States-General

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States-General

or

Estates-General,

diet or national assembly in which the chief estates (see estateestate.
1 In property law, see property; tenure. 2 In constitutional law, an estate denotes an organized class of society with a separate voice in government. Representation by estate arose in Europe in the 13th cent.
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) of a nation—usually clergy, nobles, and towns (or commons)—were represented as separate bodies. The name survives in the Netherlands, where the two houses of parliament are known as States-General; however, only the name has been preserved there, for the lower house represents the entire nation by direct election, and the upper house represents the provincial estates, which are also elected democratically. Like the English ParliamentParliament,
legislative assembly of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Over the centuries it has become more than a legislative body; it is the sovereign power of Great Britain, whereas the monarch remains sovereign in name only.
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, the States-General of France and other European assemblies had their origin in the king's council, or curia regis. The CortesCortes
, representative assembly in Spain. The institution originated (12th–13th cent.) in various Spanish regions with the Christian reconquest; until the 19th cent.
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 of the Spanish kingdoms, the dietdiet,
parliamentary bodies in Japan, Poland, Hungary, Bohemia, the Scandinavian nations, and Germany have been called diets. In German history, the diet originated as a meeting of landholders and burghers, convoked by the ruler to discuss financial problems.
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 of the Holy Roman Empire, and the diets of Bohemia, Hungary, Poland, and the Scandinavian countries all originated as royal councils and all represented, in varying degrees, the principal estates of the realm. They are generally said to have grown out of the earlier Germanic assemblies. Whatever their origin, they developed along entirely different lines in the various countries, and by the 16th cent. there was little or no resemblance between the English Parliament, the States-General of France, and the States-General of the United Provinces of the Netherlands.

The States-General of France

Origins

The French States-General owes its fame less to its importance than to the mode of its creation and the manner of its demise. The first French assembly known by that name was summoned in 1302 at Paris, by King Philip IVPhilip IV
(Philip the Fair), 1268–1314, king of France (1285–1314), son and successor of Philip III. The policies of his reign greatly strengthened the French monarchy and increased the royal revenues.
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, in order to obtain national approval for his anticlerical policy. Philip may be said to have created the body only in the sense that he assembled a larger and more regular council than had before been assembled. From 1302 to 1789 its constitution retained the same division into the first, second, and third estates, i.e., the clergy, nobles, and commons. Its powers, never clearly defined, tended to vary inversely with those of the royal authority. The States-General of 1302 and 1308 dutifully approved, respectively, Philip's measures against Pope Boniface VIIIBoniface VIII,
1235–1303, pope (1294–1303), an Italian (b. Anagni) named Benedetto Caetani; successor of St. Celestine V.

As a cardinal he was independent of the factions in the papal court, and he opposed the election of Celestine.
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 and those against the Knights TemplarsKnights Templars
, in medieval history, members of the military and religious order of the Poor Knights of Christ, called the Knights of the Temple of Solomon from their house in Jerusalem.
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; that of 1314 granted the king subsidies, but the grant was more or less nominal, with the king dictating his orders.

An Ineffective Counterweight to Royal Power

The French States-General never obtained the financial control that made the English Parliament a powerful institution. It did not always meet as a single body, but often convened separately as the States-General of Langue d'Oïl (N France) and the States-General of Langue d'Oc (S France). The more important of these, the States-General of Langue d'Oïl, made a strong bid for power in 1355–57, during the captivity of King John IIJohn II
(John the Good), 1319–64, king of France (1350–64), son and successor of King Philip VI. An inept ruler, he began his reign by executing the constable of France (whose office he gave to his favorite, Charles de La Cerda) and by appointing dishonest and
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 in England. Under the leadership of Étienne MarcelMarcel, Étienne
, d. 1358, French bourgeois leader, provost of the merchants of Paris. In the States-General of 1355 he and Robert Le Coq bargained for governmental reforms with the French king, John II, who needed funds for the English war.
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 it forced the dauphin (later King Charles VCharles V
(Charles the Wise), 1338–80, king of France (1364–80). Son of King John II, Charles became the first French heir apparent to bear the title of dauphin after the addition of the region of Dauphiné to the royal domain in 1349.
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) to promulgate the Grande Ordonnance, which would have greatly expanded its financial and administrative powers and made it the virtual legislature of France. The dauphin, however, revoked his concessions almost as soon as he had made them and called a rival assembly at Compiègne. Although later States-General often opposed the king and even won temporary concessions, the continuous consolidation of the royal power prevented the emergence of a truly parliamentary body.

The States-General regained some importance in the chaotic period of the Wars of Religion (16th cent.). However, the opposing factions used it merely as an instrument for their own aims. The States-General of Paris of 1614 accomplished nothing, and the estates were not convoked again until 1789. Under the guidance of the chief ministers of state, Cardinals Richelieu and Mazarin, and under the firm hand of King Louis XIV, royal absolutism reached its apex in the 17th cent. The only serious check to the royal power was the Parlement of Paris (see parlementparlement
, in French history, the chief judicial body under the ancien régime. The parlement consisted of a number of separate chambers: the central pleading chamber, called the Grand-Chambre; the Chambre des Requêtes
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), which was a judicial rather than a representative body. Provincial estates, however, continued to function in the so-called pays d'états, i.e., the provinces of Brittany, Flanders, Artois, Lorraine, Alsace, Burgundy, Franche-Comté, Dauphiné, Provence, Languedoc, Béarn and Navarre, and several others. The major part of France, however, was more directly subject to the central administration.

The French Revolution

When in 1788 the Assembly of Notables (a meeting of the chief nobles, clerics, and magistrates) failed to solve the financial crisis of the French government, King Louis XVI ordered elections for the States-General as his last resort. Although no official pronouncement indicated that the assembly was to act as a truly deliberative body, its convocation was thus interpreted by the third estate and by the liberals among the nobility and clergy, who hoped to introduce English parliamentary government into France. At the same time, the government ordered the compilation of lists of grievances in the various provinces; these were to serve as a basis for discussing the necessary reforms. The preparation of the lists contributed to the impression that a general reform was impending and that the States-General was to act as a national assembly representing the sovereign will of the people.

On May 5, 1789, the States-General assembled at Versailles. Almost immediately the crucial issue of voting procedure came under debate. If the three estates adhered to tradition and voted as separate bodies, the third estate was bound to be continually outvoted. If voting was by head, the third estate (whose deputies equaled in number those of the combined clergy and nobility) was bound to win on most points, for many clerics and nobles sympathized with its aspirations. In June, 1789, the third estate, joined by a number of deputies from the clergy, forced the issue and declared itself the National Assembly. With this act of defiance the French RevolutionFrench Revolution,
political upheaval of world importance in France that began in 1789. Origins of the Revolution

Historians disagree in evaluating the factors that brought about the Revolution.
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 may be said to have begun; and with Louis XVI's recognition of the fait accompli, the States-General ceased to exist.

Bibliography

See G. M. Picot, Histoire des États Généraux (5 vol., 2d ed. 1888, repr. 1969).

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