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17th Century Absolute Monarchs: Louis Xiv, Peter The Great, and Frederick

The 17th century marked the rise of various absolute monarchies throughout Europe in France, Russia, and Prussia. These autocratic rulers had a profound impact on their respective country’s histories.

            17th- and 18th-century Europe saw the rise of a new form of governmental system – the absolute monarchy. The idea of a single ruler controlling the vast majority of power in a country became popularized through the writings of various philosophers and political theorists, and the centralizing tendencies of the previous century only encouraged countries to adopt this system of rule. In particular, three countries can be taken as prime examples of absolute monarchies: Russia, France, and Prussia. All three of these nations were unified by the strength of their rulers, rising to become dominant powers in the political climate of Europe. The monarchs adopted policies of centralization, crippling the once-powerful nobles into a state of submission. Their military policies were all expansionist, which led to similar economic difficulties and corresponding financial policy. The absolute monarchs restructured power towards themselves, expanded their military might, and greatly expanded their countries infrastructure.

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            It is best to examine absolute monarchy by starting with the one man who perhaps represented the essence of the concept. That is, namely, France’s Louis XIV – the “Sun King.” Louis became such an influential figure, so deeply intertwined with the workings of his country, that he proclaimed, “L’État, c’est moi” (I am the State). Indeed, by the end of his rule, this was completely true: France became so dependant upon their Louis that it could barely exist without him. His prominence in the affairs of state can be attributed not only to his numerous policies but also to his clever political maneuvering and social hegemony. France had previously been a nation dominated by its noble class in affairs of governance, and Louis sought to change that in favor of a system centered around him. He did this by gradually diminishing the old liberties of the French aristocracy. He used intendants, appointed government administrators, to keep the nobles in check. He increased their power from basic oversight tasks to more prominent managerial positions until they finally took charge of the majority of government administration. This, in turn, weakened the power of nobles – now constrained by new rules and regulations. Louis favored newly-made nobles who were sure to be loyal to him and, in doing so, created a new class of nobility that centered on him. He further reinforced this transformation of nobility by the creation of his palace at Versailles, a place where he could invite nobles to distract them from the political climate of the time. By engrossing the nobles in the advanced social customs and etiquette in their day-to-day life at Versailles, he in turn made them more and more removed from actual political activity (Lindsey 203). The nobles became a pampered social elite concentrated more on the proper way to hold a fork than scheming to gain more power. Louis could exercise more authority over this weakened class- and he did – thus reinforcing his role as absolute monarch (Colton, Joel and Lloyd Kramer 167-86). 

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