[Sunflower logo of the Kansas Heritage
Group]The National Monarchies, 1400-1500

Civil wars were one of the legacies of the Hundred Years' War and the economic dislocation of the times. The close of the Hundred Years' War had thrown large numbers of professional soldiers out of work, and the concentration of wealth that was characteristic of the period placed money in the hands of the great magnates. They were thus able to hire bands of followers in a process known as livery and maintenance, which means simply that the magnate furnished his employees with uniforms (livery) and a living wage (maintenance). Some individual magnates were able to assemble enough strength to challenge the kings, but, more often, family alliances pooled their money and power. All across Europe, the great families of the magnate class struggled with the monarchs for control of the state.

[Map of the Mediterranean world in 1493]

Map of the Mediterranean World in 1493

The close of the 15th century saw the resolution of these civil wars

England experienced a long struggle known as The Wars of the Roses between the Lancaster and York families. The War got its name from the fact that a white rose was the symbol of the York family, and a red rose that of the Lancasters. The wars ended with the accession of Henry Tudor as Henry VII and the end of the Plantagenet dynasty in 1485.

France fell into disorder because of the contention of several great nobles, but the Duke of Burgundy, a region that had been relatively untouched by the Hundred Years' War eventually emerged as the wealthiest and most powerful of them all, including the king. In 1481, however, Louis XI, the "Spider king" assumed the throne. A thoroughly nasty man, he was nevertheless an extremely astute politician and managed to fend off the Duke, Charles the Rash. Charles had ambitions to control Italy and its wealth, however, and to do that he had to control Switzerland. He attacked the Swiss peasants with the old-style army that had proven ineffective against English archers at Crecy, Poitiers, and Agincourt. It proved ineffective against the Swiss in 1476. The Swiss used closely packed bodies of infantry with long spears (pikes), and the Burgundian cavalry was powerless against them. The Burgundians defeated, the Duke was killed, and infantry replaced cavalry as the most important arm of battle.

This battle eliminated the Burgundian threat, but Louis allowed the Holy Roman Emperor to take advantage of the situation rather than seizing the chance to strengthen France. What he did do, however, was to strengthen the monarchy in a way never before seen in western Europe. He no longer depended for support on the French representative assembly, the Estates General, and established heavy taxes. He used these taxes to expand a salaried bureaucracy and a standing army.

The German, Maximilian Hapsburg, gained control of Burgundian lands -- Burgundy, Lorraine, Alsace, and the modern Netherlands, Belgium, and Luxembourg. These were perhaps the richest lands in Europe, and when Maximilian became Holy Roman Emperor, he was able to make the position once again the dominant power in Germany.

By 1480, Ivan III, Duke of Moscow, threw off Mongol domination and declared himself Tsar (emperor) of Russia.

In Spain, the period of civil strife known as the Trastamaran Wars was ended with the marriage of Ferran and Isabel (the proper names for the individuals usually called Ferdinand and Isabella. Aragon and Castile were united in 1469 by this marriage and completed the Reconquest with the conquest of Granada in 1492. Ferran and Isabel forged an alliance with the Church -- an easy matter since Aragon controlled much of Italy. They "purified" their realms by expelling both Muslims and Jews, and used the Inquisition as a personal police force that gave them power that the laws and customs of the land did not permit them. By 1500, the riches of the Americas began arriving in Spain, making the Spanish monarchs supreme in Spain and a major power in western Europe for the next two centuries.

One can make some general observations. The new monarchs began to assume almost absolute powers, depending upon their circumstances. What were the bases of their power?

Wherever possible, they gained permanent taxation powers from the representative assemblies, and were thus less dependent upon popular support. They used this income to surround themselves with salaried employees: administrators drawn from the middle classes and standing armies of professional soldiers. Their professional administrators allowed them to keep much better records and financial accounts, and they used their control of information to increase their power still further.

They used the weakness of the papacy to gain control of their national churches, which gave them many advantages. They had control of most intellectuals, teachers, writers, and administrators; access to the wealth of the church when needed, control of church courts and recourse to canon law, by means of which they could circumvent traditional limitations on their powers. They often used the Inquisition as a secret police and were able to depend upon the secular clergy to help in shaping public opinion in their favor.

They used their powers to put down popular uprisings, gaining the support of the middle class and the reputation of being the sole defense against rebellion and anarchy. They were economically aware, and used their powers to tax, regulate, charter, and subsidize to promote the economy of their state. Under royal guidance, the economy of Europe began to emerge from the recession of the 15th century.

Generally speaking, the new monarchs were political creatures with little concern for ethical action or the general welfare other than that of their own state. Their accession marked the end of any real aspiration for morality in international affairs. They gained power largely because the monarchy was the only institution of European society that had not been thoroughly discredited.

Although medieval society was much changed by the end of the 15th century, the basic conditions to which it had to adapt -- limited resources, too great a population, periodic waves of contagious disease, insufficient capital, shrinking markets -- were still much the same. The rise of the national monarchs was important, but not decisive in ending the Middle Ages.

What was important was that these national monarchs were laying the foundations of the modern state. Although the kings up to this time might have seemed powerful, their powers were actually quite limited. They generally ruled only after swearing to obey the customs of the land, and there was always a nobility and clergy ready to oppose their policies if they appeared to be taking more power than was traditional. Most of the wealth of their countries was in the hands of nobles and the Church, and their power to tax these properties was limited. Transportation and communication was difficult, and the kings could not expect to be able to control their subjects if those subjects did not want to be controlled. If the kings tried to instituted new or heavier taxes, they found that they could not find officials able to gather the revenues that they demanded. In short, they depended a great deal upon the good will of their subjects.

This was not true of the new states. Independent jurisdictions were swept away, and no one was exempt from the power of the central government. Competent administrators, backed with a professional royal army, were able to impose the royal will even against the wishes of the mass of the population. Perhaps most important, though, was the fact that people were beginning to think of themselves in terms of their nation. Up to this point, people had gained their identities from their religion, their profession, and their social status, and felt greater kinship with "foreigners" of the same class, than fellow countrymen of a different class. This was ending, and the common ideals of western Europeans were becoming less important than the well-being of their own particular country.


Lynn Harry Nelson
Emeritus Professor of
Medieval History
The University of Kansas
Lawrence, Kansas

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