France and the British Isles in the 17th Century

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The Origins of the Civil Wars in the British Isles and the Frondes in France

For centuries historians, from the 17th century to the present day, have argued about the causes of the civil strife in the British Isles, and, to a lesser extent, of the Frondes in France. The reason for this confusion is clear: the underlying causes of the strife were many and complex, and lend themselves readily to differing interpretation. The most important factors at play were worsening economic and social conditions, differences in religious beliefs, and political conflict between ruler and ruled. And casting its shadow over the whole of Continental Europe was the blight of war, with all the upheaval, financial hardship and political uncertainty that went along with it. It has sometimes been suggested that the origins of these two civil disturbances were very different, and that their effects on the two countries were different. To test this each factor must be examined in turn, both in the long-term and the short.

In the British Isles and in France the combination of bad harvests and rising prices were bound to cause problems in economies which were fundamentally agricultural, and also, particularly in the case of France, drained of resources by constant war. In England as many as one third of the rural population were farm labourers, and in France half the cultivated area was owned by the peasantry. Obviously therefore bad harvests had a disastrous effect on the country people, and in France led to a widespread growth of debt as peasants borrowed from landowners, often at exorbitant rates, in order to scratch a living. England experienced galloping inflation in the early 17th century and France was gripped by an economic recession.

Small wonder then that attempts by Charles I and the French monarchs to fill the royal coffers by increased taxes caused huge problems in both countries, not least because of the haphazard and unplanned nature of the demands. Charles I from the outset of his reign had been in constant conflict with his parliament over the raising of taxes to pay for England’s participation in the Thirty Years War, albeit a fairly limited participation. The challenge to Charles’ demands for ship money by Hampden in 1637, both over the burden of the tax itself and over the constitutional impropriety of it, was a major trigger to the growth of parliamentary opposition to the King. England, having made peace with France in 1629 and with Spain in 1630, was less involved with war than France, which was at war for two years out of every three from 1624 to the end of the century. Richelieu and Mazarin had therefore an even greater need than Charles to raise taxes to pay for it all. The provincial riots and revolts that preceded the Frondes were mostly sparked off by local objections to these taxes, often with the encouragement and even leadership of the local gentry. In Ireland the motives may have been different, but the effects were similar. The deliberate policy of Wentworth to "keep this kingdom as much subordinate and dependent on England as is possible" was so extreme that the Irish rebelled in 1641.

Religious differences played a much larger part in the British Isles than in France. In England, ever since the reign of Bloody Mary, there had been a hatred and genuine fear of Catholicism and anything that smacked of "Popery", and Charles I’s own commitment to upholding Protestantism in England was widely mistrusted. Archbishop Laud, Charles’ evil genius, tried to impose the Elizabethan statutes calling for compulsory attendance at church, and made strenuous efforts to upgrade the dignity of the clergy and to increase the ritual and ceremony on church occasions. This caused widespread agitation in a country where there had been a marked increase in what we now call "Non-Conformist" sects, particularly Puritanism.

It was in Scotland, however, that the first blows were struck. Much of Scotland was in the grip of fervent Calvinism, and the Scottish Presbyterian Kirk, answerable only to God, was widely supported. So when Charles sought to impose his religious views, the opposition became violent. Archbishop Laud was described as the "Priest of Baal" and Charles’ attempts to impose the English prayer-book led to riots in the churches in 1637. This in turn was followed by the drawing up of the National Covenant in 1638, and eventually armed confrontation with Charles in the Bishops Wars. In Ireland the strong Protestant hand of Wentworth was seen by the Catholics as being behind his repression of them, and the seeds of centuries of unrest were sown in fruitful ground. Behind these seemingly naive attempts to impose religious conformity on unwilling people was a strong feeling amongst conservative politicians that religious freedom would sooner or later lead to social disorder. It is arguable that the reverse was the case.

In France religion played a smaller role in the troubles that led up to the Frondes. There was a deep-seated fear of a return to the Wars of Religion which had ravaged the country in the previous century, and the 1598 Edict of Nantes had granted religious toleration to the Protestant Huguenots. Louis XIII and Louis XIV were both staunch Catholics, as were their chief ministers, the Cardinals Richelieu and Mazarin. In the Frondes the Protestants did not by and large take sides, except perhaps on the side of the government.

Charles I, like his father before him and his French cousins across the channel, was a convinced believer in the Divine Right of Kings. His natural instincts therefore were to rely as little as possible on parliament and the people (except for money), and more and more on a powerful elite to support an Absolute Monarchy. Parliament was dismissed in 1629 and did not reassemble until 1640. The same Absolutist principles guided the French Kings and their ministers. Richelieu’s policies of increasing his support through patronage caused resentment amongst those in disfavour, and Mazarin’s financial manoeuverings in 1648 succeeded in uniting almost all his officials against him.

Taking a long view of history, it is not difficult to argue that any regime which gets more and more absolute in its philosophy and actions is doomed to overthrow, usually violently, by the people. This certainly happened in the British Isles, and although the Frondes did not succeed in altering the basic structure of French politics in the 1650s, within 150 years France was involved with the bloodiest revolution of them all.

Perhaps one of the major differences between the two countries was in the character of their leaders. Charles was vain, haughty, slippery and widely mistrusted even by conservative MPs. His personal interventions in affairs of state usually had disastrous consequences for him, and he seldom had the political nous to pacify his critics. A prime example was his attempted arrest of Pym, Hampden and other key politicians in January 1642, an event which caused him to flee to Hampton Court and finally convinced many waverers of his complete untrustworthiness. By contrast Mazarin was a skilled politician, who kept a grip on French affairs most of the time until his death in 1661. He had many enemies - as a foreign-born Cardinal with seemingly total control over Anne of Austria at the time of the Regency, he was the subject of much jealousy and intrigue from the French nobility at court and in the provinces. He, like Charles, was unsuccessful in the arrest of key opponents - he was forced by the mob to release Broussel and the other authors of the Chambre St-Louis proposals in 1648. Following this crisis he had to work extremely cleverly to get enough money on loan to finance a now virtually bankrupt government, and tried to play off the opposing factions against each other. The Peace of Rueil in 1649 proved only a temporary calm before the Frondes of the nobles and the antics of Condé and the Duc d’Orleans forced him into temporary exile. But throughout all the upheaval he contrived to keep in with the young King Louis, who recalled him to office in 1652, where he remained for the rest of his life.

There was a similarity between the governments of the two countries in that both had far-flung corners of their kingdoms whose constitutional position was uncertain or profoundly different, and where communication and administration were very difficult. Charles I had three kingdoms to worry about, and one could argue that his neglect and misunderstanding of his Scottish kingdom and his insensitivity in allowing Wentworth free rein in Ireland both led to armed conflict which in turn contributed to the unrest and civil war in England. In France the problem was rather different. The Paris parlement only had jurisdiction over less than half of France, and the Estates General, which were originally supposed to form a representative assembly of nobles clergy and people, could never agree about anything and were considered too dangerous to summon by the court faction. The provinces were run by powerful noble families, and the efforts by the central government to impose increasingly centralised tax-gathering mechanisms caused friction and in many cases led directly to armed conflict. During the Frondes themselves there was a progressive collapse of royal authority in the regions. However unlike in England there was no central parliament to act as a focus for opposition to the King, which meant that the regional disturbances were never co-ordinated, never became a nation-wide movement, and ultimately failed to topple the royalist regime.

