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Crisis of absolutism: characteristics and causes

The crisis of absolutism was a change in the political system that occurred from the middle of the seventeenth century and had its maximum expression with the French Revolution. It was related to external conflicts between different powers and wars of succession. Absolutist states developed in Europe as feudalism declined.

Absolute monarchs believed that they ruled by divine right, an idea established by Bishop Jacques Bénigne Bossuet (1627-1704). These kings centralized their power, with the help of brilliant advisers, seeking to increase the income of the State and assuming greater control of the Church.

Absolute monarchs had the ability to make laws, levy taxes, administer justice, control state officials, and determine foreign policy. Absolutism developed most fiercely in France. The French people demanded a strong leader after years of religious conflict and devastating famine.

Absolutism in France
Henry IV was the first Bourbon king of France; he tried to ease religious tensions with the Edict of Nantes (1598), which granted French Protestants some freedom for religious worship in fortified cities.

Henry balanced the French budget in just 12 years and paid off the royal debt. His assassination in 1610 left France in more than a decade of political turmoil.

The heir to the throne Louis XIII and his adviser Cardinal Richelieu led France into the Thirty Years' War, in an attempt to increase French power and prestige.

The plan worked, making France the most powerful nation in Europe. When Richelieu died, Cardinal Mazarin assumed the position of chief adviser to Louis XIII, but quickly assumed the role of leader of the nation when Louis XIII died in 1643, leaving his five-year-old son, Louis XIV, on the throne.

Young Louis XIV learned a valuable lesson about the conduct of the French nobility during the Fronde (1648-1653), an uprising that taught him that the aristocracy was not trustworthy, a lesson he never forgot.

When he was 23 years old, Louis XIV took control of France and began his personal rule. He sold titles of nobility to many upper-middle-class Frenchmen and later granted them government jobs.

These new nobles were blindly loyal to their king. Always suspicious of the high nobility, Louis built the palace at Versailles and made sure the aristocrats were too busy and distracted to cause trouble. Louis also revoked the Edict of Nantes and allowed open persecution of French dissent.

Causes of the crisis of absolutism
Due to the immense lust for power of Louis XIV, a series of wars were unleashed that marked a crisis of absolutism and among the most prominent are the following:

The war of devolution (1667-1668)
After the death of Felipe IV (1665). Louis XIV claimed that Spanish possessions in the Netherlands had been transferred to him through his wife, Maria Teresa of Austria - daughter of Philip IV.

The new King Carlos II, rejected this imposition, so the French invaded the Spanish Netherlands in 1667.

In response, the Dutch, the English, and the Swedes formed an alliance to protect the balance of power in the area and eventually induced Louis XIV to accept the Treaty of Aachen.

Whereby France preserved some fortified cities in the Spanish Netherlands, but agreed to give up claiming the Spanish Netherlands as a whole.

The Dutch War (1672-1678)
The Dutch represented a barrier to French expansion and were a major commercial rival, making them a strategic target.

Louis XIV set out to isolate the Dutch from England and Sweden. He signed treaties with the English and the Swedes, and invaded the Netherlands.

The armies of Spain, Austria, and Brandenburg moved against Louis XIV. After years of fighting, Louis XIV conquered the following territories: the Franche-Comté of Spain, the Imperial Territory of Alsace-Lorraine and Luxembourg.

The Nine Years' War or the Augsburg League War (1688-1697)
After the Dutch war, other European nations increasingly opposed Louis XIV's appetite for power.

In 1686, Bavaria, the Holy Roman Empire, the Palatinate, Saxony, Spain, and Sweden formed the League of Augsburg to oppose the expansionist policies of Louis XIV.

The war began in 1688 when Louis XIV again forced expansion to the northeast. France dominated most of the land battles, while the Augsburg League was victorious at sea.

The battles spread to the Spanish, English, and French colonial possessions in the New World. As both sides ran out of money to fight the war, they negotiated the Treaty of Ryswick in 1697.

Louis XIV had to renounce much of the conquered territory, and France won very little after nine years of conflict.

The War of the Spanish Succession (1701-1713)
It was the last and most disastrous war in which Louis XIV was involved. When the Spanish King Carlos II died in 1700 and in the absence of an obvious successor, Europe was waiting to know who would inherit the Spanish throne.

Luis XIV had claimed the right of his son Luis de Francia (1661-1711) to be the legitimate heir since his mother Maria Teresa of Austria, was the sister of King Carlos II.

However, the Roman Emperor Leopold II, had also married one of Carlos II's sisters and stated that the throne should belong to his dynasty. Before the death of Carlos II, the two factions in dispute agreed to partitions that would divide the Spanish lands.

Just before his death, Carlos II had a last will not to divide the Spanish territory, which is why he appointed Felipe de Anjou, the grandson of Luis XIV, who became Felipe V, as heir to all Spanish possessions, which gave to an already powerful France with an enormous amount of land and resources in Europe and the New World.

No European nation wanted the French to inherit the Spanish throne, so adversaries to the French reign launched a war to try to restore the balance of power on the continent and stop Louis XIV's commercial interests abroad.

Led by Britain's William III, European nations formed the Grand Alliance of 1701, made up of England, the Netherlands, and the Holy Roman Empire. Spain allied with the French to honor the will of Carlos II and prevent the division of Spanish territory.

The fighting began in 1702, with a slow and strategic war. The Grand Alliance managed to reap many key victories thanks to the capabilities of its qualified military leaders.

General John Churchill, Duke of Marlborough (1650-1722), led the English troops and collaborated with the Habsburg leader, Prince Eugene of Savoy (1663-1736) to defeat the French at Blenheim in 1704 with an attack surprise. The English also acquired the important Mediterranean port city of Gibraltar in 1704.

After other allied victories, Louis XIV began negotiations for a peace agreement in 1708. However, the demands of his enemies were too harsh and Louis XIV did not accept them. The various warring states continued to fight for their own reasons, as the war swept through most of Europe.

Which granted the throne of Spain to the grandson of Louis XIV, Felipe V, but with the understanding that the French and Spanish thrones would never be inherited by the same person. The treaty also distributed other Spanish holdings.

The Austrians acquired most of the conquered Mediterranean territories: Naples, Sardinia, Milan, and the Spanish Netherlands.

The Duke of Savoy won Sicily and the Duke of Brandenburg became King of Prussia. France was forced to abandon many of its North American territories and put aside its ambitions to expand to the Netherlands.

The British acquired Gibraltar, the Island of Menorca in the Mediterranean, and many of the territories lost to France in North America, all of which increased the power of Great Britain.

The British also acquired from Spain the rights to supply Spanish America with African slaves and the treaties reestablished the policy of balance of power in Europe.

Louis XIV's frequent wars, along with his disorderly spending, had brought France to the brink of bankruptcy. All these events triggered the decline of the absolute monarchy, giving way to new theories of government based on the sovereignty of the people, constitutional monarchies or even parliamentary republics.

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