World History Unit 1, Lesson 5: Absolute Monarchy
Absolute monarchy is a form of monarchy in which the monarch holds supreme autocratic authority, principally not being restricted by written laws, legislature, or unwritten customs. These are often hereditary monarchies. In contrast, in constitutional monarchies, the head of state’s authority derives from or is legally bound or restricted by a constitution, legislature or unwritten customs.
The widespread concept of absolute monarchy in Europe declined substantially after the French Revolution and World War I, which promoted theories of government based on the notion of popular sovereignty.
Some monarchies have a weak or symbolic legislature and other governmental bodies which the monarch can alter or dissolve at will. Countries still practicing absolute monarchy are Brunei, Eswatini, Oman, Saudi Arabia, Vatican City and the individual emirates composing the United Arab Emirates, which itself is a federation of such monarchies – a federal monarchy.
Divine Right of Kings
The divine right of kings, divine right, or God’s mandation is a political and religious doctrine of political legitimacy of a monarchy including an absolute monarchy. It stems from a specific metaphysical framework in which a monarch is, before birth, pre-ordained to inherit the crown. According to this theory of political legitimacy, the subjects of the crown have actively (and not merely passively) turned over the metaphysical selection of the king’s soul – which will inhabit the body and rule them – to God. In this way, the “divine right” originates as a metaphysical act of humility and/or submission towards God. Divine right has been a key element of the legitimacy of many absolute monarchies.
Significantly, the doctrine asserts that a monarch, especially one in an absolute monarchy, is not accountable to any earthly authority (such as a parliament) because their right to rule is derived from divine authority. Thus, the monarch is not subject to the will of the people, of the aristocracy, or of any other estate of the realm.
Only divine authority can judge a monarch, certainly one in an absolute monarchy, and any attempt to depose, dethrone or restrict their powers runs contrary to God’s will and may constitute a sacrilegious act. It is often expressed in the phrase by the Grace of God, which has historically been attached to the titles of certain reigning monarchs including those in an absolute monarchy. Note, however, that such accountability only to God does not per se make the monarch a sacred king.
Historically, many notions of rights have been authoritarian and hierarchical, with different people granted different rights and some having more rights than others. For instance, the right of a father to receive respect from his son did not indicate a right for the son to receive a return from that respect. Analogously, the divine right of kings, which permitted absolute power over subjects, provided few rights for the subjects themselves.
In contrast, conceptions of rights developed during the Age of Enlightenment – for example during the American and French Revolutions – often emphasized liberty and equality as being among the most important of rights.
The end of Roman rule in Britain facilitated the Anglo-Saxon settlement of Britain, which historians often regard as the origin of England and of the English people. The Anglo-Saxons, a collection of various Germanic peoples, established several kingdoms that became the primary powers in present-day England and parts of southern Scotland. They introduced the Old English language, which largely displaced the previous British language.
The Anglo-Saxons warred with British successor states in western Britain and the Hen Ogledd (Old North; the Brittonic-speaking parts of northern Britain), as well as with each other. Raids by Vikings became frequent after about AD 800, and the Norsemen settled in large parts of what is now England. During this period, several rulers attempted to unite the various Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, an effort that led to the emergence of the Kingdom of England by the 10th century.
In 1066, a Norman expedition invaded and conquered England. The Norman dynasty established by William the Conqueror ruled England for over half a century before the period of succession crisis known as the Anarchy (1135–1154) after which England came under the rule of the House of Plantagenet, a dynasty which later inherited claims to the Kingdom of France. During this period, Magna Carta was signed.
A succession crisis in France led to the Hundred Years’ War (1337–1453), a series of conflicts involving the peoples of both nations. Following the Hundred Years’ Wars, England became embroiled in its own succession wars.
The Wars of the Roses pitted two branches of the House of Plantagenet against one another, the House of York and the House of Lancaster. The Lancastrian Henry Tudor ended the War of the Roses and established the Tudor dynasty in 1485.
House of Habsburg
The House of Habsburg was one of the most prominent royal houses of Europe in the 2nd millennium. The house takes its name from Habsburg Castle, a fortress built in the 1020s in present-day Switzerland by Radbot of Klettgau, who named his fortress Habsburg. His grandson Otto II was the first to take the fortress name as his own, adding “Count of Habsburg” to his title.