In conclusion then, one can discern many important differences in the causes of the two conflicts. However with two increasingly absolute monarchies imposing increasingly high taxes on an increasingly poor populace, one is bound to conclude that civil strife was highly probable in both cases, and that it is not true that there was little in common between them.


Coward B The Stuart Age, England 1603-1714 Longman (1994)

Briggs R Early Modern France 1560-1715 Oxford University Press (1977)

Kekewich M (ed) Princes and Peoples France and the British Isles, 1620 - 1714 an Anthology of Primary Sources Manchester University Press (1994)

Golden R M The Godly Rebellion: Parisian Cures and the Religious Fronde, 1652-1662 University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill (1981)

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Promotion of New Building in Towns and Cities by the State and the Church in France and the British Isles in the 17th century

Despite the chronic shortage of money, extensive State-funded building was carried out in 17th century France and the British Isles, particularly in the capital cities of Paris and London and their suburbs. In other towns and cities the influence of the State tended to be less, so that more building was left to the initiatives of local nobles, churchmen and other townspeople.

It is sometimes difficult to pinpoint the exact raison d'être of a new building, but the main ones were probably the following: firstly the need to house the growing machinery and offices of the state, secondly the personal promotion and self-aggrandisement of the reigning monarch, thirdly the need to tackle the ever-growing problem of the urban poor, fourthly the growth and change, particularly in the British Isles, of forms of religious worship, and lastly the desire for personal advancement and improved status on behalf of local individuals through philanthropic endeavour.

In the early years of the century France and England both had a need for more space from which to carry out the government of the countries. Louis XIII embarked on an ambitious scheme to rebuild the Louvre Palace to house both himself and his court, and to include most of the important government offices. In similar fashion, James I and Charles I felt the need to rebuild the Palace of Whitehall to provide a centralised location for King and Court, and to replace most of the buildings which had grown up on the site in haphazard fashion over the years. As both Stuart kings were constantly plagued by financial and political troubles the palace was never completed as originally planned, except for the magnificent Banqueting House which was opened in 1622.

As well as fulfilling the practical needs to rehouse the seats of government, these new buildings allowed the rulers the opportunity to emphasise the splendour and nobility of the monarchy. Apart from the obvious pleasure the monarchs and their families and courts must have derived from this, there was the political need to display to the world the power and stability of the monarchy. 16th century France had been torn apart by civil strife, and in England, although Elizabeth's hold on the throne had been secure enough, the Stuarts were a relatively unknown family with Scottish, not English, ancestry, and felt the need to imply their permanence. The well proportioned rectangular Palladian style of Inigo Jones' Banqueting House projects this royal solidity and stability, while the Rubens ceiling depicts James I assuming Divine attributes, judging wisely like Solomon and also solidifying the union of England and Scotland.

At the Louvre Louis XIV was bolder than his father, and Colbert was able to persuade him in 1664 to build "a facade worthy of a Prince" on the Eastern wing. The whole quarter-mile long structure would "inspire respect in the minds of the nation", and so it still does today.

An earlier exercise in stamping a royal impression on the face of Paris was the building of the Palais de Luxembourg in 1615 by the Regent, Marie de Medici. She needed to emphasise her royal status as Regent, at the same time projecting her strong feminine personality. Her Italianate palace has a Rubens ceiling showing Marie as Juno, queen of the gods, receiving homage from France. There are also many allegories of feminine virtues and effigies of female saints.

But the most extreme example of royal aggrandisement was Louis XIV's amazing palace at Versailles. Whatever Louis' reasons for moving out from Paris, there is no doubting the success that Le Vau, Le Brun and Le Nôtre had in promoting Louis' image as the divinely approved Sun King, glorious in war and all-powerful at home and abroad. The palace abounds in images of the king, often dressed in classical Roman style, on horseback or in a chariot - crossing the Rhine in 1672 or flinging thunderbolts like Jove at his enemies. Images of his chosen emblem, the sun, alternate with images of Hercules, the all-powerful hero of Greek mythology. There is even a Gobelin tapestry of the Pope's legate apologising to the king for having not given due precedence to French ambassadors in Rome. Visitors to Versailles cannot have failed to be overwhelmingly impressed by the pomp and majesty of Louis, massively re-inforcing the cult of the monarchy.

Palace building in Britain was on an altogether more modest style, mainly because the funds available were much less. Charles II rebuilt Holyrood Palace in Edinburgh, where his desire to re-establish his royal authority is illustrated by the clock tower, topped not by a dome as one might expect, but by a crown surmounting the unicorns of Scotland. Another of Charles II's favourite exercises was the rebuilding of the Palace at Greenwich in 1661, and at the end of the century William III commissioned Wren to rebuild parts of Hampton Court.

Not all the major building projects by monarch or state were royal palaces. One of the besetting worries of political leaders in France, which was almost constantly at war, was what to do with the urban poor, many of whom were veteran or wounded servicemen and their families. Rather than allow them to fall into a life of vagabondage and beggary, the idea was to collect them off the streets, put them to useful work if they were able, and prepare them for a better life by teaching Christian moral virtues. There were several examples of this in and around Paris. In 1658 Mazarin and Louis XIV founded La Salpêtrière, which housed about 4000 poor people, a majority of whom were women, and put them through a programme of work and moral reform. But the most impressive establishment of this kind was Les Invalides in the centre of Paris, completed in 1676. It was originally designed to hold 2000 men, with living quarters, workshops and a large well-appointed chapel, emphasising the important role played by the Church in these enterprises.

Louis XIV was keen that such establishments should be set up elsewhere in France, and in 1662 issued a decree to that effect, but without providing any funds. In the British Isles, Wren's Chelsea Hospital, similar in concept to Les Invalides but on a much smaller scale, was opened near London in 1684, and in Dublin Kilmainham Hospital was founded in 1679 as a refuge for 300 returning war veterans.

The Church in both countries took an important part in the provision of hospitals, schools and universities, although in many more rural communities the local nobility played the more important role. School building in England was widespread - no less than 142 new grammar schools were established between 1603 and 1649. The church, with its desire to promote Protestantism, had a hand in much of this, and was also active in the support of higher education. Archbishop Laud, for example, became Chancellor of Oxford University, and among his many benefactions was the building of St John's College.

As far as church building itself is concerned, we must remember that in England at any rate many of the livings were in private hands. In 1604 the number was some 3,800 out of 9,200. New building for the established church was thus heavily privately funded, either by individuals or groups of local tradespeople in the community, as was the considerable growth of new, mostly chapel, buildings during the explosion of new religious creeds during the Commonwealth period.

The Great Fire of London of 1666 provoked new church building on an unparalleled scale. Wren, Evelyn and others produced for Charles II plans for the reconstruction of the whole City, but because of complications of ownership of land and of lack of money these plans were never fully implemented. Church rebuilding did however take place, and by 1721 the last of 51 new Wren churches had been opened for worship. The most imposing new building of all was St Paul's, with its unique (to England) dome, and other ideas adapted by Wren from continental Europe.

In the towns and cities outside the capitals, the initiatives for new building, both public and private, came principally from local nobles and magnates. Examples are plentiful. Heriot's Hospital was founded as a school for the fatherless sons of Edinburgh freemen from the bequest of George Heriot, a goldsmith who died in 1624. We can only speculate about what his prime motives were for this - either to perpetuate his name and advance his family's status (the school has a life-size statue of him, bears his name and has his initials and coat of arms carved in many of the buildings), or it was a genuine piece of pious philanthropy promoting the Protestant religion (one inscription at Heriot's declares that "Piety links Heaven with Earth"), or more likely a combination of the two.

