Modern history


Louis XIV had thus shifted the workings of the French state in directions which extended royal power at the expense of the practices and the very principle of collective representation. Yet despite the flexing of absolutist muscles, Louis XIV’s assault on shared forms of representation was emphatically not an attack on the corporative nature of the polity as a whole. Nor could it be. Louis took absolutist propaganda less at face value than his propagandists (and many of his historians). His relations with his nobility demonstrate a keen awareness that, although corporatism and privilege inhibited his power and made his political tasks more difficult, they also constituted the bedrock of the Bourbon polity.

The demise of contractual theory and the decline in autonomous notions of representation posed a major threat to the high nobility, which traditionally claimed to represent the best interests of the state, the sanior pars of the political community. High nobles regarded themselves as the monarch’s natural counsellors; they, along with the provincial noblemen who were often their clients, dominated the proceedings of estates, both national and provincial; and they vaunted their right – even their solemn duty – to rebel if they felt that the constitution was not being properly upheld, and if the monarch seemed the prisoner of ‘evil counsellors’. In the early seventeenth century, noble grandees had been heavily involved in popular turbulence protesting against the policies of state centralization and higher taxes introduced by Cardinal Richelieu. The nobility’s objectives, up to and including the Fronde, were to resist state centralization, to oppose the system of ministers and Intendants, and to seek also to protect and further their interests by attaining high posts as of right in the Royal Council. The crown’s wish to keep the papacy out of French politics also produced something of a religious backlash, and noble opposition to the imperatives of raison d’état often had a strong dévot (‘devout’, ‘godly’) coloration, and urged the need for a strong Catholic orientation to state policy.

Louis XIV’s decision in 1661 to rule without a principal minister and in his own name alone was of crucial importance in changing not only the character of politics but also the grounds for opposition. It placed the royal person unequivocally at the apex of the governmental pyramid, making the rhetorical ploy of ‘rescuing’ the ruler from ‘evil’ ministers difficult to sustain. Princes of the Blood Royal (that is, direct male descendants of Henri IV), mighty generals and leading dukes and peers who had sat almost ex officioon the royal council were now ejected, as the king sought advice instead from career bureaucrats, drawn from less prestigious sectors of the nobility. The key officials were the secretaries of state, who divided government into functional ministries of War, Navy, Royal Household (Maison du Roi) and Foreign Affairs. Prior to the mid-seventeenth century, the most important royal official had been the Chancellor, who headed the judiciary. Sign of the times, he no longer sat on the highest councils as of right, and ceded ministerial pre-eminence to the so-called Controller-General of Finances (Contrôleur-général des Finances), effectively a fifth secretary of state, who combined stewardship of royal finances with overall policing functions.

The high nobility had thus to accept the destruction of their role in state policy-making, and to learn to live with the growth of the state bureaucracy, in the centre and the peripheries. In this work of adaptation, the Versailles court played a key role. The highest nobility were pressurized into being semi-permanently present at court and participating in the ceremonial round. The cascade of favours, pensions, titles and gratifications which the king rained down on dutiful courtiers made it impossible for any aristocrat wishing to live up to the level of his status not to be present, hand outstretched. This domestication of high nobles increasingly cut them off from making a military threat out of their provincial clientage networks – a process in which the concomitant growth of the ruler’s standing army and the levelling of château fortifications also played a part. In any case, the worldly and (down to the 168os at least) entertaining culture of the court had a growing appeal for nobles who seemed eager to abandon the standard of revolt for the mundane civilities of the court round. At the close of the Fronde the rebellious prince de Condé – ‘Le Grand Condé’ Prince of the Blood and the most brilliant general of his generation – had joined the Spanish side in their war against France. Yet he was subsequently pardoned these earlier treasons, and ended his life a placable courtier at Versailles, paddling contentedly around the lakes of the royal gardens in a rowing-boat. The bellicose, provincially rooted warrior noble of yore was becoming the polished and urbane courtier loyally respecting the whims of his monarch.

Louis XIV’s bringing the high nobility to heel did not, however, entail removing them from the ambit of power, nor did it involve an all-out assault on their collective privileges. An attack on privilege would have been tantamount to an assault on property, which rulers swore to uphold in their coronation oath. Such a step would have been viewed as withdrawing the life-blood of the body politic, and exhibiting a form of ‘tyrannical’ behaviour that no king, however putatively ‘absolute’, could contemplate. Louis XIV felt at home among his courtiers (‘I have lived amongst the people of my court,’ he remarked in his final illness. ‘I wish to die among them’)17 – and those courtiers were nobles. He prided himself on being ‘premier gentleman’ of the kingdom, as fully integrated as they into the feudal nexus, under which they owed him homage. He regarded military service, the vocation of the old nobility, as the most elevated form of service, and the basis of his quest for la gloire. Far from marking a period of noble decline, Louis’s reign offered the nobility a fresh range of challenges and opportunities – and the basis for a new partnership at the helm of the ship of state.

