The role of the monarchy in pre-revolutionary France is
essential to understanding the sudden outbreak and violent nature of the French
Revolution. On the surface, France had an absolute monarch, so it seems no
factor could be out of the monarchy’s control. The truth is much more complex,
as the monarchy’s power was limited both by the powerful interests of the
aristocracy, the rising bourgeoisie and the ancient laws and customs of the Old
Regime: J.F. Bosher went so far as to say Kings were limited in power as the
system was not theirs to change1. It is perhaps more accurate,
however, to say Louis XV and Louis XVI were limited as the monarchy was not
theirs, but their predecessor Louis XIV’s, as the ‘Sun King’ wielded great
power both during his reign and after, through his legacy. The Revolution arose
from a culmination of factors including the monarchy’s decision to fight in the
American Revolution, the rates of interest at which the it borrowed money and
an unlucky run of bad harvests in 1788-9. In 1787, Finance Minister Calonne
informed King Louis XVI that the monarchy was close to bankruptcy, proposing
sweeping reforms that needed the Estates-General, a body representing the three
Estates of French society, to ratify. By this point, there was nothing the king
could do other than watch the creation of the National Assembly and a new form
of government in which the monarchy would quickly become obsolete. The events
of 1789, however, were not causes of the Revolution but the Revolution itself.
From c.1688, the beginning of the Nine Years War, up to 1789, the actions and
omissions of the monarchy had led France to Revolution, such that by the 1780s,
there was little the monarchy could do to avoid lying in the bed it made — Louis XVI “passively awaited the end” when he
appreciated that the Revolution was inevitable.


The financial and political crisis of the late 1780s
created an opening for the Revolution, as the monarchy’s huge wartime expenditure
drove it into bankruptcy. By 1786, the monarchy’s debt repayments consumed
about half of income2. Since 1688, France had been fighting
in the so-called ‘Second Hundred Years War’3, a series of wars in which France’s
sworn enemy was always Britain. This inclination to go to war can be traced back
to Louis XIV, who said in 1672 – only 34 years old –  “I shall not attempt to justify myself.
Ambition and the pursuit of glory are always pardonable in a prince”4 when explaining his decision to
declare war against the Dutch. ANALYSE THIS SOURCE. Louis XIV’s legacy, present
in depictions of the so-called ‘Sun King’ (see appendix 1), the palace of Versailles,
and France’s global position, had a significant impact on France’s foreign
policy objectives throughout the 18th century5. For example, the French involvement
in the American War of Independence was an opportunity for vengeance against
Britain following the unfavourable 1763 Treaty of Paris settlement, typical of
the monarchy’s dynastic approach to war. Wars were fought in the name of glory,
with little consideration for the human and financial cost both of the wars
themselves and more importantly (for the purposes of the question) the cost of
the extensive loans. As the decision to declare war lay only with the King, the
financial factors of the Revolution hardly seem out of the monarchy’s control,
but the result of the monarchy’s foreign policy.


However, Tim Blanning argues that ‘aristocratic officers
alienated by the progressive collapse of French power and prestige since the
glory days of Louis XIV’6 were among the first revolutionaries,
challenging the view that it was the ‘pursuit of glory’ that caused the Revolution. This revisionist
account of the Revolution is supported by substantial evidence suggesting aristocratic
figures such as Lafayette and Mirabeau were instrumental in the Revolution. ANALYSE
BLANNING. While the monarchy did have the choice to be less involved in global
conflict, there was an unavoidable trade-off between financial stability and
France’s prestige7 — both essential if it were to avoid
a Revolution. Thus, it can be argued that by the 1780s, two key factors that
caused the revolution were out of the monarchy’s control. The monarchy’s
historic approach of glorifying warfare, however, had created this expectation
among aristocratic officers. Thus, by looking at the whole time period in
question, the extensive involvement in conflict leading to Revolution, was in
the monarchy’s control.


