Definitions

Assembly of Notables

Assembly of Notables

History

The Assembly of Notables consisted of a group of notables invited by the King of France to discuss reform of the government. Assemblies had met in the years of 1583, 1596-97, 1617, 1626, 1787, and 1788. These assemblies included royal princes, peers, archbishops, important judges, and in some cases, major town officials. Like the Estates General, they served a consultative purpose only. The king would issue a reforming edict or edicts after listening to their advice on matters. An assembly of notables was an expanded version of the king's Council. Several times a year,whenever the king needed to cast a wider net in search of information for making decisions or preparing edicts and ordinances concerning matters of particular gravity, he would enlarge his Council with personalities chosen because of their social and professional standing or their competence to pronounce on the matters at hand. Due to the influential figures that made up this assembly the name Assembly of Notables was given. Unlike the Estates General who had their members elected into positions by the subjects of the realm, the Assembly of Notables consisted of persons chosen by the king for their "zeal", "devotion", and their "fidelity" to the sovereign. The major roles of the assembly were to give whatever advice the king asked for concerning ways of repairing the defects of which the Estates General complained, ways of dealing with other problems and of responding to proposals made to the king, and, in general, ways of helping to assure the well-being and permanence of the state.

Events involving the assembly

In November of 1583, Henry III held an assembly of notables at Saint-Germain to deal with religious manifestations of mania that he was absorbed in order to prevent the collapse of the state. In the assembly Charles, Cardinal de Bourbon, called for one religion in France in which case he said that the clergy would sell their shirts to support the king. Henry, however, angrily interrupted him, knowing the origin of that hostile demand; any attempt to impose one religion was unthinkable while Anjou remained attached to the Netherlands. Henry replied that he had already risked his life and his estate to establish one, single religion, but since he had been obliged to make peace, he would keep it.

Following the assassination of Henry III, the next person to take the throne of France was Henry IV who learned a lot from the invaluable precedents of Henry III. He himself had called upon the assistance of an Assembly of Notables which met in 1596-1597 at Rouen. The individuals present were summoned to assist in developing and authorizing new taxation plans for the country to remedy the debt. There were 95 notables present whom recommended that the king levy a special sales tax of 5 percent on everything sold in the realm, with the exception of wheat, to avoid bread riots. It was estimated that this pancarte would raise 5 million livres, but in its best year it raised only 1.56 million livres. Even though, the desired amount was not reached it did restore solvency to the royal budget. King Henry and the Duke of Sully had come up with a myriad of other expendiencies to raise money, but the key to pulling up the monarchy from bankruptcy was simply to insure that the system of taxation worked efficiently.

In 1626 Louis XIII called an Assembly of Notables, consisting of the government's ruling elites- 13 grandees, 13 bishops, and 29 judges. Although many historians have treated this Assembly, and its predecessors, as unsuccessful because they failed to enact specific reforms, such accusations misunderstand the role of these Assemblies. The Assemblies had no executive functions, nor did they possess any specific legislative powers; they served to offer informed commentary on government reform proposals and to make appropriate counter proposals. In the case of every successful Assembly, the king himself would issue a major ordinance or enact significant reforms, most notably the Edict of Blois 1579, in response to the Estates General of 1576, and the great Code Michau 1629, in response to the Assembly of Notables of 1626-1627. The king and the Notables agreed on four basic changes in French government. First, they agreed that the power of the Protestants had to be broken. There was no specific discussion of a march on La Rochelle, but the Notables firmly supported the king's desire to destroy the network of independent Huguenot fortresses. Second, the Notables, like those of 1596 and 1617, strongly criticized the grandees, particularly provincial governors. In 1626-1627, the Notables particularly insisted that the king should regain full control of the military. Third, everyone agreed that the basic administration of the kingdom lay in disarray, so that a strong statement from the central government was needed to reestablish order. In most cases, this reaffirmation of government control required only the restatement of preexisting ordinances. Fourth, everyone agreed that the fiscal situation was catastrophic. The overwhelming majority of the Assembly's deliberations focused on this last issue.

The final appearance of the Assembly of Notables was seen between the years of 1787 through 1788 when Louis XVI ruled as the King of France. Their last stance was due to a public opinion that said only an Estates General was necessary for decision making. Since 1627 the monarchy had not used an Assembly, but at the suggestion of Calonne the king called them hoping to compromise with the aristocratic opposition by forging an agreement on the common grounds of the Patriot and ministerial positions. The government primarily sought to rally public opinion in favor of new taxes -a stamp tax and a land tax- by means of having the Assembly actually vote such taxes. Given that Assemblies of Notables had never had the right to do so, the assumption that this Assembly could do so proved a fatal mistake. By creating a massive new player in the grain, wine, and timber markets, an in-kind tax would have devastated the economic position of French landowners. Opposition in the Assembly combined with intrigues from rival ministers to lead to Calonne's disgrace. On top of meeting to discuss tax reform, the Assembly had also met to discuss other governmental issues. The end result was that the Assembly assisted the Parlement in creating provincial assemblies, the reestablishment of free trade in grain, the conversion of the public works corvee into a cash payment, and the short-term loans.

Notes

References

  • Collins, James; The State in Early Modern France. New York: Cambridge University Press 1995.
  • Mousnier, Roland; The Institutions of France under the Absolute Monarchy 1598-1789, Volume II: The Organs of State & Society. Chicago: University of Chicago Press 1979.
  • Sutherland, N.M.; Henry IV of France and The Politics of Religion. London: Intellect Books 2004.
  • Baumgartner, Frederic; France in the Sixteenth Century. New York: St. Martin's Press 1995.
  • Lefebvre, Georges; The French Revolution, Volume I: From its Origins to 1793. New York: Columbia University Press 1962.

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