In 1273, Count Radbot’s seventh-generation descendant Rudolph of Habsburg was elected King of the Romans. Taking advantage of the extinction of the Babenbergs and of his victory over Ottokar II of Bohemia at the Battle on the Marchfeld in 1278, he subsequently moved the family’s power base to Vienna, where the Habsburgs ruled until 1918.
The throne of the Holy Roman Empire was continuously occupied by the Habsburgs from 1440 until their extinction in the male line in 1740 and, after the death of Francis I, from 1765 until its dissolution in 1806. The house also produced kings of Bohemia, Hungary, Croatia, Spain, Portugal and Galicia-Lodomeria, with their respective colonies; rulers of several principalities in the Low Countries and Italy; and in the 19th century, emperors of Austria and of Austria-Hungary as well as one emperor of Mexico.
The family split several times into parallel branches, most consequentially in the mid-16th century between its Spanish and Austrian branches following the abdication of Charles V. Although they ruled distinct territories, the different branches nevertheless maintained close relations and frequently intermarried.
The house of Habsburg still exists and owns the Austrian branch of the Order of the Golden Fleece and the Imperial and Royal Order of Saint George. As of early 2021, the head of the family is Karl von Habsburg.
Habsburg Monarchy, or Danubian Monarchy, or Habsburg Empire is a modern umbrella term coined by historians to denote the numerous lands and kingdoms of the Habsburg dynasty, especially for those of the Austrian line. Although from 1438 to 1806 (with the exception of 1742 to 1745), a member of the House of Habsburg was also Holy Roman Emperor, the Holy Roman Empire itself (over which the emperor exercised only very limited authority) is not considered to have been part of what is now called the Habsburg Monarchy.
The history of the Habsburg Monarchy begins with the election of Rudolf I as King of Germany in 1273 and his acquisition of the Duchy of Austria for his house in 1282. In 1482, Maximilian I acquired the Netherlands through marriage. Both territories lay within the empire and passed to his grandson and successor, Charles V, who also inherited Spain and its colonies and ruled the Habsburg empire at its greatest territorial extent until his abdication in 1556 led to a broad division of the Habsburg holdings between his brother Ferdinand I, who had been his deputy in the Austrian lands since 1521, and the elected king of Hungary and Bohemia since 1526, and his son Philip II of Spain.
The Spanish branch (which held all of Iberia, the Netherlands, Burgundy, and lands in Italy) became extinct in 1700. The Austrian branch (which also had the imperial throne and ruled Hungary, Bohemia, and all the crowns entailed to them) was itself divided between different branches of the family from 1564 to 1665 but thereafter remained a single personal union.
The Habsburg Monarchy was thus a union of crowns, with no single constitution or shared institutions other than the Habsburg court itself, with territories inside and outside the Holy Roman Empire that were united only in the person of the monarch. The composite state became the most common dominant form of monarchies in the European continent during the early modern era.
A unification of the lands of the Habsburg Monarchy took place in the early 19th century, when the Habsburg possessions were formally unified in 1804 as the Austrian Empire, which in 1867 became the Austro-Hungarian Empire and survived until 1918. It collapsed following defeat in the First World War.
In historiography, the Habsburg Monarchy (of the Austrian branch) is often called “Austria” by metonymy. Around 1700, the Latin term monarchia austriaca came into use as a term of convenience.
Within the empire alone, the vast possessions included the original hereditary lands, the Erblande, from before 1526; the lands of the Bohemian crown; the formerly Spanish Netherlands from 1714 until 1794; and some fiefs in Imperial Italy. Outside the empire, they encompassed all the lands of the crown of Hungary as well as conquests made at the expense of the Ottoman Empire. The dynastic capital was Vienna, except from 1583 to 1611, when it was in Prague.
Islam is an Abrahamic monotheistic religion teaching that Muhammad is a messenger of God. It is the world’s second-largest religion with 1.9 billion followers, or 24.9% of the world’s population, known as Muslims. Muslims make up a majority of the population in 47 countries.