Lady Margaret Hungerford is another whose benevolence is conspicuously displayed - outside her grounds at Corsham Court she built a school for 10 pupils and almshouses for the local poor, with provision for nursing for the sick. All these buildings prominently display the Hungerford arms. At Chipping Campden the wool-merchant Baptist Hickes spent lavishly out of his own pocket to redevelop the somewhat run-down town and church - although all his efforts did not succeed in turning the town into the prosperous city he had in mind. A rather similar failure attended the efforts of Cardinal Richelieu to set up a thriving cultural and commercial community at the town of Richelieu, where he hoped that his patronage would attract wealthy French nobles to build houses according to the strict design pattern that he had laid down.

Not every local building development was of course left to local people. Some towns, for instance, needed fortification for the defence of the realm - Gravelines near the Flanders border and Kinsale in southern Ireland are two examples. But in many towns and cities throughout both the kingdoms there is evidence of house building by local merchants and landowners. Many is the market square which is surrounded by the 17th century houses of wealthier merchants, who were near enough to the estates of the local nobility to receive their patronage in turn. There was also of course private house building in the capitals. Pepys tells of visiting the new house of the Chancellor, Clarendon, in Piccadilly while it was being rebuilt. "The noblest prospect that ever I saw in my life, Greenwich being nothing to it". (Grand house building in Paris was somewhat stagnant until the court "escaped" from Versailles after Louis XIV's death).

However it is fair to conclude that the dominant role in new building in Paris and London was played by the Church and State, whereas elsewhere it was usually local people who took the initiative and bore most of the cost.


Kekewich M (ed) Princes and Peoples France and the British Isles, 1620 - 1714 an Anthology of Primary Sources Manchester University Press (1994)

Coward B The Stuart Age, England 1603-1714 Longman (1994)

de Mare E Wren’s London The Folio Society (1975)

Latham R The Shorter Pepys The Folio Society (1985)

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Officially Established Religions in 17th century France and Britain

By the end of the 17th century it was clear what the officially established religions were to be in both France and the British Isles. It is not easy for dwellers in the cynical late 20th century to appreciate the extent to which religion dominated the lives of everybody, from princes to paupers, in the 17th century. The Age of Reason was still in the future, and belief in God was second nature to almost everyone. A few unlikely examples will suffice. The pleasure-loving and libidinous Pepys spent long hours listening to sermons, prayed regularly and was always quick to thank God for any good fortune that came his way. The brilliant scientist Isaac Newton was a devout believer, although he also dabbled in the occult. Madame de Maintenon, Louis XIV’s mistress (and secret wife) befriended the Abbé de Fenelon, who, to quote Nancy Mitford, “would stand by the fire, one beautiful white hand on the chimney-piece, talking and talking about God”. Exceptions were few; as well as “Hobbes the Atheist” there was the Whig politician Thomas Wharton, whom Danby accused of having once “pissed against the communion table and done his other occasions in a pulpit”.

Profound religious belief, and a conviction that they were doing the work of Providence, was clearly part of the motivation for the drive by monarchs such as Louis XIV and James II to establish religious conformity in their realms. But there were other forces at work as well, notably the widespread (but as a general rule mistaken) belief that religious freedom would lead to social unrest and disorder. In England there was throughout most of the century a deep distrust of anything or anyone that smacked of popery, the forces of the “Anti-Christ”. Anyone practising a faith different from that prescribed by the monarch could be accused of disloyalty and even treason.

At the start of the century France had on the face of it a more enlightened religious environment than Britain. Henri IV, who had gained political prestige by turning Protestant, had allowed a limited freedom to the Huguenots to practise their religion under the Edict of Nantes in 1598. This however did not stop Cardinal Richelieu doing everything he could to encourage Louis XIII to suppress the Huguenots. “As long as the Huguenot party exists in France, the king will not be absolute in his kingdom, and he will not be able to establish the order and rule to which his conscience obliges him and which the necessity of his people requires”. This quotation neatly sums up the later attitude of Louis XIV, who increasingly restricted the rights of the Huguenots until he finally decided to rid himself of a source of potential trouble by revoking the Edict of Nantes in 1685. His policy of enforcing conformity to the Catholic religion by bribery and coercion had clearly failed, although he claimed to have acted “out of generosity, not out of spite”. Revoking the Edict of Nantes and allowing the physical suppression of the Huguenots was widely popular in France, although Saint-Simon in his memoirs claimed that “good and true Catholics and the true bishops ..... bitterly lamented the durable and irremediable odium that detestable measure cast upon the true religion”. Some 250,000 Huguenots emigrated, 80,000 of them to Britain, whither they brought a wealth of skill and culture to add to the nation’s prosperity, reinforcing the anti-Catholic prejudices of most English people. Nor did the Huguenot problem go away - there was a major rising by the Camisards in the Cevennes in 1702 under the war cry of “Liberty of Conscience or Death”. The revolt was only suppressed after a long campaign and immense brutality.

Protestantism was not the only religious thorn in the flesh of Louis XIV. The Jansenists were a rather gloomy group of religious heretics within the Catholic church, who used the teachings of St Augustine to oppose the ideas and principles of the highly influential Jesuits. Louis XIV, a bitter if ignorant enemy of the Jansenists, tried unsuccessfully to suppress them by restrictions and exile, but never succeeded in doing so.

Whereas in England the monarch, as Head of the Church, had the final say in theological matters, Louis could always leave such difficult matters to the Pope. However his megalomania led him to resent the Pope’s interference in other church affairs, and he embarked on a long quarrel with Rome. At one stage there was even an impasse where no new bishops could be appointed, but Louis eventually abandoned his more extreme pretensions after realising that the Vatican could make things difficult for him in his diplomatic relations with other Catholic countries. By the end of Louis XIV’s long reign the orthodox Catholic religion was firmly established as the official church in France, although Jansenism was far from finished as a theological force.

Religious quarrels and tensions were, if anything, even more intense in the British Isles than in France. In Ireland William III’s victory over James II at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690 is still looked upon by members of the Orange order as a key historical landmark. Ireland was, and always has been, predominantly Catholic in belief, albeit with a powerful Protestant minority. Indeed when James II came to the throne the Dublin parliament was controlled by Protestants, and it was James’ support for Tyrconnell’s programme in Ireland of Catholicising first the army and then the other institutions that caused widespread alarm in England about James’ motives. After William’s victories several attempts were made by the Anglo-Irish landed class to impose Protestantism on Ireland, with Catholic bishops being expelled and property rights of Catholics being severely restricted. However some of the laws passed at the end of the century were not strictly implemented, so that by 1714, although the official religion was Protestant, the Roman Catholic faith in Ireland was very much alive.

In contrast to Ireland, the dominant religious creed throughout the century in Scotland was Presbyterianism. Attempts by the English to impose their own brand of episcopalian Anglicanism were doomed to failure - indeed the attempt to foist the English Prayer Book on a reluctant kirk in 1637 led to riots and unrest and ultimately to war. After the Restoration attempts were made to have episcopacy exist alongside Presbyterianism, but this also failed. In 1679 open rebellion broke out after the murder of the Archbishop of St Andrews by “distracted covenanters”. By 1690 the Episcopalian bishops in Scotland were inevitably associated with Jacobitism, and thus lost influence with the majority who supported William and Mary. Although William had initially resisted the demands for an independent kirk and parliament, his need for Presbyterian support at the Battle of Killiecrankie in 1689 finally persuaded him to allow the formal expulsion of all episcopalians and the establishment of the independent Scottish Presbyterian kirk. This independence was maintained in the 1707 Act of Union.

