5 Steps to a 5: AP European History 2024 - Bartolini-Salimbeni B., Petersen W., Arata K. 2023

STEP 4 Review the Knowledge You Need to Score High
14 Economic Change and Political Consolidation


Summary: In the first half of the seventeenth century, the traditional, hierarchical social structure of European kingdoms came under new pressures. This chapter describes the economic, social, and political changes as economies underwent a transformation from an agrarian base to a more complex economic system, which included expanding the trade that had begun in the later Middle Ages, compliments of the Black Plague and the Crusades, and the growth of a middle class of merchants and professionals.


Key Terms:

Image Peasantry The class of rural, agricultural laborers in traditional European society.

Image Nobility The class of privileged landowners in traditional European society.

Image Monarchs The hereditary rulers of traditional European society.

Image Divine Right of Kings The theory that monarchs received their right to rule directly from God.

Image Absolutism A theory of government that a rightful ruler holds absolute power over his or her subjects.

Image English Civil War (1642—1646) The war in which forces loyal to King Charles I fought to defend the power of the monarchy, the official Church of England, and the privileges and prerogatives of the nobility, while forces supporting Parliament fought to uphold the rights of Parliament, to bring an end to the notion of an official state church, and for the ideals of individual liberty and the rule of law.

Image The Commonwealth (1649—1660) The period during which England was ruled without a monarch, following the victory of the Parliamentary forces in the English Civil War and the subsequent execution of King Charles I.

Image Constitutional monarchy A theory of government that contends that a rightful ruler’s power is limited by an agreement with his or her subjects.

Image Intendent An administrative bureaucrat in absolutist France of the seventeenth century, usually chosen from the middle class, who owed his position and, therefore, his loyalty directly to the state.

Image Edict of Nantes (1598) Decree by King Henry IV of France granting Protestants religious tolerance and marking the end of France’s Religious Wars. Revoked in 1685.

Key Individuals:

Image James I (England)

Image Philip II, III, and IV (Spain)



In the first half of the seventeenth century, the traditional hierarchical structure of European society came under new pressures. This structure was one in which a large class of poor agricultural laborers (the peasantry) supported a small and wealthy class of elites (the nobility). As the monarchs of Europe fought wars to expand their kingdoms and created larger state bureaucracies to manage them, the pressure to raise greater sums of money through taxes stretched the economies and social structures of European societies to the breaking point. Meanwhile, a continuous increase in trade and in the diversification of the economy was creating a new class of people: a middle class made up of merchants and professionals, which did not fit comfortably into the traditional hierarchy.

Economic Stress and Change

The first half of the 1600s was characterized by an economic contraction, precipitated by a variety of factors. At the same time as new European nations began Atlantic exploration, colonization, and trade, the amount of silver extracted from Spanish mines in the Americas declined. This drop-off in the silver trade, coupled with a shift away from Mediterranean trade routes toward the Atlantic, resulted in both Italy and Spain becoming less economically dominant.

A series of unusually harsh winters that characterized the “little ice age” of the 1600s led to a series of poor harvests, which, in turn, led to malnutrition and disease. In an effort to cope with increasing poverty, members of the besieged agricultural class opted to have smaller families. While the smaller family unit would, over time, contribute to a higher standard of living, this adjustment took time. The immediate impact of the combination of famine, poverty, and disease was a significant decrease in the population during this period.

The problems of the European peasantry were exacerbated during this period by increasing demands from the nobility that ruled them. As warfare and military might became increasingly necessary for a ruler’s power and influence, the importance and nature of the military changed. New military tactics (including the salvo, in which all lines of infantry fired simultaneously, rather than row by row) and equipment necessitated a more professional, trained army. Standing armies were formed, growing ever larger, in part through conscription. These military changes further decimated the agricultural population, both through conscription and death, as warfare took its inevitable toll. Funding the military and wars required money, which monarchs raised through increased taxations. Because the nobility was largely exempt from taxes, the peasantry bore the brunt of this new economic burden.

These economic and social pressures, together with simmering religious tensions that had never been fully resolved, strained the fabric of traditional society. Poverty forced increasing numbers of peasants into begging and vagrancy. Rebellions flared across Europe, led by nobles resisting erosion of their position and privilege, and by peasants protesting their extreme poverty. In many communities, religious, social and economic instability found its expression in a series of witch hunts. Economic and personal hardships were attributed to the workings of the devil through witches. Often located in regions where religious upheaval was greatest, the accusations caused a form of mass hysteria, in which people feared both witchcraft and the accusation of witchcraft. Frequently, the targets of these accusations were women, for whom the decline in typical forms of charity was most dire, and who were easy targets. Long thought to be both intellectually and morally weaker than men, women were seen as more susceptible to evil influences, and confessions of “consorting” with the devil were common, often elicited through torture.

