1 pages essay


French History

Section 3: From Absolutism to Revolution (17th-18th centuries)


In this section we begin with the reign of Henri IV, whose assassination in 1610 ushered in the era of Cardinal Richelieu, the clergyman and statesman instrumental in laying the foundations of the absolute state as a young Louis XIII prepared to rule. This work continued under Mazarin, culminating during the reign of Louis XIV, the Sun King, builder of Versailles, whose personality and court gave rise to the Classical Age of France and its reputation forgrandeur. Just a little over one hundred eighty years later during the "Age of Enlightenment," the great king's grandson Louis XVI and queen Marie Antoinette would lose their heads to the guillotine, marking the end of the Ancien Régime and a new era for France and her colonies.

Key terms and concepts: Grandeur, Absolute State, Richelieu and the French Academy (L'Académie Française), Louis XIV (the Sun King), Palace of Versailles, Colbert, the Enlightenment, the French Revolution, the Reign of Terror, Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen

Table of Contents:

· Chapter 4:  Grandeur  is better  (Sixty Million Frenchmen Can't Be Wrong, pp. 47-59)

· Cardinal de Richelieu and the Foundations of the Absolute State

· Louis XIV, The Sun King (1643-1715)

· The Regency and Monarchy of Louis XV (1715-1774)

· Louis XVI and the French Revolution (1774-1792)

· Sources

Objectives for this section :

After completing the following readings, see if you are able to do these things:

· Define grandeur and say how it informs the French mind-set.

· Identify and describe two examples of the French love of power.

· Cite historical factors that contributed to rise of absolutism in France that established the basis for the French appreciation of grandeur.

· Describe how the French grant privilege and prerogative to a person holding an average job such as a nurse, police officer or teacher.

· Compare the French reaction to Bill Clinton's affair with Monica Lewinsky to their former president Mitterrand's long-term extramarital relationship.

Chapter 4: Grandeur is better (Sixty Million Frenchmen Can't Be Wrong, pp. 47-59)

Study Questions:

· What might explain the French love of pomp or grandeur even though they haven't had a king for over 100 years?

·  Name two structures France has created and maintained that show its love of bestowing distinction and honor on its great ones?

· Is there something inherently contradictory about describing a country as a "democracy of aristocrats"?

· In a poll taken a few years ago, most French people would not have chosen to send Louis XVI to the guillotine. Do you think sparing the king and queen's life would have changed the course of French history?

In Chapter 4, N-B explore the much sought-after, socially-accepted value of grandeur, which is a difficult concept to translate because of the social, intellectual, and moral connotations it holds for the French. Belonging to an elite group in France is a call to responsibility, in the same way as the proverb "Noblesse oblige" held the aristocrats to their duties. It makes for a democracy in which the paths to power might be constructed somewhat differently than in North American societies.

Cardinal de Richelieu (1585-1642) and the Foundations of the Absolute State

France's return to war on behalf of Protestants was a very unpopular idea. Although Henri IV helped to pacify France during his reign, he was nevertheless assassinated in 1610 by Ravillac, a man whom some considered mad and who was motivated by the horror of any compromise with the Huguenots.

 (Links to an external site.)Links to an external site.

 (Links to an external site.)Links to an external site.,Ravillac

 Ravillac's assassination of Henri IV

Henri IV's son, Louis XIII, was only 8 years old when he became king of France, so it fell to his mother Marie de Médici to serve as regent, meaning she would assume his duties until he came of age. The queen mother governed with the help of her sister's husband Concini, who shared power with the prince of Condé. (Links to an external site.)Links to an external site.


