The New Monarchies

Bishop Hugh Latimer (circa 1487-1555) presenting copy of New Testament to Henry VIII as New Years gift, drawing by John Gilbert, illustration from magazine Illustrated London News, volume XXXIV, January 1, 1859
De Agostini / Biblioteca Ambrosiana / Getty Images

Historians have identified changes in some of Europe’s leading monarchies from the mid-fifteenth to mid-sixteenth centuries, and have termed the result the ‘New Monarchies’. The kings and queens of these nations gathered more power, ended civil conflicts and encouraged trade and economic growth in a process seen to end the medieval style of government and create an early modern one.

Achievements of the New Monarchies

The change in monarchy from medieval to early modern was accompanied by the accumulation of more power by the throne, and an according decline in the power of the aristocracy. The ability to raise and fund armies were restricted to the monarch, effectively ending the feudal system of military responsibility on which noble pride and power had been largely based for centuries. In addition, powerful new standing armies were created by the monarchs to secure, enforce and protect their kingdoms and themselves. Nobles now had to serve on the royal court, or make purchases, for offices, and those with semi-independent states, such as the Dukes of Burgundy in France, were bought firmly under crown control. The church also experienced a loss of power – such as the ability to appoint important offices - as the new monarchs took firm control, from the extreme of England which broke with Rome, to France which forced the Pope to agree on a transfer of power to the king.

Centralized, bureaucratic government emerged, allowing for a much more efficient and widespread tax collection, necessary to fund the army and projects which promoted the monarch’s power. Laws and feudal courts, which had often been devolved to the nobility, were transferred to the power of the crown and royal officers increased in number. National identities, with people beginning to recognize themselves as part of a country, continued to evolve, promoted by the power of the monarchs, although strong regional identifies remained. The decline of Latin as the language of government and elites, and its replacement by vernacular tongues, also promoted a greater sense of unity. In addition to expanding tax collection, the first national debts were created, often via arrangements with merchant bankers.​

Created by War?

Historians who accept the idea of the New Monarchies have sought for the origins of this centralizing process. The main driving force is usually claimed to be the military revolution – itself a highly disputed idea – where the demands of growing armies stimulated the growth of a system which could fund and safely organize the new military. But growing populations and economic prosperity have also been cited, fuelling the royal coffers and both allowing and promoting the accumulation of power.

Who Were the New Monarchies?

There was massive regional variation across the kingdoms of Europe, and the successes and failures of the New Monarchies varied. England under Henry VII, who unified the country again after a period of civil war, and Henry VIII, who reformed the church and empowered the throne, is usually cited as an example of a New Monarchy. The France of Charles VII and Louis XI, who broke the power of many nobles, is the other most common example, but Portugal is also commonly mentioned. In contrast, the Holy Roman Empire - where an emperor ruled a loose grouping of smaller states - is the exact opposite of the New Monarchies’ achievements.

Effects of the New Monarchies

The New Monarchies are often cited as being a key enabling factor in the massive maritime expansion of Europe which occurred in the same era, giving first Spain and Portugal, and then England and France, large and wealthy overseas empires. They are cited as setting the groundwork for the rise of the modern states, although it’s important to stress they were not ‘nation states’ as the concept of the nation was not fully advanced.

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Wilde, Robert. "The New Monarchies." ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, Wilde, Robert. (2020, August 27). The New Monarchies. Retrieved from Wilde, Robert. "The New Monarchies." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 6, 2023).