Ancien Régime - Administration

Administration

One of the established principles of the French monarchy was that the king could not act without the advice of his counsel; the formula "le roi en son conseil" expressed this deliberative aspect. The administration of the French state in the early modern period went through a long evolution, as a truly administrative apparatus—relying on old nobility, newer chancellor nobility ("noblesse de robe") and administrative professionals—was substituted to the feudal clientel system.

Under Charles VIII and Louis XII the king's counsel was dominated by members of twenty or so noble or rich families; under Francis I the number of counsellors increased to roughly 70 individuals (although the old nobility was proportionally more important than in the previous century). The most important positions in the court were those of the Great Officers of the Crown of France, headed by the connétable (chief military officer of the realm; position eliminated in 1627) and the chancellor. The royal administration in the Renaissance was divided between a small counsel (the "secret" and later "high" counsel) of 6 or fewer members (3 members in 1535, 4 in 1554) for important matters of state; and a larger counsel for judicial or financial affairs. Francis I was sometimes criticized for relying too heavily on a small number of advisors, while Henry II, Catherine de Medici and their sons found themselves frequently unable to negotiate between the opposing Guise and Montmorency families in their counsel.

Over time, the decision-making apparatus of the King's Council was divided into several royal counsels. The subcouncils of the King's Council can be generally grouped as "governmental councils", "financial councils" and "judicial and administrative councils". With the names and subdivisions of the 17th - 18th century, these subcouncils were:

Governmental Councils:

  • Conseil d'en haut ("High Council", concerning the most important matters of state) - composed of the king, the crown prince (the "dauphin"), the chancellor, the contrôleur général des finances, and the secretary of state in charge of foreign affairs.
  • Conseil des dépêches ("Council of Messages", concerning notices and administrative reports from the provinces) - composed of the king, the chancellor, the secretaries of state, the contrôleur général des finances, and other councillors according to the issues discussed.
  • Conseil de Conscience

Financial Councils:

  • Conseil royal des finances ("Royal Council of Finances") - composed of the king, the "chef du conseil des finances" (an honorary post), the chancellor, the contrôleur général des finances and two of his consellors, and the intendants of finance.
  • Conseil royal de commerce

Judicial and Administrative Councils:

  • Conseil d'État et des Finances or Conseil ordinaire des Finances — by the late 17th century, its functions were largely taken over by the three following sections.
  • Conseil privé or Conseil des parties' or Conseil d'État ("Privy Council" or "Council of State", concerning the judicial system, officially instituted in 1557) — the largest of the royal councils, composed of the chancellor, the dukes with peerage, the ministers and secretaries of state, the contrôleur général des finances, the 30 councillors of state, the 80 maître des requêtes and the intendants of finance.
  • Grande Direction des Finances
  • Petite Direction des Finances

In addition to the above administrative institutions, the king was also surrounded by an extensive personal and court retinue (royal family, valet de chambres, guards, honorific officers), regrouped under the name "Maison du Roi".

At the death of Louis XIV, the Regent Philippe II, Duke of Orléans abandoned several of the above administrative structures, most notably the Secretaries of State, which were replaced by Counsels. This system of government, called the Polysynody, lasted from 1715-1718.

Under Henry IV and Louis XIII the administrative apparatus of the court and its councils was expanded and the proportion of the "noblesse de robe" increased, culminating in the following positions during the 17th century:

  • First Minister: ministers and secretaries of state — such as Sully, Concini (who was also governor of several provinces), Richelieu, Mazarin, Jean-Baptiste Colbert, Cardinal de Fleury, Turgot, etc. — exerted a powerful control over state administration in the 17th and 18th century. The title "principal ministre de l'état" was however only given six times in this period and Louis XIV himself refused to choose a "prime minister" after the death of Mazarin.
  • Chancellor of France (also called the "garde des Scéaux", or "Keeper of the Seals"; in the case of incapacity or disfavor, the Chancellor was generally permitted to retain his title, but the royal seals were passed to a deputy, called the "garde des Scéaux")
  • Controller-General of Finances (contrôleur général des finances, formerly called the surintendant des finances).
  • Secretaries of State: created in 1547 by Henry II, of greater importance after 1588, generally 4 in number, but occasionally 5:
    • Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs
    • Secretary of State for War, also oversaw France's border provinces.
    • Secretary of State of the Navy
    • Secretary of State of the Maison du Roi (the king's royal entourage and personal military guard), who also oversaw the clergy, the affairs of Paris and the non-border provinces.
    • Secretary of State for Protestant Affairs (combined with the secretary of the Maison du Roi in 1749).
  • Councillors of state (generally 30)
  • Maître des requêtes (generally 80)
  • Intendants of finance (6)
  • Intendants of commerce (4 or 5)
  • Ministers of State (variable)
  • Treasurers
  • Farmers-General
  • Superintendent of the postal system
  • Directeur général of buildings
  • Directeur général of fortifications
  • Lieutenant General of Police of Paris (in charge of public order in the capital)
  • Archbishop of Paris
  • Royal confessor

Royal administration in the provinces had been the role of the bailliages and sénéchaussées in the Middle Ages, but this declined in the early modern period, and by the end of the 18th century, the bailliages served only a judicial function. The main source of royal administrative power in the provinces in the 16th and early 17th centuries fell to the gouverneurs (who represented "the presence of the king in his province"), positions which had long been held by only the highest ranked families in the realm. With the civil wars of the early modern period, the king increasing turned to more tractable and subservient emissaries, and this was the reason for the growth of the provincial intendants under Louis XIII and Louis XIV. Indendants were chosen from among the maître des requêtes. Intendants attached to a province had jurisdiction over finances, justice and policing.

By the 18th century, royal administrative power was firmly established in the provinces, despite protestations by local parlements. In addition to their role as appellate courts, regional parlements had gained the privilege to register the edicts of the king and to present the king with official complaints concerning the edicts; in this way, they had acquired a limited role as the representative voice of (predominantly) the magistrate class. In case of refusal on parliament's part to register the edicts (frequently concerning fiscal matters), the king could impose registration through a royal assize ("lit de justice").

The other traditional representatives bodies in the realm were the Etats généraux (created in 1302) which reunited the three estates of the realm (clergy, nobility, the third estate) and the "États provinciaux" (Provincial Estates). The "Etats généraux" (convoked in this period in 1484, 1560-1, 1576-7, 1588-9, 1593, 1614, and 1789) had been reunited in times of fiscal crisis or convoked by parties malcontent with royal prerogatives (the Ligue, the Huguenots), but they had no true power, the dissensions between the three orders rendered them weak and they were dissolved before having completed their work. As a sign of French absolutism, they ceased to be convoked from 1614 to 1789. The provincial estates proved more effective, and were convoked by the king to respond to fiscal and tax policies.

Read more about this topic:  Ancien Régime

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