Provincial Government

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PROVINCIAL GOVERNMENT. For the rulers of early modern Europe, maintaining control of vast and often distant territories was a complex task. Communications were slow and it could take weeks, months, or even years for the most basic instructions to be relayed from center to periphery. Indeed, even when orders arrived promptly, there could be no guarantee that they would be carried out by powerful provincial subjects, many of whom were accustomed to self-government and were determined to maintain their own privileges and interests. To ensure obedience and to secure the military, financial, and other resources they required, rulers were obliged to tread carefully, and any attempt to centralize power or to ignore provincial opinion risked provoking opposition and possibly revolt. In order to avoid these pitfalls, it was necessary to employ a variety of strategies, and despite the great increase in state power that was achieved during the early modern period, governing the provinces was still a delicate business on the eve of the French Revolution.


Although the methods employed varied widely, the key to successful provincial government was cooperation. A consensus was required that would balance the interests of the ruler with those of provincial elites. To achieve that end it was necessary to have effective representatives of princely authority resident in the provinces. Both branches of the Habsburg family faced an immense challenge as they sought to control the constituent parts of their composite empires. As many of these territories, such as Bohemia, Hungary, and Sicily, were kingdoms in their own right, their culture, languages, and institutions had to be treated with respect. Throughout the period it was standard practice for a junior, or female, member of the ruling house to be sent as regent or viceroy to oversee local government. Margaret of Parma, half-sister of Philip II, was thus installed as regent of the Netherlands from 1559 to 1566, while the archduke Leopold, brother of the emperor Joseph II, served as grand duke of Tuscany from 1765 to 1790. When a member of the ruling house was unavailable, the viceroy would be a member of one of the most distinguished aristocratic families from the courts of Madrid or Vienna.

Within the more geographically confined kingdom of France, it was common for the king's cousins, the princes of the blood, or aristocratic grandees to serve as governors of the provinces. Only those of the very highest social station could represent the king, and exalted rank was a necessary prerequisite because of the need for a governor to have higher, or at least equal, rank to that of the most distinguished provincial. To rule effectively, a governor needed to be able to attract the loyalty of local elites, and in this respect the control of patronage was vital. A whole variety of military and civilian offices were distributed with the aim of constructing a loyal clientele whose support would enable the governor to maintain order, collect taxes, and carry out the orders of the king. Ideally the governor was allowed to act with a degree of independence, seeking advice from local elites and wherever possible working with existing institutions. Success depended upon a variety of factors, notably a willingness to allow provincial magnates to participate in government and in the dispensation of patronage.


When rulers forgot or chose to ignore these golden rules, they courted disaster. The Dutch Revolt against Philip II of Spain, which began in 15651566, was caused, in part, by the exclusion of local magnates from the regency council. This, combined with the Spanish king's aversion to Calvinism, which was spreading among his Dutch subjects, did much to turn a revolt into a war of independence. Elsewhere Philip II proved more adept, and after securing the Portuguese crown in 1580, he was mindful of the need to woo his reluctant new subjects, whose authority and interests he respected. The lesson was later forgotten by his grandson, Philip IV, whose mishandling of the Portuguese grandees provoked a revolt (16401668) that again led to independence. The Austrian Habsburgs faced similar problems, especially when it came to dealing with the effects of the Protestant Reformation. Calvinism inspired the Bohemian revolt of 1618 that detonated the Thirty Years' War, and it contributed to periodic rebellions in Hungary throughout the seventeenth century. Novel religious ideas were not the only cause of dissent, and when Joseph II sought to impose reform upon the Catholic Church in the Austrian Netherlands (modern Belgium) in 1787 he provoked fierce resistance from a local population that was determined to defend traditional practice.

In France, the immense power of the provincial governors could in itself become dangerous if they were tempted to use that authority against the king or his ministers, and between 1560 and 1653 the kingdom suffered periodic bouts of civil war led by aristocratic warlords such as the Condé, the Montmorency, and the Guise. They used their provincial power bases to supply the forces needed to pursue their religious and factional aims, and at times they threatened to tear the kingdom apart. Spain witnessed similar scenes during the reign of the feeble Charles II, and in 1676 a revolt of the grandees resulted in the overthrow of the government led by the queen mother's favorite, Fernando de Valenzuela.

The degree of conflict should not, however, be exaggerated, and revolt was nearly always the last resort, as failure could have very painful consequences. When Valencia and Catalonia rose against Philip V during the War of the Spanish Succession (17011714), their subsequent defeat meant that they lost their cherished fueros (privileges) as a result. As for the leaders of failed provincial revolts, they often paid with their lives, and the great French aristocrat the duc de Montmorency was beheaded in 1632 after leading an unsuccessful uprising in Languedoc.


