Louis XIV's economic and political impact on the lower class with that of William and Mary
European societies in the late seventeenth century were stratified and hierarchical. Society was viewed as being structured into orders, with each social order fulfilling a particular function in society as a whole, and the entire system being understood as a reflection of a divinely-ordered harmony that pervaded the universe.
At the top of this hierarchical system were monarchs such as Louis XIV of France and William III of England. Separated from these crowned heads by an unbridgeable gulf were the lower orders of society -- the urban and rural poor, smallholders, apprentices, laborers.
The lives of these humble people were greatly influenced by the actions of their rulers, in terms of religion, taxation, law, war and peace, and the institutional and visual expression of political authority. This paper examines some of these issues with reference to France under Louis XIV and England under King William and Queen Mary.
The contexts within which ruler and ruled operated in France and Britain in the late seventeenth century were different in many ways. William III came to the throne of England as part of a political transformation which saw parliamentary monarchy -- rule through the constraints of Parliament -- become the central tenet of government. The experience of the seventeenth century, with civil war and revolution, had left the English political classes in no mood to contemplate the re-creation of a centralized personal monarchy. The flight of James II and the accession of William III put the seal on the English protestant political settlement. By contrast, France remained essentially a personal, centralized, authoritarian monarchy. Where England's Bill of Rights overturned the centrality of the hereditarian principle and the role of parliament in ousting one king and imposing another undermined any potential for absolutism, France remained the embodiment of absolutist hereditary monarchy.
In 1688 the English statistician Gregory King surveyed "the Income and Expenses of the several families of England" in which he described half the 51/2 million population of England as "laboring people, out-servants, common seamen and soldiers, cottagers and paupers" with annual incomes of £20 and lower.
In France at the same time, Marshal Vauban estimated that the population consisted of "10 per cent beggars, 50 per cent near-beggars, and another 30 per cent very badly off."
The precise reliability of such estimates is open to question, but they are strongly indicative of societies in which income was very unevenly distributed, and in which a majority of people were in poverty or near-poverty. Perhaps the most important and direct way in which seventeenth-century government imposed its existence upon such people was through its financial requirements. In the late seventeenth century, both England and France were heavily indebted states, involved in constant warfare and requiring constant increases in subsidy and income. Only the richer strata of society paid taxation on income and property; for the lower orders the main state financial imposition came through customs, duties, sales taxes and tolls. William and Mary's government did not look to the humblest in society to finance the activities of the state, but to those with the greatest stake in the survival and prospering of the regime: property owners, businessmen, financiers, the urban bourgeoisie. The result was the foundation of the Bank of England and the creation of the National Debt, based not upon the needs of the state as an imposition but rather as an investment opportunity. As a consequence, the goods the lower orders depended upon -- bread, grain, beer -- were spared heavy financial impositions, although the excise remained unpopular with the ordinary people.
In France no such financial stratagems were favored; instead, the crown continued to extract loans in addition to imposing heavy taxes and duties, and to depend excessively on taxes levied on staple goods such as grain and salt: goods the lower orders had no choice but to buy and use, and taxes they had no choice but to pay. At the same time, the richer levels of society, most prominently the nobility, paid no tax at all. Furthermore the agents of royal government in the provinces, the Intendants, intervened constantly in village and rural community affairs, assuming control of local finances and restricting the activities of local assemblies.
A French rural laborer or urban apprentice in the 1690s would have had good reason to look with envy at his counterpart in England.
Under William and Mary the English government did not follow the lead of Colbert's France in devising a comprehensive plan for the development of the entire economy, but rather reflected the prioritization of producers, rather than consumers, in policies of trade and commerce. From the 1690s the government used customs duties to protect the domestic cloth industry and imposed controls to maintain the price of grain at high levels; these measures bore most heavily upon the poor and sustained the positions of the commercial interest groups whose support the government required.
In both France and England religion was an issue at the heart of the nature of the state and the crown itself. The major contrast was that in England a revolution had taken place which cemented the position of state protestant religion beyond serious challenge, whereas in France the Catholic Church found itself constantly on the defensive, caught between the demands of an often suspicious court and the pressures of the protestant challenge. Protestantism was repressed with varying vigor during Louis XIV's reign -- most notably with the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685
-- but simultaneously, royal intervention in the Catholic Church in France represented a constant effort on the part of the crown to tie the Church to the State.
In England the Toleration Act of 1689 established the boundaries of official acceptance of (protestant) dissent. There were complaints from churchmen that the people were taking the Act as a license for non-attendance at Anglican services and for a neglect of religious duties in general. The archdeacon of Norwich observed in 1690 that:
The mischief is, a liberty being granted, more lay hold of it to go separate from all manner of worship to perfect irreligion ... although the Act allows no such liberty, the people will understand it so, and, say what the judges can at the assizes, or the justices of the peace at their sessions ... no churchwarden or constable will present any for not going to church, though they go nowhere else but to the alehouse, for this liberty they will have.
The policy of limited toleration pursued under William and Mary had the consequence of excluding Dissenters from important avenues of social and economic development while giving them the liberty and self-assertiveness to pursue others. Dissenting academies and the presence of dissenting energies in areas of the economy such as industry and manufactures were to prove important engines for the eighteenth-century industrial revolution.
In terms of administration, the people of France were subjected to a clear tightening and strengthening of the structures of government in their everyday lives under Louis XIV. The system of Intendants in the regions became the main agency for the activities of the crown throughout the country, and Louis's dominant minister Colbert took steps to use the Intendants as a means both of gathering information on such matters as agriculture, transport, military affairs and economic development in the localities and of imposing the policies of the central government down to the lowest levels of society.
No parallel system existed in England, where the Lords Lieutenant of the counties acted as royal representatives in the localities but had none of the sweeping powers, nor the supporting administrative structures, of the Intendants. Administration in England under William and Mary was fundamentally locally-based rather than centrally imposed, with urban and rural communities relying on their local elites to work things out among themselves without involving central government any more than was necessary.
The lower orders of society encountered central authority through its local forms: Sheriffs, Justices of the Peace, Magistrates, Lords Lieutenant, and these offices were firmly rooted in the local community. That did not necessarily make their impositions on the poor and lowly any fairer or more just, but it did restrict their potential for use as mere channels of royal government.
For both England and France the later seventeenth century was a period of war. By the time the Glorious Revolution deposed his cousin James II in 1688, Louis XIV had already waged the War of Devolution (1667-8) the Dutch War (1672-9), the campaigns of Reunion in the early 1680s, and the Franco-Spanish War (1683). In 1688 France launched the War of the League of Augsburg, which lasted until 1697. For Louis's subjects, his wars were expensive, destabilizing, and inflicted upon them regardless of their complaints.
The army drained manpower from town and village alike; from 1688 a royal militia, raised by conscription and intended for local defense only, increased the burden. Substitution was employed, with…