Political Power of the Nobility
From the time of the accession of Hugh Capet to the throne of France, it was the uniform endeavour of the French monarchs to lower the territorial power and local influence of the nobility : their privileges, the French monarch always respected. By degrees, all the great fiefs were annexed to the crown; and the inferior nobility were curtailed of their territorial power and influence. Insensibly they became a privileged and favoured order of the state; enjoying many splendid prerogatives, but wholly dependent on the king, and subject to the law.
The French nobles as a class were without political power. It is true that they enjoyed many unjust privileges, such as exemption from the bulk of the direct taxes and a monopoly of field sports. Again, those nobles who surrounded the sovereign, waited on his person, and snared his pleasures, had ample opportunities of procuring favours for themselves and of doing harm to those who had incurred their hatred. Moreover, the officials of the Crown observed in their dealings with the nobility a forbearance and a courtesy, a respect for the rights of human nature, which were too often forgotten in dealing with the other classes. For after all the King of France was a French gentleman, who shared the tastes, habits, and prejudices of his order, and wished to gratify his fellows so far as was compatible with his own absolute power. But that absolute power came first in his thoughts and in the thoughts of his servants. No independent will might be allowed to impede the course of his prerogative.
For centuries the Crown with its lawyers and officials had been sapping the power of the noblesse, and had at length reduced it to political nullity. The nobles had lost all voice in making laws and levying taxes when the States General ceased to meet. The bureaucracy had carefully stripped them of administrative power in their respective neighbourhoods. They had no part in the levying of the militia, in the relief of the poor, in the assessment of taxes, in the execution of public works, or in enforcing the regulations which controlled commerce and industry. The only political privileges which they retained were a share in the Estates of the few Provinces where Estates had survived, and an enervated feudal jurisdiction.
The French noble had no opportunity of combining with his fellows, or of offering himself as a leader to the commons. A number of gentlemen could not meet for any public purpose without official leave. The noblesse had never shown eminent political capacity; and what they had, withered under conditions so deadening. At the outbreak of the Revolution not a few nobles gave proof of generous ardour for the common good; none save the discredited vagabond Mirabeau displayed the acuteness or resource of the born statesman.
The French noblesse, as the event proved, was unpopular. It could hardly have been otherwise, for it was a body sharply defined by the titles, forms, and privileges most apt to wound the pride as well as the self-interest of other classes. Although manners were more humane in France than in some of the adjoining countries, the noblesse often displayed the arrogance natural to men who are not merely taught to think themselves superior, but have no occasion to solicit other men's suffrages.
The isolation of the noblesse, save in a few districts, was complete; for the policy of attracting the nobles to Court and keeping them in attendance on the sovereign had rendered the most illustrious and wealthy of that order strangers to their own estates. When a noble family, after long residence at Paris or Versailles, went down to the ancestral mansion, it usually sought to replenish its purse and lived frugally until it could return to the center of power and pleasure. The significant phrase, "exiled to his estates," tells us how the courtier regarded a sojourn in the country. Such a landed proprietor could not know the wants of his people or gain their good-will by furthering their welfare, but was often obliged to press them for the last farthing in order to feed his artificial and expensive manner of life. The poorer nobles, who lived in the country because they could not live so cheaply anywhere else, were as little able to improve their land, to help the peasants, or to encourage local industry. As a class the nobles had become useless. Their proprietary rights very generally took a form which hindered the progress of husbandry; their obsolete prejudices debarred them from lucrative callings; and the jealousy of the Crown excluded them from public life.
Arrogance, isolation, and futility, rather than any enormous wickedness, seem to have been the causes of the ill-will felt towards the French nobles. Very bad men are found in all times and in all classes, and certainly abounded at the Court of Louis XV. But much the greater number of the nobility had not the means, even if they felt the wish, to vie with the Regent Orleans or the Duc de Richelieu, and astonish Europe by prodigal lust and riot. The ordinary French noble was a man of narrow ideas and strong prejudices, who cherished a false and flattering notion of the consequence of his own order; but he was often a man of honour and integrity, who led a spare and frugal life and taught his children some virtues which our commercial age is too prone to ignore.
Disunion completed the weakness of the French nobility. Even a small body of men cannot long be held together save by the effort to get or keep something of value to all the members. The English landed interest found such an object in political power and its advantages. The French nobles had no common tie of that kind. The nobles of the Court, who formed the most elegant society in Europe, despised their rustic brethren. The provincial noble swelled with anger at the thought that the reward of his campaigns and scars was intercepted by triflers and flatterers at Versailles. The noble of ancient lineage flouted the rich upstart who had bought an office conferring nobility, and affected to be familiar with descendants of the Crusaders.
The "nobility of the sword," as it was termed, which made arms its career, looked down upon the "nobility of the robe," which preferred to fill, generation after generation, the more dignified places in the judicature. The absolute monarchy which denied any scope to combined effort, and the privileges which seemed to exclude all vulgar competition, left the French nobles free to indulge a mutual jealousy which only perished with the order.
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