A trait that is associated with modern governments is a strong centralized state bureaucracy, a system that governs over separate provinces and ensures that the entire nation adheres to the same laws and customs and remain dependent upon a strong central government. Yet this process did not come with the birth of modern democracies in the world. we can look to early modern Europe and reign of absolutist kings to see how centralization of power transformed modern governments, and France is no exception.

The old clientage system was decentralized and power shared between nobles, the king simply being the richest of the nobility with the most land and military power, but by the fifteenth century beginning with King Henry IV “it became the major goal of the monarchy to break the power of the clientage system…in order to construct a new monarchical system (absolutism).”[1]

Even before the reign of the Louis XIV, who is known for the quote “I am the state”, the nobility was dependent on an absolute monarch. Throughout the chaos the plagued France during the Fronde an the religious conflict between Protestants and Catholics the need for order ensured that absolutism would always remain. The French Monarchy centralized power and built an absolutist state through the selling of venal offices, effectively creating a new class of nobility dependent on the state, developing a strong bureaucratic structure to govern the provinces of France, and by bringing merit based reforms to the French military.


Venal Offices

The purchase of venal offices, and the privileges that came with them, resulted in the erosion of the nobility’s power and independence from the state. Three consequences of selling venal offices assisted the rise of the absolutist state:

  • First, it changed the nobility’s power to privilege, mostly exemption from taxes, as they now felt compelled to purchase royal offices from the monarchy.
  • Second, it gave the monarchy quick access to large sums of money. One historian notes that “The price of an office increased dramatically in the sixteenth century, a position as councilor on the Paris Parlement went from 6,000 livres in 1522 to 60,000 in 1600, with royal expenses also rising, the sale of offices became an essential revenue stream for the monarchy.”[2]
  • Third, it created a second class of royal officials who purchased their way into nobility. Positions in the royal administration could be purchased by any subject of the King that could afford it, and while most members of the French elite were of the nobility, there was still room for social advancement from the lower rungs of society in what can be seen as a progressive quality of French absolutism.  Ralph E. Giesey, in his study of royal officialdom in early modern France notes that “In no other nation did the crown itself establish a regular and legal means for the commoner…to rise to legally noble condition by means of professional service.”[3]

The higher in the royal administration the more likely it was that public offices were hereditary and could pass down from one generation to the next. This in itself was a major blow to the existing nobility whose legitimacy was challenged by a new class of nobles who were themselves completely dependent on the state for their positions.


Nobles of the Sword v. Nobles of the Robe

Venal offices led to a divisive group of elites in early modern France as the existing nobility called the Nobles of the Sword, or noblesse de l’epee, resented the upstart Nobles of the Robes, or Noblesse de robe. The old nobility had risen in power through martial prowess as during the middle ages monarchies depended on heavily armored cavalry to win battles, and because horses and armor did not come cheap only the nobility could afford to take the field. Advancements in warfare changed this as new technology such as longbows, guns, and artillery allowed men of lower rank to have advantage over armored cavalry. Historian Merry Wiesner-Hanks says, “Changes in military technology and in the way troops were recruited and provisioned had increased the cost of warfare dramatically.”[4]

Only Kings could afford a standing army, and so the existing French nobility were dependent on the king for social status instead of their strength in arms. The Nobles of the Sword were distinct in their characteristics. They were lords and ruled over their vassals as a prince would over his subjects. They were born into their status it was not something they earned but their right. They could delegate their responsibilities to others and often bought venal offices to only pay someone else to perform its duties while keeping the benefits for themselves. Their authority extends throughout their whole fief, but was also limited by its boundaries.[5]

The noblesse de l’epee distinctiveness from Noblesse de robe withered away with time as did the tensions between these two groups. Giesey says, “Tensions between sword and robe surely existed, but they seem to have diminished toward the end of the ancien regime and noble officialdom to have assimilated itself socially to the feudal nobility it replaced politically.”[6]


The Noblesse de robe as well had distinctive characteristics that set them apart from the old nobility and tied their positions and interests to that of the state. They were impartial bureaucrats representing the highest power and used their authority in a more precise way. They were professionals educated into their status not born into it. They could not delegate the responsibilities of their office to others like the noblesse de l’epee, and could serve the state at different times and places as they were not bound to any specific province.[7] Many royal offices were hereditary and this created a class of families who were dedicated to the service of the state in a way that the noblesse de l’epee were not and “The officier class as a group constituted a nationally unified administration.”[8]

In the early modern era an individual’s quality of life and access to social advancement came through the nuclear family, and the families of royal officials were not different. Ralph E. Giesey remarks that, “Venal-hereditary offices were regarded as one of the four elements in a family’s estate, the others being land, houses, and rentes, which made up the biens d’heritage, the patrimony, which sustained the family through the generations.”[9]

The creation of a subservient class of elites that integrated itself into the existing nobility was a major achievement for the French absolutist state. By the end of the ancien regime nobles were dependent on the monarchy for their status, and while French nobles still occupied the upper echelons of France’s military and royal administration, their status was still reliant on a system instituted by the state, and not one of their own design.


