The much admired and imitated French state, of which Versailles was the symbol and Louis XIV the embodiment, is also the best historical example of divine-right monarchy. Perhaps Louis never actually said, “Letat c’est moi” (I am the state), but the phrase clearly summarizes his convictions about his role. In theory, Louis was the representative of God on earth—or at least in France.
He was not elected by the French, nor did he acquire his throne by force of arms; rather, he was born to a position God had planned for the legitimate male heir of Hugh Capet, who had been king of France in the tenth century. As God’s agent his word was final, for to challenge it would be to challenge the structure of God’s universe; disobedience was a religious as well as a political offense. Thus the origins of divine right were a logical extension of Gallicanism.
In some ways the theory that justified divine- right monarchy looked back to the Middle Ages, to the view that right decisions in government are not arrived at by experiment and discussion but by “finding” the authoritative answer provided for in God’s scheme of things. In other ways the theory was “modern” or forward looking, in that it derived from expectations about national loyalties and the growth of a sense of nationalism. Henry IV, Richelieu, and Louis XIV sought to fuse the 16 million inhabitants of France into a single national unit.
The problem was to make these millions think of themselves as French and not as Normans, Bretons, Flemings, Alsatians, Burgundians, Gascons, Basques, and Provencaux. The makers of the Bourbon monarchs’ could not rely on a common language, for only a minority spoke the standardized French that the French Academy tried to foster. Nor could they rely on a common education, a common national press, or a common participation in political life. They could, and did, attempt to set the king up as the symbol of common Frenchness. The king collected taxes, raised armies, and touched the lives of his subjects in a hundred ways. The French had to believe that the king had a right to do all this, and that he was doing it for them rather than to them.
Divine-right monarchy, with its corollary of unquestioning obedience on the part of subjects, was thus one ingredient in the growth of the modern centralized nation-state. It was an institution that appealed to old theological ideas, such as the biblical admonition to obey the powers that be, for “the powers that be are ordained of God.” But it was also inspired by the newer ideas of binding people together in a productive, efficient, and secure state.
Naturally, in practice the institution did not wholly correspond to theories about it. Louis XIV was not the French state, and his rule was not absolute in any true sense of that word. He simply did not have the physical means to control in detail everything his subjects did; but his policies could touch their daily lives by bringing relative prosperity or hardship, peace or war. And Louis XIV could endeavor, in the majesty of his person, to act out the theories of those, like Bishop Jacques Bossuet (1627-1704), who provided the intellectual foundations for a universal history that justified divine-right arguments.
Increasingly, the chief opposition to such ideas came not from the various faiths but from the feudal nobles, so that in both France and England the seventeenth century brought a crisis to the aristocracy. The degree to which the nobility was integrated into the new state machinery was of crucial importance in the development of modern Europe. In Habsburg Spain and in the Habsburg lands of central Europe the old nobility generally accepted the new strength of the Crown but maintained many of their privileges and all of their old pride of status.
In Prussia they were more successfully integrated into the new order, becoming servants of the Crown, yet with a social status that set them well above bourgeois bureaucrats. In England the nobility achieved a unique compromise with the Crown. In France the nobles of the sword were deprived of most major political functions, but they were allowed to retain social and economic privileges and important roles as officers in the king’s army.
The process of reducing the old French nobility to relative powerlessness in national political life had begun as early as the twelfth century and had been much hastened by the religious and civil wars of the sixteenth century. An important part of the nobility, perhaps nearly half, had become Protestant, in large part from sheer opposition to the Crown. The victory of Henry IV, purchased by his conversion to Catholicism, was a defeat for the nobility.
Under Richelieu and Louis XIV the process was completed by the increasing use of commoners to run the government, from the great ministers of state, through the intendants, down to local administrators and judges. These commoners were usually elevated to the nobility of the robe, which did not at first have the social prestige of the nobility of the sword. But the Fronde had shown that these new nobles could not be counted upon as loyal supporters of the Crown, and among the old nobles they aroused contemptuous envy. Though at times the nobles were able to work together, they posed no long-term threat to the Crown.
Nor did the church. Under Louis XIV the French clergy continued to possess important privileges; they were not subject to royal taxation; they contributed a voluntary grant of money that they voted in their own assembly. Carefully the Crown fostered the evolution of a national Gallican church, firmly Catholic though controlled by the monarchy. The Gallican union of throne and altar reached a high point in 1682, when an assembly of French clerics drew up the Declaration of Gallican Liberties, asserting in effect that the “rules and customs admitted by France and the Gallican church” were just as important as the traditional authority of the papacy. Louis XIV thereupon took as the goal of his religious policy the application of a French motto—un roi, tine loi, une foi (one king, one law, one faith).
Where Richelieu had attacked only the political privileges of the Huguenots, Louis attacked their fundamental right of toleration and finally revoked the Edict of Nantes in 1685. Fifty thousand Huguenot families fled abroad, notably to Prussia, Holland, the Dutch colony in southern Africa, England, and British North America. The practical skills and the intellectual abilities of the refugees strengthened the lands that received them, and the departure of industrious workers and thousands of veteran sailors, soldiers, and officers weakened France. Some Huguenots remained in France, worshiping secretly despite persecution.
Within the Catholic church itself, Louis had to contend with rwo important elements that refused to accept Gallicanism. Both groups saw themselves as countering the Counter-Reformation while remaining within the Catholic church. The Quietists, a group of religious enthusiasts led by Madame Jeanne Marie Guyon (1648– 1717), sought a more mystical and emotional faith and believed in direct inspiration from God and perfect union with him, so that a priesthood was not needed; but their tendency to exhibitionism and self-righteousness, and their zeal for publicity, belied their name and offended the king’s sense of propriety.
The Jansenists, sometimes called the Puritans of the Catholic church, were a high- minded group whose most distinguished spokesman was the scientist and philosopher Blaise Pascal (1622-1662). Named for Cornelius Jansen (1585-1638), bishop of Ypres, the Jansenists took an almost Calvinistic stand on predestination.
They stressed the need to obey God rather than man, no matter how exalted the position of the particular man might be. They therefore questioned the authority of both king and pope, and attacked the pope’s agents, the Jesuits. On the surface, Louis repressed both Quietists and Jansenists, but the latter survived two papal bulls of condemnation (1705, 1713) to trouble his successors in the eighteenth century.