HS-102 Readings

The Historical Roots of Early Modern European States

Austria and the Habsburgs

    Early Modern Europe is the name given to an era of European history which began in 1648 following the end of the Thirty Years War and the Treaty of Westphalia. The war had begun for religious reason but had evolved into a political struggle between the three great powers of  Europe which surrounded the Holy Roman Empire. The Austrian Habsburgs were initially involved, at least partially,for religious reasons on the Catholic side. Sweden intervened on the Protestant side, but France,  a Catholic monarchy, had intervened for political reasons against Austria. The priorities of the powers which signed the Treaty of Westphalia were political, not religious. Neither France nor Austria could tolerate the other in a dominant position in the Holy Roman Empire. Therefore, they agreed to maintain the HRE in its historically fragmented division of more than a hundred small, weak states. The only way that the powers could be persuaded to make peace was if a balance of power was maintained between them. It would be that kind of consideration which would determine the foreign policies of European states in the early modern period. This was in contrast with the pre-war situation in which religion and religious conflict had been a primary concern.

    The change in terminology from medieval to modern reflects this fundamental change. Catholics and Protestants had finally reconciled themselves to the necessity of co-existing with each other. The power balance between 5 national monarchies in Europe; England, France, Austria, Prussia, and Russia was to be the major political concern of Early Modern Europe. This essay concerns itself with the question of how the English and French monarchies, and the Dutch republic evolved from their medieval origins to become the most influential states in western Europe during the early modern period. In particular, we are interested in exploring how the process of modernization affected that evolution.

   All three states have their origins in the European feudal system. Feudal aristocracies, whose succession to power was based upon the institution of the family and the principle of inheritance, (see class structure) exercised political power. The process of modernization, involving the accumulation of a surplus, led to the creation of a class of merchants and craftsmen which constituted a middle class, i.e., a class in the middle between the aristocracy and the peasantry. The middle class was then involved, in a proportion greater than their numbers, to activities of specialization and trade which further increased the surplus. The role of the middle class varied in each of the three states, but was involved in all of them. They resided primarily in cities and were the basis for much of the economic growth and prosperity of Paris, London, and Amsterdam.

    Of the three locations,Paris had experienced the least degree of modernization, and Amsterdam the most. By the 17th century, Amsterdam had replaced Antwerp as the leading commercial city of Europe, reflecting the leading role that the Dutch had taken in commerce, shipbuilding, fishing and overseas exploration. London, the major seaport serving England's commerce, was also prominent because of extensive trading contacts with the Lowlands dating back to medieval times, whereas Paris had become significant primarily as the political center of  France rather than for commercial reasons.

    Both Paris and London were the political capitols of feudal monarchies. These monarchies had grown out of the feudal system, with the power of the monarch based primarily upon their status as the greatest among feudal lords. Gradually, their power was enhanced by tapping into the talents and resources of the middle class in their respective cities. The alliance between the feudal monarchsand the middle class developed through the mutual interest of both parties. The kings offered the middle class access to influence and status, while the middle class offered the kings talent and education and resources without threatening the king's authority. In a culture in which power was legitimized by heredity, the middle class had no claim to power, while the aristocratic vassals of the king did. Therefore, the relationship between the king and vassals was one of interdependency and tension, while the king's alliance with the middle class allowed him to build a base of power independent of the feudal system. The vassals did not easily accept this trend of events,and the resulting conflict explains much of the political history of Early Modern Europe.

    The above analysis helps to explain the political dynamics of the trend from the feudal monarchs of medieval Europe to the national monarchs of Early Modern Europe. The role of the modernization process is critical because it is modernization which creates the middle class. The process involves, not only the economic side of surplus, specialization and trade, but also the increase in education and literacy, which is occurring as well. The development of written vernacular languages in both France and England; languages used by the leadership elite in Paris and London, is a part of the development of the French and English national communities. The change in the adjective describing these monarchies is no mere exercise in semantics. That is, feudal monarchies evolved into national monarchies. It conveys a sense of one of the fundamental changes that occurred as Europe moved from medieval to modern times.