Thirty Years’ War

The instability and upheaval of this period is probably best illustrated by the Thirty Years’ War. Though the Peace of Augsburg in 1555 tamped down the fires of religious conflict in Germany, it did not remove them altogether. German Catholic and Lutheran principalities continued to jockey for power. Additionally, the Peace of Augsburg failed to legitimize the Calvinist sect, which was increasingly popular in some areas. In 1617, the Austrian Archduke Ferdinand, a member of the powerful Catholic Habsburg family, became ruler of predominantly Calvinist Bohemia, and later emperor of the Holy Roman Empire. As he took measures to centralize royal power and the Catholic faith in Bohemia, Calvinist nobles expressed their displeasure by defenestrating (throwing out a window) a few of Ferdinand’s key advisers. The Calvinist rebels appealed to other Protestant states for assistance, while Ferdinand sought help from other German Catholics, Spain, and the papacy. Ultimately the Catholic forces prevailed, giving Spain access to a coveted trade route from Italy to the Netherlands, and solidifying the position of both the Catholics and the Habsburgs in Germany.

In 1625, the Danish king Christian IV, fearing that a powerful Holy Roman Empire threatened his sovereignty, came to the aid of the Protestant state of Saxony, invading northern Germany. The imperial forces were led by Albrecht von Wallenstein, a Bohemian nobleman whose wealth came from confiscated Protestant land. Though Denmark had gained some marginal support from France and Britain, it wasn’t enough. Devastating the land as it went, Wallenstein’s army defeated the Danish forces, giving the Holy Roman Empire control of Baltic ports such as Hamburg, and ending Denmark’s supremacy in that area.

Later, King Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden, motivated by the same desires and fears as King Christian but with a stronger military acumen, successfully invaded northern Germany and the Holy Roman Empire but was eventually killed in battle. With his death and the return of Wallenstein at the head of the imperial forces, the Swedish army was defeated, and negotiations among the Holy Roman Empire and Protestant German states began. German princes were no longer able to negotiate alliances among themselves or with other nations, and the German armies were incorporated into one large force under the Holy Roman Empire.

This turn of events alarmed the Bourbon regime in France, which, although Catholic, feared the growing strength of the Habsburgs surrounding them, both in Spain and in the Holy Roman Empire. This prompted them to set aside religious loyalties in favor of political realities and ally with Sweden against Spain and the Holy Roman Empire in 1635. Although Spain enjoyed some initial successes, eventually the tide turned in favor of the French and Swedes, partly because Spain’s attention was diverted by local rebellions (rebellions which had been encouraged by France’s Cardinal Richelieu). Eventually tiring of protracted warfare and (in the case of France) needing to attend to domestic matters, all parties signed a series of agreements in 1648 known as the Peace of Westphalia, which marked the end of the Thirty Years’ War.

The impact of this conflict on Europe was significant. It marked the end of religion as the primary factor in international alignments and conflicts. Power and authority remained decentralized in German central Europe. The power of the Holy Roman Empire was much reduced, and German unification wouldn’t occur for another two hundred years. Calvinism was included as a legitimate option for German states. The Dutch Netherlands gained independence, while the power of the papacy in political affairs declined. Finally, the impact on German states was devastating. Estimates of population losses range from 20 percent to 50 percent in some areas, and the disruption to farming and commerce was incalculable.

Britain: The Rise of Parliament

In Britain, these tensions came to a head in the form of a struggle between the monarchs of the Stuart dynasty and the English Parliament. Already an old and important institution by 1600, the English Parliament was an assembly of elites who advised the king. But it differed from its counterparts in the other European kingdoms in several important ways:

• Its members were elected by the property-holding people of their county or district.

• Eligibility for election was based on property ownership, so its members included wealthy merchants and professional men, as well as nobles.

• Members voted individually, rather than as an order or class.

As a result, the English Parliament of the seventeenth century was an alliance of nobles and well-to-do members of a thriving merchant and professional class that saw itself as a voice of the “English people.” It soon clashed with the monarch it had invited to succeed the heirless Elizabeth I.

