This study examines the political and economic relationship between Louis XIV and the parlements of France, the parlement of Paris and all the provincial tribunals. It explains how the king managed to overcome the century-old opposition of the parlements to new legislation, and to impose upon them the strict political discipline for which his reign is known. The work calls into question the current revisionist understanding of the reign of Louis XIV and insists that, after all, absolute government had a harsh reality at its core. When the king died in 1715, the regent, Philippe d'Orleans, after a brief attempt to befriend the parlements through compromise, resorted to the authoritarian methods of Louis XIV and perpetuated the Sun King's political and economic legacy.
Recent scholarship on the parlements has minimized their differences with royal administrations. According to the current view, any disputes involving the parlements were less than fundamental, involving no vital interest, an artificial or ritual ballet in which both sides accepted unwritten rules and kept inside invisible boundaries. Thus the basic issue of royal sovereignty could never come into play, by mutual consent. This view is only partially correct. It is true that the parlements did not openly challenge sovereignty or the nature of the monarchy. They looked for no Bastille to storm. But it is not true that they posed no fundamental obstacle to royal government, merely that their behaviour was insidious, marked by stealth.
This chapter discusses Louis XIV and the issues related to registration of laws he dealt with. It also discusses the circumstances and the process by which Louis XIV achieved success in these issues. The chapter further shows how the king, in 1671–1675, finally suppressed the ability of the parlements to impede or prevent the registration of new laws, prying them loose from the practices and precedents that had sustained them over the decades, and overriding the principles upon which they claimed to act. In retrospect, it is only surprising that it took this administration as long as it did to achieve this result. Once Louis XIV, guided by Colbert, chose to pitch his fiscal machine at a higher level, he finally had no choice but to overcome the constitutionalism of the parlements and establish the political discipline that became a hallmark of his reign and a signal victory for absolute government.
This chapter discusses the victory over the parlements during 1671–1675. In March 1671, the king issued two new edicts for the contrôle des exploits and the consignation des amendes. These edicts led to months of resistance from the provincial parlements, which reflexively adopted their proven tactics of modification and delay. At another time, the government might have compromised with the judges; but the new relationship with the Vialet group meant that Colbert had to get the parlements to register fiscal laws unmodified and quickly. Moreover, the current royal budget showed a deficit for the first time in ten years, and Colbert needed the revenue from the two edicts to help close the gap between income and expenditure. The edict of 1671 for the contrôle des exploits updated the 1669 original by specifying all the types of writs, summonses and subpoenas that came under the contrôle, an effort to eliminate recent parlementary evasions.
This chapter shows how Louis XIV overcame the parlements' defence of venality. He forced them to pay for repeated augmentations de gages and to accept the creation of as many offices as the king could sell. This was at the cost to the magistrates of falling office prices and heavy personal debt, the social and economic consequences of political defeat. Although very different from forced loans and office creations, their traditional worries, the reforms posed an obvious threat to the venal interests of the magistrates, for whom this meant rising indebtedness, the mortgaging of their offices and the decline of office values. The government of Louis XIV, so far from respecting the venal interests of the parlements, as revisionist historians have argued, manipulated and exploited those offices to a degree that exceeded the abilities of its predecessors. It would be even more successful in the War of the Spanish Succession; and the financial difficulties of the judges would increase.
This chapter delineates the grinding ordeal magistrates were subjected to by the late reign of Louis XIV. He left the magistrates with their offices taxed, yielding scant income, reduced in value, heavily mortgaged, exposed to creditors and with unpaid augmentations de gages. To fund the War of the Spanish Succession (1702–1714), Michel Chamillart, the controller general, increased current taxes, invented new taxes, borrowed heavily and manipulated the currency, the customary methods long called into use by hard-pressed finance ministers. Long before the war ended, the magistrates had reached the limits of their financial endurance, with their offices heavily mortgaged and dwindling in value, and office income drying up. These depredations served as the denouement to the political subservience that began with Colbert in the 1670s. When the king died, however, his political regimen was beginning to show the first signs of wear and tear, brought on by unrest over the alarming state of venal office.
This chapter presents an argument that, in the first two years of his regency, the duc d'Orléans made a conscious effort to win the friendship of the parlements and to make them his allies in his struggle with his rival, the duc du Maine. In an effort to win their affection, he cajoled, courted and occasionally capitulated to the very judges whom Louis XIV had tethered, a bid for cooperation that lay beneath the blandishments, inconsistencies and reversals which he showed in his treatment of the tribunals. But the grievances of the parlements, above all the disappointing inability of the Noailles administration to satisfy their financial claims, made it hard for such an alliance to take root. The duc de Saint-Simon condemned it as irresolute fawning, born of an exaggerated sense of the Parlement's importance. As of January 1718, Orléans had pulled back from his politics of accommodation.
This chapter depicts the circumstances under which d'Argenson, the new keeper of the seals and president of the Council of Finances, confronted the parlement and the resulting outcome of this confrontation. D'Argenson castigated the Parlement for trying to usurp royal authority, arrogating to itself power which belonged to the king alone, his main thesis during the entire clash, and declared that the tribunal had tried to lift itself above the other superior courts of Paris, claiming authority over financial issues which lay outside its sphere. The lit de justice, as d'Argenson put it, would redress the tilting balance between the monarch and the Parlement, the paramount issue of the day. It handed the Parlement a stinging defeat and boosted the political authority of the regent. Because of the lit de justice, the Parlement ceased to resist d'Argenson, Law and the policies of Orléans. The arrest of three judges stood as a warning to others. Those magistrates who had been the most vocal throughout the disputes of 1717 and 1718 fell silent; and First President Mesmes fell ill, suffering an apparent stroke.
This chapter sketches the state of affairs during which the regent Philippe d'Orléans suppressed the last traces of dissidence in the Parlement of Rennes, kept his thumb on the Parlement of Paris and settled augmentations de gages on terms of his choosing. During this time, he resolved the political and financial questions left over from the preceding reign. At every key point involving these intertwined issues, d'Orléans got his way by resorting to coercion and by overriding the wishes of the majority of the judges, damaging their constitutional and socio-economic interests along the way. On the most important issues involving the parlements, the past reign flowed into its successor, after the brief interlude in which Orléans had vainly practised conciliation. Thus the regency not only benefited from the gains Louis XIV made at the expense of the parlements; it ratified and perpetuated those gains, passing them down the century.
This chapter tries to show that the administration of Louis XIV had, after all, an authoritarian core, especially in its relations with the parlements. As a result of their resistance to the fiscal demands of the Dutch War, the king imposed upon the tribunals those rules about registration procedure that deprived them of any influence upon new laws, relegating them to the margins of political life for the duration of the reign. When the regent Philippe d'Orléans, after a brief conciliatory period, enjoyed a fresh success with authoritarian methods, he demonstrated once again the hard realism that lay at the heart of absolute government. All the royal officials who served the regent began their careers under the late king, and many continued to serve after Orléans died in 1723, carrying the absolutist tradition forward. Had the parlements struggled with any success against Louis XIV and the regent, they might have retained some political powers and spared themselves most of the financial reverses that they suffered in their venal offices. They emerged grievously weakened from the reign of Louis XIV, their political functions virtually abolished and their venal offices stripped of the capital gains built up in the past century.