Most historians would argue that the years 1660 to 1789 could be summarized as an Age of Absolutism, the period from the Restoration in England and the personal rule of Louis XIV up to the beginning of the French Revolution. Our textbook defines absolutism as “a political arrangement in which one ruler possesses unrivaled power (Western Civilization pg 184). Rulers received their power directly from God – theory of divine right – claiming they were above the law. As a result, absolute monarchs were viewed differently among the individual’s social class; the Noble’s view differed from the every day commoner’s view.
Due to the divine right kingship beliefs monarchs receive an endless amount of power. Subjects believed God would only invest the ruler he appointed with powers that resembled his own, therefore any resistant to their monarch was forbidden. In Richard II, subjects look upon the Monarch of England as a godly figure. Throughout the play, King Richard and the Duchess make several references to “sacred blood;” a clear reference to Richard II being appointed by God (divinely appointed).
An important nobleman, John of Gaunt, describes Richard II, “God’s is the quarrel; for God’s substitute/ His deputy anointed in his sight”(Shakespeare 13). Richard II is understood to be God’s presence on earth, once again supporting the theory of divine right. Subjects viewed god having two bodies, one present on earth and the other in heaven. The illusion of his holiness opened up many new avenues by which the king could influence his subjects. . Shakespeare displays this aspect of the king’s rule, “cousin, farewell; and, uncle, bid him so.
Six years we banish him, and shall go”(Shakespeare 23). The king’s command becomes the law. Monarchs like Richard II did not have to obey the law of their kingdoms, nor could they be held legally accountable for their actions because they had no legal superior to judge them. However, this did not give Richard II and other absolutism monarchs the right to act arbitrarily, illegally, or despotically; they were expected to follow the law of God. Most peasants and other lower social class individuals were very content with an absolute monarchy system – relieved the plight of the poor.
In their quest for absolute power, European Monarchs employed a strategy to control the administrative machinery of the state and used it to enforce royal policy throughout their kingdom. As natural state builders, monarchs established centralized bureaucracies that extended the reach of their governments down into the smallest towns and villages and out into the most remote regions of their kingdoms. The business conducted by these centrally controlled bureaucracies included the collection of taxes, the recruitment of soldiers, and the operation of the judicial system.
Peasants and members of lower social classes were committed to a social contract, in which they were required to pay a tax and in return the King promised safety and stability. During the Age of absolutism in France, road conditions were improved, canals were built throughout the kingdom, burdensome tolls were reduced, and the state acquired a standing army – serving Louis XIV in foreign wars and also helping maintain order and enforce royal policy throughout the kingdom.
In the play Richard II, the king orders his army to find peace in response to Northern Ireland riots. Both Richard II’s and Louis XIV’s action display their loyalty toward the social contract. The absolute monarchy system creates a “two-way straight” relationship between the king and the peasants. The king relies on peasants to pay taxes in order to finance wars, while the peasants rely on the king for economic stability and public safety. They completely immerse themselves with the idea the king is God, and his word is God’s law.
As long as the contract is kept in tact, peasants are satisfied with the absolute monarchy system and have no reason to challenge ‘God’s word. ’ On the other hand, Nobles were much more resistant to the rule of the absolute monarchy. One of the three strategies in a monarch’s quest for absolute power is to subordinate the nobility to the king and make them dependent on his favor. The king could not afford to alienate these wealthy and high-ranking men, upon whom he still relied for running his government and maintaining order in the localities.
Therefore, absolute monarchs offered nobles special privileges, such as exemption from taxation, positions in the king’s government, and freedom to exploit their peasants in exchange for their recognition of the king’s absolute authority. Granting privileges in exchange for their loyalty to the crown did not satisfy the nobles entirely. Most nobles are extremely wealthy and do not depend on the king’s promise for economic stability and in many cases they have the ability to protect themselves; therefore under the absolute monarchy nobles feel cheated. With the lack of power, most of the nobles become extremely frustrated.
In France, Louis XIV was able to satisfy the nobles by using the patronage at his disposal to grant members of nobility wealth and privileges in exchange for their power. However, the Spanish Monarchy and the English Monarchy were not as successful. Spain could never escape the grip that old noble families had on the central administration. The unwillingness of the nobility to recruit ministers and officials from the mercantile and professional groups in society worked against the achievement of bureaucratic efficiency and made innovation almost impossible.
During England’s personal rule, Charles was unable to collect taxes by the authority of Parliament. Facing the financial demands of war he was forced to summon his English Parliament to secure the funds to fight. In the play, Richard II continues to raise the taxes on the Nobles in order to pay for the war, and he eventually crosses the line, “Now put it, God, in the physician’s mind/ to help him to his grave immediately! / The lining of his coffers shall make coats/ to deck our soldiers for these Irish wars” (Shakespeare 29).
Under an absolute monarchy the kings see themselves as above the law. Here Richard acts arbitrarily by seizing the private land of Bolingbroke and as we see with the fall out of the play it ends up costing him his life, as well as the end too a possibly successful Absolute monarchy. An absolute monarchy was very tough to install, with the exception of France (Louis XIV), many governments failed such as the Spanish, English and Richard II. Exchanging privileges with the nobles was a key and necessary attribute in maintaining order under an absolute rule.
However, peasants and other lower social class members held a different view regarding one ruler. They were very satisfied and very content under the absolute rule. In conclusion, we can state your view of absolute monarchy depends on your social class. Bibliography McGowen, Randall. Western Civilization. Boston: PearsonLearning Solutions, 2012. Print. Shakespeare, William, and Frances E. Dolan. The Tragedy of KingRichard the Second. New York, NY: Penguin, 2000. Print.