Christianity and the Origins of Democracy – The Sixteenth Century: Part 2

View of French Political Theorists that French Monarchy Limited by Constitution

Other writers apart from De Seyssel, who supported the institution of a strong, centralised monarchy, based on Roman law, the Corpus Juris, also considered that the power of the crown was limited. Although sovereignty and the power to make laws resided with the prince, this had been delegated to him by the people. Andrea Alciati, in his De Verborum Significationibus of 1529, stated that originally ‘Kings were not established by divine decree but by popular consent’. One of Alciati’s pupils, Francois Connan, stated that if a king violated human and divine law, he should be deposed. Even though these writers were concerned to support the power of the monarchy, nevertheless their theories also provided support for the view that the power of the Crown was limited and kings could be justly deposed. Their arguments supporting this view were adopted and used by opponents of abolute monarchy like Salamonius.

Role of French Parlements – Official Committees of Lawyers – in Checking Royal Power

In fact royal power in France was in practice limited by the parlements and estates-generals – the assemblies of clergy, aristocracy and burgesses to vote on and decide issues of state. The parlements were not representative institutions – they were assemblies of lawyers. They were not elected, and membership tended to become very strongly hereditary. Each French province possessed its own parlement. The parlement of Normandy resided at Rouen, while those of Britanny and Languedoc were situated in Rennes and Toulouse respectively, for example. The monarchy admitted that publication of a royal edict did not automatically make it law. For an edict to be officially passed as legislation it had to be registered by the parlements. As there were separate parlements in each province, so royal edicts had to be registered in each particular province in order to become law there.

It was unclear whether the parlements had the right to refuse legislation proposed by the king. Nevertheless, from 1562 the parlement of Paris claimed the right to refuse to pass royal edicts. The parlements claimed to be the successors of the Champs de Mai, one of two great annual assemblies of the French aristocracy under Charlemagne. Although their right to refuse royal legislation was debatable, nevertheless they acted in practice to limit royal power and preserve the individual rights and historic legal systems of the provinces and France as a whole.

Role of Estates-General – Governmental Assembly Representing the People – in Limiting Power of French Crown

The French estates-general also claimed a right to limit the power of the monarchy. In 1356 the estates-general had declared that the king could not raise taxes, even under extreme national emergencies, without their consent. In fact the constitutional position of the estates-general was weak. The estates-general had met so infrequently that there were no fixed forms of procedure and the relation of the three estates to each other were similarly not fixed, and it was a matter of debate what the consent of the estates-general actually meant. Nevertheless from 1550 onwards the estates-general was increasingly regarded as a formal, ancient part of the French constitution. At the estates-general in Pontoise in 1561 the aristocracy and commoners – the Third Estate – declared that no taxes could be raised or war declared without the agreement of the estates. The estates-general at Blois in 1576 further declared that the king should be bound to act in accordance with an decision made by three estates together, and that any edict that had been issued with the estates-generals’ approval could not be repealed. From 1560 onwards it was frequently stated that sovereignty lay jointly with both the king and parliament, along with the view that sovereignty indeed lay with the estates-generals rather than the monarchy, who should be subordinate to it.

Thus, in France in the 1560s there was very strong opposition to the idea of absolute monarchy in France, based on the view that the monarchy was limited by natural law and the customary laws of France, and by the institutions such as the parlements and estates-generals to advise and possibly refuse royal legislation. Moreover, the increasing claims by the monarchy for greater power led to considerable opposition as it was viewed that the Crown was attempting to destroy the ancient constitution of France.

Religious Toleration Advocated by Supporters of Absolute Monarchy such as L’Hopital

Regardless of the question of limits on the power of the French king, there were French political theorists in the 1560s who believed firmly in an absolute monarchy, in which the king was appointed by God, who also argued for religious toleration. L’Hopital, a lawyer, Humanist scholar and Chancellor of France during the reign of Catherine de Medici, attempted to defend her policy of securing peace by tolerating Protestantism in certain areas. L’Hopital considered that the king owed his authority to God, not to the people. He was the only source of law, and his subjects had an absolute duty to obey him. The parlements could advise the king and delay legislation, but they had no right to refuse it. The estates-general similarly could only present petitions to the king, not refuse royal legislation or enact legislation of their own. Nevertheless, the estates-general should be held frequently, as the king should be in close touch with his people. He considered that people had absolutely no right to rebel against their king, and tyrannicide was a crime absolutely prohibited to Christians.

