The Rise of the Nation State

1. ‘The growth of the nation-state, first in Western Europe and then elsewhere, has long been viewed as the key political development of this era [i.e. the sixteenth century].’ (Merry E. Wiesner-Hanks) Discuss with reference to at least two of the following: England, France, Spain.

This essay examines how the growth of the nation-state was a key political development during this period. It was a hugely important process and a stepping stone towards the systems we have in place today. Although many of the aspects of state-building which will be addressed in this essay were already taking place before the sixteenth century, it is during this era that they truly develop and nation-states become extremely important in the political world of the time.

One of the reasons that the nation-state experiences growth during this era is because of the military revolution also taking place at the time. The way wars took place changed, there was more emphasis on hand-held weapons than nobles or cavalrymen and there was a need for larger permanent armies.

As a result, states needed more money and larger bureaucracies to fund these exploits. This essentially kicked off the growth of the nation-state. States began to exercise a lot more power, issuing more laws and generally claiming more powers. The power of the clergy and nobility was also challenged. Some may argue that the ‘nation’ wasn’t as important at that time; however, if this was the case the people wouldn’t have allowed this state-building to happen without causing huge problems.

They appeared to be happy to be brought into a ‘nation’ and this is why the growth of the nation-state can clearly be seen as a key political development at this time. It would eventually spread across Europe but during this period it was visible in England, France and Spain in particular, with the dynasties in those countries developing the growth of a state. This essay will discuss this development in some of these nations during the sixteenth century.

In England, the power of the monarch had already been limited by the Magna Carta in 1215, “Demands for taxes to fight the Crusades and war with France led the highest level nobility to force the king to agree to a settlement limiting his power”. This gave the nobility some say in tax rates and lead to the creation of Parliament which began to exert some control over the approval of taxes also. Following the end of the Hundred Years War (1337-1453), there was a civil war in England between the Yorkists and the Lancastrians.

This eventually led to Henry Tudor coming to power as Henry VII (ruled 1485-1509) and beginning the Tudor dynasty in England. He turned out to be quite a god king, “Thoughtful, calculating and cautious, Henry piloted the kingdom through a period of reconstruction and reconciliation with surprising assurance”. Henry managed to do this through effective state-building measures. There is growing financial security during his reign as he manages to avoid wars, obtain land from dead nobles and he was also very miserly.

There was also increasing bureaucratisation during his reign, as he set up more state offices such as the Court of Star Chamber. Lastly, another of Henry VII’s state-building tactics was to create good marriage alliances. During his reign, he arranged the marriages of his daughter and the king of Scotland, and his son and heir Arthur’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon. However, Arthur died unexpectedly and rather than lose the marriage alliance, Henry arranged that she marry his other son, Henry VIII, “Henry wangled a papal dispensation to allow Catherine marry his second son”.

When Henry VIII (ruled 1509-47) took over from his father, he was a completely different king. He didn’t follow the same ideas as his father and war and finance were to dominate his reign. However, because of his lifestyle and constant desire for an heir, Henry VIII also contributed to the growth of the nation-state in England. Henry was unable to have a son with his first wife and wanted an annulment; the Pope (Clement VII, ruled 1523-34) refused to give him one.

As a result, Henry VIII broke away from the church in Rome and by 1533; Archbishop of Canterbury had power to annul marriage. This was followed by the Act of Supremacy (1934) which made Henry, Supreme Head of the Church of England. This is another example of the growth in power of the state as Henry transferred power from Rome to his own state. This example in England shows just how key a development the growth of the state was.

Further evidence of state-building and its importance during this era was also visible in Spain. It was united as a nation during this period using methods of state-building like those in England. Firstly, it was unified through marriage. Isabella, the heiress of Castile, married Prince Ferdinand of Aragon, thus uniting two of the main parts of Spain.

This growth was further enhanced when Ferdinand and Isabella then invaded Granada in the South, enhancing their own state. This, along with the marriage of their children to various nobles across Europe, meant that Spain had grown into a major power with influence all over Europe. This shows just how key the development of the nation-state was. The monarchs continued to strengthen their power by undermining the power of the upper nobles.