Strangely enough, Presbyterianism in the Scottish style was never properly understood or followed in England. The Civil War and Interregnum had seen the tremendous growth of all kinds of militant Protestant dissent, described by Macaulay as: “Boys smashing the beautiful windows of cathedrals; Quakers riding naked through the market-place; Fifth-monarchy-men shouting for King Jesus; agitators lecturing from the tops of tubs on the fate of Agag”. Cromwell, a militant Protestant believer himself, nevertheless yearned for social stability and order. The 1653 Instrument of Government extended religious toleration, but not to “popery and prelacy, nor to such as under the profession of Christ ..... abuse the liberty to the civil injury of others and to the actual disturbance of the public peace”. There are echoes of these sentiments in Charles II’s 1660 Declaration of Breda: “we do declare a liberty to tender consciences, and that no man shall be disquieted or called in question for differences of opinion in matter of religion which do not disturb the peace of the kingdom”.

These tolerant noises from the King did not prevent the Cavalier Parliament passing the so-called Clarendon Code in 1661, which introduced severe penalties on non-conformists, penalties that were not always strictly applied in practice. Protestant non-conformism remained widely followed, and acquired a political element by the end of the century, with Tories being associated with an intolerant High Church and Whigs with a more tolerant attitude towards Protestant non-conformism.

But it was the universal fear of Catholicism that was the predominant religious issue in the second half of the century - indeed after Charles II’s brother (and heir) James Duke of York publicly declared his Catholicism in 1673, it became the prime political issue for the next 15 years. A Commons petition way back in 1621 had alleged that Catholicism was a restless spirit, which would first be connived at, then tolerated, then get equality, then superiority, and finally a subversion of the “true” religion. Charles II, with his Catholic mother, Catholic wife and Catholic brother was considered (rightly) by many to have deep sympathy for the Catholic faith, and any move towards popery was often seen as a move towards absolutism by the monarchy. One did not have far to look for an example - Louis XIV’s aggressive expansionist policy in Europe coupled with his revocation of the Edict of Nantes fuelled these fears. Andrew Marvell wrote in 1677 that there been for several years a design “to change the lawful government of England into an absolute tyranny, and to convert the established Protestant religion into downright Popery”. Catholic trouble-makers were blamed for national disasters such as the 1666 Fire of London, and by 1678 anti-Catholic sentiment in England was at such a fever pitch that the notorious Titus Oates was able to accuse many of involvement in the ridiculous “Popish Plot” to assassinate the king and take over the reins of government. Interestingly, charges of attempting to establish authoritarian government were also levelled by those who favoured the exclusion of Catholics from high office (and ultimately James Duke of York from the accession) against those High Church Anglicans who were intolerant of Protestant dissenters. At all events, anti-Catholic hysteria dwindled, James II ascended the throne, Monmouth’s rebellion was roundly defeated and James felt secure enough to declare for Liberty of Conscience in 1687. But this, and his other measures to better the lot of the Catholics, united the Protestants in their deep suspicions of his motives, and meant that the support he received when William of Orange invaded was inadequate.

With William and Mary securely on the throne the fears of Catholicism receded, and it was not long before splits within the Anglican church itself rose to the surface. Several High Church Anglican leaders, notably Archbishop Sancroft, refused to accept the Revolution and thus opened the door for more tolerant Latitudinarians to take their place. The philosopher Locke argued that religion should be solely a matter for the individual’s own conscience, and the Latitudinarians worked assiduously for a comprehensive church, including some elements of Protestant dissent. However by the turn of the century the cry of “The Church in Danger” was heard from High Church Tories and the religious battle became a political one which continued throughout Queen Anne’s reign and beyond.

By 1714 the issue of toleration for groups outside the Church of England was still not resolved, although the Church of England itself was firmly established as the official religion. Just as in France with their officially established Roman Catholicism, the exact nature of that official religion was still open to question and had further to evolve.


Mitford N The Sun King Hamish Hamilton (1966)

Coward B The Stuart Age, England 1603-1714 Longman (1994)

Kekewich M (ed) Princes and Peoples France and the British Isles, 1620 - 1714 an Anthology of Primary Sources Manchester University Press (1994)

Briggs R Early Modern France 1560-1715 Oxford University Press (1977)

Macaulay T B History of England from 1485 to 1685 Folio Society (1985)

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The Banqueting House, Whitehall and the Political Aspirations of the Early Stuarts

The Banqueting House The Banqueting House at Whitehall was originally conceived by James I and his architect, Inigo Jones, as part of a rebuilt palace of Whitehall, which was designed to be as magnificent a royal display as finances would allow. Unfortunately for the Stuarts their constant financial and political troubles meant that the palace was never completed as originally planned. The Banqueting House was completed in 1622, with some parts being added at a later date.

The building is well proportioned and rectangular in the Palladian style, and its classical symmetry gives it an air of solidity as well as of grandeur. The main part of the building is about 120 ft by 70 ft, with one long side adjoining the then edge of Whitehall Palace, where the public had access. The main Banqueting Hall itself was a large room, allowing many hundreds of people to be present when necessary.

So why was it built? James I believed passionately in the Divine Right of Kings, and even went as far as declaring in 1610 that "even by God himself they are called gods". But as subsequent events were to underline dramatically, the monarchy was under constant threat, and its institutions were felt by James, and even more so by his son Charles I, to need reinforcement and aggrandisement. The Banqueting House, with its four-square solid symmetrical look and sumptuous but not ornate interior, was considered at the time to be a good representation of that absolute monarchism that James so strongly believed in.

One of the main activities that would-be absolute monarchs like the early Stuarts wished to keep as their sole prerogative was Foreign Policy. They therefore considered it necessary to have a suitably grand building wherein to receive ambassadors and other foreign dignitaries, hence the Banqueting House. The building was also used, until 1637 at any rate, for the performance of royal masques, in some of which the King and Queen actually played a part. These masques invariably reflected the political views of the monarchs.

The Rubens Ceiling in the Banqueting House The Rubens ceiling was commissioned by Charles I in the 1630s and completed in Charles II’s time in 1670, and it was probably this that most embodied the political aspirations of the Stuarts. The central circular painting depicts James I being carried aloft by the figure of Justice to take his place as the equal of the pagan gods. Another panel shows James dispensing justice, in the role of Solomon the Wise, and pointing to figures representing Peace and Plenty on one side, while Minerva protects him from Mars the god of war on the other. A third panel shows him with figures representing England, Scotland and Britannia, together with the infant Charles I. Maintenance of the Union between the English and Scottish monarchies was always a prime political ambition of the Stuarts.


Coward B The Stuart Age, England 1603-1714 Longman (1994)

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Royal Absolutism in Britain and France

James I was something of an intellectual, and as such wrote and spoke on several occasions about the theory of kingship. He believed strongly in the divine right of kings: he even went as far as declaring in 1610 that even by God himself kings are called gods. Charles I, like his father before him and his French cousins across the channel, was also a convinced believer in the divine right of kings. His natural instincts therefore were to rely as little as possible on parliament and the people (except for money), and more and more on a powerful elite to support an Absolute Monarchy. Parliament was dismissed in 1629 and did not reassemble until 1640. The precise causes of the civil war are many and complex, but a recurrent theme was the abhorrence in the minds of many decent Englishmen of Absolute Monarchy being wielded by a king they considered (probably rightly) as devious, untrustworthy, stubborn and politically inept.