Despite Britain’s prominent role in the ‘Second Hundred
Years War’, only France almost drove itself into bankruptcy, largely because of
its inefficient method of financing the wars. Stone notes that Britain had two
major advantages against France: being an island allowed it to reduce peacetime
military spending, and unlike France it had a democratically elected and
powerful Parliament able to levy new taxes with the consent of the people8. While France was an absolute
monarchy, there were many entrenched laws and privileges that were near
impossible to change, notably tax exemptions. The taille was a direct tax on
land, which was not only collected inconsistently between regions, but almost
everybody except peasants claimed some exemption. Furthermore, taxes weren’t
collected by the monarchy or its intendants, but by venal office holders and
tax ‘farmers’ who bought or leased the right to collect taxes in exchange for a
fixed payment to the monarchy. In this system, it was difficult to increase tax
revenue and a large proportion of tax never even reached the royal purse, hence
the monarchy consistently ran a budget deficit.9 This was out of the monarchy’s
control and an important cause for the Revolution. Lynn Hunt points out that
the deficit alone wasn’t the problem, but the fact it was paid for with loans
from foreign bankers reaching interest rates as high as 7-10%10, due to the lack of confidence in the
monarchy’s ability to repay. While in the 1780s the repayments of past loans
was requiring further loans to be taken out, forcing France into an
‘interest-deficit spiral’11, the monarchy had no choice but to
continue borrowing, had major fiscal reforms taken place earlier in the 18th
century, the financial crisis may well have been averted, as it was in Britain.

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Finance ministers, on appointment from the king, had
intermittently tried to reform France’s financial system throughout the 18th
century, yet all their efforts ultimately proved futile. Under Louis XIV,
Silhouette attempted to pay for the Seven Years War through heavy taxation,
which failed to win the support of the people, the Parlement of Paris12 and set a bad precedent for the
effectiveness of higher taxes as it failed to reduce the national debt below
1.7 billion livres.13 In 1774, Turgot also tried
implementing tax reforms, but this failed again when Louis XVI confusingly
reinstated the Parlement of Paris and dismissed him. The monarchy, lacking a
long-term finance minister and a coherent plan, found itself stuck with an
ineffective taxation system. By the time Calonne had the king’s approval for
his sweeping reforms to the financial system, not only was the debt spiralling
out of control, but his plan failed because the Assembly of Notables was
unconvinced of the necessity of such reforms as his predecessor, Jacques
Necker, had published the Compte rendu, a document misleading the public
about the state of the King’s finances and it was decided that Calonne’s
reforms could not be brought about without the consent of the Estates-General.
When Louis XVI had no choice but to call the Estates-General in 1788, the stage
for the Revolution was set, but it was a combination of monarchial and
aristocratic pressure that had hindered such reforms from taking place quietly
earlier in the century.


The Marxist interpretation of the French Revolution — a
bourgeois revolution causing the transition from feudalism to capitalism — exonerates,
as it was the very fabric of society not actions of the monarchy that caused
the Revolution. The 20th century historian Albert Soboul argued the
aristocracy’s flat rejection of the bourgeoisie’s demand for more political and
economic freedom led to Revolution. However, while the bourgeoisie engaged in
capitalist enterprise, they tended to abandon this in favour of a noble
lifestyle, through purchasing venal offices and privilege, challenging Soboul’s
central claim that the Revolution was a movement to capitalism. As a Marxist
historian and a member of the Communist party, Soboul is not entirely reliable,
as his findings are based as much on a Marxist worldview as the actual state of
French society. Soboul accurately points out, however, that the bourgeoisie had
been assisting the monarchy in the administration of the state, indicating the
dispute was not between the bourgeois and the monarchy14. ‘What is the Third Estate?’, a
famous pamphlet published in 1789 by the abbé Sieyès, supports Soboul’s view as
it urges members of the Third Estate, including the bourgeoisie, to seek a
greater role in French society at the expense of the aristocracy. The pamphlet
refers to the King as “a man so thoroughly deceived and so defenceless in the
midst of an active, all-powerful court” in what Sieyès thinks is not a monarchy, but a
“palace autocracy”15. Given that Versailles was built by
Louis XIV as a show of his power and status16, it seems odd to claim the court had
taken power from the king, and while Sieyès admits Louis XIV was an exception to
this, the claim of “palace autocracy” is not a reliable analysis of the
absolutist system in France, but a provocative claim intended to exploit hatred
towards the aristocracy. Furthermore, we may question the usefulness of this
source as historian Jonathan Israel challenges the view that Sieyès was a leading revolutionary: he was
elected to the National Assembly with a slim majority and, as a clergyman did
not even form a part of the Third Estate. Soboul and Sieyès may not have identified the problems
in pre-revolutionary France with the monarchy, but the Marxist paradigm that
excused the monarchy has been discredited by revisionist historians such as
Colin Lucas, who while acknowledging the monarchy was not omnipotent, do not
underestimate the role the monarchy played.


