The problem with this system was that, under the right circumstances, it could be a major danger to national unity and internal peace and order. This basically came about with the spread of Protestantism in France. Unlike the earlier Albigensians, the Protestants persisted in parts of France and local governors, nobles and finally members of the Royal Family embraced Protestantism and made it a powerful force in France. Naturally the Wars of Religion ultimately broke out between the Catholic and Protestant factions and this had a devastating impact on the country. In the end, it would also bring about major changes in how France was governed. It was the Wars of Religion that really ended the old de-centralized form of government France had known for centuries with most power being retained to the lower levels. This horrible series of brutal civil wars was something no one wanted to see return and the man in charge, who determined to prevent such a thing from ever happening again, was Cardinal Richelieu. In the name of King Louis XIII, Cardinal Richelieu set about demolishing the castles of the nobility and centralizing power in France into the hands of the King (with the Cardinal of course being the ‘power behind the throne’) while during the same period Gallicanism became a powerful trend by which the Church became more subordinate to the Crown rather than the Pope in Rome.
King Louis XIV, however, was a very talented and energetic man, a larger-than-life figure, and, obviously, not every monarch could be expected to be just like him and the period when centralization in France was most successful was during his reign. Even when Louis XIV made mistakes, he did not persist in them but was quick to change course and try something new so that, it did not matter so much that he was no brilliant statesmen but that he had the drive to always take action. Power was centralized in France under Cardinal Richelieu and that worked fairly well given that the Cardinal was a clever (if sometimes unscrupulous) man. It worked under King Louis XIV for reasons just discussed, however, there would come a time when there would be no Cardinal Richelieu and no “Sun King” and that is when the flaws in this massive centralization of power became evident. Under “the beloved” King Louis XV, French power began to stagnate, corruption became problematic and the nobles and clerics often neglected their local people. After the death of Louis XIV, the French nobility saw their power rise again but too many did not use this to benefit those under their care. The classes in France or the three estates of the nobility, clergy and commons became increasingly alien to one another. The Estates-General itself, the national assemblies of the three classes, was not called into session throughout most of the long reign of Louis XIV and throughout the entirety of the reign of Louis XV.
This is all the more tragic in that, because the kingdom fell with the Revolution, most have assumed that there is nothing to be learned from it when, on the contrary, there is a great deal about the Kingdom of France that could be of benefit to people and governments today. In fact, one could reasonably predict that even under the very old, de-centralized version of the French government, with the passage of time and advances in modern technology, it could have worked extremely well. The possibility there basically being the argument of federalism; with so many parts of France doing this differently, people would naturally migrate (assuming they were no longer bound to the land of course) to those areas that had lower taxes, better jobs and so on, making them more successful and giving other regions the incentive to follow their example and adopt what methods work the best. However, the one institution which is, perhaps, worthy of the most consideration was the Estates-General and the Estates-Provincial. Obviously there were problems with these institutions which most people familiar with French history will have heard many times, the basic problem being that the vast majority of the people of France, the commons, were underrepresented and could always be outvoted by the clergy and nobility. That, however, is a reason to reform and not a reason to abolish.
|The three estates|