Interestingly it could be argued that the ruler who came nearest to wielding absolute power in Britain was Oliver Cromwell, who, having dismissed the Rump parliament in 1653 was answerable to nobody but his own conscience - although he did have to ensure that he carried the army with him. He turned down the chance of seizing the crown, but his Protectorate was none the less inherited by his son. A more capable man than Richard Cromwell might well have succeeded in retaining power and founding a new royal dynasty, but it was not to be.

After the Restoration there was clearly a chance for Charles II and later James II to exercise a powerful benevolent despotism with the consent of the people who had restored the Stuarts after experiencing the uncertainties and unrest of republican rule. There was an efficient tax-collecting system, an effective centrally organised navy and a small standing army. However whatever the “Absolute” instincts of Charles II were, his indolence, his believed sympathies with Catholicism (he had a Catholic mother, a Catholic Queen and a Catholic heir), his alliances with France rather than the Protestant Dutch and above all his chronic shortage of money meant that he could never run the country effectively without parliament, and could never exercise absolute power. Charles had been granted by parliament an income for life, but this was never enough even at a time of peace. His chief minister for the latter half of his reign, Danby, never succeeded in controlling Charles’ expenditure, and it could be argued that this was the one single factor that prevented an Absolute Monarchy. In 1681 Charles, believing he was now financially more secure, prorogued parliament, but the Exclusion Crisis brought the country to the brink of civil war. At about this time the country was beginning to experience two party politics, with the growth of what soon became known as the Whigs and Tories. Neither party emerged with much credit from this period: the Popish plot did much to discredit the Tories, but the abortive Rye House plot damaged the Whigs considerably. Strong government was probably impossible in these circumstances.

With the Exclusion crisis out of the way, James II ascended the throne and soon found himself, having seen off Monmouth’s rebellion, in a potentially even stronger position than his brother. He had a compliant Tory parliament, was financially more secure than any previous Stuart monarch, and was prepared to tolerate religious liberty. Unfortunately for him there was a deep mistrust in England of the absolutist leanings of the Stuarts, and Catholicism and Absolutism were equated in the minds of the political nation. Horror stories of the aftermath of Louis XIV’s revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685 brought across by Huguenot refugees fuelled these fears, and when James was seen to be allowing the Catholicisation of Ireland, and was promoting dissenters and catholics into positions of power and influence in England, the country’s mistrust of him became overwhelming.

By the time William III had been safely installed and accepted, albeit grudgingly in some quarters, by the British people, the institution of the two-chamber parliament was so well established that even if he wanted to, William was in no position to exercise absolute power. As it was his interests lay further afield, and his close involvement in continental European politics and warfare allowed party politics at home to entrench itself as a political way of life for the English nation.

The same Absolutist principles guided the French Kings and their ministers throughout the century. Both Richelieu and Mazarin achieved their power during Regency periods, and set about governing the country as best they could through their own network of followers and supporters, reforming the revenue gathering systems as the highest priority.

On the face of it Louis XIV looked to be as near to an absolute monarch as one could imagine. He lived in unbelievable splendour in his magnificent palace of Versailles, surrounded by a compliant court and a ready supply of mistresses. The image that he presented to the world was of an all-conquering divinely appointed military hero with unlimited power. However the reality was somewhat different.

When Louis XIV assumed personal rule in 1661 all was not sweetness and light. There was much opposition to his actions. For example his arbitrary dismissal of Fouquet did not find favour with everyone, and at his trial he was not condemned to death as the king wished, but banished to perpetual imprisonment. Louis’ policies of increased war, and hence increased taxation, led to innumerable problems and unrest all over the country, and eventually the further sale of offices, government borrowing and default on payments and debasement of the currency provoked major criticism of his rule. His very able finance minister, Colbert, was successful in keeping these criticisms at bay most of the time, but Louis was never able to act entirely arbitrarily and outside the rule of law, however much he may have wished to. He had a constant struggle to tame the fractious nobility of France - there was no way that the country could be successfully governed without their being brought under Colbert’s net.

The absolute power of any Catholic monarch was always limited by his relations with the Vatican. Louis, while being content to leave the finer points of theological doctrine to the Pope, was not at all keen to see interference from Rome in such matters as the organisation of the Gallic church and the appointment of bishops and clergy. Towards the end of Louis’ long reign he was also engaged in bitter feuding with the Jansenists, whom Louis considered to be undermining the authority of the state by their anti-Jesuitical teaching and practice. He was never able to stop this feud, nor indeed to stamp out protestantism in France. His revocation of the Edict of Nantes caused him to lose thousands of talented people from France, and caused widespread alarm in his neighbouring Protestant countries such as Holland and England. There was also a major revolt in Cevennes in 1707 by the Protestant Camisards which was only suppressed after many years of bitter struggle.

Louis had intellectual support for his absolutist yearnings. Bishop Bossuet, the leading Gallican churchman under Louis, argued that a legitimate prince was accountable to none, and that his decisions should stand and not be challenged. However, everything he did was subject to the will of God, and any action that he took contrary to the laws of the state was legally null. He counselled moral rectitude in the king, who tended to equate the good of the state with his own grandeur and pride. Intellectual critics of Louis never suggested any alternatives to an absolute monarchy, they merely sought to temper his more extreme policies with more moderate ones. La Bruyère for instance claimed that absolute rulers had no absolute claim on people’s property, and Fenelon was highly critical of Louis’ war policy.

In England Sir Robert Filmer argued that royal power was derived directly from God and that it should not be subject to temporal restraint. He likened the position of the monarch to the nation to that of the father to the family, quoting biblical authority for these views. The father had almost unlimited power over the family, and therefore the monarch should have the same over the nation. This philosophy had powerful support in France, where the father of a family had considerable rights under the law. Filmer of course was not without his critics, notably the philosopher John Locke who argued that state obedience bore no relation to family obedience, and Thomas Hobbes who argued that the right of a sovereign (or elected assembly) to exercise absolute power depended on his ability to protect people.

In summary one could argue that Louis XIV was certainly more absolute in his power than, say, Henri IV had been, but Queen Anne was much more answerable to the people than Queen Elizabeth ever was.


Miller J Bourbon and Stuart: Kings and Kingship in France and England in the Seventeenth Century George Philip, London (1987)

Parker D The Making of French Absolutism Edward Arnold, London (1983)

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Propaganda in 17th Century Britain and France

In most of the 17th century, newspapers in the form that we now know were virtually unknown. Even when there was an assembly such as the English parliament in session, there was no official record of the proceedings, so the ordinary literate man or woman had very little else except the output of political pamphleteers and ballad-mongers to help him form his political views. Political pamphleteering was a powerful and widely-used phenomenon throughout the century, from attacks on Cardinal Richelieu in the 1620s to attacks on the Duke of Marlborough nearly 100 years later.

