Absolutism – What it is, concept, characteristics and context

We explain what absolutism was, the historical context in which it arose and its characteristics. Also, the monarchs who practiced it.

absolutism Louis XIV
Absolutism was the ideology and political regime of the Old Regime.

What is absolutism?

Absolutism was an ideology and a political regime typical of the so-called Old Regime (Ancien régime in French), that is, of the state of things in monarchical Europe, before the French Revolution of 1789. The name absolutism comes from the existence of an absolute government, which controls the whole of society without being accountable to anyone, and that at that time it rested in the figure of the kings.

Absolutism it was the prevailing political model between the 16th and 19th centuries, when it was either violently overthrown by revolutions, as in the case of France, or gradually converted into a liberal monarchical system, as was the case in England.

These total governments of the aristocracy were known as absolutist monarchies and in them there were no type of institutions (or public powers) that mediated between the people and the authority, or between which power was distributed. On the contrary, the king was the state and his word was law.

This relationship can be expressed in legal terms as the authority (in this case the monarch) had only rights regarding his subjects, and no type of duty; which means that it is beyond the very laws that it formulates.

That is, a king could not be judged for violating the laws that he has formulated, since he is on another plane, that of absolute authority. Nor could their decisions be questioned, nor could they contradict their will, nor protest to anyone: the King was the supreme magistrate in all possible areas.

Paradoxically, absolutism coexisted during part of the 18th century with the Enlightenment and its liberal and emancipatory proposals, thus giving rise to enlightened despotism, that is, a form of authoritarian monarchy that promoted the ideas of progress and education among its subjects. Newly in the mid-nineteenth century the so-called Spring of the Peoples put an end to it on the European continent.

Historical context of absolutism

The history of absolutism begins with the end of the Middle Ages, when European monarchies began to concentrate power in your hands. This was made possible by the weakening of the Catholic Church and the papacy, the result of previous events such as the Western Schism and the Protestant Reformation.

With no one to contradict their power, kings began to act in an increasingly authoritarian manner, especially in the kingdoms of Portugal, Spain, France, and England, which increasingly functioned as nation-states. This is the time of the beginning of the transition from feudalism to capitalism.

Nevertheless, full absolutism occurred in seventeenth-century France, under the reign of Louis XIV, famous for his phrase “The State is me” (in French: L’État, c’est moi). In that country the theory of divine right to royal power was developed, according to which monarchs were chosen by divinity to rule in their name, and therefore their words were more or less equivalent to the words of God.

Characteristics of absolutism

absolutism peter the great russia
For absolutism, the power of kings was granted by God.

Broadly speaking, absolutism presented the following characteristics:

  • There was not properly a State, or in any case the State was reduced to the figure of the king. There were no public powers, no rule of law. The monarch’s will was law, and as law, it was unquestionable.
  • The monarch’s right to authority was of divine origin, that is, he had been set by God himself to rule. For that reason, he was expected to also be the temporary head of the church in his domain.
  • The king’s will had no limits, and had to govern in economic, religious, legal, diplomatic, bureaucratic and military matters.
  • The king’s authority was for life and hereditary.
  • The absolutist model of society continued to be feudal, despite the fact that soon the appearance of capital and the bourgeoisie led to the concentration of the economy in the cities.

Representatives of absolutism

There were thinkers and theorists who spoke about absolutism, defending it as a natural system of government or as the best of those available. Some of them were Jean Bodin (1530-1596), Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) or Jacques Bossuet (1627-1704).

On the other hand, a count of monarchs who practiced the doctrine of absolutism includes:

  • Louis XIV of France, the “Sun King” (1638-1715).
  • Felipe V of Spain, “el Animoso” (1683-1746).
  • Charles XII of Sweden (1682-1718).
  • James II of England (1633-1701).
  • Frederick I of Prussia, the “King Sergeant” (1688-1740).
  • Charles II of England (1630-1685).
  • Peter I of Russia, “Peter the Great” (1672-1725).
  • Charles VI of the Holy Roman Empire (1685-1740).
  • Gustav III of Sweden (1746-1792).
  • Fernando VII of Spain, the “felon king” (1784-1833).

The end of absolutism

final absolutism 1848 revolution
The revolutionary wave of 1848 became known as the “Spring of the Peoples.”

The fall of absolutism in Europe occurred with the Congress of Vienna in 1814 that restored the traditional monarchy, once Napoleon Bonaparte’s empire was defeated. Against the will of their peoples, new absolute monarchs sat on their thrones, and it was thought that the political path of the French Revolution could be retraced, in what was called the “European Restoration.”

However, liberal and revolutionary ideas had already been sown and, with the exception of the Russian Empire which lasted until 1917, most of Europe’s absolutist monarchies succumbed to the revolutionary wave of 1848, known as the Spring of the Peoples or the Year of the Revolutions.

They were liberal and nationalist revolutions, in which the first signs of an organized labor movement took place. Although they were mostly contained or repressed, they made clear the impossibility of sustaining absolutism much more as a system of government.