How and why did the theoretical bases of monarchy, republicanism and resistance change?

By Marcus Wells - History Student @ St Peter's College, Oxford


Early Modern Europe experienced multiple changes in the theorisation of monarchy, arising from a number of factors. Writing on monarchy in the fifteenth century, conditioned by crises and the rise of Humanism, generally defended absolutism. Monarchical consolidation in the next century, influenced by greater classical study, led to a revival of the concept of universal monarchy. From the late sixteenth century, religious and republican challenges to royal authority produced defences of a new style of absolute monarchy. It is argued that, whilst change was limited, the most overriding determinant of change and its nature was the political context in which the works were written.

The crises of fifteenth-century Europe produced defences of absolute monarchy. The Papal Schism (1378-1418), and its conciliarist literature, challenged the authority of papal monarchy. The existence of an anti-papacy undermined Rome’s control of its territories, and the conciliarist theory that the Church Council was a higher authority than the pope challenged the papal monarchy’s supremacy. This was further undermined by Pope Felix V’s spending his early years in exile from Rome after 1439; he evidently lacked personal authority in his own city. These crises produced new defences of papal absolutism. Roselli’s Monarchia (1487) claimed that both the spiritual (over Christendom) and temporal (over the Papal States) authority of the Pope was absolute. Coming from a curial official, Roselli’s work no doubt reflected papal desires in the wake of these crises, and the Monarchia incorporates elements of Eugenius IV’s propaganda against the claims of the Council of Basel (1431-49). Other fifteenth-century monarchs used papal ideologies of absolutism and empire in response to their own crises. In the Empire, in the wake of the disputed succession of 1410-11 and the Hussite challenge in Bohemia, literature from the papacy, challenged by the Schism at the same time, was circulated at court. Roselli’s work was quickly exported to Spain, where the crowns of Castille and Aragon, newly unified in 1474, needed to legitimise their new hegemony in the wake of much upheaval in both kingdoms. The theme of crisis-producing theories of absolutism was thus prevalent throughout fifteenth-century Europe.

The consolidation of monarchical states in the aftermath of these crises, in the late fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, combined with the development of Humanism, revived the concept of universal monarchy. The end of the Wars of the Roses (1485) resumed royal authority over all England, whilst Henry VIII attempted to tighten the nature of royal control over Ireland and Wales. Charles V accumulated, more by dynastic accident than planning, a vast network of the territories of the Imperial, Spanish and Burgundian crowns. Around the same time, the spread of Humanism revived an interest in classical study; rulers thus found themselves with territorially enlarged realms and a new interest in classical, especially Roman, literature drawn from a time of universal European monarchy. Thus, in 1533, Henry VIII declared England an ‘empire’, using Roman terms of sovereignty. Titian’s portrait of Charles V features allusions to the Roman Emperors Marcus Aurelius (being depicted on horseback) and Constantine: the depiction of Charles in battle, having defeated the Schmalkaldic forces, compares with the ‘miles Christianus’ defeating the pagan army in 312. In this way, consolidation and humanism conspired to produce a new imperial ideology of monarchy.

Challenges to royal authority in the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries produced new defences of absolutism. The French Wars of Religion produced challenges to the crown from both the Huguenots and the Catholic League, with both producing rival claimants and religious policies. Bodin’s The Six Books of the Republic (1576), upholding royal authority in the wake of the St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre (1572) and formation of the Catholic League (1576) argued that sovereignty is both absolute and indivisible, so must be held by a single figure. Lipsius, inspired by Tacitus and other stoic writers, wrote his Six Books on Politics in 1589, the same year Henry III was assassinated. Lispius placed the achievement of peace and security above the liberty of the people, and argued that the ruler had the power to act beyond the law in exceptional circumstances in these interests. These two defences of absolute monarchy were clearly the product of France’s prolonged upheaval, resulting in a desire to return to strong government. Such stoic emphasis on order and discipline was also influential in Philip II’s court, threatened by rebellion, such as in Granada (1568) and Aragon (1591-3). Finally, Hobbes, writing his Leviathan in 1651, after the upheaval of civil war and regicide 1640s England, argued that absolute and indivisible royal authority was necessary to prevent the descent into war and anarchy. This is arguably exactly what happened in the 1640s: the dismantling of royal power produced civil war and a breakdown in law and order. Writings on monarchy were thus clearly conditioned by challenges to authority later in the period.

There was clearly much change in monarchical theory in Early Modern Europe. This change was admittedly limited – justifications of monarchy focussed on largely similar themes throughout the period: defences of absolutism and exploring the idea of universal monarchy. The key factor throughout, however, was the political context in which works were written; this conditioned all writings and was thus behind the changes and their extent. Defences of the monarchy were conditioned by both threats and consolidation, those being specific to individual realms.

Further reading:

1. J.H. Burns (ed), Cambridge History of Medieval Political Thought (1988)

2. J.H. Burns, Lordship, Kingship and Empire. The Idea of Monarchy, 1400–1525 (1992)

3. J.H. Burns with M. Goldie (eds.) The Cambridge History of Political Thought, 1450–1700 (1991)