Lecture 31: European Monarchies during the 15th and 16th Centuries

In 1347, the Middle Ages officially ended. In that year the Great Plague first arrived in Italy, hiding among the ever increasing number of trade caravans and shipping fleets that moved between east and west. The disease spread rapidly cross the Continent and killed anywhere from one third to one half of the European population. The initial cultural effects were severe, as High Medieval optimism came crashing down and was transformed into pessimism and hopelessness. The plague disrupted the economy, the family unit, and religious and political structures. Everything that Europeans had so patiently built since the ninth century was rent asunder.
From a medieval perspective, the plague completed a process of decline that had been impelled by both the Papacy and European kings. On the one hand, the Popes’ repeated calls to go on Crusade had cost Europe massive resources and brought few results. Indeed, papal foreign policy in the late medieval period had generated as many wars as it ended, especially in Italy. On the other hand, Europe’s jealous medieval kings and assorted princes added to the problem by repeatedly finding reasons to fight in Europe. The French and the English crowns, for example, spent over a century fighting over territory northwestern France in the so-called Hundred Years’ War (1338-1443), which only exacerbated the problems that the local population was already confronting. In the east, the Polish Crown and the Teutonic Knights in Prussia remained at war until 1410, when the Poles finally broke this organization’s power at the Battle of Grunewald/Tannenberg. It is worth noting that the Teutonic Knights were originally a crusading organization that had been booted out of the Holy Land. They settled in what is today Poland at the Polish king’s request, in order to subdue the heathen Prussians. Overall, thanks to war and disease, Medieval Europe managed to exhaust itself.
If we consider the plague and the end of the Middle Ages from an early-modern perspective, however, we can discern a process of creative destruction that foreshadowed Europe’s rise to world power status. Around the middle of the fifteenth century, Europe’s strongest monarchies, particularly in France and England, began to craft policy responses to the disorder brought by the problems of the late fourteenth century. The people who forced the changes were known as the “New Monarchs.” There was not that much that was really new about these monarchs, as in many ways they continued the work of their medieval predecessors. They were “new,” however, in that they first spurred the development of the political organizations that founded both the European state system and, to a degree, its nations. By the 17th century, we can already see clearly the outlines of the basic ethnic and political boundaries that still mark the European map.
In general the new monarchs brought law and order to a continent that had descended into chaos. The disorder of the fourteenth century had, for example, allowed fractious barons to usurp royal powers and to prey on the local populace. In both England and the European states, monarchs began to emphasize their role as bringers of justice. In England, for instance, kings emphasized their right to arbitrate all disputes, whether between individual nobles, or between noble and commoner. In general, this was possible, because the new monarchs were able to use Europe’s recovering towns as a counter-balance to the nobility. These towns were more than willing to pay taxes to the king, in exchange for protection from the nobles. Kings received these tax receipts and used them to finance armies, which then enforced order—or created disorder. The shift to royal armies highlights significant social and political trends. In the Middle Ages, when a king needed an army, he called on his nobles. In the early-modern period, he called on the landless and the unemployed. Hence, the social foundation of public order not only excluded the nobility but also became a bulwark against it.
You will recall from the lectures on the Middle Ages in Europe that one right the king always guarded jealously was the right to judge, that is to bring the law to any given dispute. Medieval kings roved around Europe, listening to cases that were brought before them, and sent their own officials into the countryside to bring the law to places where the kings could not reach. This process was, at root, adversarial, in so far as the king’s law impinged on the freedom of the nobility to wreak havoc on their inferiors. But those kings that overcame noble opposition to the law were then able to create strong states with which they defended their monarchical interests.