Marie de Médici




        Cocini                                        Condé

Free spending depleted the treasury by the time Louis XIII reached the age of 14 and was declared old enough to rule. Condé was so dangerous that he was imprisoned in the Bastille. Meanwhile, Marie de Médici went to reside in Blois. During her absence, Concini was killed in a plot led by the young king's falconer. When she returned to Paris, she managed to have her confidant, Cardinal Richelieu (Links to an external site.)Links to an external site., admitted to her son's council. Although Louis XIII (Links to an external site.)Links to an external site. never fully trusted Richelieu, his poor health and weaknesses forced him to rely on this ambitious man to run the affairs of state as his prime minister. This he did with an iron will and according to a point-by-point program that he presented to his master. A strategic genius with no close friends save the Capuchin monkFather Joseph du Tremblay (Links to an external site.)Links to an external site. , (Links to an external site.)Links to an external site.who might have been the only friend he needed for the many tasks he faced), Richelieu set out to accomplish his greatest challenge: to build the foundation for the absolute state that was to become the intellectual and artistic center of Europe. 

Father Joseph du Tremblay     Cardinal de Richelieu      King Louis XIII


For this purpose, he founded the French Academy  Dictionary of the French Academy

in 1635, whose purpose was to elevate the prestige of the French language. 


It also fell to Richelieu to craft France's policy against Spain and the German emperor during the Thirty Years' War (1618-1648) which had broken out among the lands of Germany's Holy Roman Empire. Weakening the House of Austria meant weakening the Protestants, which was certainly a move towards absolutism in the kingdom. In the meantime, it was up to Louis XIII to produce an heir to the throne with his queen, Anne of Austria (Links to an external site.)Links to an external site., eldest daughter of the king of Spain whom he married in 1615. Although it took many years, on September 5, 1638, a dauphin was born who was to become King Louis XIV. The period of Louis XIII's reign is the setting for the famous novel and films of Alexandre Dumas, The Three Musketeers.

Anne of Austria, mother of Louis XIV



Louis XIV, The Sun King (1638-1715 / reign 1643-1715)

Louis XIV (Links to an external site.)Links to an external site.  Louis XIV was less than 5 years old when his father died in 1643. Until he was old enough to become king, Anne selected Richelieu's former confidant,Cardinal Mazarin (Links to an external site.)Links to an external site. to serve as the king's council during her regency.  (Links to an external site.)Links to an external site.

, Cardinal de Mazarin

 A Sicilian by birth, Mazarin was handsome, charming and although he served in the papal army he did not join the priesthood. He became very close to Anne after her husband's death and together they ruled France, enduring a series of struggles with the Parliament and the nobles known as the Frondes. These outbreaks inflicted unnecessary suffering on the people, making them increasingly receptive to forms of absolute monarchy. As Louis XIV matured, he studied Machiavelli's The Prince.

 Machiavelli's The Prince

This volume was his constant companion and gave him ideas for the foundation of the absolute state. Some of the basic principles of absolutism include: divine right of the king to rule; certain measures of independence of the Gallican Church from Rome; and limits on the powers of the nobility, clergy, and  parliamentary (known as the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd estates).


When Mazarin died in 1661, Louis ascended to the throne. During his long reign which lasted from1643-1715, France became the dominant power in Europe. Louis had an innate sense of power which he drew upon and cultivated as he developed the monarchy and gathered his court around him, eventually building the opulent Palace of Versailles (Links to an external site.)Links to an external site. where he could be properly venerated.   (Links to an external site.)Links to an external site.

                        Versailles - Grand Palais                                                                 Hall of Mirrors Many contributed their talents to the glory of the Sun King: formal gardens by André Le Nôtre, architecture  by Louis Le Vau and Jules Hardouin-Mansart, paintings and  interior decoration by Charles Le Brun, tapestries by the Gobelins of Paris, music by the Italian Jean-Baptiste Lully,  theater by  Molière, andRacine. These Classical celebrities and many others were granted royal pensions to create and perform great works for the pleasure of the king and his court.

The wealth and stability of Louis XIV's administration was the result of policies put in place by Jean-Baptiste Colbert (1661-1683).

