one’s lord. Another representative body, the Assembly of Notables, a grouping handpicked by the monarch and drawn from all three orders, had also occasionally been convoked at times of national emergency. The Parlement of Paris was another body which had often claimed a representative function in the past. There were around a dozen parlements plus around the same number of other such ‘sovereign courts’ (high courts of law) in existence,15 but none of the others had the importance of the Paris body, whose jurisdictional area covered half of the country. The Parisian parlementaires were individually amongst the most prestigious and wealthiest of the so-called ‘Robe’ nobility (noblesse de robe) who derived their status from royal service (in contrast to the ‘Sword’ nobility [noblesse d’épée] who had allegedly won their status by military prowess). Offices in the Parlement were among the most expensive venal offices on the market, and the institution’s primacy and representative claims were augmented by the fact that the dukes and peers of the realm could sit within it for important affairs of state – a practice which they followed particularly in the ceremonial assemblies known aslits de justice(‘beds of justice’) which the king convoked so as to make known his wishes on matters of state. The sovereign courts also customarily enjoyed the right of formally registering royal edicts. They were empowered to make remonstrances (remontrances) if they felt that royal legislation contravened the polity’s fundamental laws.

Attenuated forms of contractualism surfaced in ceremonial forms in various areas of public life. At his coronation, the ruler was customarily, after crowning, brought before the people crowded into the cathedral at Reims to seek their assent to their new monarch. A similar contractual note was struck in the entrée rituals accompanying the ceremonial entrance of the monarch within the walls of the kingdom’s cities. These pageant-like occasions were conventionally the moment at which local rights and privileges were given royal endorsement, and when the city fathers could petition at the foot of the throne. Ceremonial and rituals of less august kinds accompanied the ruler’s dealings with the whole myriad of self-regulating corporative bodies of every sort (provinces, towns, guilds, professional groupings, etc.) which claimed to represent the interests of their members. In the provinces, this was often done through the local provincial governor, the king’s personal nominee selected from the oldest Sword nobility.

The idea that the polity was constituted to allow the representation of interests by elected or nominated delegates thus boasted a genealogy which long pre-dated the advent of the Bourbon line. The latter waged unremitting war against it, from Henry IV’s reign, through the administrations of Louis XIII’s principal ministers, Cardinals Richelieu and Mazarin, from the 1620s to the 1660s, and then, even more spectacularly from 1661, at the hands of the Sun King. For the latter, contractualism recalled the wilder excesses of the Wars of Religion. He also believed that it had served as justification for treasonous revolt in the civil wars of the Fronde (1648–53), in which magistrates of the Paris Parlement joined with discontented princes to resist the sovereignty of the Regency Council headed by Mazarin. In one of the most infamous of the scurrilous anti-governmental pamphlets known as mazarinades which appeared at this time, the Contrat de manage du, the constitution was figured not as a marriage between king and nation but as a union between Parlement and the people of Paris – a thought far too radical for the parlementaires themselves to avow.16

The political culture developed by the Sun King firmly rejected such long-established and widely dispersed notions of representation. Instead, it stressed, as we have seen, the endless enactment of monarchical spectacle, through a cyclical and spectacular ‘re-presentation’ of the king’s sovereign body for the admiration of all who glimpsed it. Highly significant in this symbolic personalization of authority was Louis’s decision, following the death of Mazarin in 1661, not to appoint a successor but rather to rule as his own first minister. Henceforth, Louis sought his own counsel. His financial powers were to be untrammelled by corporative bodies: he alone had oversight and executive powers over all state expenses. He followed the examples of Richelieu and Mazarin in building up a central bureaucracy of ministers and secretaries of state rather than depending on the contractual processes of consultation and representation. In the provinces, too, he looked to a bureaucratically trained group of crown appointees, the Intendants, to counterbalance the centrifugal interests of provincial governors, venal officers and subaltern corporative groupings.

Representative claims by the cells of the corporative ‘society of orders’ were now brutally rejected. The Estates General was not convoked after 1614, the Assembly of Notables after 1626. Provincial estates either had their wings clipped or were simply not called: the estates of Dauphine and Normandy were suppressed in 1626 and 1666, for example, while those of Alsace met for the last time in 1683 and those of Franche-Comté in 1704. Municipal assemblies were brought much more closely under governmental tutelage. Urban entrée ceremonies went into vertiginous decline. Louis XIV was markedly less itinerant than his Renaissance forebears. The most notorious example of an entrée was his visit to Marseille in 1660 following the city’s revolt against his local representatives. The king ordered the city’s principal gate – over which was inscribed the word ‘Libertas’ – to be demolished and he entered the city through the resulting breach in the city’s defences. Rather than confirm and extend local privileges, as was customary in such entrée ceremonies, Louis ordered a massive state fortress to be built here as a reminder of a new scale of priorities. While municipal freedoms were eroded by royal military power, the representative claims of the Paris Parlement were handled pretty brutally too, especially after that body flirted with outright civil disobedience during the Fronde. Significantly, after 1665 parlements were forbidden from calling themselves ‘sovereign courts’ (they became ‘higher courts’ (cours supérieures)): there was henceforth only one person in the realm with a claim on sovereignty. From 1673, the right of parlements to remonstrate was reduced in significance (they could issue their remonstrances only after registering a law). The lit de justice became obsolete too – the laudatory Te Deum, celebrated in the physical absence of the ruler, increasingly took its place.

Symptomatic of the anti-contractualist shift in the political culture was the fact that Louis XIV’s coronation in 1654 had broken with ceremonial tradition in not allowing the common people a place in the nave of Reims cathedral. Though the doors of the cathedral were opened towards the end of the ceremony to allow the people in, this was only for them humbly to genuflect to the new sovereign – there was now no question of their being asked for their assent or being present throughout the ceremony. Breaking with tradition too, Louis refused to agree to a coronation entrée into Paris, whose Frondeur sensibilities he still distrusted. The ceremonial culture of Louis XIV was designed to keep the people – as indeed everyone else – firmly in their place, beneath the divinely ordained and personalized sovereignty of their absolute monarch.

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at Thank you!