Europe’s new monarchs followed two paths in enforcing their law. One path dominated in England, where the so-called Common Law tradition reigned. In this system, custom was the foundation of law, and it became the role of courts to interpret local customs. The English king had been weakened during the Middle Ages by the rise of the Barons, as is evidenced by King having to sign the Magna Carta, a guarantee of noble privileges, in 1215. From this point forth, however, successive English monarchs chipped away at noble independence by becoming legal arbiters, and by working with friendly factions in Parliament to guarantee order. The end of this process, in which the English King became a king in parliament rather than over parliament, came with the English Reformation, which I have discussed in a previous lecture. The most fractious barons were subdued by royal law, while the worst excesses of royal dictatorship were averted through parliamentary limits on royal power.
On the Continent, the main organ for establishing royal control over unruly noble elements was the importation of Roman Law. As you will recall from the earlier lectures, Rome was law, and there was little doubt within the Roman system about the law giving body’s absolute right to establish the law. Justinian’s Code (A.D. 527) is the final classical example of the power that Roman Emperors had to decide what the law was. Continental monarchs used Justinian’s Code as a model and hired an army of scholars to import Roman Law into their countries, so as to expand royal power. Two legal principles became fundamental to all Continental legal systems: salus populi suprema lex (the good of the people is the highest law) and quod principi placuit legis habet vigorem (what pleases the prince has the force of law.) Hence, on the Continent, the king became not merely a legal arbitrator but also a law giver. (The idea that the law is given by the sovereign power and is not, therefore, the product of precedent perdures in most Continental systems.)
In order to understand the effect of the new monarchs, we must keep in mind that the wars between them were dynastic and not state conflicts. This is still very much an early-modern world. Battles between monarchs were battles between families and not between peoples. The sense that the monarchs incorporated a people’s hopes and wisdom was a product of later monarchical attempts to identify their own persons with their kingdoms. As a result, monarchs used all manner of techniques to project their image onto their people and into a national psyche. These included building great buildings, putting up statues, putting their image on coins, having paintings made, etc. As a result, by the end of the 16th century, some monarchs came began to embody their realm, and their governments prospered, creating the foundations of what would later become the nation state. (In this sense, Louis XIV of France is the ultimate heir to and purest example of the new monarchs.) In those parts of Europe where the monarch lost, states and perhaps nations came much later.
In order to understand how new monarchies worked in the 15th and 16th centuries we will consider briefly the rise of new monarchies in England and France. In England, the new monarchy really arrived with the accession of the Tudors to the English throne. In 1485, Henry Tudor became king after the death of his opponent Edward III of the House of York. These two houses, both of royal blood, had fought for thirty years over the succession in what was called the War of the Roses. (The name came from symbols each house chose. The House of York took as its symbol a red rose and the House of Lancaster a white one.) In 1485, Henry Tudor ascended the throne as Henry VII. His reign was a key time for England, because Henry was able to subdue the barons through military and judicial means. The roughly three decades of war had severely weakened the great families and Henry was able to force them to accept his law. In particular, Henry banned the practice of nobles keeping private armies, which had led to so much destruction. Henry’s reign marked, as a result, a period of prosperity and growth that left his son and heir, Henry VIII (1509-1547), with a relatively strong kingdom. It was largely the kingdom’s vigorous health that allowed Henry VII to pursue his many misadventures. We have discussed that tale in a previous lecture.
Now we turn our attention to France. The first truly new monarch in France was Louis XI (1461-1483), of the house of Valois (1328-1589). He reorganized the crown’s finances and brought an end to brigandage. He, however, was an heir to a longer tradition of reform and expansion. The first of the Valois came to the throne in 1328, when the Capetian line finally failed. The Valois are an enormously important family in the history of France, because they won the Hundred Years War with England and later engaged in a nasty rivalry with the Habsburgs. This family had long-standing policies, which Louis XI continued, of acquiring neighboring lands by means both fair and foul and of constantly extending the government’s powers of taxation. Louis XI, for instance, used the money from taxes to build an army, which his heirs later used in foreign lands. France had some advantages in this age. Unlike his contemporaries in England, Louis enjoyed access to church resources, since the French crown had reached an accord with the papacy in 1438 called the Pragmatic Sanction. This agreement was extended by Francis I in 1516 in something called the Concordat of Bologna, which gave the French crown the right to appoint bishops, in exchange for a guarantee to the papacy of a certain level of annual income. As a result, during the fifteenth century, French kings had much greater taxation power and more powerful armies than the other monarchies in Europe. It was Louis XI’s reforms that allowed Charles VIII (1483-1498) to launch in 1494 a major war in Italy against Spanish interests. The resulting Italian Wars, which continued under the next two successors, had many long-term effects on Italy, perhaps the two most important of which were the creation of a political disunity that would not be overcome until 1870 and the work of a certain Florentine diplomat named Niccolo Machiavelli.