 Jean-Baptiste Colbert

Continuing the work of Richelieu, he founded academies that encouraged excellence in artistic and intellectual domains in France. Until 1672, Colbert managed to balance expenses and receipts. But endless wars over territorial expansion, the lavishness of the court, and construction costs exceeded the normal revenues of the kingdom, leaving Colbert no choice but to return to borrowing and to selling offices. War brought further territorial gains (Artois and western Flanders and the free county of Burgundy, left to the Holy Roman Empire in 1482), but at the cost of the increasingly concerted opposition of rival powers.

During Louis XIV's reign, France expanded its maritime activities with the founding of the French East India Company in 1664. This was also the age of exploration on the American continent. Joliet and Marquette sailed down the Mississippi (1673) and Robert Cavelier de la Salle claimed the territory around the river's delta and named it Louisiana in honor of the king (1682), the same year the court made its move from Paris to Versailles. 

Jotiet and Marquette

Following the seizure of the (then separate) English, Irish and Scottish thrones by the Dutch prince William of Orange in 1688, the anti-French "Grand Alliance" of 1689 inaugurated more than a century of intermittent European conflict in which Britain would play an ever more important role, seeking in particular to keep France out of the Netherlands (the Dutch provinces and the future Belgium, then under Spanish rule).


After the war of 1689-1697 by which France gained Haiti (lost to a slave revolt a century later), the War of the Spanish Succession (1701-1713) ended with the undoing of Louis's dreams of a Franco-Spanish Bourbon empire. These two conflicts strained French resources already weakened by disastrous harvests in the 1690s and in 1709.  These factors together with the revocation of the Edict of Nantes (1685) and the consequent loss of Huguenot support and manpower contributed to the difficult circumstances Louis XIV's successors would inherit.


The Regency and Monarchy of Louis XV (1710-1774 / reign 1715-1774)

King Louis XV

After the death of Louis XIV, the regency of the kingdom passed to his nephew Philippe II, duke of Orléans, a 41-year old cultivated but lazy prince utterly lacking in morals who was to govern until the five-year-old great-grand-son of Louis XIV was old enough to assume his role as king. The court abandoned Versailles for Paris and the great nobles who had been held in check by Louis XIV thought their time to return to power had arrived when the new regent replaced the ministers with councils of upper nobility known as the Polysynody.  But the regent soon realized their inefficiency as well as the danger of disobedience by the Parliament of Paris, which had rediscovered its right of remonstrance in 1715 and was using it to paralyze the government. The regent returned to the absolute, authoritarian style of governing established by Louis XIV, summarily judging and sending into exile those who interfered.

Compared to the Age of the Sun King, the reign Louis XV  (the Well-Loved) saw an initial return to peace and prosperity under the regency (1715-1723) of Philippe II, duke of Orleans, whose policies were largely continued (1726-1743) by Cardinal Fleury prime minister in all but name.

, Cardinal Fleury

But alliance with the traditional Habsburg enemy (the "Diplomatic Revolution" of 1756 against the rising power of Britain and Prussia) led to costly failure in the Seven Years' War (Links to an external site.)Links to an external site. (1756-1763), which North Americans know as the French and Indian War. Louis XV is said to have so prophesied: "After us, the deluge." He well knew that a strong undercurrent of antimonarchism was building in France, yet he was unable to do anything to offset it. Some of the processes had already been set in motion earlier in the century by efforts to bring more wealth to France and especially to the royal coffers by exploiting the riches of the colonies.