Though the revolution is no longer considered a bourgeois
revolution, the tension between the bourgeoisie and the aristocracy that the
monarchy had contributed to for centuries is significant nonetheless, argues
revisionist historian Colin Lucas. The monarchy’s sale of ‘venal offices’ was
mutually beneficial to the buyer who received income, prestige and privileges
such as tax exemption and the monarchy which gained desperately needed cash.
This practice is aptly described by Doyle as an “addiction”17 because the monarchy overlooked the
deep problems this caused in society because of its short-term financial gain.
The problems were twofold: the aristocracy was angered by the usurpation of its
status by bourgeois members who bought, rather than inherited, their position,
leading Saint-Simon to warn of “the reign of the vile bourgeoisie”18 and secondly it made reforming the
system impossible as the monarchy could not afford to repurchase the venal
offices. Lucas argued that Louis XIV’s used all such means to raise finance and elevated
commoners to the officer corps to supply manpower in his extensive warfare. The
class conflicts that led both the aristocracy and the bourgeoisie to Revolution
were brought about by the monarchy’s irresponsible policies. This was not
solely the result of Louis XIV, as a string of finance ministers who attempted
to remove venal offices were dismissed by the Louis XV and Louis XVI19, as they underestimated the
importance of social tensions. Lucas’ judgement that “The situation in the
later eighteenth century was simply the development of conditions already
apparent in the second half of the seventeenth.”20 is correct in that it appreciates the
sale of ‘venal offices’ was not a new policy, but existed long before signs of
the Revolution emerged, though the continuation of these conditions was not an
oversight, but the monarchy’s specific attempts to stifle change.


While determining the motivations of the revolutionary
leadership is important, just as important is the involvement of the peasant
masses, without whom the Revolution would likely not have succeeded. The very
poor conditions of the peasantry in the late 1780s were caused by a combination
of factors including poor harvests in 1788-9 that caused the price of bread to
rise, and a trade deal signed with Britain in 1786 that caused high levels of
unemployment21. Neither poor harvests nor
unemployment were new, but had been occurring throughout the 18th century, as
had peasant revolts, notably the ‘Flour Wars’ in 1775. 1789, however, was the
first time peasant unrest had collided with a political crisis, creating the
perfect storm for Revolution. The monarchy was blamed for the arduous tax
burden, the trade deal and an alleged plot to hold back bread supplies to
starve the people into submission22. In reality, in 1788, Necker imported
grain and established charities for the poor23, though these efforts clearly came
too late. Arthur Young, an English expert in agriculture, travelled to France in
1787-9 and wrote this of the peasantry: “One would naturally have supposed,
from the gross abuses and cruelty of this method of taxation, that the object
in view were to keep the people poor, as to make the King rich”24. Young, an Englishman, picked up on
the relative unfairness of the French taxation system, but misses the fact that
while the intention may well have been to keep the people poor, it served the
feudal landowners as much — or more than — the King. As ever, though, the King
was guilty of not doing enough to quell these concerns and the fact that Young
objectively observed this unfairness, without having any stake in the French
Revolution, shows that there was indeed a justified feeling of resentment
towards the monarchy among the peasant classes. This was within the monarchy’s
control, and greater efforts to satisfy the least politically powerful, but
most populous group of people in France, and more care for the way in which it
was perceived by this group, could have prevented the monarchy’s fate.


