The Ancien Régime: what was it and did it work?

Countless times as you read books and learned pamphlets on history, you will meet the French words Ancien Régime. It is an easy bet that many of us only half know what these two simple words signify. The translation is easy: in English – traditional method of government by royalty; in Spanish – el antiguo regimen.

The fact that these two words are French is not casual. They mean the political and administrative systems in France during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries under the Bourbon kings, before the French Revolution. Actually the term has often been applied in a wider sense to most of the rest of Europe.

The French monarch had (in theory at least) unlimited authority, including the right to imprison suspect individuals without a trial. Certain other European kings (and queens) were accustomed to stretch this ‘royal right’ to include actual murder, usually by hired assassin. Henry VII of England, for instance, the first in the Tudor dynasty, employed paid assassins to travel about the known world eliminating any members of the Yorkist family they could find, to ensure Henry’s comfortable continuance as King of England, without opposing claims to the throne being made by persons of Yorkist royal blood. One of these was the hapless (and partially insane Edward, son of Richard III’s brother Clarence, a youth barely 24 years old, imprisoned in the Tower of London. A trumped-up charge was made, and the boy had his head removed from his body on Tower Green.

In the ancien régime there was no room for legislative assembly. Privilege was above all the hallmark; the nobility were privileged before the Law, especially in the matter of taxation, and the holding of high office. Naturally, during the two centuries mentioned above, this grew to be unpopular with the increasingly wealthy middle classes. In fact it limited the power of the Monarchy, though few kings, especially French kings, recognised this uncomfortable fact.

In France, the clergy were also over-privileged, and the Roman Catholic Church had extensive properties across the country. In England, after Henry VIII and Thomas Cromwell carried out their confiscation of Catholic land and buildings, and created the Church of England, the latter became the largest landowner in the country by far, exceeding royal and ducal land-ownings by far. The French Revolution, when it happened, was just as much directed against the Church as against the King and his pampered nobility.
But the working classes, known then as ‘the peasants’, were very much over-taxed, and though they were not serfs, their landlords were able to exercise many ‘rights’ over them, including the much debated droit de seigneur.

The ancien régime was however both inefficient and unwieldy; reforms in law, taxation and local government were long overdue or purposefully held up. Government bankruptcy (watch out, Spain!) was just as much a cause of the Revolution as aristocratic abuse or royal pride. Towards the end of the eighteenth century, despite the restraints placed on the freedom of the press by both the Church and the State, criticism of the régime was widespread and conducted with vigour. Finally the régime was found to be acting as an inflexible restraint on a rapidly evolving society, and it was utterly destroyed by the Revolution of 1789. Dean Swift

About the Author:

‘Dean Swift’ is a pen name: the author has been a soldier; he has worked in sales, TV, the making of films, as a teacher of English and history and a journalist. He is married with three grown-up children. They live in Spain.

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