“They reorganized the main royal council, making it larger, stronger, and more professional, and filling it with lower-level nobility and educated non-nobles…members and officials appointed by the monarch, not inherited by virtue of a noble title”

This served once again to drastically increase the power of the state. This power was carried on throughout the sixteenth century. Ferdinand and Isabella were succeeded by Charles I (ruled 1516-1556), and he was also a member of the influential Hapsburg family, making him Holy Roman Emperor (ruled 1519-1556) as well. This again increased the power held by the Spanish and their ever-growing state. Their influence was being spread right throughout Europe, again illustrating the key development of the time of growth of nation-states.

Charles ruled over a vast state and then he was succeeded by Philip II (ruled 1556-1598). Philip II inherited Spain, the Netherlands, the Spanish colonies in the Americas and parts of Italy. This indicates just how much the Spanish state had grown during this period.

The growth of the nation-state also took place in France during this period. The Valois were the ruling family in France at the time. The French state was to become a real world power during this time. The territory of France was expanding during this time, as the French monarchy took control of more areas and asserted more power. It was the strongest single European state of the time. Under Francis I (ruled 1515-1547) in particular, France used a lot of the state-building techniques that were visible in other parts of Europe. As with many of the other expanding nations, France also employed tactics of force, marriage and subsequent inheritance to initially build its state.

The French also used a legal system to build their state; their insistence on wanting one law for its entire people aided the process of state-building. The monarch also encouraged the idea of one language, one state. This also unified France as a nation, marking a move away from Latin as all legal documents were now in French as the monarch believed it should be the language of the state. Even by believing there should be one language for all the people it showed how the idea of state-building was present. Also, similar to other countries, war and conflict were a significant part of the growth of France as a nation.

Francis I became involved in the Hapsburg-Valois Wars (1494-1559) which began before his reign and outlived him. The Hapsburgs were France’s main rivals of the time and the French had suffered some defeats at their hands. However, they did make some gains in Northern Italy under Francis I. The state’s power was increased further under Francis when he brokered a deal with the Pope (Leo X, ruled 1513-1521). The Concordat of Bologna (1516) allowed French kings to appoint French bishops. This gave further power to the French state, again showing its growth as a nation.

So, it is clear that the growth of nation-states in Europe was the key political development of this era. States such as England, Spain and France were beginning to form the nations we are familiar with today. This process was not an immediate success though; it did have its limitations as regions, nobles and clergy still held significant power. It was a gradual process that would eventually spread across the whole of Europe giving us the landscape we see today. It didn’t happen instantly in the sixteenth century but there were huge advances made in the growth of the state’s power during this period.

During this era, we began to see more and more of the features of government and power that we are familiar with today. The increase in the role of parliaments and the decline in power of nobility were significant developments in shaping the political future of not only Europe, but the rest of the world. Countries like England, France and Spain had created a model during this period for other countries to follow. As a result, it is clear to see that the growth of the nation-state was the key political development of this era, having a huge bearing on the future of politics.

Bibliography* Gunn, Steven ‘War, Religion and the State’ in Euan Cameron (ed.), Early Modern Europe, An Oxford History (New York, 2001) * Kümin, Beat (ed.), The European World 1500-1800: An Introduction to Early Modern History ( USA, 2009) * Merriman, John, A History of Modern Europe: Volume One, From the Renaissance to the Age of Napoleon (London, 1996) * Pettegree, Andrew, Europe in the Sixteenth Century (Oxford, 2002) * Wiesner-Hanks, Merry E., Early Modern Europe, 1450-1789 (New York, 2006)

——————————————–[ 1 ]. Merry E. Wiesner-Hanks, Early Modern Europe, 1450-1789 (New York, 2006) p.91. [ 2 ]. Andrew Pettegree, Europe in the Sixteenth Century (Oxford, 2002) p.35. [ 3 ]. Merry E. Wiesner-Hanks, Early Modern Europe, 1450-1789 (New York, 2006) p.92. [ 4 ]. Merry E. Wiesner-Hanks, Early Modern Europe, 1450-1789 (New York, 2006) p.99. [ 5 ]. John Merriman, A History of Modern Europe: Volume One, From the Renaissance to the Age of Napoleon (London, 1996) p.193. [ 6 ]. Steven Gunn ‘War, Religion and the State’ in Euan Cameron (ed.), Early Modern Europe, An Oxford History (New York, 2001) p. 106.