The Spanish situation was different. What later became Spain began with two large kingdoms on the Iberian peninsula, Aragon and Castile. Aragon in the north and east had control of the Balearic Islands, Sardinia, Sicily, and Naples. Castile, in the center and south, was already large and wealthy before its crown gained colonies in the new world. This was a good political match, and it created a powerful political force. In 1469, Ferdinand II (1468-1526) of Aragon and Isabella (1474-1504) of Castile married. This marriage united the two kingdoms in one dynasty, but each kingdom kept a separate administration and had its own privileges. This division created long-term problems for Spain that it was never able to overcome.
Ferdinand and Isabella’s dynastic marriage was important for world history on a number of levels. First, it marked the final phase of Islam’s expulsion from Andalusia. Spanish forces had been pushing back the Moors since the eleventh century, with the most important victories over Islamic forces coming in the fourteenth century. With the unification of the two crowns Spanish strength could now be concentrated on eliminating the last Muslim kingdom, Granada, which fell in 1492. Unfortunately for many of the residents, the Spanish crown continued its bloody work after the war was over, by throwing out the remaining Moors and Jews who had not converted. Moreover, suspicions of converts ran right through the sixteenth century and became the major force behind the Spanish Inquisition. Second, the Kingdom of Castile, seeking to get around Portugal, had funded a series of explorations that ked to the European encounter with and colonization of America. The rise of the Spanish colonies in the sixteenth century then funded a series of wars between the Spanish and other European powers. Finally, Aragonese holdings in Italy became the focus of future conflicts with France. France and Spain had been fighting for centuries over their northern border, and would continue to due so until the seventeenth century. The French attacks in Italy, however, started as a way to hurt the Spanish on a different front, but really marked the first salvo in what became the vicious Habsburg-Valois competition. Europe’s New Monarchs ensured that the Continent would be the victim of constant warfare.
With the massive importation of wealth from the New World, Spain became the most aggressive and the premier power of Europe in the sixteenth century. Unfortunately, for the Spanish state, its inability to unify Castile and Aragon along administrative lines proved to be a fatal weakness in the face of more organized and aggressive powers. By 1659, with the Peace of the Pyrenees between Spain and France, Spain was reduced to the second-tier in Europe and dropped thereafter.
Central and Eastern Europe lagged behind the west in the development of centralized monarchical states. This does not mean that the states in this part of the world were without resources, but that their form of organization limited their long-term prospects. Poland, for example, was an old kingdom, dating back to the eleventh century. Beginning in 1385, it became a major power in the east under the Jagiello dynasty. This dynasty subsequently unified the Kingdom of Poland with the Duchy of Lithuania in 1569 to create an enormous territory that would last until 1792. Though the resulting territory was large, it also had constitutional weakness that allowed the nobility in both parts to constrain the monarch. Since the state could never get its nobles under control, it fell prey to other rising powers, such as Russia and Sweden in the seventeenth century, and Prussia and Austria in the eighteenth. There were no “new” monarchs in Eastern Europe until the seventeenth century.