Absolute Monarchy and Religious Toleration Viewed as only Method of Securing Peace and National Welfare in France

Central to his view that the best form of government was an absolute monarchy was his concern to avoid civil war, which he regarded as the worst of all evils. Princes existed to guide and promote their people’s welfare. Nations require peace, order and unity, and this could only be achieved through an absolute monarchy. He therefore attacked factions and seditions as the source of disorder and a potential source of civil war. It was in order to avoid such conflict that he defended the Queen’s grant of toleration to French Protestants. He was not alone. The Roman Catholic bishop of Valence, Jean de Montluc, stated that heresy had become universal throughout Christendom, and that persecution had only exacerbated the situation. The Archbishop of Vienne, Charles de Marillac, had made the same comment, and concluded that the only way to bring heretics back to the Roman Catholic church was through reform of the Church, rather than persecution.

View of L’Hopital that to Preserve Peace, King Must Be above Religious Differences, Roman Catholics and Protestants Should Recognise that They Are both Christians to Avoid War

In his Exhortation aux Princes et Seigneurs du Conseil prive du Roi of 1561, L’Hopital argued that the essential duty of the king was to ensure peace, order and justice. In order to fulfil that duty, the king must be above all parties, sects and factions, in order to resolve disputes and dispense justice impartially. Furthermore, justice did not require the persecution of those who acted according to their own consciences without harming others, and he felt it was impossible to decide whose religious opinions were correct. This did not mean that he felt that religion was unimportant. Indeed, he was firmly in favour of there being only one religion in a nation, as he regarded the existence of two religions in the same country as dangerous and divisive. In his view there was nothing more divisive than religion. He stated that a Frenchman and Englishman who shared the same religion had more in common than two members of the same city of different faiths. Nevertheless, in order to secure peace it was necessary to recognise two religions – Roman Catholicism and Protestantism – in France. Roman Catholics and Protestants should forget their differences and remember that they are Christians in order to avoid civil war.

Persecution Useless in Preventing Spread of Protestantism; Attempts to Suppress Heresy through Force Unjustified as Cause of Bloodshed, Devastation and Denial of Personal Liberty

The spread of heresy could not be prevented by the use of force, and the persecution of Protestantism had been a failure. It was useless to try to suppress great rebellions by force, and even if this could be achieved, it would not be justified by the massive devastation it would cause. Such persecution and bloodshed would only result in further contempt for royal authority, which maintained and supported society as a whole. People should be free to seek God in their own way. If they are prevented from doing so, then liberty has perished. This would occur if Protestantism was destroyed in France through force. Thus L’Hopital was firmly in favour of an absolute monarch, and a single, national religion. Nevertheless, the primary duty of the king was to ensure peace and order, regardless of the particular religion to which his subjects personally adhered. Any attempt to impose religious conformity through force meant that the king had failed in this duty, and had in fact promoted the conflict and civil war that it was his duty to prevent.

View of French Huguenots that French Monarchy Limited by Constitution

The persecution of the Huguenots in the late sixteenth century forced them to examine the nature of royal and political and authority. They defended themselves by arguing against absolute royal authority, and instead argued that the French monarchy was constitutionally limited by the existence of natural law, officers, magistrates, and the feudal aristocracy within the state, as well as institutions such as parlements and estates-generals, which represented the whole French community and which had a duty to guard against the development of tyranny and to overthrow unjust rulers when they appeared and violated the constitution.

Claim by Huguenots that They Were Rebelling to Defend Constitutional Freedom of all French Citizens from Oppression by the Crown, Not Just to Defend Own Religion

When the Huguenots rebelled against an increasingly intolerant Crown, they claimed they did so not for purely religious reasons, but because they were defending the ancient laws and liberty of the people of France. When the Huguenot prince Conde rebelled against the Crown, he claimed that he did so to defend the French people as a whole, regardless of their religion, from tyranny. From 1567 to 1570 the Huguenots argued, in a series of pamphlets, that France had a mixed monarchy, and that there were reciprocal obligations between the monarch and their subjects. Subjects were bound to obey the king, but only if he looked after their interests and welfare. A king who did not honour his obligations to his people was a tyrant who should be overthrown. The authors of the pamphlets considered that the king, Charles IX, was attempting to overthrow the ancient constitution of France and the rights of the people, which, like the authority of the king, were divine in origin. These attempts to justify the Huguenots’ resistance to the Crown as defence of the constitutional rights of the French people were elaborated in works such as the Franco-Gallia of Francois Hotman, the Reveille Matin des Francais, The Memoires de l’Estate de France sous Charles IX of Simon Goulart, Du Droit des Magistrats sur les sujets, probably written by Theodore Beza, the Dialogue d’Archon et de Politie, and the Vincidiae contra Tyrannos of ‘Junius Brutus’.

