Absolute Monarchy was Limited Monarchy

Last updated: March 7, 2019

Absolute monarchy always had its limits, these limits prevent it from becoming a despotism or a tyranny. However the theoretical limits on an absolute monarch were heavily contested at the time and today, how absolute a Monarch ever was is contested. There is even the question as to whether even the word absolutism means anything due to its ambiguity, the qualifications and rhetoric it is given. The traditional view is that absolutism was a undisputed fact that was connected to state aggrandisement and centralisation, in this view the King was at the centre with his court determining everything that mattered. Revisionists have stripped this away showing absolute monarchs to be not very different from any other monarch in Europe. They are bound to consult institutions and gain the support of various social groups. So how absolute were they really?

Absolute Monarchy was Limited Monarchy
Yes because...

Physical limits

There are numerous physical limits that prevent an absolute monarch from being completely absolute. There are difficulties with having complete information as the speed of communications was limited either to the speed of a relay of horses or else by ship, in which case communication times are variable with the weather. This makes having complete control over a larger country difficult and having effective control over a colonial empire very difficult indeed. Hence while in Spain for example the Council of the Indies was able to control the flow of resources between Spain and America[[John Lynch, ‘Spain 1516-1598: From Nation State to World Empire’, (Oxford, 1994) p.234.]] it was not able to control its expansion in America which was left to private individuals. For this reason numerous companies were set up in all European countries to control colonial expansion as it could not be done effectively by the central government. The growth of bureaucracy is another example of a physical limit, as the interests of the state expanded it became less possible for the King to control everything, the more decisions the King took upon himself the slower things became as everything had to go through numerous different circles of government.[[John Miller, ‘Introduction’, in John Miller ed, Absolutism in Seventeenth Century Europe (Basingstoke, 1990), p.17.]] Kings such as Philip II of Spain could try to handle all decisions however this made administration extremely slow, Philip was constantly behind on business “I have a lot to send you from yesterday, but it is not possible now. I will do it tomorrow.”[[Lynch, Spain, p.268.]]
No because...
Physical limits can’t really be said to make a monarchy limited as it applied to everyone at the time no matter the system of government.

Absolute Monarchy was Limited Monarchy
Yes because...

Money

Lack of resources was a limit no monarch was ever able to escape from. It gave the kings subjects a negotiating counter. The French nobility was particularly unwilling to be taxed or to have the scrutiny that came with taxes and resisted inroads into their tax exemptions.[[David Parker, ‘Class and State in Ancien Regime France The road to modernity?’, (London, 1996), pp.200-201.]] In the French provinces the King often had to make compromises in order to get what he wanted, normally money,[[Beth Nachison, ‘Absentee Government and Provincial Governors in Early Modern France: The Princes of Conde and Burgundy, 1660-1720’, French Historical Studies, Vol21 No.2 (Spring 1998) pp.265-297.]] as fiscal administration remained in the hands of the provincial estates who were also involved in such economic projects as the Canal du Midi.[[Parker, Class and State, p.178.]]
No because...

Absolute Monarchy was Limited Monarchy
Yes because...

Opposition from the people

The main limit on absolutism is the people, including the institutions that the people use to check the King. The King will need a large amount of support in the institutions or the estates if he is to rule absolutely, the more the people and the institutions wish to prevent absolutism the harder it becomes for the King to govern Absolutely. The King often gains his support from the Nobility, thus Louis XIV protected the interests of the nobility to get their support. However Louis XIV also had less resistance from the people later in his reign despite increasing tax burdens there were very few revolts against these taxes.[[Miller, Introduction, pp.12-13.]] Meaning that either they supported the King to some extent or else the vast majority of people in higher levels accepted the Kings authority and in turn coerced the remaindered of the populace.
No because...
The effectiveness of absolutism relied as much on the subjects acceptance as upon the ability of the monarch to coerce them.[[Miller, Introduction, p.13.]] In Sweden absolutism was very much with the consent of the majority, as it was voted for by the Diet, allowing the king to effectively go as far as he wished.[[Upton, A.F. ‘Sweden’ , in John Miller ed, Absolutism in Seventeenth Century Europe (Basingstoke, 1990), p.99.]] In Sweden the Land Law of Magnus Erikson was effectively the constitution. This stipulated that the King governed Sweden according to law and custom with the advice of a council, the main limitation was that the king was required to consult representatives of the community on such things as taxation, changes to the laws and on war. This could be interpreted as meaning Sweden should have an absolute monarchy In the Riksdag of 1680 Absolutism came about through consent, particularly as during the early phases of the Riksdag the crown had no clear plans, and royal absolutism did not come about in anything like a single bill. It was the commoners, supported by the Clergy and the Burghers who pushed for an absolute reduktion. That the King was absolute was confirmed when the King issued three questions too the riksdag, and got unanimous answers on all three; the King was not bound by the form of government, the riksrad was not an estate and did not have a mediating role, and that it was up to the king what he referred to the riksrad as he was solely responsible to God.[[A.F. Upton, ‘The Riksdag of 1680 and the Establishment of Royal Absolutism in Sweden’, The English Historical Review, Vol.102 No.403, (Apr 1987), pp.281-308, pp.296, 298, 305-306.]]