Although the Tudor monarchs (Henry VII, Henry VIII, Edward VI, Mary I, and Elizabeth I) were generally inclined toward absolutism, they recognized the Parliament’s utility in legitimizing their actions and took care to operate within a constitutional framework. In turn, Parliament generally supported the actions of the monarchy, with a few exceptions. Henry VII rarely convened Parliament, preferring to use alternative means of obtaining money for the royal treasury, rather than ask Parliament for taxes (their primary power). Though Parliament sometimes acted as a rubber stamp for Henry VII, passing tariffs and reinstating Crown lands, the legislative patterns were being set. Under King Henry VIII, the Reformation Parliament was the longest-sitting Parliament to date, addressing royal succession, establishing King Henry VIII as the Supreme Head of the Church, giving royal proclamations the force of law, and assigning ecclesiastical taxes to the royal treasury. Despite this, when Parliament balked at a 20-percent property tax to support a war with France, Henry VIII eventually compromised, settling on a 10-percent tax. Mary I similarly found Parliament acquiesced on matters like canceling the annulment of her mother Catherine of Aragon’s marriage, and Mary’s proposed marriage to Philip II of Spain, but she wasn’t able to get Parliament’s agreement for the restoration of Church property.

A believer in absolutism, Elizabeth was nevertheless careful not to push Parliament too far. She called Parliament into session only 13 times in a 45-year rule, primarily for taxes, and could limit the topics Parliament could discuss. When Parliament pressured her to marry and name an heir, she resisted, stating that issues relating to her marriage, succession, and foreign affairs were outside their purview. Over time, Parliament (particularly the Puritans) became more assertive, arguing against her restrictions on their speech and debate in religious affairs, prompting Elizabeth to imprison for a month one of the key agitators. Toward the end of her reign, Elizabeth garnered money from selling monopoly licenses. Resentment over the resulting price increases prompted Parliament to withhold taxes until Elizabeth withdrew the monopolies, a compromise she made in a speech that both flattered and gratified Parliament. By working with Parliament and compromising where necessary, Tudor monarchs legitimized their role in English government.

When James Stuart, the reigning king of Scotland (known there as James VI), agreed to take the throne of England as James I (r. 1603—1625), he was determined to rule England in the manner described by the theory of absolutism. Under this theory, monarchs were viewed as having been appointed by God (an appointment known as the “Divine Right of Kings”). As such, they were entitled to rule with absolute authority over their subjects. Despite the tension between Parliament and the monarchy, James I’s reign was characterized by a contentious but peaceful coexistence with Parliament.

A religious element was added when James’s son and successor, Charles I (r. 1625—1649), married a sister of the Catholic king of France. That, together with his insistence on waging costly wars, led to a confrontation with Parliament. Having provoked the Scots into invading England by threatening their religious independence, Charles I was forced to call on the English Parliament for yet more funds. Parliament responded by making funds contingent on the curbing of monarchical power. This led to a stalemate, which degenerated into the English Civil War (1642—1646). Forces loyal to the king fought to defend the power of the monarchy, the official Church of England, and the privileges and prerogatives of the nobility; forces supporting Parliament fought to uphold the rights of Parliament, to bring an end to the notion of an official state church, and for notions of individual liberty and the rule of law. The victory of the Parliamentary forces led to the trial and execution of Charles I for treason and to the establishment of the Commonwealth period (1649—1660), in which Britain was governed without a king.

France: The Construction of a State

Several key differences allowed for a far different outcome in France. A series of religious and dynastic wars in the sixteenth century produced a kingdom in which the religious issue had been settled firmly in favor of the Catholic majority, though the Edict of Nantes (1598) which ended the religious wars, granted French Protestants religious tolerance and freedom to worship. The lack of religious turmoil in the seventeenth century allowed the French monarchy to cement an alliance with both the Catholic clergy and the merchant class, and to use the great administrative expertise of both to begin to build a powerful centralized government. Both Louis XIII (r. 1610—1643) and Louis XIV (r. 1643—1715) relied on well-connected Catholic cardinals to oversee the consolidation of royal power by transferring local authority from provincial nobility to a bureaucracy that was both efficient and trustworthy.

As chief minister to Louis XIII, Cardinal Richelieu used the royal army to disband the private armies of the great French aristocrats and to strip the autonomy granted to the few remaining Protestant towns. More significantly, he stripped provincial aristocrats and elites of their administrative power by dividing France into some 30 administrative districts and putting each under the control of an intendent, an administrative bureaucrat who owed his position, and therefore his loyalty, directly to Richelieu.

Central and Eastern Europe: Compromise

Whereas the contests for power and sovereignty in Britain and France had clear winners and losers, similar contests in the European kingdoms farther to the east resulted in a series of compromises between monarchs and rival elites. In general, European kingdoms in eastern and central Europe, such as Brandenburg-Prussia, the independent German states, Austria, and Poland, were less economically developed than their western counterparts.

The economies of Britain and France in the seventeenth century were based on an agricultural system run by a free and mobile peasantry and supplemented by an increasingly prosperous middle class consisting of artisans and merchants in thriving towns. In contrast, the landholding nobility of the kingdoms in central and eastern Europe during this period managed to retain control of vast estates worked by serfs, agricultural laborers who were bound by the land. By doing so, they were able to avoid the erosion of wealth that weakened their counterparts in Britain and France.