Nobles at all levels proved eager to accept the opportunities for royal service offered them in return for the loss of their political autonomy. The fact that the most senior figures in government were taken less exclusively than before from the highest aristocracy should not obscure the fact that the pool of trained officers and administrative personnel of which government was composed was solidly noble. Crusty old dukes like Saint-Simon who bitterly indicted Louis XIV for following the example of his predecessor and spurning the high aristocracy in favour of a governing class of ‘people of lowly extraction’ and ‘social nothings’18 were well wide of the mark: eminent royal servants – in the army, the church, the royal Household, the diplomatic corps – were nobles almost to a man. Among the grandees, energies which earlier had been used in a variety of ways at local level were now more focused on jockeying for place and power in the minefield of rank and precedence that was Versailles. High court-based nobles acted as conduits for requests for places and pensions from middling and lesser ‘unpresented’ nobles in the provinces. Many of these had resented royal inquiries established after 1668 to scrutinize the credentials of provincial nobles. Yet although this largely fiscal measure (loss of noble status entailed tax eligibility) brought about some thinning in numbers, it also strengthened their sense of difference from the rest of the population, and contributed towards a growing corporative consciousness amongst the nobility.

Significantly, the imposition of royal tax policies in the provinces often took the form of a financial deal with the provincial nobility. Analysing royal fiscal policy in Languedoc, historian William Beik has estimated that one-third of state taxes raised in the province went into the pockets of the local elite. Moreover, if the king’s theoretical share was roughly two-thirds, he only actually took out of the province roughly half the tax yield, the remainder remaining in the province and being widely disbursed to the advantage of the local elite.19 Languedocian nobles also demonstrated great energy in seizing the chance to get engaged in local business enterprises enjoying royal support. It was largely local capital, for example, which financed the building of the Canal des Deux-Mers linking the Garonne river basin with the Mediterranean from the 1680s.

Critical in bringing about this new sense of collaboration between the state and its nobility were the provincial Intendants. Hyper-loyal observers and managers enjoying the unqualified support of the king, they finessed the extension of royal prerogatives rather than imposed them willy-nilly on recalcitrant provincial society. Sheer force of numbers obliged cooperation if the king wanted to get anything done: there were maybe 45–50,000 venal officers and maybe twice as many nobles at the height of Louis XIV’s monarchy – and a mere thirty Intendants. Lamoignon de Basville, Intendant of Languedoc from 1685 to 1718, knew how to be tough on the king’s business – he was the brutal scourge of local Protestants, for example – but he also recognized the critical importance of cooperating with provincial governors drawn from the older Sword families, and working hand-in-hand with the noble-dominated provincial estates.

Furthermore, although Louis made a show of separating out the hierarchy of the court – in which the most ancient noble houses were most heavily represented – from the administrative hierarchy, the two worlds were never hermetically sealed one from the other. After all, both the court and the state’s administrative apparatus – with the monarch himself at the apex of both – were located at Versailles. The king had his secretaries of state and his ministers for state business – but he also took advice from sagacious courtiers, including the Princes of the Blood. The Royal Councils were physically located at the centre of the court and the bureaux of government departments were only a stone’s throw from the Hall of Mirrors. The tidy symmetry of state bureaucracy was subverted by the ubiquity of countervailing networks of clientage and patronage.

This intertwining of the worlds of court and government is confirmed in networks of influence and power established by key families in Louis’s service. Jean-Baptiste Colbert, for example, Louis’s great ministerial factotum from 1661 to 1683, used his place at the heart of government to extend the influence of his family across the whole remit of the state’s activities: male relatives became ministers, bishops and generals, magistrates and Intendants, while daughters were married into high court families. Much the same was true of the Phélypeaux clan, which formed two ministerial dynasties (the La Vrillière and Pontchartrain families), which supplied royal secretaries of state from the early seventeenth to the late eighteenth centuries, spanning the worlds of court, administration, high magistracy and high finance. The clientage networks which courtiers and high administrators built up also generally crossed the Robe-Sword divide.

Rather than acting corrosively on privilege and corporatism, therefore, Louis XIV’s system of government aimed primarily to reorder the functions of corporative bodies, and to integrate them more closely within the polity. The result was a Bourbon state which was a political amalgam. For all its inventiveness as regards ceremonial court culture, the crown also drew heavily on pre-existent traditions within French political culture, adding to as well as subtracting elements from what was already a complex picture. Absolutist theory allowed no space for the idea that parts of the body politic could claim some portion of sovereignty – but Louis XIV knew only too well that authority had to be negotiated all the same. His mythic present was built on the foundations of patronage, clientage and a spirit of resigned collaboration with the quotidian facts of corporatism.

If Louis submerged a wide range of elements within French political culture inimical to the theory and practices of absolutism, he failed to liquidate them. His claims to embody sovereignty did not rule out the nobility from making a contribution to the more mundane realities of power – nor indeed did those claims ever totally efface competing interpretations of legitimacy and sovereignty. The contractualism which had formerly been implicit within corporatism appeared to have gone – but it was not forgotten. Indeed, by encouraging a growing sense of corporative consciousness amongst the nobility in particular, Louis’s reforms promoted the political ambitions of some of those who served him. The corporative structure of the state was, moreover, a highly appropriate location in which alternative views could hibernate – and then make a comeback. In the final years of Louis’s reign, signs began to appear that a long period of hibernation was coming to an end, and that a wide array of individuals and groupings were starting to rethink political culture for a post-Louis XIV era.

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