Power and Politics in Old Regime France: 1720-1745


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The decision to go to war was contentious at the French court.

Power and Politics in Old Regime France, 1720-1745

Moreover, whereas French and British diplomats found consensus as regards maintaining the principles of the Peace of Utrecht 11 April , they remained commercial rivals. This article lifts a tip of the veil covering the complex trade relations during the conflict. Spain tried to placate and reassure French merchants, and conversely to punish their British counterparts. The British fleet patrolled the Mediterranean, searching French vessels as well as those of neutral states.

The Emperor, though allied to France and Britain, could not prevent Neapolitan corsairs from preying on their trade. Moreover, French ships illegally furnished the Spanish army. Finally, France and Britain hoped to quell the abuse of neutral powers in the conflict Tuscany, Genoa, Venice by imposing upon them a duty to chase Spanish privateers from their harbours.

The complaints of French traders, as indicated by the consuls to the Conseil de la Marine and the Regent himself at the apex of the French government, reveal pleas borne out of frustration, as well as appeals to either the law of nations or consular protection to shield merchants from assaults and abuses. When war was declared, inimical, friendly or allied relations in high politics seemed almost irrelevant. The military conflict generated uncertainty and damaged the reputation of the French flag. Diplomatic pressure on the neutral powers was seen as being more effective than reliance on seemingly corrupt or biased local jurisdictions.

Full Text: PDF. Remember me. David Parrott lays the foundations for this re-evaluation by exploring army—state relations in the time of Louis XIII. His findings deflate the traditional view of Cardinal Richelieu as a master state-builder and reinforce more recent assessments of Richelieu's administration as a set of makeshift solutions. Parrott finds that the effective size of the royal armies was smaller than had previously been thought, and he looks in vain for awareness of a 'military revolution' on the part of writers and commanders.

For historical reasons involving a long tradition of noble rebellions, the Crown was insistent upon retaining ultimate control over the commissioning and decommissioning of officers and companies. At the same time aspiring nobles were eager to obtain military commands in order to consolidate their social reputations. They had to lobby the king for positions. He, in turn, was able to require aspiring captains or lieutenants to defray a sizeable share of the costs of recruiting and equipping their men. Once assembled, the common soldiers were so scandalously and irregularly paid that the commander would have to draw on his credit or his private [End Page ] fortune to provide them with wages and food rations, or else risk having his unit disbanded and his reputation tarnished.

Having little to gain and everything to lose, he would be cautious on the battlefield. Parrott calls this a 'peculiarly French' problem. Nobles eager only to establish their credentials often dropped out after a campaign or two. The government distributed favours and viable payroll vouchers only to the officers best placed in the patronage system, not to the most needy or the most talented.

Parrott's rich account at the very least illustrates the weaknesses in a monarchy which was undoubtedly very powerful but which was still dominated by the interests of prominent nobles and financiers. The financial infrastructure was too backward to raise the 20—30 million livres per year needed to operate the army at the height of the Thirty Years War, although this amount should have been well within the means of a large, productive kingdom.

Revenues were committed years in advance to financiers at costly rates, and taxes were collected by private consortiums of financiers who siphoned off a sizeable share. The secretaries of state, the chancellor, the royal financial hierarchy, the tax farmers and the private munitioneers all had overlapping and conflicting functions. Supply of heavy munitions, powder and shot had to be farmed out to entrepreneurs whose bankruptcy was always a looming threat.

France was large enough to prevail despite these weaknesses, but we might well wonder where the successes of Louis XIV came from.

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John Lynn and Guy Rowlands attempt to answer this question. Their two studies, published in and respectively, provide contrasting but not incompatible views of the army of Louis XIV. Lynn uses a broader brush and offers a comprehensive picture of the whole seventeenth-century army in the context of the longer history of European warfare. His many chapters provide an encyclopedic array of information on army administration, supply, ranks, morale, militias, discipline, weapons, logistics, tactics, strategy, fortifications, and those elusive but precious topics, the living conditions of the rank and file, and the role of women in the army.


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Lynn's multidimensional view of absolutism is refreshing. The monarchy, he claims, cannot be thought of as merely a set of central tax-gathering and distributing institutions because it had three other dimensions. First were the regional actors — provincial estates, receivers and financiers — who collected and distributed funds semi-autonomously. Second was the army itself, a kind of state within the state.

Instead of troops supporting themselves through pillage and requisitions, army units now set up provisional governments in occupied zones, selling passports and exemptions from local taxes and collecting taxes which now went into state coffers instead of being siphoned off by the soldiers. Lynn claims that in the s a quarter of the cost of land warfare came from these contributions — but Rowlands challenges this figure as far too high.

Rowlands says they provided up to 14 per cent of the total cost of war but Lynn reckons that it was as much as 25—30 per cent of the cost — a veritable tax on the nobility. It parallels the exactions from similarly privileged venal officeholders. Both authors urge caution about the regularity of this growth, but the trend is unmistakable. The number of units rose from 88 regiments of infantry and 72 of cavalry in to regiments of infantry and 94 of cavalry in Such a massive growth, which supports the traditional view of the rise of the state, inevitably led to changes in organization.

More roturiers commoners [End Page ] were necessarily commissioned alongside nobles to fill the officer corps. The king assumed direct command through his war cabinet and established the ordre du tableau in to regulate precedence among officers. A largely unsuccessful effort was made to provide training for officers through the creation of companies of musketeers and cadets. Provincial militias were raised and sent to war, serving as auxiliaries between and , and as regular troops between and Networks of magazines to store grain and munitions were organized.

