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Bourbon and Stuart

By K.H.D. Haley | Published in History Today 1987 
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Kings and Kingship in France and England in the seventeenth century
  • Bourbon and Stuart: Kings and Kingship in France and England in the seventeenth century
    John Miller. 272 pp. (George Philip, 1987)
It is a commonplace to say that in the seventeenth century English and French development diverged, the one country on 'constitutional' and the other on 'absolutist' lines. Yet their history has rarely been discussed in a comparative way, and in university syllabuses it has even been possible for British history in the period to be studied with only the most superficial knowledge of the domestic history of the state across the Channel.

For this reason many will find Dr Miller's book the most stimulating general account of the political history of the century (except for the Commonwealth) to appear for many years. It has many comparative insights to offer, and not only on the two monarchies as suggested by the title. It does of course focus on the authority of Bourbon and Stuart monarchs – its nature, its theoretical basis and its practical limitations. The remarkably dissimilar four British and three French kings themselves are given lively and penetrating characterisations, with shrewd attention to the ways in which they altered with age. The atmosphere is not one of adulation: the author's attitude, though rarely unfair, is always cool and unsentimental, and even Henry of Navarre is portrayed in a distinctly unromantic light, unwashed and smelly so that his queen had to dowse herself with perfume, suffering from venereal disease and, in his fifties, in love with the fourteen-year-old Charlotte de Montmorenci.
Their styles of government differed as much as their personalities and their powers. The French kings had a much larger state apparatus, with a paid bureaucracy, a large army, and a permanent land tax in the taille which they could levy without check from any national representative body; Dr Miller makes the point that, had ship money become permanent, Charles I would have had an English version of the tax without, however, any exemptions from it, so that it accurately tapped the nation's wealth, but this never came about. James I and Charles I always announced their intention to rule within the law and claimed only discretionary powers, though these, once established by Charles I, might have been extended with time, and Charles II and James II claimed the right, if not to legislate, then to suspend legislation; whereas Louis XIV could on occasion invoke 'the good of the people' to override the law, tolerated no overt opposition, used troops to collect taxes, and augmented Fouquet's sentence on his sovereign authority.

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