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Absolutism and Constitutionalism in Europe


Main Ideas

Divine Right Theory- The idea that the monarch ruled because of the will of god.  In other words god placed the monarch as king of a given country.

Absolute Monarchy- The idea that the monarch has absolute power over his/her country.  They control every aspect of life from law making to religion.  They created new state bureaucracies and standing armies, regulated all the institutions of government and secured the cooperation of the nobility.

Constitutionalism-This was the idea that the monarch does not have absolute power.  There are checks on the monarch that limits his power.  The people, some form of parliament, or the nobility makes these checks. Also there is a constitution that grants certain rights and freedoms to the people.  England developed a constitutionalist state, while the rest of Europe developed a strong absolute state of monarchy.


Key People

  1. Louis XIV- also known as the “sun king” was a Catholic who believed that God had made him king. Louis was the king of France.  When Louis was little he was caught in the middle of a rebellion started by the nobility known as the Fronde.  Louis was never able to trust the nobility because of this.  Therefore he created the court at Versailles to watch over the nobility and to centralize the government.  Louis was able to awe his subjects and foreign powers with Versailles.  It wasn’t just a palace but a device to undermine the power of the aristocracy.  Louis also revoked the Edict of Nantes, which gave toleration to Protestants living in France.  This was a mistake because it drove many French Protestants out of the country.  France lost a valuable middle class.  Louis was also able to create a bureaucracy with the formation of the office of intendant, which employed individuals to collect taxes on behalf of the monarch.  Louis fought many wars for territorial expansion.  The foreign policy was very successful in his early years, but very unsuccessful in his later years.  Louis’s most famous quote was “L’etat, c’est moi” or “I’m the state.”  Louis ruled from 1643 to 1715.

  1. Richelieu- was a cardinal that ruled France under King Louis XIII.  He wanted total subordination of all groups and institutions in France.  Richelieu helped  create the indentant system.  He was very efficient at limiting the power of the nobility, often times destroying their castles and lands.  Richelieu wanted to destroy Habsburg power in Europe and supported many rulers, including Swedish King, Gustavus Adolphus, against the Holly Roman Empire.   He also crushed all opposition in France such as the Protestants with his standing army. He established Absolute Monarchy in France.

  1. Philip IV- was the king of Spain.  Spain lost much of its power when he became king.  He was best known for fighting costly wars with France, and the Netherlands.  During a time of strong monarchs Philip IV was a very incapable administrator.  He was king of Spain until 1665.  Philip IV is important for what he did not do then for what he actually did.  When Spain became weak the balance of power in Europe shifted allowing developing countries to expand and became leg mate powers.

  1. Cromwell- was the leader of the Puritan Revolution in England and helped over throw the King Charles I. He eventually would become the leader of England.  The time he ruled was known as the Interregnum, which is really the 20 years that England didn’t have a monarch.  Cromwell was known for new model army, which one many battles in the English Civil War.  When Cromwell became the leader of England or head of parliament he was known as the protector and council of state.  He reaffirmed the rights of parliament and created a standing army.  He also divided England into five districts.  Cromwell, although he was not a constitutionalist, was a military dictator that censored the press and closed the theaters.

  1. Peter the Great- was the Tsar of Russia.  Peter, when growing up learned about western culture and ideas.  He eventually overthrows his sister, Sophie and mentally changed brother, Ivan to become the Tsar of Russia in 1689.  Peter is an absolute monarch that tries to Westernize Russia.  He sent Russians to study in the west and brought westerners to Russia, while adopting western court systems.  Peter traveled to the west often and held many jobs there.  While ruling Russia he ignored the Russian parliament known as the Duma and instead build a strong bureaucracy.  He limited the power of the nobility with the coercion, a secret police group and created a controlled social order with taxes and forced public works.  Peter wanted a warm water port for Russia and fights the Great Northern War against Sweden.  Russian wins the war by using scorched earth tactics. They gain Baltic provinces.

  1. Frederick the Great- was the King of Prussia from 1740 to 1786.  Frederick had a great sense of duty and realized that only an absolute state could better the country.  Under his rule he was able to establish religious toleration and judicial reform.  Frederick also desired to gain more territory to secure the nation.  In 1740 he attacked the Hapsburg province of Silesia, throwing most of Europe into war.  He was able to keep the territory after the War of the Austrian Succession. "Take what you can; you are never wrong unless you are obliged to give it back”, are Fredericks words about gaining new territory.  Frederick was a great military leader that made Prussia a major power in Europe.  Frederick was also able to annex West Prussia.

  1. Colbert- was the financial and economic adviser for Louis XIV.  Louis XIV would not have been successful with out the help of Colbert.  Colbert favored the idea of mercantilism, which was the idea that the motherland imports more then they export.  All colonies under the control of the motherland was suppose to help the motherland as much as they possible can, or in other words the motherland took all of the colonies resources.  Colbert tried to achieve a favorable balance of trade.  He encouraged industry, and invoked high foreign tariffs, while creating a strong merchant marine group.  However; as industrial and commercial economy grew, agricultural declined due to high taxes, and poor harvest.

Jean-Baptiste Colbert (1619-1683)


  1. James I – was the King of England from 1603 to 1625.  He was a complete believer in divine right monarchy and felt that parliament should have no power. James was a Protestant and alienated both Catholics and Puritans in England.  One reason for this was because of the gunpowder plot conceived by Catholics to assassinate the king.  James writes the “True Law of Free Monarchy”, which clearly explains his ideals.  James’s reign is known for his conflicts with parliament over money, religion and foreign policy.  He creates new taxes and prints the King James’s version of the Bible.  Also James has a son Charles I (even though he was a known homosexual).  James wants Charles to marry a Spanish Princess, who is Catholic.  James and Parliament come into conflict because they don’t wish to have a Catholic queen, when England was primarily Protestant.



