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The French royal state : theory

Posted July 27th, 2011 at 11:38 AM by clement

The French state has its origin in the middle ages. Before the 13th century, the king of France had very little power. He had to deal with many other feudal lords, some of which were more powerful than him. He had, however a model : the Roman catholic Church who had just reorganized itself. The pope was surrounded by jurists as advisors. Roman law had been rediscovered too : the corpus iuris civilis of Justinian. Canon law had been codified according to this model with the decree of Gratien.

The royal power had many reasons to envy the pope which seemed all powerful at this period. However, the French royal power reinforced itself considerably under Philip II Augustus : He added Normandy and many other regions to his personal domains, meaning the land he was administrating directly. The "domaine royale" did continue to expand during the whole century. And the king himself was now surrounded by his own jurists. At first there were mostly clerics but soon, secular jurists from southern France came to the court. St Louis even said to his jurists " May no one say that I am the state and the church for you are the state and the church."

During the middle ages, Philip IV le bel was one of the most important French kings. It was during his reign that the "Curia regis" was created. It was composed of several important institutions including the chamber of audit. The king was seen as a fountain of justice, he had to settle the conflicts between his vassals. He also administrated directly the "domaine royal", being helped by the "Baillis" and the "sénéchaux". Their aim was to collect taxes, to represent the king's justice (though one could seek the direct judgement of the king if he was not satisfied) and to organize the mobilization of the military forces (though a big part of the army was still in the hands on lords). Philip's jurists (the legists), including Guillaume de Nogarer from the province of Languedoc, called the king "emperor in his kingdom", free from the power of the Holy roman empire and the Church. This independence was won gradually, as the French kings wanted to name themselves the French bishops (at that time, bishops were no mere spiritual leaders, they had a great political power). Jean Gerson hence stated that the council of French bishops should be superior to the pope of Rome.

The function of king also changed : it became more sacralised. A whole ceremonial was organized to express his sovereignty. He had miraculous powers according to the tradition and could heal the wounded or the sick people. He was considered as having a divine mandate, and thus was crowned in the magnificent cathedral of Reims. And he had two bodies. This theory was invented by Jean de Terrevermeille who thought that the king did not personnally possess his kingdom. According to him the king had two bodies : the private and physical one, and the public and symbolic one (he was the incarnation of power and sovereignty).

In the 16th century, the building of the French state reached a new stage. Firstly, Jean Bodin brought a more precise definition to sovereignty which was a sort of supreme authority over one specific land or people. Secondly, the French royal power had to deal with one of the most important crisis in its history : the religious wars of the late 16th century. In the 1580s, radical catholics created the catholic league. It appears that they had some political motivations : many founding members of the league were "bourgeois" who sought to establish a sort of republic or constitutional monarchy where the king's power would be limited. Those people were mainly members of the local parliaments (institutions that had to deal with private justice. Most parliaments sided with the league). On the other hand, ambitious nobles (the last feudal lords, including the dukes of Guise and Mayenne, the two leaders of the league) also joined the league.

Fortunately, the league was divided between its aristocratic and popular components. Henry IV converted to catholicism (in 1593) and was crowned as a king of France. The league was destroyed after a long war. But now, nothing stood before the king. France's royal power was reaching its apex. Henry was the last king who had to deal with some feudal lords. After his coronation, the "domaine royale" was simply the Kingdom of France as a whole. The country was not completely centralized. And the crisis had given the king the occasion to reinforce his own power. He could now impose a religious peace upon his subjects. This was done with the edict of Nantes in 1598.

Henry IV had an efficient administration, the best in Europe with the Ottoman empire. He could potentially mobilize 100.000 men in his army. He was helped by competent ministers, and members of several councils, including the important "conseil du roi". All this was the foundation upon which Louis XIV would found his own absolute power.
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  1. Old Comment
    Tercio's Avatar
    It seems Phillip II missed his opportunity during the wars and allowed that centralisation to happen...good essay
    Posted January 22nd, 2012 at 12:28 AM by Tercio Tercio is offline
  2. Old Comment
    Spatar's Avatar
    Very good post! My professor of Constitutional Law thoght that the sacralisation of the Head of State continues in the Fifth Republic.

    According to him, the 1958 Constitution just restored (most) of the royal prerogatives to the President of the Republic.

    While I'm not 100% convinced about that, I have to admit that the President of the French Republic is the most powerful elected politician in the European Union.
    Posted June 25th, 2012 at 07:00 AM by Spatar Spatar is offline

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