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9-08-2015, 17:18

Politics and power, 1600–1789

In 1678, Jacques Bénigne Bossuet (1627–1704), bishop of the city of Meaux in France, preacher and theologian at the court of Louis XIV (ruled 1643–1715), and tutor to the king’s eldest son and heir (the dauphin in French) wrote an instruction book for his royal charge. Titled Politics Drawn from the Very Words of the Holy Scripture , it discussed the nature of royal authority, along with providing practical advice. “Monarchical authority comes from God,” wrote Bossuet. “Royal authority is sacred … religion and conscience demand that we obey the prince. Royal authority is absolute … the prince need render account to no one for what he orders … even if kings fail in their duty, their charge and their ministry must be respected … Princes are gods.” 1 Bossuet was explaining, in terms even a boy could understand, the political theory known as the divine right of kings, which provided an intellectual justifi cation for Louis XIV’s moves to concentrate power in his own hands. The young dauphin Louis did not have to read very carefully, for he was surrounded by signs of royal power. The gigantic palace his father built at Versailles was decorated with paintings showing the king in heroic settings, and with mirrors, wall ornaments, and bas-reliefs decorated with Louis XIV’s personal emblem, the sun, which the king himself described as “the most dazzling and most beautiful image of the monarch.” 2 Versailles was also fi lled with nobles, church leaders, authors, and artists all fi ghting for royal favors: living demonstrations of the power of the Sun King. Unfortunately for young Louis, he would never have the opportunity to test how well he had learned his lessons, for his father’s authority was matched by his longevity. Louis XIV ruled for seventy-two years, outliving not only his son, but also his grandson. When he fi nally died in 1715, he was succeeded by his great-grandson, who, like the Sun King himself, came to the throne at the age of fi ve. The dauphin Louis was not the only one learning a lesson from Versailles, or from Bossuet. Five years after Bossuet wrote his instructions to the dauphin, a boy did inherit another European throne at the death of his father, though for a while he had to share it with his half-brother and half-sister. Like Louis XIV, this young monarch built a new capital and required nobles to follow certain rules of behavior, asserting that he would not “grant any rank to anyone until he performs a useful service to Us or to the state.” 3 We do not know if this monarch read Bossuet’s instructions, but he may very well have read other works by Bossuet, especially his histories. We do know that, as a young man, this monarch traveled to western Europe during the reign of Louis XIV, gathering ideas and individuals that would help him bring techniques of engineering, architecture, and military technology well known in Versailles, and in other western European cities, to his country. There was bitter opposition to all of his measures and many were imposed by force, but shortly after his relatively early death he was already known by the title we still use, Peter the Great (1672–1725), tsar of Russia. Bossuet did not invent the divine right of kings, but built on the ideas of earlier thinkers. In 1609, James I of England proclaimed in a speech to Parliament, “the state of Monarchy is the supremest thing upon earth: For kings are not only God’s Lieutenants upon earth, and sit upon God’s throne, but even by God himself they are called Gods.” 4 As we will see later in this chapter, civil war and revolution in England prevented James’s successors from making good his words. In most of the other nation-states of Europe, however, monarchs attempted to make absolute royal authority a reality by enhancing the processes of centralization, military expansion, fi nancial restructuring, and religious reorganization that had begun in the sixteenth century. Even in the smaller states of Italy and the Holy Roman Empire, dukes, counts, and princes tried to emulate the French model, issuing decrees and building palaces modeled on Versailles. The Habsburg rulers of Austria-Hungary built Schönbrunn outside Vienna (begun in 1694), the Hohenzollern rulers of Brandenburg-Prussia, soon to elevate themselves to the title of kings of Prussia, built the Royal Palace in Berlin (begun in 1698), the dukes of Württemberg in southwestern Germany built Ludwigsburg (begun in 1704), and the dukes of Savoy built the palace of Stupinigi near Turin in Italy (begun in 1729). Even the prince-bishop of the German city of Würzburg, one of the twenty-six territories in the Holy Roman Empire ruled by independent bishops, decided he needed a residence and formal gardens that looked like Versailles. In all of these places, artists, architects, sculptors, tapestry-makers, composers, and poets created works that celebrated the rulers who paid for them as political power took spectacular visual form.