Islam teaches that God is merciful, all-powerful, and unique, and has guided humanity through prophets, revealed scriptures, and natural signs. The primary scriptures of Islam are the Quran, believed to be the verbatim word of God, as well as the teachings and normative examples (called the sunnah, composed of accounts called hadith) of Muhammad (c. 570 – 632 CE).
Muslims believe that Islam is the complete and universal version of a primordial faith that was revealed many times before through prophets such as Adam, Abraham, Moses, and Jesus. Muslims consider the Quran, in Arabic, to be the unaltered and final revelation of God. Like other Abrahamic religions, Islam also teaches a final judgment with the righteous rewarded in paradise and the unrighteous punished in hell.
Religious concepts and practices include the Five Pillars of Islam, which are obligatory acts of worship, as well as following Islamic law (sharia), which touches on virtually every aspect of life and society, from banking and welfare to women and the environment. The cities of Mecca, Medina and Jerusalem are home to the three holiest sites in Islam.
From a historical point of view, Islam originated in early 7th century CE in the Arabian Peninsula, in Mecca, and by the 8th century, the Umayyad Caliphate extended from Iberia in the west to the Indus River in the east. The Islamic Golden Age refers to the period traditionally dated from the 8th century to the 13th century, during the Abbasid Caliphate, when much of the historically Muslim world was experiencing a scientific, economic, and cultural flourishing. The expansion of the Muslim world involved various caliphates and states such as the Ottoman Empire, trade, and conversion to Islam by missionary activities.
Most Muslims are of one of two denominations: Sunni (85–90%) or Shia (10–15%) Sunni and Shia differences arose from disagreement over the succession to Muhammad and acquired broader political significance, as well as theological and juridical dimensions. About 12% of Muslims live in Indonesia, the most populous Muslim-majority country; 31% live in South Asia, the largest percentage of Muslims in the world; 20% in the Middle East–North Africa, where it is the dominant religion; and 15% in sub-Saharan Africa. Sizable Muslim communities can also be found in the Americas, China, and Europe. Islam is the fastest-growing major religion in the world.
The Ottoman Empire was a state that controlled much of Southeastern Europe, Western Asia, and Northern Africa between the 14th and early 20th centuries. It was founded at the end of the 13th century in northwestern Anatolia in the town of Söğüt (modern-day Bilecik Province) by the Turkoman tribal leader Osman I.
After 1354, the Ottomans crossed into Europe and with the conquest of the Balkans, the Ottoman beylik was transformed into a transcontinental empire. The Ottomans ended the Byzantine Empire with the conquest of Constantinople in 1453 by Mehmed the Conqueror.
Under the reign of Suleiman the Magnificent, the Ottoman Empire marked the peak of its power and prosperity as well as the highest development of its government, social, and economic systems. At the beginning of the 17th century, the empire contained 32 provinces and numerous vassal states. Some of these were later absorbed into the Ottoman Empire, while others were granted various types of autonomy over the course of centuries.
With Constantinople (modern-day Istanbul) as its capital and control of lands around the Mediterranean Basin, the Ottoman Empire was at the center of interactions between the Eastern and Western worlds for six centuries. While the empire was once thought to have entered a period of decline following the death of Suleiman the Magnificent, this view is no longer supported by the majority of academic historians. The empire continued to maintain a flexible and strong economy, society and military throughout the 17th and for much of the 18th century; however, during a long period of peace from 1740 to 1768, the Ottoman military system fell behind that of their European rivals, the Habsburg and Russian empires.
The Ottomans consequently suffered severe military defeats in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. The successful Greek War of Independence concluded with decolonization following the London Protocol (1830) and Treaty of Constantinople (1832). This and other defeats prompted them to initiate a comprehensive process of reform and modernization known as the Tanzimat. Thus, over the course of the 19th century, the Ottoman state became vastly more powerful and organized, despite suffering further territorial losses, especially in the Balkans, where a number of new states emerged.