Royal Intendants 

The officials that worked in the bureaucratic structure of the royal administration wielded power greater or equal to France’s nobility. In his tantamount work The old Regime and the French Revolution Alexis de Tocqueville describes the structure of the royal administration. The comptroller-general, according to Tocqueville, “gradually monopolized the management of all money affairs—in other words, the whole public administration. He was alternately minister of finance, of the interior, of public works, of commerce.”[10]

Under the comptroller-general was the intendent, one assigned to each province of France. An intendant did not come from nobility and generally was not from the province over which he governed. His position came from the administration itself as “He obtained his office neither by purchase, election, nor inheritance; he was selected by the government from among the inferior members of the Council of State, and held his office during good behavior”[11]

The intendant was the arm of the central government in the provinces, but the individual himself was nobody special or notable and the power given to him could be taken away, although the office itself could bring nobility status to his family, which, once again, indebted him to the central government. The intendant also held the power to appoint sub-delegates, subdélégué, to each local canton in the province that he administrated. The Marquis d’Argenson, French minister of foreign affairs under King Louis XV from 1744 to 1747, says in his memoirs,

“I never could have believed beforehand what I saw when I was comptroller of finances. Let me tell you that this kingdom of France is governed by thirty intendants. You have neither Parliament, nor estates, nor governors; nothing but thirty masters of requests, on whom, so far as the provinces are concerned, welfare or misery, plenty or want, entirely depend.”[12]


Reform in the French Military 

Centralizational reform came for the French Military by the end of the ancien regime. The Seven Years War was humiliating for France as it ceded many territories to Great Britain. Huge sweeping reforms were spearhead by the duc de Choiseul who said that “indiscipline and ignorance [of French troops] was one of the principal motives that convinced me to propose to the King the changes in his military that I executed in 1763.”[13]

The state of the army before the reforms was that which valued privilege over merit, and where deserving men rarely saw promotion while wealthy nobles bloated the upper ranks. In his study on the French military administration after the Seven Years War, Rafe Blaufarb noted “In an army that had over 900 generals, one for every 160 soldiers, it is not surprising that the ranks of lieutenant and captain were disdained by the ambitious.”[14]

In a system that resembled the purchasing of venal offices, those wealthy enough were able to buy out veteran officers who would in return cede their position in an arrangement called a concordat. This removed the army of its best officers by giving an incentive for the most experienced to retire and blocking advancement for those unable to raise the funds needed for a concordat. The reforms were sweeping, Blaufarb says “Thousands of officers were demobilized, regulations were rewritten, a permanent regimental structure (France’s first) was established, and a centralized system of personal records instituted.”[15]

The reforms were costly, however, and as the central government took charge of expenses the cost of a single soldier rose 30 percent. The reforms were, not surprisingly, unpopular with the nobility who resented merit based promotion and any restriction on the nobility’s presence in the military. Nobles “denounced administrative centralization as a subversion of noble identity and the monarchical constitution of France.”[16] In a sense they were correct, the nobles belonged to the Second Estate, or ‘those who fought’. The origins of the nobility’s state, service in the military, was now taken over by the absolutist state.



From the beginning of the 16th century through to the end of the ancien regime in 1789, the French nobility traded power for privilege and became fully depended on the absolutist state. Alexis de Tocqueville argued that when the feudal system was established in Europe the nobility was a true aristocracy, “composed originally of the chief men of the nation”[17] , but by the time of the absolutist state the nobility had become a caste only distinguished by birth and privilege.

There is some truth to Tocqueville’s argument, in many ways French nobles had abandoned the responsibility of governance to enjoy the privileges of their birth. Even men who were wealthy enough to purchase venal offices did so in hopes that they could achieve noble status. Those who did govern were selected by the central government and were part of a corps of royal officials that were distinguished from the nobility. Even in the French military centralizing administration took the place of the noble identity as the monarchy realized that privilege stood in the way of merit and performance.

Absolute state building was intended to incorporate the nobility into the system, but in doing so France was left a complicated society divided by the three estates. The sale of venal offices may have brought short term gains in revenue but it failed to establish a strong tax base. Reforms to the military proved costly, so much so that the state could not burden the cost of France’s assistance in the American Revolution. In the end, the French absolutist state set the stage for national bankruptcy, revolution, the Reign of Terror, and Napoleon’s Empire.

Sources Cited

[1] Schalk, Ellery. “Clientage, Elites, and Absolutism in Seventeenth-Century France.” French Historical Studies 14, no. 3 (1986): 442-446. http://www.jstor.org.stable/286385 (accessed February 25, 2018), 443.

[2] Wiesner-Hanks, Merry E. Early Modern Europe, 1450-1789, 2nd ed, New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013, 105.

[3] Giesey, Ralph E. “State-Building in Early Modern France: The Role of Royal Officialdom.” The Journal of Modern History 55, no. 2 (1983) 191-207. http://www.jstor.org.stable/1878394 (accessed February 2, 2018), 207.

[4] Wiesner-Hanks, 90.

[5] Giesey, 197.

[6] Ibid, 199.

[7] Ibid, 197.

[8] Ibid, 198.

[9] Ibid, 200.

[10] Tocqueville, Alexis de. The Old Regime and the French Revolution. (1856) Kindle Edition. E-book, 860.

[11] Ibid, 869.

[12] Marquis d’Argenson. Journal and Memoirs. 1902.

[13] Choiseul, Etienne-Francois. Mémoires du duc de Choiseul, 1719-1785. 1904.

[14] Blaufarb, Rafe. “Noble Privilege and Absolutist State Building: French Military Administration after the Seven Years’ War.” French Historical Studies 24, no. 2 (2001): 223-246. https://muse.jhu.edu/ (accessed January 11, 2018), 227.

[15] Blaufarb, 226.

[16] Ibid, 239.

[17] Tocqueville, 1573.