In theory, absolute monarchs had total power, but in practice, to preserve power, they had to balance the interests of different groups from nobles and clergy to the middle class and peasants.

Divine Right to Rule

During the Age of Absolutism, European monarchs embraced the idea of divine right, meaning that their authority to rule came directly from God. They used divine right theory to justify their power. As God's representative on Earth, monarchs could command absolute obedience from their subjects. In the 1600s, a French bishop and court preacher, Jacques Bossuet (bah soo WAY) defended the theory of divine right and royal absolutism, saying that absolute power was necessary to protect the people.

“The royal power is absolute…. Without this absolute authority the king could neither do good nor repress evil. It is necessary that his power be such that no one can escape him.”

—Jacques Bossuet, “Politics Drawn from the Very Words of Scripture,” 1679

Still, absolute monarchs who claimed to rule by divine right were expected to act for the good of their people.

By 1700, absolute monarchs reigned over most of the great powers in Europe, except England. In time, however, thinkers and others challenged divine right theory along with the entire system of absolute monarchy. They called, instead, for limits on government power and for governments to be responsible to the people.

Spain and the Hapsburg Empire

By the 1500s, Spain had emerged as the first modern European power. Through their marriage, Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand had unified the country. They pursued a policy of imposing religious unity and financed Columbus's voyage, which would lead to the Spanish conquest of the Americas. Wealth from the Americas would help Spain to become the most powerful nation in Europe.

Charles V Wears Two Crowns

In 1516, Ferdinand and Isabella's grandson, Charles I, became king of Spain, and thereby ruler of the Spanish colonies in the Americas as well. When his other grandfather died in 1519, Charles I also became heir to the sprawling Hapsburg empire, which included the German states of the Holy Roman Empire and the Dutch Netherlands. As ruler of the Hapsburg empire, Charles took the name Charles V, the title by which historians now usually refer to him.

Ruling two empires involved Charles in constant warfare. He continued a long Hapsburg struggle with France over rival claims in Italy.

As a devout Catholic, he fought to suppress Protestantism in the German states. After years of religious conflict, however, Charles was forced to allow the German princes to choose their own religion.

His greatest foe was the Ottoman empire, which at the time controlled the Balkans in southeastern Europe. Under Suleiman, Ottoman forces advanced across central Europe to the walls surrounding Vienna, Austria. Although Austria held firm during the siege, the Ottomans occupied much of Hungary following their crushing victory at the Battle of Mohács. Ottoman naval forces also continued to challenge Spanish power in the Mediterranean.

The Empire Is Divided

The Hapsburg empire proved to be too scattered and cumbersome for any one person to rule. Exhausted, Charles gave up his titles in 1556 and entered a monastery.

Painting of a bearded man in a crown decorated with jewels and a cross, wearing armor and high, stiff collar.

In the early 1500s, Charles V became ruler over both the Spanish and the Hapsburg empires. He faced constant warfare, particularly against the Ottomans.


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Table of Contents

World History Topic 1 Origins of Civilization (Prehistory–300 B.C.) Topic 2 The Ancient Middle East and Egypt (3200 B.C.–500 B.C.) Topic 3 Ancient India and China (2600 B.C.–A.D. 550) Topic 4 The Americas (Prehistory–A.D. 1570) Topic 5 Ancient Greece (1750 B.C.–133 B.C.) Topic 6 Ancient Rome and the Origins of Christianity (509 B.C.-A.D. 476) Topic 7 Medieval Christian Europe (330–1450) Topic 8 The Muslim World and Africa (730 B.C.-A.D. 1500) Topic 9 Civilizations of Asia (500–1650) Topic 10 The Renaissance and Reformation (1300–1650) Topic 11 New Global Connections (1415–1796) Topic 12 Absolutism and Revolution Topic 13 The Industrial Revolution Topic 14 Nationalism and the Spread of Democracy (1790–1914) Topic 15 The Age of Imperialism (1800–1914) Topic 16 World War I and the Russian Revolution (1914–1924) Topic 17 The World Between the Wars (1910–1939) Topic 18 World War II (1930–1945) Topic 19 The Cold War Era (1945–1991) Topic 20 New Nations Emerge (1945–Present) Topic 21 The World Today (1980-Present) United States Constitution Primary Sources 21st Century Skills Atlas Glossary Index Acknowledgments