Absolutism–the idea that a king has absolute power given to him by God–appealed to many of the Reformation era monarchs. Many nations attempted absolutism to varying degrees. True absolutism succeeded in France but failed miserably in England.
French absolutism began with Henri IV who merely sought stability for his people after the horrible religious wars which had left France in a sad, depressed state. Cardinal Richelieu, however, used the relatively weak Louis XIII to develop his own absolutist power. Richelieu dabbled in the Thirty Years’ War, and through his political prowess France emerged as the greatest power in Europe for the seventeenth century. Richelieu’s cunning set the perfect stage for Louis XIV. Louis XIV, the so-called “Sun King,” claimed that he was the state. With the help of Mazarin, Louis XIV created a monarchy for himself that was rivaled by no other for absolute power. There was no questioning the king’s authority during Louis’ reign. France set the precedent which other European nations tried to follow. Absolutism succeeded in France because the monarch was extremely powerful and had the support of the Catholic Church.
English absolutism began with James I who took the English throne after Elizabeth’s death. Although he was raised in a conservative Scotland, James had his own ideas of how he wanted to rule. He angered many Puritans and Parliament. To appease the Puritans he ordered that an authorized version of the Bible be printed: the King James Version. Parliament, however, would not be appeased so they were often dismissed. Charles I followed James’ foolish precedent by side-stepping Parliament’s “power of the purse” through special taxes. He refused to call Parliament into session. He also further angered the Puritans and other religious parties. His stubbornness and the resolve of Parliament led to the English Civil War. After years of fighting between the monarchy and Parliament, the Parliamentary forces won. After the Commonwealth failed to meet expectations, Parliament chose to reinstate the Stuart line, but they made it clear that no English monarch would rule absolutely. England would always have a constitutional monarchy which relied upon Parliament. Absolutism in England failed because a strong Parliament and dissenting religious forces opposed the monarchy.
In the end, Louis XIV ruled absolutely in France, but Parliament invited William and Mary to come to England to take the throne. This significant request demonstrates the difference between these two powerful countries. France would suffer many bloody revolutions and dictators because of her absolutist monarchy. England, after the civil war, never again saw widespread bloodshed because she was ruled by monarchs who were held accountable for their actions.
– Hannah S. Bowers