Strategists added thinner, more linear formations in battle and adopted the necessary drilling, copied from the Dutch.

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Discipline was greatly improved and desertion rates declined. But neither of the authors sees these impressive signs of progress as the advent of modernity in the state. Lynn portrays the military machine as taking on a life of its own, becoming in effect the real absolutist entity in terms of royal control and dragging a more backward royal administration in its wake. Rowlands stresses the personal aspects by extending the idea of collaboration.


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This concept of dynasticism lies at the heart of Rowlands's argument. In a detailed analysis of the operation of the war ministry and the war treasury, he emphasizes their non-bureaucratic basis. The ministries were strongholds of the allies and relatives of the Le Telliers, all pursuing personal and financial advancement. Novel moves towards bureaucratic control, such as the creation of civilian commissaires de guerre , were indecisive because [End Page ] the new commissioners did not have enough prestige to make military officers obey them, and the king eventually opposed giving them additional power.

Provincial and army intendants, the supposed modernizers according to traditional accounts, were more loyal to personal patrons than to administrative efficiency or even to the king and were largely 'motivated by financial profit, political power, and personal and family ambition'. How then was the army able to surmount the earlier difficulties laid out in Parrott's account?

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The difference lay in the king's effective handling of the officer corps, within the context of his patrimonial objectives. He knew that a standing army required relatively contented leaders and better conditions. He applied his genius for personal relations to assuring that success in the field was rewarded and to creating multiple channels of patronage so that 'everyone' could be heard. Aristocratic officers were still required to invest fortunes in their troops, but they could expect consistent, loyal service to be rewarded with recognition and honour, so the investment was worth making.

Louis milked them for revenues, but he also helped out those in financial need. He gave a boost to families that were supporting military officers by arranging favourable marriages for their kin and showering them with church posts. The king was caught in a paradox: 'he was anxious to achieve control over his leading subjects but he also wished to use them as highly autonomous military leaders' and 'he was prepared to play ruthlessly upon the ambitions of his subjects in order to secure the best possible services from them'.

These studies of the army all stress the traditional nature of the king's objectives and his lack of interest in modernizing institutions. They turn the 'state' into a vast patronage machine in which meritorious service, innovation and better control did indeed exist, but were driven by family interest, personal advancement and issues of honour. Far from being a trap for the aristocracy, or a place of senseless posturing, the court at [End Page ] Versailles, in this view, was the central bargaining place for the staffing of a 'sustainable standing force'. Rowlands's analysis seconds that of Mettam in stressing these traditional elements.

But he departs from Mettam in denying the theory of rule through a single 'royal faction'. And he adds more substance to the view that the army was built upon the idiosyncrasies of the society. As I indicated at the outset, Hurt's new study challenges the whole revisionist tendency of the past twenty years.

Calling Hamscher and myself the 'founders' of this tendency, he concludes that 'little or nothing in the pages to come supports the optimistic view of revisionists, notably that of William Beik, who portrayed the ruling class of Languedoc as allied with Louis XIV, nurtured, protected and "basking in the sun" of his benign rule'.

Hurt provides a well-argued, excellently documented case.

Power and Politics in Old Regime France, 1720-1745

It consists of three narratives. The first traces Louis XIV's crackdown on the parlements' traditional constitutionalist claim to verify and register edicts. This is a well-known story, but Hurt presents it with clarity and great legal precision.

The second narrative traces the way the Crown pressured the venal officeholders into paying up large sums of money, first as the price for renewal of the droit annuel , 61 then through forced loans augmentations de gages and creations of new offices, and finally by putting ceilings on the value of the offices themselves, which constituted a major component of their family fortunes.

After , when the Crown started lowering the rate of return on these loans, delayed interest payments, and ultimately translated the debt into useless shares in John Law's company, many magistrates were ruined. The third narrative focuses on the [End Page ] years to , when the sovereign courts fought back. The Paris Parlement, supported by the Parlement of Rennes, tried to regain the constitutional prerogatives they had lost in There was an exchange of belligerent challenges, but the royal council ultimately quashed the Parlement's pretensions.

Hurt's scenarios admirably serve his stated purpose of refocusing attention on the authoritarian side of Louis XIV's rule. But his story is extremely one-sided. He is highlighting one theme — the king's arbitrary action. In the early years, Colbert, who emerges as the evil genius behind the repression of the parlementaires, successfully browbeats the Parlement back into submission after the excesses of the Fronde.

By the judges are relegated 'to the margins of political life'.

Power and Politics in Old Regime France: 1720-1745 Power and Politics in Old Regime France: 1720-1745
Power and Politics in Old Regime France: 1720-1745 Power and Politics in Old Regime France: 1720-1745
Power and Politics in Old Regime France: 1720-1745 Power and Politics in Old Regime France: 1720-1745
Power and Politics in Old Regime France: 1720-1745 Power and Politics in Old Regime France: 1720-1745
Power and Politics in Old Regime France: 1720-1745 Power and Politics in Old Regime France: 1720-1745
Power and Politics in Old Regime France: 1720-1745 Power and Politics in Old Regime France: 1720-1745
Power and Politics in Old Regime France: 1720-1745 Power and Politics in Old Regime France: 1720-1745

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