Developments in the postal service, revolution of the press
and increasingly important public opinion came together in the 18th century to
create what Blanning calls the “public sphere”25, whereby the role of public opinion,
particularly with regard to the monarchy, started to become more pronounced.
The Royal Postal Service had become developed enough by the 18th century to
facilitate the mass spreading of revolutionary pamphlets that were crucial to
the outbreak of Revolution. The monarchy, for the most part, censored the press
to prevent exactly the situation in 1789 where the monarchy’s reputation was
destroyed. The storming of the Bastille, however, brought an end to the
monarchy’s censorship of the press26. By this point, however, the
Revolution had already begun, so the collapse of censorship cannot be
considered a factor of the French Revolution at all. However, pamphlets
smearing the monarchy had existed for a long time, particularly ones targeting
Marie Antoinette, or “the Austrian Bitch”27, such as in the case of the Diamond
Necklace Affair (see appendix 2), where a false rumour about an expensive
necklace bought by the queen was widely believed28. This is evidence of a public
distaste for the Queen, but also of the monarchy’s financial habits, a key
factor of the Revolution. While censorship could only go so far, Blanning
argues that “Louis XV did not have to marry his grandson to the Archduchess
Marie Antoinette, thus ensuring that the unpopularity of the Austrian alliance
would continue to blight the next reign”29, attributing the tarnishing of the
monarchy’s reputation to the monarchy. Blanning is alluding to the unpopular
1756 Diplomatic Revolution, where France allied with Austria, which lends
further credibility to the view that the monarchy’s total disregard for public
opinion, particularly with regard to Austria, led to the growth of the “public
sphere”, which spurred on the Revolution.

looking at the French Revolution in the wider context of the Enlightenment
across 18th century Europe, it may be argued it was an inevitable part of a
chain of Atlantic revolutions, a process out of the monarchy’s control. The
National Assembly of France created ‘The Declaration of the Rights of Man and
of Citizens’30 in 1789, though it reflected much of
the Enlightenment thought in the preceding century. As the official
constitution agreed by a majority of the revolutionary National Assembly, it is
an incredibly reliable and useful source. The phrase “unalienable rights” is
also found in the American Declaration of Independence and affirms the
Enlightenment concept of natural law. Its proposed “separation of powers”
emulates the structure of government created by the American Revolution,
seemingly suggesting both revolutions were part of the same trend. More
accurately, both Revolutions were the response to undemocratic systems of
government, hence that both seek to create a separation of powers is not
surprising. Various elements of the document arise as both practical responses
to problems in the Old Regime, such as The declaration that “taxation out to
be divided equally among the members of the community, according to their
abilities”, whereas others arise from the philosophy of Enlightenment thinking,
such as “the law is an expression of the will of the community”, which
expresses Rousseau’s concept of the ‘social contract’. While it was written in
large part by Jefferson and Lafayette (key figures in the the American and
French Revolutions), it was the work of the whole National Assembly, who had
sworn to give France a new constitution. An estimated 10 out of 1200 members of
the National Assembly were Enlightenment philosophers31, so while the Enlightenment had
facilitated the thinking and debate behind the document, the document was not
merely a product of the Enlightenment. Thus, while the Revolution was part of a
chain of Atlantic Revolutions, it was not caused by the Enlightenment, but by a
complex combination of factors, many of which were within the monarchy’s


onset of the French Revolution, the financial crisis, appeared to be out of the
monarchy’s control because of the high interest rates and ineffective financial
system. However, the failure of the monarchy to do anything about these deep
structural problems makes it responsible for the binding position it was put
into when forced to call the Estates-General. Social divisions were not the
creation of the monarchy, but its policies ranged from ignoring issues such as
resentment of the bourgeoisie to igniting anger within the peasant classes,
creating a society hostile to itself as well as towards the monarchy. The
Enlightenment seems to absolve the monarchy of accusations of causing the
French Revolution, but it is in fact clear that the Revolution was not simply
the result of the Enlightenment, it was the Enlightenment, caused by
France-centric grievances and influenced by past Enlightenment thought. The
striking images of the powerful and wealthy monarchy (see appendixes 1 and 2)
in the Old Regime provide a a sharp contrast with the trial and execution of of
Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. This essay seeks to determine whether this
change of fate for monarchy was of its own making or not. ‘The old regime’s
ruling elite … did much to dig its own grave.’32 argues Stone; the
ruling elite consisted of the monarchy and the aristocracy, and while this
essay seeks only to judge the actions of the monarchy, the question of to what
extent the Revolution was caused by factors out of the aristocracy’s control
must also be answered. The monarchy, however, certainly did dig its own grave,
and had started doing so at least a century before the Revolution, in its sale
of venal offices, large-scale borrowing and a range of selfish and
short-sighted policies that were emblematic of the Old Regime. In the latter
half of the 18th century, the Revolution seems inevitable and out of the
monarchy’s control, though this was the result of factors that had been within
the monarchy’s control a century earlier.