Richelieu was one of the first statesmen to realise the power of political propaganda. He had been the subject of much personal attack in pamphlets for his foreign policy (allying with heretics), his treatment of the Queen Mother and her younger son and other grandees, the crushing weight of his taxation and his personal arrogance. Most of these pamphlets were published in secret or abroad, so in order to counter them effectively he instituted state propaganda of his own. His official publication, the Gazette, and other treatises and pamphlets praised Richelieu as the saviour of the French nation, and the preserver of European liberty from Spanish tyranny.

Naturally the more popular pamphlets were the more subversive anti-establishment publications. For one thing they were more fun, and for another they appealed to mankind's more basic instincts and morbid desire to read about horrors, cruelties and perversions, and hence sold better. A good example of this is the large number of anti-Catholic propaganda leaflets and pamphlets produced in the 1640s in the run up to the civil war in England. The easiest targets for anti-Catholic propaganda were the Irish, who are depicted, for instance, in The Teares of Ireland, produced in 1642, as slaughtering Protestant women and children at Portadown Bridge, torturing Protestant ministers in front of their families, mutilating the dead and giving succour and blessing to the rebels via Catholic priests.

The attacks on Cardinal Mazarin before the Frondes were only slightly more subtle than this. Popular opinion against the foreign cardinal was whipped up through a series of virulent pamphlets known as the Mazarinades. Mazarin himself was quick to respond to this situation by producing his own political literature in praise of his own actions.

In England immediately after the civil war the amount of political pamphleteering was so great that printed works had to be officially licensed. John Milton was so incensed at this that he produced the Areopagitica in 1644 attacking the licensing process. However the Rump Parliament became progressively repressive of other people's views - particularly groups like the Levellers - so that Milton was eventually employed to carry out a fairly restrictive political censorship. The only officially sanctioned newssheet was the government newspaper Mercurius Politicus, which was a highly successful outlet for government propaganda.

Anti-Catholic hysteria in England reached its fever-pitch during the time of the Popish Plot in the 1670s. Much of the anti-Catholic feeling was whipped up by propaganda, much of it probably instigated by Shaftesbury and the Whigs. As with all propaganda, it was not the facts that mattered and shaped the course of events, but what people believed those facts to be.

Later in the century there are examples of political and religious pamphleteering on most of the key issues of the day. In France the mathematician Blaise Pascal produced a series of pamphlets lampooning some of the Jesuitical practices of the established French church, a series that did much to fuel the subversive (or so it was believed) movement of the Jansenists. These articles were also translated into English and used for anti-Catholic propaganda. When Monmouth wanted to promote his own image as a possible heir to the throne, his advisers ensured that his progress through the West country was accompanied by propaganda leaflets praising his exploits.

Political writing became more respectable in England in the later half of the century. Jonathan Swift edited a weekly journal, The Examiner, which together with other weekly journals such as Addison's Spectator, gave added impetus to the burgeoning two-party politics that were just beginning to emerge. The first daily paper, the Courant, appeared in 1702.

The techniques employed by the pamphleteers were sometimes quite subtle. Often the targets were likened to classical, mythical or Old Testament figures, and elaborate allegories paralleling the current situation would be constructed. Texts were accompanied by illustrations, often in the form of woodcuts, to both reinforce the text and to provide interest to the illiterate. (Woodcuts were the easiest kind of illustration to reproduce, and often the same woodcut was used to illustrate different scenes). Many of the pamphlets, for obvious reasons, were produced anonymously, but usually the printer was identified. During the century several well-known literary figures in England, (although less so in France) indulged in political writing, including Milton, Defoe, Marvell, Swift, Steele and Addison.

In the absence of other means of political discussion, the pamphlet and broadsheet were an important source for opposition views to be expressed throughout the century.


Coward B The Stuart Age, England 1603-1714 Longman (1994)

Briggs R Early Modern France 1560-1715 Oxford University Press (1977)

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The Use of High Art by Princes in 17th Century France and Britain

The early Stuart kings were from a relatively unknown Scottish family, and as such were very eager to promote their grandeur as monarchs to British and international society. To this end they embarked on a programme of completely rebuilding the Palace of Whitehall, a project that was never completed because of lack of funds. However the magnificent Banqueting House of Inigo Jones was built, and is a fine example of the use of High Art to promote the royal attributes of the kings. The prime influences were not French, but Italian from the Palladian style of Inigo Jones, and Dutch from the great painter Peter Paul Rubens who did the ceiling.

Rubens was also employed by Marie de Medici, the Regent of France during Louis XIII's minority, to paint the ceiling of her Palais de Luxembourg in the heart of Paris. As Regent she felt she needed to express her own personality and set up an alternative court. The Palais, with its collection of female caryatids and images of goddesses and mothers of famous classical heroes was designed to express the owner's femininity, and the Italianate designs echo her country of origin.

Charles I had always been keen on fine design, and established a tapestry factory along the lines of the French Gobelin factory at Mortlake. He did much to promote the arts of gold- and silver-smithing, but more importantly was something of a connoisseur of painting, and during his reign acquired a considerable quantity of fine paintings from the continent. Like his cousin Louis XIII he was also a collector of jewellery and furniture.

At this period Italian art was somewhat suspect for the English nobility - the works of such as Raphael or Bellini being too associated with the dreaded popery to be fashionable. Court painters were drawn from protestant countries - Van Dyke was Dutch, Lely Flemish and Kneller German. All these painters had an extremely important role to play in the portrayal of their masters in the appropriate trappings of a powerful monarchy. There is a marked contrast, for instance, in the Martyns portraits of the shy and rather diffident Charles I and the confident military-looking monarch, often seated on horseback, as portrayed by Van Dyke.

Louis XIII, like Charles, was also painted on horseback, and in his magnificent palace at the Louvre was portrayed in classical military pose - a favourite guise of monarchs wishing to emphasise their military prowess. Louis was also keen to have his name linked in the minds of his subjects to the great Charles V and earlier revered dynasties of French kings.

But without question the grandest and most envied monarch in all Europe was Louis XIV, whose pride, caprice and bad taste (as Saint-Simon put it - although not until 1750) led him to have constructed the amazing Palace of Versailles, to which he moved in 1661, transferring the seat of the French government there in 1682. In building it he employed the best architects designers and painters in France at the time, including le Vau, Le Brun and le Nôtre whose work he had seen at Nicolas Fouquet's Vaux-le-Vicomte. Mansart designed the famous Gallerie de Glaces which was completed in 1678. This court provided a focus for all that was considered best in French culture, and visitors from abroad were suitably staggered at the splendour and grandeur of the Sun King. It was not only in building that French culture led the world - the plays of Molière and Racine, the music of Lully, the Boulle furniture, the clothes, the fashions, the dancing and the manners were all widely admired and copied.

After the Restoration, Charles II brought a considerable French influence to bear on English cultural life. He and his brother had spent much of their young adult life as guests of Louis XIV, and their mother Henrietta Maria was French. French was widely spoken in England, and people like Evelyn, Pepys, Dryden and Mary Astell all spoke it fairly fluently, and sermons were often preached in French in the capital. The music of Purcell is very similar to that of Lully, and Restoration Comedy - Wycherly, Farquahar, Vanburgh, Congreve etc - owes much to Molière. Shakespeare was re-written by Davenant, Shadwell and Tate to incorporate French standards of correctness and taste, and plays often had musical overtures added in the French style. Charles II, in the French manner, was wont to have a 24 violin orchestra playing while he dined. French opera was much praised by Charles, and the Duke of Monmouth was supposed to have excelled at French dancing. Christopher Wren was a great admirer of French architecture - he went into raptures when he saw the plans for the magnificent new east facade at the Louvre. The domes of St Paul's and of Chelsea Hospital are both inspired by the French work of Lemercier and others that Wren saw in Paris at Les Invalides, the Sorbonne Chapel and elsewhere. Incidentally these domes owed much to Italian influence, so Wren was really copying French copies of Italian style.

