How absolute was the 'absolute' monarchy of Louis XIV?
The image of Louis XIV is traditionally one of an absolute monarch. His rule was accepted by the nobility and people of France because of their belief in his divine right to rule. Surely this was an absolute monarch in the fullest sense of the word - this is, after all, the man who supposedly 'domesticated' the nobility at Versailles, had immense wealth at his disposal and commanded the mightiest army in Europe.
Recent historiography has challenged this picture, however. First of all, what is to be meant by the term 'absolute monarchy'? Perhaps the image that comes to mind is a kind of seventeenth century version of a twentieth century totalitarian state. The monarch is absolute, in other words, there are no limits to his power, and thus he can control the whole society. However, this is obviously anachronistic. There was no way that Louis XIV could control France in the manner that Hitler could control Germany. France was way too fragmented for that, the provinces had way too much autonomy. France was not a modern state.
Indeed, it was not even considered to be the king's business to interfere extensively in the day-to-day lives of the different regions of the country. The king's concerns were mainly foreign policy, diplomacy, defence of the kingdom and war. The king's powers were absolute only in these areas. To be sure, there were some staunch supporters of the monarchy who wished to extend the king's powers into other areas, but even they did not assert that there were no limits to his powers. Perhaps the major attempt to assert more control in domestic policy, the system of the intendants, was mostly just used to spy on regional officials in order to limit corruption. It is clear from Colbert's letters to the intendants that there were strict limits to their jurisdiction. Thus, even though a new level of bureaucracy was thus imposed on the provinces, this hardly amounted to a revolutionary centralization of power in France.
Indeed, the doctrine of divine right implied some limitations in itself. The belief that power was given to Louis by God meant that he was responsible for his actions to God. This might not seem to mean much in this life, since there was no higher authority than the king, but it did imply that even though the monarchy was absolute, it should not be arbitrary. As Dr. Smith pointed out, however, the caveat was that the king was his own judge. Even if his government was arbitrary, nobody had the authority to criticize him. This should not detract from the fact that Louis was expected to act with restraint, and indeed wanted to avoid the impression of arbitrary government.
The other significant limitation on Louis XIV's power was economic. His expenditure on both war and the lavish court life at Versailles was phenomenal. Even though France was a relatively wealthy country, there was no way that it could afford to pay for all this. The monarchy therefore resorted to selling government offices and lending money. Even so, at the end of Louis's reign, France was on the brink of bankruptcy. Dr. Smith pointed out that it was much more difficult for an 'absolute' ruler such as Louis to borrow money than, for example, the constitutional monarchy of England, whose government had a representative element. This was because, the king being his own judge, there was no guarantee he would pay his debts. Therefore money was lent to France at much higher interest rates than to its rivals England and the Netherlands.
It seems obvious that the conventional notion of Louis XIV's reign as an age of absolute monarchy is inadequate. It is marred by an anachronism, since total control of a society was only achievable by the bureaucratic state of the twentieth century. Stalin might be an example of an absolute ruler, Louis XIV is not. He did have ultimate say in questions of foreign policy and diplomacy, but in all things his conduct was restricted by the requirement of avoiding arbitrary government, and he could not impose his will on the largely autonomous provinces of France. Perhaps most importantly, he did not have an inexhaustible source of income. However great the splendour of Versailles and however successful the French military was at times, Louis's position had essential weaknesses.
Burke, Peter, The Fabrication of Louis XIV
(New Haven, 1994)
Campbell, Peter, Louis XIV 1661-1715
(New York, 1993)
Duindam, Jeroen, Myths of Power: Norbert Elias and the Early Modern European Court
Mettam, Roger, Power and Faction in Louis XIV’s France
Rowen, Herbert, 'Louis XIV and Absolutism' in C.Rule, John (ed.), Louis XIV and the Craft of Kingship
Smith, Simon, seminar on Louis XIV
(Department of History, University of York, 2004)
Based on my notes for a seminar (and the actual seminar) on Louis XIV at the University of York.