During the regency, a Scot named John Law introduced the first private bank, which made its payments in notes that were redeemable on demand.  By 1717, these banknotes could be used to make payments to and by the state treasury. In due time Law's bank became a "royal bank"  with John Law in the position of controller general of finances issuing paper notes as legal tender. This great innovation was used to raise capital that could promote large-scale enterprises such as the Western or Mississippi Company, which he created to develop the Louisiana Territory.  Eventually Law was able to buy out and merge existing trading companies into a single overarching firm he named the East India Company, which was granted a monopoly on the coining of money, the sale of salt and tobacco, as well as on the collection of various indirect taxes. Thrilled by the prospect of huge profits, the public flocked to buy shares and invest savings, sometimes incurring debt in hopes of getting rich quick. When the bottom fell out of this market of overvalued shares, investors appeared at the cashiers' windows demanding gold and silver for their notes. But the number of notes in circulation was five or six times the total of cash specie available in France--so John Law fled to the Netherlands and the regent ordered the bank closed.  As De Sauvigny and Pinkney point out, this incident had important consequences. First, the French public became wary and hostile towards credit institutions and paper money, which are the mainstays of modern economies. (pp. 180-181).  Second, and more important for the short term, French people  lost respect for royal authority, which led France one step close to the Revolution of 1789.



Louis XVI and the French Revolution (1754-1793 / reign 1774-1792)                                                                                King Louis XVI

Louis XVI's reign (1774-1792) saw a temporary revival of French fortunes through intervention (1778-1783) in support of Britain's rebel American colonies. But the over-ambitious projects and military campaigns of the past century had produced chronic financial problems. Deteriorating economic conditions, popular resentment against the complicated system of privileges granted to the nobility and clerics, and a lack of alternate avenues for change were among the principal causes of the French Revolution.

In addition to the economic conditions, the 18th century's Enlightenment had produced intellectuals known as philosophes such as Voltaire, Montesquieu, Diderot, and Rousseau whose writings laid open many of the contradictions and injustices inherent in the principles of the old regime and absolutism. As liberal ideas commingled with scientific discoveries in the salons and academies of Paris, intellectuals promoted Deism as a form of religion that would accommodate the increasing sense of responsibility for the conditions facing society. These conditions were indeed dire. According to Richard Hooker, "by 1789, over 80 percent of an average peasant's household income went to purchasing bread alone -- just bread. In that same year, unemployment in many parts of France was over 50%." The following is a list of the basic causes of the French Revolution (Links to an external site.)Links to an external site.:

         Resentment of royal absolutism

         Resentment of the seigneurial system by peasants, wage-earners, and a rising bourgeoisie

         The rise of enlightenment ideals

         An unmanageable national debt, both caused by and exacerbating the burden of a grossly inequitable system of taxation

         Food scarcity in the years immediately before the revolution

It's precisely these conditions that brought on a crisis leading to the social turmoil that triggered the Revolution. On July 14th, a Parisian mob revolted and stormed the Bastille prison, symbol of the old regime. A few weeks later, the revolutionaries enacted the Declaration of the Rights of Man (Links to an external site.)Links to an external site. which embodied the principles of Liberté, Egalité, and Fraternité (Freedom, Equality, Fraternity) and which had far-reaching consequences for all the other European monarchies. The colors of the French flag adopted by the revolutionaries were those of Paris: red and blue, to which the Marquis de La Fayette added white, the color of French royalty, to form the Tricolor--le Tricolore-- which Louis XVI was ordered to fly three days after the fall of the Bastille.


During the following decade France saw a succession of rivaling regimes which guillotined Louis XVI, Queen Marie Antoinette, and scores of moderates as well as radicals at the Place de la Revolution, now known as Place de la Concorde. (Links to an external site.)Links to an external site.

                King Louis XVI                  Queen Marie Antoinette


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                The Guillotine                      Robespierre

The "Reign of Terror" headed by Robespierre and his Committee of Public Safety (Links to an external site.)Links to an external site. brought turmoil, confusion, and anarchy to France.

For a short summary of the French Revolution in song and images watch the video by Jeff Lewis.The French Revolution (Links to an external site.)Links to an external site. https://ilearn.laccd.edu/images/play_overlay.png.


Sauvigny, Bertier de and David H. Pinkney. History of France. Forum Press, 1983 Mermier, Guy R.  France: Past and Present.  Peter Lang, 2000.