France of the Old Regime

Age of Revolution

Fall 2004


•      Henry IV (1589-1610) is the start of the Bourbon line.

•      He believed that Paris was worth a mass.

•      And brought stability to France following the Wars of Religion of the Sixteenth Century.

•      Following Henry IV’s assassination by a religious fanatic, France reverted to a period of political chaos under Marie de Medici, Queen-Regent.

•      Louis XIII in 1624 forced his mother into retirement and select Cardinal Richelieu (1585-1642) as his chief minister.


•      Directed the destiny of France for the next 18 years.

•      He was totally determined.

•      Committed to his Royal master.

•      Domineering and implacable to his opponents.

•      He was set on making France the premier power in Europe.

Richelieu’s Plan

State of France on Richelieu’s Death in 1642

•      Strengthened French governmental administration.

•      Weakening local opposition to Royal power.

 Along Comes Mazarin (1602-1661)

•       He maintained the achievements of Richelieu.

•       Concluded the Thirty Years War.

•       Gained Alsace for France at the Expense of the Hapsburgs and the Holy Roman Empire.

•       Improved the French border along the Pyrenees at the expense of the Spanish Hapsburgs.

•       As well as Artois and Flanders.

Weakening Noble Control

•      Mazarin continued Richelieu’s policies of weakening the power of the Parlements and regional courts.

•      He attacked and weakened the nobility too.

The Fronde: The Last Great Uprising Before 1789

•      For four years, 1658-62, France underwent a series of shocks to Royal Absolutism.

•      The Nobles, Peasants, and Judges rebelled against the system.

•      In the end, the power of the monarch increased.

•      As seen in the reign of Louis XIV (1661-1715).

The World of Louis XIV

•       Following the death of Mazarin in 1661, Louis XIV was his own Prime Minister.

•       And practiced his “royal profession” for the next 54 years.

•       He was dignified yet gracious.

•       Imposing and majestic.

•       Proud and self-assured.

•       Original and filled with considerable common sense.

•       And believed in his own divine sanction.

Louis XIV and France

•       He organized the best civil servants in Europe.

•       He had at his disposal the finest diplomatic corps.

•       And had the largest, best equipped army since the days of the Roman Empire.

•       Many of his civil servants came from the middle class.

•       Especially Cobert, who faithfully served Louis XIV as finance minister.

Where Did Louis XIV Go Wrong?

•      Cobert was completely dedicated to making France prosperous.

•      This he did for twenty years that he served Louis XIV.

•      Louis wasted those talents and those funds on architectural excesses and his foreign policy ambitions.

The Wars of Louis XIV

•      War of Devolution (1667-1668) and Dutch War (1672-1678) allowed France to gain towns in Flanders and the French Comte.

•      His goal was close to an issue of national security to protect France from Spanish and Austrian pressure.

•      But it would be his other wars that would weaken France and create an international coalition to halt French aggression.

•      Especially the Wars of the League of Augsburg (1689-98) and the Spanish Succession (1701-1714).

 What about Religious Toleration?

•      At first Louis was quite good in terms of religious matters.

•      Then in his later reign he altered his policies.

•      Particularly when he revoke the Edit of Nantes in 1685.

•      Which was a terrible blow to the economic prosperity of France.

•      Thousands of skilled artisans fled France for England and the New World.

•      Then Louis supported the Jesuits against the Jansensits in their doctrinal dispute and hopelessly divided the Roman Catholic Church.

The Death of the Grand King

•      Louis XIV outlived his next heir and the crown went to his great-grandson, Louis XV.

•      At first their was a regency under the Duke of Orleans from 1715-1723.

•      But it was chaotic and for the next two decades, 1726-1743, the aged Cardinal Fleury ran the state and restored financial security.

•      But from 1743 until his death, Louis XV directly ran France.

•      Some could argue into the ground.

Failures of Louis XV

•      Despite gaining (or future consideration) Lorraine during the War of the Polish Succession.

•      France was immensely powerful and influential.

•      Yet Louis XV lacked an the talent to run France.

•      Instead, he was more interested in the simple pleasures.

•      Gambling, Hunting, and Lust.

•      His disastrous foreign policy lead to France’s defeat in the Seven Years’ War (1756-63) that helped topple the regime later.

The End for Louis XV

•      Soon the thirteen Parlements (Courts) ruled against Royal Absolutism.

•      Louis XV’s response was simple.

•      He confiscated their offices (1771-74) and exiled the incumbents to their estates.

•      But he could not check the new ideas that were challenging the very principals of royal absolutism.

•      When Louis XV died in 1774, he was rounded criticized and the nation was relived by his passing.