The most French of Wren's designs was probably the now destroyed Winchester palace which he built for Charles II. This was modelled very much on the lines of Versailles, although on a much more modest scale. The influence of Versailles can be seen at several other places - Ralph Montagu's "English Versailles" at Boughton and the Wren-designed extensions to Hampton Court being two examples. Indeed it is strange to find that although William III's lifelong passion seems to have been to resist the growing power of Louis XIV by leading a European coalition of as many states as possible against him, he nonetheless retained a high regard for all things French. He is reputed to have gone as far as ordering his clothes and furniture from France at the same time as fighting them on the battlefield. He hired Le Nôtre's nephew to build an ornamental garden in the French style at Windsor.

However at the turn of the century the French influence was beginning to wane. There is some evidence of a reaction to the overuse of the French language in English letters - Addison wrote a biting satirical letter on the subject in the Spectator. The Dutch influence of William and his courtiers was beginning to win the day - witness the popularity of Peter Lely as portrait painter and the prominence given to the excellent carvings of Grinling Gibbons. The best evidence of this changing fashion is probably to contrast the famous Rigaud painting of Louis XIV with his flowing royal apparel with the sober and dignified portrait of Queen Anne by Godfrey Kneller. It is also worth noting that French religious ideas were never exported to England, and the deductive scientific and philosophical methods of Descartes were never adopted by the empirically minded inductive thinkers such as Newton and Locke.

High Art, particularly in the fields of architecture and painting, was immensely important in flattering the image of 17th century monarchy, and as the French were the most successful at so doing, French art and culture were exported to England throughout the century.


Coward B The Stuart Age, England 1603-1714 Longman (1994)

Briggs R Early Modern France 1560-1715 Oxford University Press (1977)

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The Consequences of the Mid 17th Century Disturbances in France and Britain

It is somewhat ironic that Louis XIV in 1685 and Charles II in 1670 were in as powerful positions as monarchs as anyone had ever been in their respective kingdoms. Yet Charles I had lost the civil war, while Louis had not been toppled by the Frondes.

In the previous century France had been racked by civil strife in the so-called Wars of Religion. When the Frondes had been beaten and comparative calm had settled on the nation, most Frenchmen were extremely reluctant to do anything which would embroil the country in yet more internal warfare, particularly at a time when their monarch was pursuing an aggressive foreign policy with external warfare as its main result. This meant that the tax-gathering systems of Richelieu and Mazarin were soon in operation once again, and refined even further during Louis XIV’s personal rule by his able minister, Colbert. There were of course many challenges to royal authority - the revolts of the Camisards in the Cevennes in 1702 and the Tard-Avises in Quercy in 1707 were both quite serious, however they never reached the kind of level where the stability of the regime was seriously threatened. In the long run the yearning of influential Frenchmen for stability and traditional culture ensured the foundering of challenges to the old order.

It was this similar yearning for order and stability which motivated much of Cromwell’s policy after the wars. Supported as he was by the army, he very nearly achieved a lasting stability. But a stability that is only maintained by force and fails to capture the hearts and minds of ordinary folk is usually not a lasting one, and such is the case with Cromwell.

In the immediate aftermath of the war, monarchy and the House of Lords were abolished and a Commonwealth was proclaimed. Compulsory church attendance was repealed, the extreme views of the Levellers were repressed, and severe measures to try to bring into line the more outrageous new religious sects were introduced. It looked as if the Rump parliament was actually going to make republican government work. However when the Rump alienated the opinion of the powerful army, Cromwell had to side with the army and dismissed the parliament. It soon became clear that the nominated assembly that took its place, the so-called Barebones parliament, could not sustain the support of the majority of public opinion and it had to go. The experiment of centralised rule by the Major-Generals did not succeed either, and Cromwell soon realised he needed the support of respectable moderate local gentry to run the country successfully. The Humble Petition and Right enshrined the principle that parliament was supreme and not the army, and incidentally restored the upper house. When Richard Cromwell tried to rely on civilians versus the army he failed, the army calling for the dismissal of parliament and the recalling of the Rump. It was the decisive action of General Monck marching from Scotland and occupying London that secured the Restoration. Monck had realised that without the traditional figurehead of a monarch there was no basis for a lasting stability - neither the army nor the Rump could rule alone.

At the Restoration there was general rejoicing, a general pardon and restoring of property, religious tolerance was proclaimed and the army was paid off. A better politician or a wiser and more prudent man than Charles II might well have reigned with the support of parliament over a contented and exhausted nation.

As it was, the country was shortly on the brink of civil war on at least three more occasions in the century: at the Exclusion Crisis, Monmouth’s rebellion and the Glorious Revolution of 1688. The fact that none of these resulted in the major and prolonged conflict that had wracked the country in mid-century was certainly in part due to that same longing for stability and fear of the consequences of major civil disorder that the Frondes had brought about in the breasts of the French.


Coward B The Stuart Age, England 1603-1714 Longman (1994)

Briggs R Early Modern France 1560-1715 Oxford University Press (1977)

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Control of the Periphery by the Centre in 17th Century France and Britain

One might be forgiven for assuming that France must have been a very much easier place to govern in the 17th century than the British Isles. France was one country with one government, whereas the British Isles was three (if you reckon England and Wales as one), with one of them, Ireland, separated by the Irish Sea from the others. But before coming to any such conclusion one should look a little bit closer at how France operated. France was a much larger country, with borders to the north and east that were constantly being fought over, and with a much larger population than the British Isles. For historical reasons some parts of France such as Languedoc, Provence, Brittany and Burgundy, the so-called pays d’etat, had a different local constitution and tax-raising system from the rest, the pays d’elections. (Marillac tried to change their status, but succeeded only in the case of Dauphine). France was in reality a composite kingdom. Brittany, for example, had its own language and its own culture, so there was a major communication problem to contend with. The Huguenots in La Rochelle, Nantes and elsewhere had been granted a fair measure of self-government under Henri IV’s Edict of Nantes. Additionally the regional parlements, or assemblies, had certain judicial powers over the regions, although there was no one assembly covering the whole country as there was in England or Scotland. These parlements were often at odds with local nobles, townspeople and peasantry, and with each other. There was one occasion when a deputation of several regional parlements met at the Chambre St Louis in Paris to draw up a national list of grievances against Mazarin’s proposed tax reforms, but the cardinal was able to dupe them by agreeing more or less with their demands. Otherwise the parlements never acted in unison - which made Mazarin’s job in quelling the Frondes very much easier.

Throughout the entire period France was at war for roughly two years out of every three. The reasons for this were many, but included attempts to limit the power of other states, notably the Hapsburgs, the perceived need to safeguard existing borders (or re-conquer former French territory), and the almost megalomaniac desires of Louis XIV to achieve personal and national gloire on the battlefield. The constant number one political worry of all French rulers during the century was the raising of enough money by taxes or other means to pay for the ever-increasing cost of these wars. To do this they had to use and improve existing taxation systems, and impose new ones if they could. The main tax system, the taille, was supposed to be proportional to the individual’s ability to pay. Throughout the century there were many local protests and riots over the increasing demands, and often the local nobility found themselves siding with the protesters, as did other local notables such as the curés. Local nobles had long been accustomed to running local affairs their own way, and often had what amounted to their own private armies to enforce their will on the populace. They were for the most part however loyal to the king, expressing their discontent as being against the local paid agents of the king rather than the king himself. Louis XIII took some trouble to travel round the country so that he could be seen by the populace. The technically independent Duchy of Lorraine was ruled by the powerful Guise family, but this did not stop Richelieu from brusquely dismissing the Duc de Guise as governor when he got too powerful. Similarly the powerful Duc d’Épernon at Bordeaux was dismissed, excommunicated and forced to flee the country.