Central Europe was a different matter. It was wealthy and well developed, though it never produced a New Monarch. It did, however, have an Emperor, and his power had to be taken seriously by everyone throughout the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Although the Holy Roman Empire was supposedly founded on Christmas Day A.D. 800, its real origins lie in the tenth century, with the Ottonian Dynasty. From the tenth century on, the Empire both expanded and changed, with the result that by the fourteenth century the emperor’s power had diminished considerably with respect to the nobility, many of whom managed to carve out special places for themselves within the Empire. This Empire was really a confederation of states that were run by a variety of princes. There were three kinds of states: princely states, ecclesiastical states, and imperial free cities. (There was a fourth kind of organization called imperial free knights, but they became less important as the centuries progressed.) All of these states within the empire had a deep interest in ensuring that the Emperor did not gain too much power. In essence, everyone wanted the Emperor to be powerful enough to repel external enemies, but not so strong that he could identify and destroy internal enemies.
The Empire developed, thus, a key means of control over the Emperor: the Imperial Election. With each Emperor’s death the empire’s princes and the new emperor agreed on the terms of the new emperor’s tenure. This was called a Capitulation, a document in which the emperor confirmed the princes’ privileges and exemptions. By 1356, the process of “election” was formalized with seven princes receiving electoral votes, which they only cast after extensive negotiations and (usually) massive bribes. In 1452, these princes chose a Habsburg prince, Frederick III, who was also Duke of Austria, to be Holy Roman Emperor. With only one brief exception, every Holy Roman Emperor between 1452 and 1806 would be a Habsburg. The Habsburg princes were in constant conflict with other powers such as France, and tried repeatedly, therefore, to increase their power within the Empire. They were, however, foiled by the power of other princes. (One notable example of the princes’ power is Frederick the Wise’s protection of the young heretic Luther.) This is the main reason that Germany was unable to centralize in the way that England, France, and to a degree, Spain did.
The Habsburgs did, however, follow another strategy for gaining power that, for a time, worked quite well: marriage speculation. Emperor Maximilian I (1493-1519) began the marriage game by marrying the heiress to the Duchy of Burgundy, which brought him and his heirs control over the Low Countries and the Franche-Comté, both of which had common borders with France. (This arrangement caused political problems right through the end of the seventeenth century.) Maximilian also set up a marriage for his son Philip with Juana of Aragon. Juana was an improbable heir to the Spanish throne, but the early deaths of older siblings meant that her son, Charles (1519-1558), became heir to three major territories, Spain, Austria, and Burgundy, as well as the Kingdom of Sicily and the Imperial Crown. Charles also benefited from the Turkish threat, as the Turks killed both the Kings of Hungary and Bohemia, which allowed him to be elected to those thrones, too. Charles V, thus, presided over an enormous empire that reached from Hungary to the New World, and in one fell swoop France found itself surrounded by Habsburg territories. This arrangement merely exacerbated and transformed the French-Spanish rivalry in Italy into a world conflict.
The Habsburg-Valois rivalry drove European politics for the next century. France would win this conflict largely because it was able to centralize its administration and gain allies who also feared the rise of a super state in Europe. The Habsburgs were never able to centralize their far-flung regions into a strong state. The French also robbed them of Lorraine in 1552 and Alsace by the end of the seventeenth century. In addition, the Dutch fought for and gained their independence by the end of the seventeenth century. (The Dutch and the English would steal the most valuable parts of the Spanish Empire in the seventeenth century.) Indeed, Charles V’s Empire did not survive him. He officially retired in 1558, leaving the eastern half of the empire and the Imperial Crown to his brother, who became Ferdinand II, with Spain and the New World going to his son Phillip II. The two branches of the Habsburg family would mostly cooperate against France, which exacerbated the continent’s military conflicts. But neither side became strong enough to win. Spain would wreck its economy with expensive wars against France and England. Austria would try to centralize, but lost out in the nineteenth century to Prussia for control over most of the German speaking parts of the Empire. Imperial Germany was the ultimate heir to the competition among Europe’s new monarchs.