   The differing degrees to which France and England were exposed to modernization helped to explain the different evolutions of each political system, with France establishing an absolute monarchy and England a constitutional monarchy. The trend towards absolutism in France was already present when France emerged from the Hundred Years War without a well-organized aristocracy. During the Early Modern European period there was no central institution which could represent the interests of the French aristocracy. The Estates General, which was called into session in 1614 by King Henry IV, did not meet again until 1789 when King Louis XVI convened it immediately prior to the outbreak of the French Revolution. The only other institution, which served to bring together the members of the aristocracy, were thirteen regional parlement, of which the Paris parlement was the most influential. These were predominantly courts of justice before which commoners were brought to have their disputes adjudicated by their regional nobility.  The geographical size of France, in an age when the fastest means of inland transportation was a person on horseback, made it very difficult for the Paris parlement to become a central institution. Furthermore, the city of Paris was only one of several urban economic centers in France.

    On the other hand, the monarchy became a central institution for all of France, and the system of intendants created by Richelieu enforced the king's law and collected the king's taxes throughout the land. It is significant that the intendants were drawn from a new group of lesser aristocrats and from the middle class. In a time when most people were illiterate, the intendants were capable of receiving written instructions and sending written reports. The king did not, unlike feudal monarchs , have to rely upon face-to-face contact with his agents. And, the intendants' only claim to power and influence derived from their position as servants of the king. In this way, the process of modernization strengthened the hand of the monarch without adding to the political power of the aristocracy.This was an important foundation of  the monarchical power which King Louis XIV used to consolidate absolutism. While saying this, it is important to recognize that the King did still depend upon personal contact in that most famous of royal courts, the palace at Versailles. The early modern period was a period of transition when the bureacracy was in its infancy and the collection of the king's taxes was often disrupted at the regional level.

   By contrast, the political balance of power in England between the monarchy and the other elements of the ruling elite was more equal. At the end of the long, successful reign of Queen Elizabeth I, the English monarchy had never been so powerful. But the influence of Parliament, which was a central institution representing all of the ruling elite, was also quite considerable.
    The Parliament had been evolving ever since the days of Magna Carta when the leading barons had successively limited the power of the feudal monarch, if only temporarily. The frequent use of Parliament during the Hundred Years War helped it to mature as an institution representing the aristocracy of England. Add to that the presence of a dynamic merchant and craftsman class centralized in the city of London and you have a significant new element to the ruling elite. The aristocracy and the middle class did not meet together because they had distinct interests and attitudes, but instead met separately in the House of Lords and the House of Commons. Yet frequently their interests converged, particularly when the king was demanding taxes and services from them.  And when Parliament was convened, it met in London, which was both the political and economic center of England and Wales. Compared to France, England and Wales was a much smaller area with only one-fourth the population. And London grew more rapidly than Paris, exceeding Parisian population and economic importance during the 18th century. Thus, the city of London played a much more important role in England than Paris did in France. The middle class was concentrated in cities, and the middle class had a more important role to play in the English political evolution than it did in France. Where in France, the middle class was subservient to the  monarchy and strengthened the monarchy vis-a-vis the aristocracy; in England, the middle class had independent power of its own through the House of Commons. During the course of the 17th century, inter-marriageand otherwise converging interests of the aristocracy and the middle class strengthened the Parliament in its struggle with the monarchy.

    The 17th century was the time of an epic struggle between King and Parliament. King James I, the first of the Stuart kings, managed, in spite of difficulties raising funds from Parliament, to keep relations at a civil level. Such was not the case for his successor. During the last six years of the reign of Charles I, England was torn by civil war (1641-1646).  When King Charles I was overthrown, Parliament asserted its supremacy. Oliver Cromwell, a Puritan leader of Parliament, and the commander of an army which had defeated the king's forces in the civil war,  took charge. King Charles I was accused of treason, tried and beheaded.  This was done by a "rump" section of the Parliament because many of the members had departed, not wanting to be a part of the proceedings. This resulted in the establishment of a military dictatorship, the so-called Interregnum, which endured until the death of Oliver Cromwell in 1658.