One of Cardinal Richelieu’s most effective ways of curbing local independence was his increasing use of intendants. These were officials appointed by the Crown to administer and collect taxes from the local areas. They were seldom drawn from local communities, but rather selected from the growing class of noblesse de robe, many of whom owed their nobility to royal (or cardinal) patronage, and who were resented by the old grandees, the noblesse d’epée. (The noblesse de robe could buy their status, which included the important one of tax exemption). The commissions of the intendants were often wide-ranging and potentially powerful, ranging from the collection of taxes to the administration of justice. It is not difficult to see why these people, never more than about 50 in number, were the cause of local resentment, and equally why they were so useful to the central government. As well as increasing the flow of much-needed revenue they also acted as local eyes and ears for the likes of Richelieu, Mazarin and Colbert.

Another policy which proved effective in both fund-raising and increasing the influence of the centre was the so-called paulette, or sale of offices. Under this system ambitious people could buy offices, which ranged widely in the powers attached, for themselves and often for their heirs as well. Although this system did not necessarily lead to increased efficiency in handling the tasks of the office, it did increase the web of patronage that the centre could use to promote their interests. In Beauvais, for instance, the town was originally governed by a local commune, but gradually the power fell into the hands of venal office-holders, until finally the Town Governor became all-powerful.

Although France, unlike England, had an enormous state bureaucracy, it was not unknown for rulers such as Louis XIV to take a thoroughly pragmatic approach to solving local difficulties. A local governor might protest about the raising of some form of tax - the Crown would make a fairly outrageous demand, but after negotiation and discussion, often with Louis XIV himself, a compromise would be reached. This compromise seldom seems to have resulted in increased influence of the region, but rather the reverse.

Burdensome taxes, often coupled with harvest failures, outbreaks of plague and a general decline of trade led to protests and riots of varying severity, such as the revolt of the Nu-Pieds in 1639. Sometimes of course the local opposition turned into full-scale revolt, as in the case of the Frondes in mid-century. These rebellions, sparked off usually by complaints against the fiscal system, were not in general aimed at separatism, but rather in defence of local sectional interests. The military and diplomatic successes of Mazarin and Louis XIV in quelling the Frondes resulted in a situation where Louis, after his adoption of personal rule in the 1660s, arguably had more power as an absolute monarch over the regions than had ever been achieved before.

However much this absolutism was a consummation devoutly to be wished by the Stuarts, they never achieved the power over the people or the regions to realise it. One only has to look at the example of Ireland to appreciate this. Ireland was usually ruled by a Lord Lieutenant appointed by the King, who seldom if ever bothered to visit its shores. There was a parliament in Dublin, but its jurisdiction never effectively went “beyond the pale”, the more settled and fertile districts round the capital. Wentworth’s avowed policy when he was Lord Deputy was to keep the country increasingly subordinate and dependent on England for supplies.

Scotland, too, had its own parliament and its own separate nationhood. (It was not formally joined to England until the Act of Union in 1707). Scotland, like Ireland, was looked upon by the English as a colony to be exploited for their benefit, and not as an equal partner at all. As early as the reign of James I one Warburton was proposing that Scotland should become a parcel of England. Astonishingly Charles I only twice in his entire reign visited Scotland, once for his coronation and once for his extraordinarily inept handling of the so-called “Incident”, an abortive plot to seize the leading covenanters by extreme royalists in 1641. Charles’ lack of understanding of and inability to handle his Scottish kingdom contributed greatly to his downfall. For example, in the main the wealth of the Scottish nobility and gentry, in the Lowlands at any rate, was reckoned in terms of land. In 1625 Charles tried to retake the land titles from some of the Scottish nobles - a measure obviously doomed to failure. Again, Scotland was fiercely independent when it came to matters of religion. It was bad enough when many local Presbyterian communities were resenting the imposition of Episcopalian systems from south of the border, but the last straw was the attempt by Charles and Laud in 1637 to impose the Anglican, and as the Scots perceived Alien, prayer-book on the Scottish kirk. The subsequent riots were a trigger that eventually led to actual warfare in the so-called Bishops War of 1639.

Warfare also broke out in Ireland, when in 1641 the native Irish in Ulster rebelled under Phelim O’Neill, sparking off brutal atrocities from Catholic and Protestant participants, the severity and causes of which are still disputed by historians today. Order was not totally restored until Cromwell finally subdued the Catholic rebels in 1653. His main policy of controlling this difficult periphery was to prise away the power from Catholic landowners by confiscating their land and resettling it with protestant settlers from Scotland and England. We still reap the harvest of that policy today.

Apart from Scotland and Ireland, the problems faced by the Stuarts in controlling the periphery as opposed to the centre were less severe. Local government in England was largely in the hands of the unpaid local gentry, who as local landowners and justices of the peace were anxious to promote order and peace in their local communities. In this they were supported by the local church and judiciary. Country gentry by and large felt that they had their influence with affairs at the centre through their representation in Parliament - JPs were often MPs as well. Charles I’s attempts to replace some of the old family JPs with others of a newer class that might have been more malleable failed. The unrest that led to the English Civil Wars was more a function of resentment by that parliament of the King’s taking on himself too many of the powers that they considered should be vested with them, rather than any specific regional grievances. The townspeople of London were as solidly against the King as anyone. After the war Cromwell soon came to realise that to keep order within England he needed to rely on the old-fashioned systems of local gentry running local affairs. His attempts to rule through the Major-Generals in 1655 smacked too much of control by the centre to be successful, and were therefore doomed to failure. James II was not so sensible - his attempts to replace local elites with Dissenters and Catholics caused widespread resentment, and were major contributors to his lack of support when William of Orange invaded.

Although regional problems in England in the later part of the century remained relatively minor, Ireland and particularly Scotland remained difficult places for London to control. There was a constant fear of foreign invasion via the shores of Ireland, so work was carried out to fortify some coastal towns and there was always a military presence. There was even some worry in parliament that William III was trying to establish an independent power-base in Ireland, a worry that contributed to their reluctance to grant him a standing army.

In Scotland the Highlands had always been an unruly and fairly ungovernable region, and when Argyll was exiled in 1681 the attempts to impose order on the Highlands met with only patchy success. Scotland after the Act of Union remained a target for Jacobite agitation, and actual rebellion in the 18th century. Another interesting consequence of the Act of Union was that the Scottish nobility found they often had to go to London to look after their interests, which gave rise to the increasing influence of Scottish lairds in local politics.

In summary then, subsequent events were to show that England and France had both successfully learned how to control their peripheries - apart from the Jacobite risings there was relative peace in the British Isles, while in France there was another 70 years before the major revolution was to take place.


Coward B The Stuart Age, England 1603-1714 Longman (1994)

Briggs R Early Modern France 1560-1715 Oxford University Press (1977)

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