What is it and what characterizes absolutism

The absolutism is a system of government in which the power of the state is concentrated in one person: the monarch. Only he has the authority to decide on social, political and economic matters.

Under this political system, the king is the state and, consequently, their capacity for action has no limits or measure. It is not subject to earthly rules because possesses a divine lineage; only the God’s law governs it. But even the religious sphere is largely dependent on his will. So that no field escaped his power.

A phrase attributed to the King of France, Louis XIV, fully illustrates the spirit of absolutism: “I am the state”. Which means that the state does not exist, there is no division of powers or political parties. For this reason, absolutism should not be confused with forms of government such as dictatorship or totalitarianism in which the state is hijacked by party or military leaders.

Origins of Absolutism

Absolutism began in the Middle Ages, as a result of the decline in power held by the feudal lords. This social group imparted justice and exercised political and economic control to the detriment of the nobles.

The exhaustion of the feudal system became the product of a social crisis caused by famines, plagues, the unproductive land and a series of peasant uprisings.

That’s when the monarchs took advantage of the weakening of the feudal system, to strengthen the scope of their influence. The empowerment process was progressive. Only the phase of absolutism in formation took place from the beginning of the 15th century to the middle of the 16th century.

It was until the second half of the seventeenth century that real or mature absolutism arrived. The reign of Louis XIV, the “Sun King”, in France constitutes a reliable expression of this form of government in a complete way.

Louis XIV of France, known as “the Sun King” or Louis the Great (1638-1715)

Characteristics of absolutism

  • The monarch held power, unlimited. The power to promulgate laws and decrees was his; judge and establish taxes.
  • Although in absolutist governments there are no public powers, the monarch appointed responsible of the army, diplomacy, finance and bureaucracy. These king’s workers enjoyed the privilege of being close to the president.
  • Inequity it was a notable feature of absolutism. Under this regime, there were no individual rights or guarantees.
  • The king exercised control, but not in full, of the church as an institution.
  • Under the absolutist regime, high taxes they covered the running costs of the bureaucracy of the time. They also paid the demands of the royal house.
  • The economy was mercantilist and it was based on the exploitation of the lands owned by the nobles and the precious metals.
  • The status of monarch or king was hereditary and it was exercised for life.
  • The monarch had an armed arm ready to defend their integrity and their possessions.
  • The society was divided in 3 strata:
    • The royalty: It is the privileged class and protected by military force. It was made up of aristocrats, landowners, and the monarch’s advisers or allies.
    • The clergy: Made up of priests and nuns who subsisted thanks to their ties to political power and the income obtained through the tithe.
    • The village: peasants, merchants and workers. It was they who generated the income of the crown, with the payment of their taxes, tributes and the tithe for the church.

Did absolutist regimes have limits of action?

In absolutism the will of the monarch in all social areas had to be applied. Nevertheless, there were some limits to the king’s power:

  • The king was subject to the moral precepts of the church as an ecclesiastical institution and to religion. He had to keep the 10 commandments.
  • Certain aspects of the law were not considered by the king. For example, the laws on inheritance, mayorazgo and other provisions that came from long-standing traditions. These practices were known as the laws of the law of nations.
  • Nor could the so-called fundamental laws of the kingdom be transgressed by the monarch. The fundamental principles of these laws were:
  • The continuity of state: the state is an independent figure of kings. If a monarch dies, his successor would immediately take over running it.
  • The succession lawWhen a king dies another member of the royal line will take his place.
  • The principle of legitimacy: the monarch does not have the power to modify the law of succession. In addition, the king could be assisted by a regent in case of being considered incapable or if he was a minor.
  • The principle of religion: only a Catholic prince should hold the crown.

In which countries was it established?

Absolutism was established in several European countries, including Spain. The rest of the nations were:

  • Austria
  • France
  • England
  • Russia
  • Sweden
  • Portugal

How was the absolutist regime expressed in Spain?

In Spain the absolutist regime arrived late and ended late. It began with Carlos V and extended until the period of the House of Bourbon..

It was Felipe V who carried out the necessary reforms to materialize a form of government with the characteristics of an absolutist monarchy in the French style. His predecessor, Felipe IV, only maintained some features of that type of government.

The end of the absolutist monarchies in Spain came with the promulgation of the first constitution of Spain in 1812. The constitutional text limited the power of the king. However, Ferdinand VII annulled this magna carta and the absolutist form of government was reinstated.

Ferdinand VII (1784-1833)

The end of absolutism in Europe

The fall of absolutism was a gradual process that began with the French Revolution. This movement ended the absolutist monarchy, leaving the door open to the ideas proposed by the enlightenment.

However, a form of absolutism soon emerged that took part in the principles of the Enlightenment. It was called the Enlightened Despotism and it was born in the 19th century in Germany. The last version of absolutism ended in the 20th century.

Charles III (1716-1788)

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