1 J.F. Bosher quoted in T. Blanning,
The Pursuit of Glory 1648-1815, Penguin Group, 2008, p.600.

2 T. Blanning, p.602.

3 The term ‘Second Hundred Years War’ was
coined to refer to the Nine Years War (1888-97), the War of Spanish Succession
(1701-14), the War of Austrian Succession (1741-48), the Seven Years War
(1756-63), the American War of Independence (1776-83) and later the
Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, named after the original ‘Hundred Years
War’, between France and England in 1337–1453.

4 T. Blanning, p.540.

5 B. Stone, Reinterpreting the
French Revolution, Cambridge University Press, 2002, pp.18-20.

6 T. Blanning, p.339.

7 B. Stone, p.14.

8 B. Stone, p.23.

9 T. J. Sargent & F. R. Velde, ‘Macroeconomic
Features of the French Revolution’, Journal of Political Economy, Vol. 103, No.
3, 1995, pp. 474-518. Available from JSTOR
(accessed 12 April 2013)

10 L. Hunt, ‘The French
Revolution in a Global Perspective’ online video, 2014, (accessed 23 June

11 T. Blanning, p.602.

12 The Parlement of Paris was the largest
of the sovereign courts, that had to publish laws before they could be enforced
in their jurisdiction. They could, however, be overruled the monarchy.

13 J. B. Smith, ‘France’s Financial
Crisis: Analysing the Role of the Finance Minister’, The Liberty Journal of
History, Vol. 1, Issue 1, 2015. Available from (accessed 23 June

14 A. Soboul, ‘The French
Revolution in the History of the Contemporary World’, in G. Kates (ed.), The
French Revolution: Recent Debates and Controversies, Routledge, 1998, pp.23-43.

15 E. Sieyès, ‘What is the Third
Estate?’, 1789, (accessed 23 June

16 Versailles was built by Louis XIV,
notably outside of Paris, as the centre of a powerful and detached absolute
monarch. Sieyès mistakes the detachedness of the
monarchy for powerlessness, but when necessary the king was able to exercise
his authority over the court. See W. Doyle, The French Revolution: A
Very Short Introduction, Oxford University Press, 2001, p.22.

17 W. Doyle quoted in T. Blanning,

18 C. Lucas, ‘Nobles, Bourgeois,
and the Origins of the French Revolution’, in G. Kates (ed.), The French
Revolution: Recent Debates and Controversies, Routledge, 1998, pp.44-70

19 J. B. Smith, p.11.

20 C. Lucas, pp.54.

21 Poor harvests were
common, but the usual practice was for families to supplement their income with
manufacturing labour. However, with the high prices of bread, there was little
domestic demand for manufactured goods, and with the trade deal, there was less
international demand as well, hence the massive unemployment. See T.
Blanning, p.338

22 T. Blanning, p.339

23 J. B. Smith, p.9.

24 A. Young, ‘Travels During the
Years 1787, 1788, and 1789. Undertaken more particularly with a View of
ascertaining the Cultivation, Wealth, Resources, and National Prosperity, of
the Kingdom of France’, p.405

25 T. Blanning, p.xxv.

26 J. Israel, ‘Revolutionary Ideas: An Intellectual
History of the French Revolution’, Princeton University
Press, 2014 p.43.

27 C. Caccipuoti, ‘The French
Revolution Countdown (Part I)’ podcast, (accessed 23 June

28 W. Doyle, p.22.

29 T. Blanning, p.320

30 The Declaration of Man and of the
The National Assembly of France, 1789, trans. Thomas Paine, in W. Doyle, The
French Revolution: A Very Short Introduction, Oxford University Press, 2001,

31 J. Israel, p.15.

32 B. Stone, p.260.


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