The “New Monarchs” of the 15th and 16th centuries were characterized by their common reforms and consolidation of their power to attempt to create the first modern nation-states in Europe. These modern nation-states, and the dominant examples of the “New Monarchs”, were located in France (controlled by Louis XI), England (controlled by Henry VII), and Spain (controlled by Ferdinand and Isabella).
These monarchs used Roman law influenced policy and organization techniques to centralize their country’s governments and unify their lands to build strong nations. The “New Monarchs” declared themselves sovereign, solidifying the authority to create their own laws. With this power, the rulers enacted policy that would increase the centralization of their country’s governments.
They dramatically reduced the power of the nobility by hiring mercenary armies and creating large standing armies to combat noble armies and knights, granting titles and offices in government for cooperative nobility, confiscating lands from those nobles who did not cooperate with centralized authority, and placing heavy taxation on the noble class. To combat further opposition, the “New Monarchs” also reduced the political influence of the clergy, challenging the medieval notion of a supreme church over the state. These measures to diminish opposing forces allowed these monarchs to rule over a more efficient and centralized state, increasing their authority and autonomy. The rise in nation-building paved the way for the the absolutism of the 17th century and subsequent increased economic and militaristic growth in Europe.
France, under the rule of Louis XI, is a prime example of these consolidating policies that created stronger monarchies and more unified nations. Louis XI, known as the Spider King for his devious ways, increased the tax called the taille. The taille was levied on the common people and taxed all owned land and property, acting as a secure and regular source of income for the state. Louis also created a large, royal standing army that furthered the military power of France. In accordance to the actions against opposition, Louis ruthlessly dealt with the nobility of France and exuded his power over the clergy and the church. Actively pursuing prosperity in France, Louis promoted economic growth and encouraged foreign merchants and craftsmen to move to France. He also promoted new industries, such as the silk trades. Furthering economic growth, Louis additionally entered treaties with England and Portugal to allow for increased trade.
Carrying on the trend of policies, the later Francis I would go on to enter the Concordat of Bologna, which allowed the French monarch to appoint bishops to the church, furthering the power of state over the church. In England, the War of the Roses had established the power of the Tudor dynasty. The emergent monarch Henry VII undertook many measures to strengthen the state of England and expand bureaucracy. He ended the wars among the nobility through the abolishment of “livery and maintenance”, which referred to the medieval practice of aristocratically controlled private armies of followers that fought with dedication to their lord. This increased the unification of the country while diminishing the power of the nobility.
Further controlling the power of nobles, Henry established the Star Chamber: a court of secret trials where nobles were tried without a jury, could not confront witnesses, and were often tortured to obtain confessions. Henry also increased funding for the state by effectively extracting income from the government’s many financial resources, such as crown lands and customs duties. Henry avoided wars and stabilized the economy, leaving a strengthened and enhanced monarchy that would grow with vast influence after his reign. Spain’s divided kingdoms were increasingly unified through the marriage of Isabella of Castile and Ferdinand of Aragon, strengthening royal control of government.
Stripping the royal council of aristocrats, the rulers looked to middle-class lawyers for advising on Roman law, characterizing their rule and the belief in a powerful, centralized monarchy. Ferdinand and Isabella reorganized Spain’s military and strengthened their infantry force, creating the best army in Europe at the time. Akin to the other “New Monarchs”, Ferdinand and Isabella secured the right to appoint the most powerful church officials and oversaw the creation of the Spanish Catholic Church.
The church’s power became an instrument for the monarch’s authority, strengthening the power of the state. These reforms centralized the previously divided Spain and consolidated the power of their monarchy. The reforms undertaken by the “New Monarchs” were largely effective in the creation of strong, centralized monarchies that would bring about the absolutism and economic growth to come in Europe. However, these monarchs never actually saw absolutist monarchies within their states. Despite widespread suppression of the nobility, the leaders still faced heavy opposition from the aristocratic class. Many regional feudal systems still had strength and public identity largely remained with their local homes, not the nation as a whole.
Though absolutism would not be seen until the 17th century with rulers like Louis XIV, the policies of the “New Monarch” established the foundations for the growth of these strong nation-states and the eventual rise of nationalism in the 18th century. This innovative period remains characterized by strong rulers and the centralization of states that would pave the way for immensely powerful entities across Europe.