Assembly of Notables
The Assembly of Notables was a group of notables invited by the King of France to consult on matters of state.
Assemblies of Notables had met in 1583, 1596–97, 1617, 1626, 1787, and 1788. Like the Estates General, they served a consultative purpose only. But unlike the Estates General, whose members were elected by the subjects of the realm, the members of the Assemblies were selected by the king for their "zeal", "devotion", and their "fidelity" to the sovereign, and assemblies included royal princes, peers, archbishops, important judges, and, in some cases, major town officials. The king would issue a reforming edict or edicts after hearing their advice. 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 for information for making important decisions or preparing edicts and ordinances, he would enlarge his Council with personalities chosen for their social and professional standing or their competence to pronounce on the matters at hand. The role of the assembly was to advise the king about remedies to defects of which the Estates General complained.
Events involving the assembly
In November 1583, Henry III held an assembly of notables at Saint Germain-en-Laye to address religious demonstrations that threatened the collapse of the state. In the assembly Charles, Cardinal de Bourbon called for a religious monopoly in France; he said that if this was offered, 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, his successor was Henry IV who learned from the experience 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, and they recommended that the king levy a special sales tax of 5% on all sales &mspace; 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. Although the tax raised less than predicted, it did restore the royal budget to solvency. King Henry and the Duke of Sully had come up with many other possible ways to raise money, but the key to rescuing the monarchy from bankruptcy was simply to ensure that the system of taxation worked efficiently.
In 1626 Louis XIII called an Assembly of Notables, consisting of the government's ruling elite - 13 grandees, 13 bishops, and 29 judges. Many historians have regarded this Assembly, and its predecessors, as unsuccessful because they failed to enact specific reforms, but this view fails to consider 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 began in February 1787 in the reign of Louis XVI. During the reign of Louis XVI, France’s finances were in a desperate situation and French Finance Ministers in this period (Turgot, Necker, Calonne) all believed that tax reform was necessary if France was to pay off its debt and bring government expenditure back into line with government income. However, before any new tax laws could be passed, they first had to be registered with the French parlements which possessed a limited veto power. Repeated attempts to implement tax reform failed due to lack of parlement support, as the members of France’s parlements felt that any increase in tax would have a direct negative effect on their own finances. In response to this opposition, the Finance Minister at the time, Calonne suggested that Louis XVI call an Assembly of Notables. While the an Assembly of Notables had no legislative power in its own right, Calonne hoped that if the Assembly of Notables could be made to support the proposed reforms then this would apply pressure on parlement to register them. The plan failed, as the 144 Notables who made up the Assembly included Princes of the Blood, archbishops, nobles and other people from privileged positions in society, and they did not wish to bear the burden of increased taxation. The Assembly insisting that the proposed tax reforms had to be presented to a representative body such as an Estates General.
Opposition in the Assembly combined with intrigues from rival ministers lead to Calonne's disgrace and he was subsequently dismissed by Louis XVI on 8 April 1787. In addition to tax reform, the Assembly also discussed other issues. The end result was that the Assembly assisted the Parliament in creating provincial assemblies, reestablished free trade in grain, converted the corvée (a tax in the form of labour) into a cash payment, and generated short-term loans.
- 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.
- This article incorporates text from the public domain 1907 edition of The Nuttall Encyclopædia.
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