The Committee of Union and Progress (CUP) established the Second Constitutional Era in the Young Turk Revolution in 1908, turning the Empire into a constitutional monarchy which conducted competitive multi-party elections. A few years later, the now radicalized and nationalistic Union and Progress Party took over the government in the 1913 coup d’état, creating a one party regime. The CUP allied the Empire with Germany hoping to escape from the diplomatic isolation which had contributed to its recent territorial losses, and thus joined World War I on the side of the Central Powers.
While the Empire was able to largely hold its own during the conflict, it was struggling with internal dissent, especially with the Arab Revolt in its Arabian holdings. During this time, genocide was committed by the Ottoman government against the Armenians, Assyrians, and Greeks. The Empire’s defeat and the occupation of part of its territory by the Allied Powers in the aftermath of World War I resulted in its partitioning and the loss of its Middle Eastern territories, which were divided between the United Kingdom and France. The successful Turkish War of Independence led by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk against the occupying Allies led to the emergence of the Republic of Turkey in the Anatolian heartland and the abolition of the Ottoman monarchy.
The history of Russia begins with the histories of the East Slavs. The traditional start-date of specifically Russian history is the establishment of the Rus’ state in the north in 862, ruled by Varangians. Staraya Ladoga and Novgorod became the first major cities of the new union of immigrants from Scandinavia with the Slavs and Finno-Ugrians.
In 882, Prince Oleg of Novgorod seized Kiev, thereby uniting the northern and southern lands of the Eastern Slavs under one authority. The state adopted Christianity from the Byzantine Empire in 988, beginning the synthesis of Byzantine and Slavic cultures that defined Russian culture for the next millennium. Kievan Rus’ ultimately disintegrated as a state due to the Mongol invasions in 1237–1240 along with the resulting deaths of significant numbers of the population.
After the 13th century, Moscow became a political and cultural center. Moscow has become a center for the unification of Russian lands. By the end of the 15th century, Moscow united the northeastern and northwestern Russian principalities, in 1480 finally overthrew the Mongol yoke. The territories of the Grand Duchy of Moscow became the Tsardom of Russia in 1547.
All reigning monarchs in the history of Russia include the princes of medieval Rus′ state (both centralized, known as Kievan Rus′ and feudal, when the political center moved northeast to Vladimir and finally to Moscow), tsars, and emperors of Russia. Leadership begins with the semi-legendary Prince Rurik of Novgorod, sometime in the mid 9th century (c. 862) and ends with Emperor Nicholas II who abdicated in 1917, and was executed with his family in 1918.
The vast territory known today as Russia covers an area that has been known historically by various names, including Rus’, Kievan Rus’, the Grand Duchy of Moscow, the Tsardom of Russia and the Russian Empire, and the sovereigns of these many nations and throughout their histories have used likewise as wide a range of titles in their positions as chief magistrates of a country. Some of the earliest titles include kniaz and velikiy kniaz, which mean “prince” and “grand prince” respectively but are often rendered as “duke” and “grand duke” in Western literature; then the title of tsar, meaning “caesar”, which was disputed to be the equal of either a king or emperor; finally culminating in the title of emperor.
In Confucian, Chinese Buddhist and Taoist ethics, filial piety is a virtue of respect for one’s parents, elders, and ancestors. The Confucian Classic of Filial Piety, thought to be written around the late Warring States-Qin-Han period, has historically been the authoritative source on the Confucian tenet of filial piety. The book, a purported dialogue between Confucius and his student Zengzi, is about how to set up a good society using the principle of filial piety. Filial piety is central to Confucian role ethics.
In more general terms, filial piety means to be good to one’s parents; to take care of one’s parents; to engage in good conduct not just towards parents but also outside the home so as to bring a good name to one’s parents and ancestors; to show love, respect and support; display courtesy; to ensure male heirs, uphold fraternity among brothers; wisely advise one’s parents, including dissuading them from moral unrighteousness; display sorrow for their sickness and death; to bury them and carry out sacrifices after their death.
Filial piety is considered a key virtue in Chinese and other East Asian cultures, and it is the main subject of many stories. One of the most famous collections of such stories is The Twenty-four Cases of Filial Piety. These stories depict how children exercised their filial piety customs in the past. While China has always had a diversity of religious beliefs, filial piety custom has been common to almost all of them; historian Hugh D.R. Baker calls respect for the family the one element common to almost all Chinese people.