Absolute Monarchy was Limited Monarchy
No because...

Only god is above the King

Louis XIV is a good example of a King who believed in virtually no limitations on the King. Louis XIV went further in being absolutist than most theorists would allow through violating some of the fundamental laws of France, the inalienability of the crown and of the domain. The only limits that Louis believed in were that he was subordinate to god, and that he must sacrifice his desires to the public welfare. Even these were rather flimsy theoretical limits as he believed that only the king could interpret the Kings obligation to god. Louis denied that what he wished arbitrarily could be different from the good of the people, as such he more often sacrificed his people’s interests instead of his own,[[Paul W. Fox, ‘Louis XIV and the theories of Absolutism and Divine Right’, The Canadian Journal of Economics and Political Science, Vol.26 No.1 (Feb 1960) pp.128-142, pp.138-140.]] making these limits no limits at all. How far the King wished to go is obviously a limit, however it cannot be said that absolutism is limited by this.
Yes because...

Absolute Monarchy was Limited Monarchy
No because...

Permanent standing army

A permanent standing army was a new development in the late 17th century. It was this that was under the direct control of the King that gave absolutism substance. In Sweden in the Riksdag of 1682 the three commoner estates were united against the nobility who then gave way due to the crowns wishes. This allowed the establishment of a permanent standing army in which the king negotiated directly with the peasantry of a province, removing one of the main functions of the Riksdag and cutting out the participation of the nobility.[[A.F. Upton, Sweden, pp.115-116.]] Charles XI implemented the indelningsverk to provide for the permanent army, this benefited the propertied peasantry as they were exempt from military service if they between a pair of farms provided for a soldier who also doubled as a farm labourer. They were also exempt from taxation allowing greater profits.[[Robert I. Frost, ‘The Northern Wars 1558-1721’, (Harlow, 2000), p.221.]] The nobility did not however lose out too much as through the reduktion they could consolidate property and they gained regular payment in salaries.[[A.F. Upton, Sweden, p.118.]]
Yes because...

Absolute Monarchy was Limited Monarchy
No because...

Patronage

One of the main achievements of French absolutism was that the divisions of the nobility were built into a stable system where they fought their conflicts through the judicial system.[[David Parker, ‘Class and State in Ancien Regime France The road to modernity?’, (London, 1996), p.204.]] This was effectively taming the nobility and bringing them onside. The King controlled the nobility through being the principle fount of patronage, he could give the most desirable offices, dispersing them amongst the nobility to keep them from becoming disaffected.[[Roger Mettam, ‘France’, in John Miller ed, Absolutism in Seventeenth Century Europe, (Basingstoke, 1990), p.46.]] Patronage was a network that connected all levels and all areas of the country creating shared interests and reciprocal obligations.[[Nachison, Absentee Government, p.268.]] This occurred as The King gave out offices such as governorships which could then appoint numerous local offices. With the absolute monarch taking control of the army any elements of the nobility that wished to take part in wars were tied into the permanent army, having to be within the system of patronage that allowed them to be appointed as officers.
Yes because...

Absolute Monarchy was Limited Monarchy
No because...

Absolutism.

Whether absolute Monarchy was limited Monarchy in theory is already answered. The answer to that is, of course, no. Absolute Monarchy implies that there were no restrictions, laws etc., apart from those that the Monarch made up, but the Monarch themselves never had to abide by them. That is absolute Monarchy.

Limited Monarchy suggests that the Monarchy has restrictions and rules upon it either created by itself its government. These are two very different things.

However, what this question is actually asking is "Is there a difference in practice? (or was there a difference?)" The answer to this is yes. An absolute Monarchy would never attempt what was impossible to do/get away with. It would only act within its realistic predictions/options. However, this does not mean to say that Monarchs have never done terrible things. Monarchs could get away with pretty much whatever they wanted, on a small scale.

They couldn't necessarily invade whoever they wished and, yes, they certainly had councillors, assistants, experts et al. helping them. But again, this in no way implies that Monarchs acted in a mostly limited fashion. The important point, anyway, is the question of whether there is a difference in theory and, as we have seen, yes - there is.
Yes because...
While it is implied in the question that Absolute has to mean unlimited power/control over the state otherwise it obviously cant be called 'Absolute' however as we are refering to a specific set of monarchies that are called 'absolute' between about 1650 and 1800 of which Louis XIV is the main example that everyone uses although equally his sucessors could be used as the example as could many German or Russian Kings/Tsars/Princes etc.

Why should practical limits not be considered limits? you mention that monarchs 'could get away with pretty much whatever they wanted, on a small scale'. Yes and No. There were often domestic constituencies that had some power to stop the 'absolute' monarch's actions. Most obviously advisers could steer his actions, bodies like the French parlement could oppose and indeed did oppose many actions. Are these not limiting in practice if not in theory? This you seem to accept is the case, which is essentially what this debate is about. A straw man or ideal type theory was created, so it is no wonder it gets holes poked in it!


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