  1. William of Orange- was the king of the Netherlands, but became the king of England in 1688 after the glorious revolution.  William was only able to become king if granted parliament certain rights and powers.  He accepted and became a limited monarch in a constitutional government.  William of Orange is important because he marks the end of Absolute monarchy in England, and marks the beginning of constitutionalism and democracy in England.  Under his reign the English Bill of Rights was made and parliament passes the Act of Toleration that makes England tolerant to other people’s religion mainly the Catholics and Puritans.

  1. Charles II and James II-was the king of England after Cromwell’s rule.  He came into power in 1660 and was thought to solve the problems of religion and the relationship between the king and Parliament. He didn’t.  He was an absolute monarch.  Charles issued the Test Act, which stated that if citizens did not join the Church of England they couldn’t vote or hold office.  Charles was best known for his Cabal or Cabinet.  He was one of the first to have this form of bureaucracy.  Charles had a brother James II; he would be the last of the Stuart monarchs.  He was a Catholic and violated the Test Act further damaging the relationship between king and parliament.  James II was expelled from England in the Glorious Revolution and was the last Absolute monarch England ever had.

James II                                                                 Charles II


Major Events and Changes

-The decline of Spanish power.  Due to several weak monarchs, poor decisions, and economic problems Spain’s power greatly decreased.  This disturbed the balance of power in Europe, allowing other minor countries to gain more power. 

- French Classicism.  The French culture and way of life became dominant through out Europe especially in upper class society.  Louis XIV and his court at Versailles had a certain eloquence and manner that many upper class people imitated in other countries.  French Classicism affected everything: music, food, literature, manners, and art. 

-The rise of Eastern European countries.  Prussia and Russia, two countries that were thought to be only minor powers became major powers, because of their strong leaders.  The leaders of the countries took measured to modernize and develop their countries.  They took territories and entered wars such as the Seven Years War. 

-The development of a constitutionalism in England.  Through a series of civil wars and revolutions England developed a constitutionalist state.  This happened over a long period of time after the people and parliament experienced military dictatorship and absolute monarchy.  Parliament’s power was limited during these times.  Finally through the glorious revolution, in which no one was killed, the absolute monarchs of England were driven out.  A Bill of Rights was soon made after the revolution.  The Bill of Rights of 1689 was famous because it gave parliament more power then they ever had.

-The oppression of the people and parliaments would eventually lead to revolutionary thoughts and ideas, especially in France.

 Map of Absolutist Europe













Timeline –Late 16 century to late 18 century

1589- Henry IV inherits France

1598- Edict of Nantes is issued

1603- James I becomes King of England

1610- Henry IV is murdered

1618- Thirty Years War begins

1625- Charles I becomes King of England

1628- Cardinal Richelieu becomes a minister under French crown

- Richelieu crushes Protestant town of La Rochelle

- Petition of Right is passed in England, which instates Habeas Corpus, and no taxation without Parliament’s support.

1631- Richelieu signs treaty with Gustavus Adolphus

1640- Charles I, King of England calls long parliament to get more money

- Frederick William the Great Elector becomes King of Prussia

1642- Richelieu dies

        - English Civil War begins (King vs. Parliament)

1643- Mazarin becomes cardinal and a minister of France

        - Louis XIV becomes King of France, Mazarin rules France for Louis

1648- The Fronde

- Peace of Westphalia ends the Thirty Years War

1649- Cromwell crushes a rebellion in Ireland

        - Charles I is executed

        - Interregnum begins, marks the beginning of Cromwell’s rule

1660- Restoration of the Stuart monarchs, Charles II becomes king of England

        - The end of the interregnum

        -  Frederick William establishes a standing army

1661- Mazarin dies, Louis XIV becomes ruler

        - Versailles is built

1667- Louis XIV begins gaining territory

1670- Charles II and Louis XIV make a secret agreement

1682- Peter the Great becomes tsar of Russia

1685- France becomes the strongest and most centralized state in Europe

- Louis XIV revokes the Edict of Nantes

- James II becomes King of England

1688- Glorious Revolution

- Frederick III becomes King of Prussia

1689- William of Orange is crowned King of England

        - Bill of Rights is issued in England

1700- Spanish King Charles II dies

        - Great Northern War begins

1701- War of Spanish Succession, which was a war fought to gain the Spanish throne for        Louis XIV family

1703- St. Petersburg is established

1709- Peter the Great’s army crushes Swedish King, Charles XII army

1711- Charles VI becomes King of Austria

1713- Peace of Utrecht ends the War of Spanish Succession

        - Frederick William I becomes King of Prussia

1714- France becomes bankrupt

1740- Frederick the Great becomes King of Prussia

        - War of Austrian Succession (France, Spain, Prussia vs. Austria.  Austria looses   Silesia.

        - Maria Theresa becomes Queen of Austria

1756- Seven years war (Austria and France vs. England and Prussia)

1762- Catherine the Great becomes Tsar of Russia

1763- Seven years war ends at the Peace of Hubertusburg, which grants Prussia Silesia and Austria gets Saxony.






Essay Questions

1.  Compare and contrast the rise of absolute monarchy in France and England.

2.  Describe how England developed a constitutionalist state.  Be sure to trace the documents and events that lead to its formation.

3.   Why did Spain loose power?

4.   In what way does the Louis XIV symbolize absolutism? How was he able to control religion, the nobility and the law making process?