The Estates-General of 1614 was the last meeting of that representative institution before the fateful meeting of 1789 on the eve of the French Revolution. During the Middle Ages, both the English Parliament and the French Estates-General developed out of the king's council. In England, Parliament assumed two functions of the council, serving as an advisory body and as a supreme court. In France, a permanently sitting body known as the parlement became the supreme court while the Estates-General, which met first in 1302, became an advisory body that met only occasionally.
An Estates-General was a meeting of elected representatives of the three estates (clergy, nobility, commoners). It met when summoned by the king, who called it only when he needed extraordinary income or special support (most recently in 1484, 1560, 1576, and 1588; the last three because of the Wars of Religion). Governments were reluctant to convoke an Estates-General because of the fear that it might become a regularly meeting body with well-defined powers.
Deputies were elected to an Estates-General through a complicated, several-layered system and appeared at the meeting with lists of grievances (cahiers des doléances) drawn up by those males who were electors. Traditionally, the government asked for support and money and, in return, promised to respond favorably to the grievances.
The Estates-General of 1614 was called in February of that year by the regency government headed by Marie de Médicis, the wife of Henry IV (who was assassinated in 1610) and mother of Louis XIII. The occasion was the uprising being organized by Louis II de Bourbon, the prince of Condé. The purpose was to deny popular support to Condé and maintain the regency government until Louis XIII's thirteenth birthday, when he would, theoretically, be old enough to rule in his own name, and Condé's excuse of saving the minor king from bad advisors would disappear.
Marie de Médicis (counseled by several of Henry IV's former advisors) was successful in influencing the elections through a combination of pamphlet propaganda, bribery, and an extensive tour made by the young Louis. Of the 474 deputies who appeared at the meeting of the Estates-General in Paris, probably only nine were supporters of Condé.
To further minimize the possibility of revolt, the regency government used various excuses to postpone the meeting of the Estates until after the majority of the king was declared on 2 October and then to transfer the meeting place from Sens to Paris. The government wanted the deputies to condemn Condé and formally approve the actions of the former regency government of Marie de Médicis and the present personal government of Louis XIII. To do that, however, it had to allow the deputies of each of the three estates to draw up the traditional summary or general cahiers.
While the deputies of each estate were debating what to include in their general cahier, they consulted with each other about items of special interest. The clergy (First Estate) wanted all the deputies to ask for the acceptance in France of the reform decrees of the Council of Trent. The nobles (Second Estate) were particularly concerned about the sale of government offices, especially provisions that could make them hereditary, and about financial abuses. The Third Estate was especially interested in taxes, noble pensions, and growing royal control over local matters. Eventually, the deputies agreed to ask for limitations on heredity of offices, investigation of present and past financial abuses, and limitations on royal power in local matters.
From 15 December to 16 January, the business of the estates was hindered by the strong reaction of the First Estate to the item chosen by the Third Estate as the first article of its general cahier. This was a request that the king declare it a fundamental law that no one on earth but the king of France had any authority over his kingdom. Despite the support of parlement for the article, the royal government forced the Third Estate to remove it and present it separately to the king.
The reason for the action of the government was that it wanted to end the Estates-General quickly before any more questions were asked about past or present government policy or finances. The government pushed the deputies to finish their work and brought the meetings to an end on 23 February 1615. Most deputies remained in Paris hoping for an answer to their cahiers. On 24 March they were informed that their most important requests would be honored immediately: the number of royal offices would be reduced, the sale of royal offices would be halted, and hereditary rights to royal offices would be limited. Pensions would be regulated and financial abuses would be investigated. In fact, none of this was done.
The government sent letters throughout France stating, falsely, that the deputies were being sent home at their own request because their upkeep was costing too much and that the cahiers would be answered as soon as they had been studied carefully. That never happened because the government was primarily interested in survival, not reform.
The Estates-General of 1614 is usually judged a failure, and the deputies receive most of the blame because of the dissension among the three estates. There was dissension. The clergy wanted the acceptance of the decrees of the Council of Trent and protection for their benefices and tax privileges. The nobles wanted to reassert their feudal, honorary, and official privileges. The Third Estate wanted to assert the independence of France, hold the nobles in check, control local government, and spread the tax burden. Nevertheless, all three estates presented a program that called for reform of the Roman Catholic Church, charitable institutions, and education. They wanted the basic social structure to remain in place, but with a reduction in taxes and abolition of financial abuses. These issues would still be relevant when the Estates-General next met in 1789.
See also Absolutism ; Class, Status, and Order ; Condé Family ; Henry IV (France) ; Louis XIII (France) ; Marie de Médicis ; Richelieu, Armand-Jean Du Plessis, cardinal ; Trent, Council of .
Hayden, J. Michael. France and the Estates-General of 1614. Cambridge, U.K., 1974.
——. "The Uses of Political Pamphlets: The Example of 1614–1615 in France." Canadian Journal of History 21 (1986): 143–166.
Hayden, J. Michael, and Malcolm Greenshields. "The Clergy of Early Seventeenth Century France as Seen by Themselves and Others." French Historical Studies 18 (1993): 145–172.
Major, J. Russel. Representative Government in Early Modern France. New Haven, 1980.
J. Michael Hayden
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