•      But awaited his successor, Louis XVI?

 Raising Revenue in the Old Regime

•      The modern concept of “the will of the people” didn’t exist with French absolutism.

•      There was opposition from those who wanted all tax edicts registered with the Parlements.

•      For the most part taxes and tax collection was haphazard and confused at best.

•      Generally taxes fell unevenly on his majesty’s subjects.

•      The privileged orders were exempt from taxation.

•      The peasantry bore the brunt of the tax collector.

Observation on Tax Collections in Old Regime France

•      Collection of taxes was generally wasteful.

•      Often offensive, especially for indirect taxation.

•      And more important, brutal.

Raising Revenue Since Louis XIV

•      When the Royal Treasury was short of funds the Old Regime found ingenious methods of raising the funds.

•      Selling public offices (Venality).

•      Arranging loans from financiers.

•      Taxation on Government and Private Securities.

•      Suspending paying down the national debt.

•      Debasement of the national currency.

•      Anticipatory expenditures on future tax receipts.

•      As well as the creation of new taxes.

Impact on France

•       Ruined public confidence.

•       While the government lavishly spent funds frivolously on Versailles.

•       Those wasteful expenditures continued unabated.

•       Useless gifts to the favorites of the King and Queen.

•       Signing blank drafts for Royal consumption.

•       Riotous extravagance

 The Prognosis for the Old Regime

•      The wastefulness ultimately doomed the Old Order.

•      It was the financial disorder of the monarchy that helped  push France in the direction of Revolution.

The State of the French Finances

•       In 1789, France levied 560,000,000 livres in taxes.

•       Fourteen percent of that figure defrayed the cost of tax collection.

•       The per capita taxes paid by the French public varied from region to region.

•       In Stasbourg it was set at sixteen livres, while in Paris it was sixty-four.

•       All efforts to rationalize the system failed.

•       Including the work of the Physiocrats by introducing a simple land taxes formula.

The Most Important Direct Taxes

•      Taille – a tax to help defray military expenditures and was paid by the peasantry. The nobility was exempt from this tax. Cities and towns had to pay in one lump sum on tolls placed on foodstuffs.

•      Captitation – was a poll tax and the privileged orders avoided this one too.

•      Vingtieme – was conceived as an income tax on all income, but widely evaded by the privileged groups.

•      Corvee – A tax placed on the peasants, not payable in money, but in labor.

 The Ruinous Nature of Local Tax Collections

•       Everyone was hurt by the tax collection process.

•       The rich peasants were held accountable for the local quota of taxes collected.

•       To lessen their assessment, the peasants hid their commodities.

•       Why?

•       To show how poor they were.

•       They had no luck in appealing to the Courts to redress their grievances.

•       Sound familiar?

The System of Indirect Taxes

•      These were even more unjust and burdensome than the direct levies.

•      The principle indirect taxes were the Salt Tax or Gabelle; the Excise Tax (Aides); and the Custom Duties or Traites and Douanes.

•      Plus the government had a Tobacco Monopoly as well as all of the revenue from the royal domains too.

•      Financiers were making money hand over fist.

•      They loved it and they made money on the amount of funds collected and rarely, if ever, showed leniency.

•      When the tax collector appeared it was a form of terrorism who had the power to arrest.

The Salt Tax

•       The most flagrant abuses came with the collection of the hated Salt Tax.

•       Of all the tax collectors the most hated were those who collected this tax.

•       Each family was required by law to purchase a specified amount of salt per family.

•       The amount was not a problem, but the management was.

•       The price was excessively high in northern and central France.

•       While other areas were exempt.

•       As a consequence, the public turned to smuggling.

•       The Gabelous (the Tax Collectors) made house-to-house searches.

•       Thousands were arrested.

•       The victims were sent to the galleys as punishment.

Punishments for Violating the Salt Tax

•       During the reign of Louis XVI the following appears to be accurate concerning punishments for violating the Salt Tax.

•       4,000 cases made.

•       3,400 imprisonments.

•       500 were sent to the whipping post, banishment to the galleys.

Internal Duties

•      Other problems were the internal duties collected from region to region.

•      As well as the baffling system of weights and measures used from one section of France to another.

 Background of the First Estate

•       Clergy composed the First Estate in Old Regime France.

•       The Church had a dominant position in France before the Revolution?

•       Why was that?

•       What did the Church do?

•       What did it control?

•       What role did the King play in Church affairs in France?

•       How independent was the Church?

What Did The Church Do In France for the Old Regime?

•      Helped with internal order.

•      Ran schools.

•      Ran hospitals.

•      Controlled vital statistics.

