The rise of absolute monarchies dates back to the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, when several monarchs in western and eastern Europe increased the power of their central governments. In doing so, these kings, emperors, or sultans secured their position as the supreme ruler and possessor of all power. They surrounded themselves with followers and advisors who were strong advocates of royal absolutism. For those that opposed their behavior and seizure of power they replied that they had been granted the divine right of kings.
In several countries an absolute monarchy appeared to be the only viable solution to dealing with the problems that plagued it.France, for example, had been torn apart from religious wars, the citizens had no respect for law and order, the feudal nobility had seized control and the finances of the central government were in chaos. Furthermore, French prestige was at an all time low and when Henry of Navarre became king he was determined to change all of this. Once in power he restored the authority of the central government, curtailed the power of the nobility, launched a comprehensive program of economic reconstruction and dealt with the religious turmoil that had been tearing the country apart. His goal was to strengthen France and then have it become the supreme power in Europe. Unfortunately, he was never able to fulfill these dreams because he was assassinated as he was preparing for war. His vision for the future, however, was not entirely lost.
After the death of Henry IV, his wife and son, Louis XIII, became the new rulers of France. Although they proved to be very incapable leaders a prominent figure did emerge during their reign, Cardinal Richelieu. Similar to Henry IV, he sought "to make the royal power supreme in France and France supreme in Europe"(Sullivan 422). He followed this policy strictly and crushed any perceived threats to royal absolutism. However, it was not until the rule of Louis XIV that the French monarchy was able to secure formidable power. It was also during this time that the idea of divine right monarchy emerged. It was argued that the royal monarch was not only inspired by God, but also the image of God and was therefore only accountable to God. This idea soon spread throughout Europe and remained dominant during the late seventeenth and much of the eighteenth centuries.
Although quite different from western Europe, this same pattern became evident in eastern Europe. During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, most of the countries in eastern Europe were economically less developed than their western counterparts, the landed aristocracy was the dominant power, serfdom was more harsh than ever, and most areas lacked the strong central governments that were prevalent thorughout much of western Europe by this time. All of this made the idea of an absolute monarchy even more favorable, especially in countries such as Prussia, Austria, and Russia. These countries strengthened their standing armies, gained new territories, improved commerce, dealt accordingly with religious problems, and made important compromises with the nobility and aristocracy. This was all made possible after the development of a strong national government and powerful monarchy in each of these countries.
Sullivan, Richard E. A Short History of Western Civilization. (New York; Mc Graw Hill, Inc., 1994).
World Book Encyclopedia. Volume 1. (Chicago: Childcraft International Inc., 1979).