Such was the reverence in which the English monarchy was held that , after the death of Cromwell, the son of King Charles was invited to return to England to be crowned king. It would require another generation; the reigns of King Charles II and King James II, from 1660 to 1688, before the issue of sovereign political power would be resolved. Arbitrary actions by King James II, and the prospect that his son, being raised as a Catholic, would inherit the throne, led Parliamentary leaders to depose the king. It was then, in the so-called Glorious Revolution of 1688, that Parliamentary supremacy was confirmed. Henceforth, the English political system became referred to as a constitutional monarchy. It is important to note that this form of government retained the monarch, whose legitimacy was determined in the traditional way by inheritance, but that the Parliament, which had sovereign power, was legitimized, at least in the House of Commons, by the modern method of elections.

    Just as Paris and London served as the urban centers of feudal monarchies, which developed into national monarchies, so also did the city of Vienna. There, in 1278, you had the beginnings of the most enduring family dynasty in European history. It was not until 1916, under the pressures of the First World War, that the Habsburg dynasty came to an end. Vienna's location in the central interior of Europe, distant from the Mediterranean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean, and located on the Danube River, which flowed eastward, determined that the trade and specialization which was a key to the modernization process, would be delayed. The middle class did not play as prominent a role as it did in western Europe, and an absolute monarchy of a type similar to that of France developed in Austria.

    The Habsburg rulers, however, by virtue of inter-marriage, played a significant role in many other areas of Europe. When Charles X received the Habsburg heritage in 1517, he became, not only the monarch of Austria, but also the ruler the ruler of Castile and Aragon, the two most prominent feudal monarchies on the Iberian peninsula. Since Aragon also ruled over the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, and Castile ruled the Lowlands, those areas also came under his jurisdiction. As if that was not enough, he also was elected as the emperor of the Holy Roman Empire. Furthermore, at the time he ascended to the throne, Castile was building an overseas empire in the Americas following the Columbus expedition. This was an inheritance which no ruler, in this age of horses, carriages, and sailships, could effectively administer. He spent the first nine years of his reign in Spain attending to matters there, and therefore neglecting developments in Germany. By the time he did focus his attention upon Germany, the Lutheran Reformation was already well underway and irreversible.

    Upon the death of King Charles X in 1555, the Austrian and Spanish Habsburgs ruled independently of each other, with Spain falling under the suzerainty of King Philip II. The Spanish Empire was also too large and unwieldy to be governed, particularly in a time when parts of the empire became torn by religious strife.

    Spain had assumed the mantle of defender of the Catholic faith while Holland had been converted to Calvinism. Holland, as previously mentioned, was an area where the modernization process was well developed. The merchantsand craftsmen of Holland had developed a large measure of political autonomy under the nominal rule of relatives of the Habsburg family. Religion served as the catalyst to drive the Dutch into open rebellion against their Spanish Catholic overlords. When the local Habsburg rulers tried to impose Catholicism in the late 16th century, and Spain sent an army to crush the rebellion, the Lowlands became the scene of war and bloodshed, which continued for the next three decades. The closing years of the century and the beginning of the 17th century were marked by the decline of  the Spanish Empire and the rise to prominence of England. England was a long-standing trading partner with Holland and Flanders, and was also opposed to the Spanish for religious reasons. The burdens of maintaining a large empire were too great for Spain, and the enterprising Dutch merchants and their Calvinist followers gained their independence by 1609. The Treaty of Westphalia of 1648 ratified this outcome.

    When Holland achieved its independence from Spanish rule, the Dutch people were not about to tolerate the continuation of monarchical rule. The monarchy which had claimed to rule them was considered by the Dutch to be foreign; of an alien culture and religion. The government which the Dutch established was, therefore,not a monarchy, but a republic, known as the United Provinces of the Netherlands. This type of government, although not typical of the times, was the result of a circumstance in which the middle class had actually replaced the traditional landed aristocracy as the ruling elite. This is not surprising given the fact that the modernization process had produced a powerful middle class. Other examples of republics may be found in some of the city-states of northern Italy, where again, extensive specialization and trade had produced a ruling elite of middle class background.

Eastern Europe in the Early Modern Period