After 1650, the increasing cost and complexity of warfare made revolt a hazardous business, and as the power of the state expanded, the temptation to centralize decision making at the expense of the provinces increased. In France, this process was associated with the intendants, administrators appointed by the king and sent to the provinces with extensive powers to intervene in matters affecting justice, public order, and taxation. The attempt to exercise these responsibilities frequently brought the intendants into conflict with existing institutions and officeholders, but by 1689 an intendant was resident in every French province. Thereafter they gradually expanded their administrative authority, acting as the eyes and ears of the king, levying taxes, overseeing the lives of towns and villages, building roads, encouraging agriculture and commerce, and much else. The dedication of the intendants provided the French crown with loyal and adaptable administrative agents, although to be really effective they were expected to work alongside the governor and to show sensitivity to provincial interests.

When Louis XIV's grandson became Philip V of Spain in 1700, he introduced the intendants as part of a plan to reform Spanish administration. As in France, existing local institutions proved hostile, and it was not until mid-century that the new system put down firm roots. Successive rulers of Russia were also attracted to the model of centralization, but they faced a particularly arduous task given the sheer size of their territories, a problem exacerbated by the almost complete absence of any tradition of independent provincial self-government. Despite the many fine words contained in the local government reforms introduced by both Peter I (ruled 16821725) and Catherine II (ruled 17621796), provincial administration in their empire consisted of little more than an arbitrary and often brutal struggle to maintain order and extract taxation.


The desire to centralize decision making and to reduce the scope for opposition frequently brought rulers into conflict with the provinces because many possessed parliaments or estates to defend their interests. Most had been in existence since the Middle Ages, and they could usually cite charters or privileges granted by earlier rulers that enshrined the right to participate in government. As a result, such diverse regions as Brittany, Catalonia, Styria, and Zeeland could boast of their own "constitutions," and they claimed the right of consent on crucial matters such as taxation. Although not representative bodies in a modern democratic sense, being generally composed of the wealthy and powerful, they nevertheless defended local interests tenaciously, and their potential as an alternative source of political authority ensured that rulers were tempted to limit their influence or even to end their assemblies. During the seventeenth century, the provincial estates of Guyenne, Normandy, and Dauphiné ceased to meet, as did those of Brandenburg and Bavaria.

Over the period as a whole, the number of representative bodies was in decline, and those that survived have often been treated as medieval relics, to be contrasted with the supposedly more modern centralized administration of the state. In reality, they were usually lively and vibrant institutions, which provided an important forum for negotiation between rulers and their provincial elites. One of the most successful states of the early modern period, the Dutch Republic, was in effect a federation of seven provinces, each with its own Estates that in turn sent representatives to the Estates-General. Local interests were defended fiercely and effectively, and concessions to the center required prior discussion and consent.

Provincial estates in France and the Austrian Habsburg empire were also powerful institutions that were entrusted with the crucial tasks of raising taxation, overseeing local administration, and conscripting men for the army. In Austria there was, however, a movement to strengthen the central authority of governors and their staffs after 1740 as part of a series of reforms designed to meet the challenge of Prussia, a process that accelerated during the reign of Joseph II. In France, on the other hand, the eighteenth century witnessed a movement in the opposite direction, and where Estates survived, as was the case in, for example, the provinces of Artois, Brittany, Burgundy, and Languedoc, they rapidly expanded their administrative competence, assuming responsibility for the tasks performed by the intendants elsewhere. Contemporaries were almost unanimous in declaring that those provinces administered by the Estates were better governed, and the public confidence they acquired proved to be a valuable resource for the state. In the century before 1789, they borrowed millions for the crown at a fraction of the interest rate that the king could command on his own account. Perhaps not surprisingly, there was increasing support for the idea of establishing provincial Estates, or assemblies, throughout France and local government decentralization, in the form of the départements, was one of the first and most impressive reforms implemented after 1789.

Other states were also willing to work with representative institutions in the provinces. The Spanish Habsburgs appointed governors to oversee their rule in Milan, but they were always careful not to interfere in the internal affairs of the patricians who dominated the Milanese senate. Their Austrian cousins were generally respectful of the rights of their Hungarian subjects. Local administration in Hungary was controlled by the county assemblies (congregationes), where the nobility gathered to discuss public affairs. Austrian rule would have been almost impossible without their cooperation, and when Joseph II imposed a new system of local government that sharply reduced the authority of the county assemblies a major revolt was the predictable result. Finally, in Poland the very weakness of the central government ensured that the localities had considerable autonomy. The nobility regularly gathered in assemblies, known as the sejmiki, not only to elect envoys to represent them at the national diet, but also to attend to matters of local interest free of interference from an almost powerless crown.

See also Dutch Republic ; Dutch Revolt (15681648) ; Habsburg Dynasty ; Intendants ; Representative Institutions ; Spanish Succession, War of the (17011714) ; Thirty Years' War (16181648) .


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Julian Swann

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Provincial Government

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