Review Questions


Multiple Choice

Questions 1—3 refer to the following passage:

The only way to erect . . . a Common Power, as may be able to defend them from the invasion of [foreigners] and the injuries of one another, and thereby to secure them in such sort, as that by their own industry, and by the fruits of the Earth, they may nourish themselves and live contentedly is, to confer all their power and strength upon one Man, or upon one Assembly of men, that may reduce all their Wills, by plurality of voices, unto one Will . . . and therein to submit their Wills, everyone to his Will, and their judgments, to his judgment. This is more than Consent, or Concord; it is a real Unity of them all, in one and the same Person, made by Covenant of every man with every man, in such manner, as if every man should say to every man, I Authorize and give up my Right of Governing myself to this Man, or to this Assembly of men, on this condition, that thou give up thy Right to him, and Authorize all his Actions in like manner. . . . [And] being thereby bound by Covenant . . . cannot lawfully make a new Covenant, amongst themselves, to be obedient to any other, in anything whatsoever, without his permission.

Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, 1651

1. Hobbes was an advocate of which form of governance?

A. Absolutism

B. Constitutionalism

C. Socialism

D. Millenarianism

2. Hobbes proposed a system of government based on which of the following?

A. Conditional consent between the governing and the governed

B. A limited concord between the governing and the governed

C. An unbreakable covenant between the governing and the governed

D. The concept of representational democracy

3. Hobbes was primarily which of the following?

A. He was an advocate of representative democracy.

B. He was opposed to the deposing of Charles I and the establishment of the Commonwealth government in England.

C. He was opposed to the centralization of power in government.

D. He was an advocate of an unwritten constitution.

Chapter Question (Comparison)


4. Briefly explain ONE similarity and TWO differences between the English and French experience of the consolidation of political power in the seventeenth century.

Answers and Explanations

1. A is correct because the phrases “confer all their power and strength,” “submit their Wills,” and “I Authorize and give up my Right of Governing myself” all indicate an advocacy of absolutism. B is incorrect because the passage makes no mention of limiting the power of the sovereign by a constitution. C is incorrect because the passage makes no reference to the collectivist principles of socialism. D is incorrect because the passage makes no reference to the millennial belief in the imminent end of the world.

2. C is correct because the passage explicitly calls for an unbreakable “Covenant of every man with every man, in such manner, as if every man should say to every man, I Authorize and give up my Right of Governing.” A is incorrect because the covenant discussed in the passage is not conditional in any way. B is incorrect because the covenant discussed in the passage is not limited in any way. D is incorrect because the passage makes no reference to any kind of democracy.

3. B is correct because the passage establishes that Hobbes was an advocate of an unbreakable political covenant, and one may therefore infer that he was opposed to the deposing of the reigning monarchy and the establishment of a commonwealth based on conditional consent. A is incorrect because the passage makes no mention of any kind of democracy. C is incorrect because the passage indicates the advantages of centralized power. D is incorrect because the passage establishes Hobbes’s opposition to any kind of constitution because it would limit the power of the sovereign.

4. Suggested answer:

Thesis: In the seventeenth century, the people of both England and France experienced attempts by their kings to consolidate political power around the monarchy. In the English situation, that effort was complicated by religious differences and was ultimately unsuccessful. In the French case, the power of a dominant Catholic Church was used in the service of the monarchy, and the effort was ultimately successful.

Paragraph Outline:

I. Efforts by the monarchs of England (James I and Charles I) and the monarchs of France (Louis XIII and XIV) to consolidate power in the seventeenth century

II. Split between the monarchists’ advocacy of the Church of England and the Parliamentarians’ advocacy of further Protestant reform in England. Bourbon use of the Church as a bureaucratic mechanism for the consolidation of political power in France.

III. English Civil War and defeat of the monarchists’ efforts to consolidate power in England. Successful consolidation of political power by the Bourbon monarchy in France.

Rapid Review


During the period from 1600 to 1648, the dynamics of the traditional, hierarchical social structure of European kingdoms came under new pressures. As their economies underwent a transformation from a purely agricultural base to a more complex system that included expanding trade and the uneven growth of a middle class of merchants and professionals, European monarchs attempted to solidify their claims to sovereignty.

In both Britain and France, the power struggle between the monarch and the elites was won by the side who managed to form an alliance with the wealthy merchant and professional classes. In the European kingdoms farther east, however, these classes failed to gain in wealth and numbers as their counterparts in Britain and France had done. As a result, the stalemate between royal and aristocratic wealth and power remained more balanced, necessitating compromise.

Further Resources


The Last Valley (1970)—Thirty Years’ War

Cromwell (1970)—English Civil War