Mandate of Heaven
The Mandate of Heaven is a Chinese political philosophy that was used in ancient and imperial China to justify the rule of the King or Emperor of China. According to this doctrine, heaven – which embodies the natural order and will of the universe – bestows the mandate on a just ruler of China, the “Son of Heaven”. If a ruler was overthrown, this was interpreted as an indication that the ruler was unworthy, and had lost the mandate. It was also a common belief that natural disasters such as famine and flood were divine retributions bearing signs of Heaven’s displeasure with the ruler, so there would often be revolts following major disasters as the people saw these calamities as signs that the Mandate of Heaven had been withdrawn.
The Mandate of Heaven does not require a legitimate ruler to be of noble birth, depending instead on how well that person can rule. Chinese dynasties such as the Han and Ming were founded by men of common origins, but they were seen as having succeeded because they had gained the Mandate of Heaven. The concept is in some ways similar to the European concept of the divine right of kings; however, unlike the European concept, it does not confer an unconditional right to rule. Retaining the mandate is contingent on the just and able performance of the rulers and their heirs.
Intrinsic to the concept of the Mandate of Heaven was the right of rebellion against an unjust ruler. The Mandate of Heaven was often invoked by philosophers and scholars in China as a way to curtail the abuse of power by the ruler, in a system that had few other checks. Chinese historians interpreted a successful revolt as evidence that Heaven had withdrawn its mandate from the ruler. Throughout Chinese history, times of poverty and natural disasters were often taken as signs that heaven considered the incumbent ruler unjust and thus in need of replacement.
The concept of the Mandate of Heaven was first used to support the rule of the kings of the Zhou dynasty (1046–256 BC), and legitimize their overthrow of the earlier Shang dynasty (1600–1069 BC). It was used throughout the history of China to legitimize the successful overthrow and installation of new emperors, including by non-Han Chinese dynasties such as the Qing (1636–1912).
Feudalism in medieval Japan (1185-1603) describes the relationship between lords and vassals where land ownership and its use was exchanged for military service and loyalty. Although present earlier to some degree, the feudal system in Japan was really established from the beginning of the Kamakura Period in the late 12th century CE when shoguns or military dictators replaced the emperor and imperial court as the country’s main source of government. The shogunates distributed land to loyal followers and these estates (shoen) were then supervised by officials such as the jito (stewards) and shugo (constables).
Unlike in European feudalism, these often hereditary officials, at least initially, did not own land themselves. However, over time, the jito and shugo, operating far from the central government, gained more and more powers with many of them becoming large landowners (daimyo) in their own right and, with their own private armies, they challenged the authority of the shogunate governments. Feudalism as a nation-wide system thus broke down, even if the lord-vassal relationship did continue after the medieval period in the form of samurai offering their services to estate owners.
Shogun was the title of the military dictators of Japan during most of the period spanning from 1185 to 1868. Nominally appointed by the Emperor, shoguns were usually the de facto rulers of the country, though during part of the Kamakura period shoguns were themselves figureheads. The office of shogun was in practice hereditary, though over the course of the history of Japan several different clans held the position.
Shogun is the short form of Sei-i Taishōgun, a high military title from the early Heian period in the 8th and 9th centuries; when Minamoto no Yoritomo gained political ascendency over Japan in 1185, the title was revived to regularize his position, making him the first shogun in the usually understood sense.
The shogun’s officials were collectively referred to as the bakufu (government tent); they were the ones who carried out the actual duties of administration, while the Imperial court retained only nominal authority.The tent symbolized the shogun’s role as the military’s field commander, but also denoted that such an office was meant to be temporary. Nevertheless, the institution, known in English as the shogunate persisted for nearly 700 years, ending when Tokugawa Yoshinobu relinquished the office to Emperor Meiji in 1867 as part of the Meiji Restoration.
Previous Lesson: The Catholic Church
Lesson 1: The Fall of Rome to the Middle Ages
Lesson 2: Genghis Khan and the Mongol Empire
Lesson 3: The Italian Renaissance
Unit 2: The Age of Exploration
Unit 3: Revolutions Around The World
Unit 4: Political Change
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