The role of monarch in early modern Europe differed from place to place but similar trends can be found among British, French, Russian, and various other countries in the 15th, 16th, and 17th centuries. The differences in these monarchies derive from each’s relationship with the noble classes and the independent power of the monarch. Some monarchies were dependent on the nobles to rule and others evolved into an autocracy where all power centralized around the throne. Centralization of power, however, was common to most early modern European monarchies.

Years of marriage alliances and military conquest united more lands under the rule of a single monarch. Historian Merry E. Weisner-Hanks adds, “Thus, like armies and bureaucracies, royal and noble sons and daughters were important tools of state policy. The benefits of an advantageous marriage, particularly if the wife had no brothers and thus inherited territory, stretch across generations.”[1] (98) The unification of the British Isles, for example, came when King James inherited the thrones of England, Ireland, and Scotland.[2]


Henry VIII duty to Parliament, Parliament’s duty to Henry VIII

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Henry VIII had six wives – Catherine of Aragon, Anne Boleyn, Jane Seymour, Anne of Cleves, Catherine Howard and Catherine Parr. None of them gave him the son he wanted.

England’s monarchy has a history of struggle with its nobility and with such events as the English Revolution, and the signing of the Magna Carta, the relationship between Parliament and the King was always stressed the importance of a powerful aristocracy. It was thus in the best interests of English monarchs to be able to work with the nobility and we can look at a past speech of Henry VIII as an example of how monarchs addressed Parliament. Henry VIII was skilled at both complimenting lords and reminding them of their obedience to serve the crown, as he says in a speech from 1545, “I cannot choose but to love and favor you, affirming that no prince in the world more favors his subjects than I do you, and no subjects or commons more love and obey their sovereign lord than I see you do me.”[3]

Henry VII’s daughter Elizabeth ruled after his death with the same awareness of how to address her subjects. As she addressed military troops, men who fought and died based on her decisions, she does not speak from a pedestal on high, but from a place of her duty as monarch. “I have placed my chiefest strength and safeguard in the loyal hearts and goodwill of my subjects; and therefore I am come amongst you, as you see, at this time, not for my recreation and disport, but being resolved, in the midst and heat of the battle, to live and die amongst you all.”[4] The monarch owed as much to the state as regular citizens, and were responsible for the wellbeing of their subjects be them wealthy aristocrats, or common foot soldiers.


Bossuet, Louis XIV, and the Divine Right of Kings

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Also known as “The Sun King” Louis XIV ruled France for over 72 years.

The ideas that a dual responsibility to the state was shared by both people and monarchs was inherit in the ideological concept of the divine right of kings and as monarchs in Europe assumed power to appoint church officials in their own countries, instead of the pope in Rome naming appointees, they took on the divine significance that came with this power. Jacques Benigne Bossuet was the prominent voice in this philosophy and his arguments for the divine right of kings was influential with the 72-year reign of King Louis XIV of France.

According to Bossuet, the office of monarch is divine in itself as he said, “Consequently, as we have seen, the royal throne is not the throne of a man, but the throne of God himself” and goes on to state that, “the person of the King is sacred, and that to attack him is sacrilege.”[5] The King himself was obliged to respect the divine nature of his office and his actions as king should reflect this. Bossuet said, “But kings, although their power comes from on high, as has been said, should not regard themselves as masters of that power to use it at their pleasure; they must employ It with fear and self-restraint, as a thing coming from God and of which God will demand an account.”[6]


Peter the Great: Enlightened Monarchs

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“I have conquered an empire but I have not been able to conquer myself” -Peter the Great

The influence of Louis XIV’s rule on other monarchs was immense as many attempted to achieve his level of absolutism over their subjects, while at the same time dedicating themselves to the improvement of the state and of the lives of its people, even if that meant complete an utter desecration of individual freedoms.

Peter the Great, tsar of Russia, spent his reign “westernizing” Russia and modernizing its military and social customs, but such drastic changes were not free from resistance. Peter visited much of the West and invited experts from all Europe to come to Russia to assist his reforms. Accounts of Peter by non-Russians illustrate his personality and highlights both the innovating and totalitarianism of his rule. A bishop remembered his inquisitive mind and finds it almost out of character for a king.

“He is mechanically turned, and seems designed by nature rather to be a ship carpenter than a great prince. This was his chief study and exercise while he stayed here. He wrought much with his own hands and made all about him work at the models of his ships. He told me he designed a great fleet at Azov and with it to attack the Turkish empire. But he did not seem capable of conducting so great a design, though his conduct in his wars since this has discovered a greater genius in him than appeared at this time [7]

Peter the Great’s role as an enlightened monarch was matched by his furious temper and eagerness to take violent vengeance out on dissenters. Von Korb describes Peter’s reaction to news of a rebellion in Russia and quotes Peter as saying “I may wreak vengeance on this great perfidy of my people, with punishments worthy of their abominable crime. Not one of them shall escape with impunity. Around my royal city, which, with their impious efforts, they planned to destroy, I will have gibbets and gallows set upon the walls and ramparts, and each and every one of them will I put to a direful death.”[8] Enlightened monarchs are remembered for the modernizing of their states but absolute power never comes without tyranny of oppression for those who dare resist.


Sources


[1] Merry E Wiesner-Hanks, Early Modern Europe, 1450-1789, 2nd ed, (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013), 98.

[2] Ibid, 103.

[3] King Henry VIII of England, Speech Before Parliament, 24 December 1545.

[4] Queen Elizabeth I of England, Speech at Tillburry¸1588.

[5] Jacques Benigne Bossuet, Politics Drawn from the Very Words of Holy Scripture 1679, 1709, pg. 273-274.

[6] Ibid.

[7] James Harvey Robinson, ed., Readings in European History, 2 Vols. (Boston: Ginn and Co., 1904-1906), Vol. II: From the opening of the Protestant Revolt to the Present Day, pp. 303-312.

[8] Ibid.