•      Provided social services for the poor and needy.

•      But the Church was wealthy too.

•      With extensive property holdings throughout France.

 The King’s Control of the Church

•      The King had the right to make appointment to the important benefices of the Church.

•      Which were the bishoprics, abbeys, and priories found in France.

•      By the Declaration of Liberties of the Gallican Church, the King had the right to regulate the clergy too.

•      Not only did the King control the clergy, but the Catholic Church in France was a separate entity within the realm of Papal control.

Picture of the Clergy in Pre-Revolutionary France

•      There were between 10,000 and 11,000 members of the upper clergy in France.

•      This included bishops, cardinals, archbishops, abbots etc.

•      About 60,000 members of the lower clergy, the parish priests.

•      And not more than 60,000 monks and nuns.

•      Total number was somewhere in the neighborhood of 130,000 secular and regular clergy in France.

•      Total wealth of the Church was somewhere between 80 and 120 million livres.

Sources of Wealth for the Church

•      Besides their land holdings, the Church raised revenues from the Tithe.

•      The obligation of the Tithe varied from region to region.

•      It could be ten percent in some areas and as low as one-sixtieth of a peasant’s income in others.

Control of the Church by the Les Grands

•      There were 139 dioceses, both large and small, in France.

•      Almost all were controlled by the great nobles in France.

•      Money could be made from holding those Church offices.

•      And the funds could vary from region to region.

•      For instance, the Bishop of Strasbourg cold make 400,000 livres annually.

•      Others varied between 100,000 to 200,000.

•      Most upper clergy preferred staying near the King in Paris than working in their dioceses.

•      While immorality was small, it was the popular perceptions that influenced the public.

Relations Between the Upper and Lower Clergy

•      Relations were rocky at best.

•      The upper clergy were arrogant and looked down on the parish priests.

•      The parish priests demanded a voice in assemblies of the clergy, when and if they were held.

•      In many ways, the upper clergy identified their case with the nobility, The Second Estate, while parish priests followed their heart to the Third Estate.

 The Changing Nobility

•       De Tocqueville observed never was it more possible for commoners to move into the ranks of the nobility as it was now.

•       Yet the two groups were polls apart.

•       In France, unlike England, a peerage went to all members of the noble family.

•       There were about 50,000 noble families in France or about 200,000 to 250,000 nobles in France.

How Did One Become a Noble in France?

•      By birth into one of the medieval noble families.

•      Those were called noblesse de l’epee or Nobles of the Sword.

•      Middle Class landowners, as a result of the Commercial Revolution, obtained noble status by purchasing position in the government.

•      Those were called Nobles of the Robe and Nobles of the Belfry.

•      Noble status could be lost if they lost their wealth too.

•      That is if they were derogated in activities not considered worthy of their class.

Subdivisions of the Nobility

•      The divisions of the nobility depended upon:

•      The manner of acquisition.

•      Functions

•      Residence.

•      And Wealth.

•      But at the heart of the matter was simply the issue of wealth.

 Hierarchy of the Nobility

Feelings Among the Nobility

•      Nobles of the Sword looked down on anyone who considered themselves noble, but who lacked “noble blood.”

•      This didn’t really bother the magistrates and government officials who were ennobled.

•      The hobereaux were envious of the court nobility.

•      Despite those graduations, the nobles no matter what their status, looked down on the commoners.

The Rights of the Nobility

•       Seigniorial rights.

•       Rights of administrating manorial justice.

•       Tax exemptions.

•       Monopoly of important governmental or judicial offices.

•       Officer positions in the Army or Navy.

•       Holding high church offices.

The Status of the Hobereaux

•      All those rights were less important to the Hobereaux.

•      They had to survive.

•      They were basically found in the west and west-central France.

•      They forced their peasants to pay all their feudal obligations.

•      Almost to the point of being ridiculous by pressing for all of their “rights.”

•      Without patronage, their sons could not obtain commissions in the Army or Navy.

•      Their daughters took the veil.

•      Other children wasted their time in debauchery.

Montesquieu on the Nobility

Life of the Court

•       Court life was “where it was at.”

•       Balls and gay life were the order of the day.

•       Manners were good, conversation sparkling, and morals so low.

•       Court life was wicked.

•       Louis XV for instance knew how to throw a “party.”

The Nobles of The Robe

•      The real power were the nobles of the robe.

•      They held post in the Parlements and the other sovereign courts.

•      They easily outranked the nobles of the court who were frivolous.

•      They all ready had money, and made more by holding the offices they held.

•      Yet they arranged marriages for their daughters to the sons of the court nobility.

•      Further ingratiating themselves with the nobility.