View of Hotman that True Source of Political Power in France Governmental Assembly, Not Monarchy

Hotman was jurist, who had succeeded the great French lawyer, Cujas, as professor of law at the university of Bourgues in 1567. He was employed by the Bourbons in 1560 and became one of Conde’s legal advisors in the 1567. His great work, Franco-Gallia, was published in exile in Geneva in 1573. In it he argued that France had been governed by a representative council since ancient Gaul. This ancient representative government had been abolished by the Romans, but had returned with the invasion of the Franks. This representative council had been the major governmental institution in France until the 15th century. It had possessed the power to legislate, appoint magistrates, and elect and depose kings and appoint regents. He seems to have identified this governing representative council with the aristocracy, rather than the estates-general, and certainly rejected the claim of the parlements to political sovereignty. Although it Hotman never stated it, his book implied that sovereignty lay with the people rather than the king, and that true legal and political authority lay in representative governmental assemblies.

View of Reveille Matin that God had established Inferior Magistrates to Check Power of the Monarchy and People Could Overthrow the King if he became a Tyrant

The Reveille Matin, published in two parts in 1573 and 1574, declared that no people had or would ever establish a sovereign ruler with absolute authority to do whatever he pleased. God had not conferred sovereignty solely on the king. He had also granted it to subordinate magistrates, officials who had the right and duty to resist tyranny. The rights and duties of monarchs and their people were reciprocal, and subjects were required to obey the king so long as he honoured his duties to them. This had been part of the ancient constitution of France, which the monarchy had recently overthrown. However, the Reveille Matin considered that it was possible for the ancient constitution to be restored, and argued that this should be put into practice. Moreover, when a king became a tyrant and massacres his subjects, as Charles IX had done with the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, he could be justly deposed or assassinated.

Calvin’s View of the Role of Inferior Magistrates in Limiting Power of Monarchy and Duty of Subjects to Obey their Kings

Hotman’s view and that of the Reveille Matin that there were subordinate officials in the kingdom who could justly resist and depose a corrupt and tyrannical king was based on Calvin’s own view of the role of the ‘inferior magistrates’ in his Institutes of the Christian Religion. 18 Although he felt that most princes were unjust and behaved like tyrants, nevertheless he considered that they and other authorities owed their position not to humanity but to God, and that therefore they should not be resisted but obeyed, even when they were tyrants. 19 Calvin did, however, recognise that some states, such as Athens, Rome and Sparta, had officials whose duty was to restrain the actions of the chief magistrate. He suggested that these official possibly had their contemporary equivalents in the assemblies of three estates in modern European nations. In theory, these magistrates may also have the power, and thus the duty, to resist tyrants. If they refused to do this when the situation demanded, they thus betrayed their people’s liberty. 20 Thus both Hotman in his Franco-Gallia and Beza in his Du Droit du Magistrat considered that the king shared power with the estates-general, and that, for Beza, the estates-general had the right to depose corrupt and unjust kings. 21

Huguenot Views on Constitutional Limits of Monarchy Based on Medieval View of Contract between Monarch and People and Calvinist Covenant Theology

The Huguenot political theories of the constitutional limits on the monarchy and the right of the people to overthrow tyrants were based were based on the medieval theories that political authority was the result of contracts. One of these was the contract between people through which they established political authority at the foundation of the state. Another was the covenant God had made with humanity through the events of the Bible and Christ’s ministry. Calvin considered that God had fulfilled His part of the covenant with humanity through the redeeming work of Christ. Humanity in its turn now had to keep its part of the covenant through obedience.

In the 1580s theologians, particularly those of Heidelberg, had extended this conception of the Covenant to create a doctrine of the ‘Covenant of works’ that covered all aspects of human life and applied to everyone, not just to the elect of Calvinist theology. God had made this covenant with Adam, who represented the whole of humanity, who were thus required to fulfil their religious and secular duties. Instead of producing fatalism and a resignation to the preordained order and events, Covenant theology and the Calvinist doctrine of predestination instead produced an active willingness to participate in them. Within Covenant theology was the expectation that people eagerly consented to the Covenant with the Lord, and wished to take every opportunity that God presented them to fulfil their part of it. While this originally may have meant the people were expected to obey princes through an active effort of will, it also encouraged the attitude that humans had a right and duty to fulfil their duties to the Lord by actively resisting a tyrant. Historians such as Michael Walzer, in his 1965 book, The Revolution of the Saints, considered that the Covenant was a way of activating humans without stipulating the Lord’s actions. 22


  1. Allen, History of Political Thought, p. 55.
  2. Allen, History of Political Thought, p. 58.
  3. Koenigsberger and Mosse, Sixteenth Century, p. 278.
  4. Michael Walzer, The Revolution of the Saints, 1965, p. 167, cited in Koenigsbergers and Mosse, Sixteenth Century, p. 278.

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