Estates General

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Estates General


a high government organ of estate or class representation (the clergy, nobility, and the burgher or merchant class) in feudal France and the Netherlands. The estates general developed as a result of the growth of cities and the intensification of social contradictions and the class struggle. This situation made urgent the strengthening of the feudal state, which led to the establishment of limited monarchy.

The precursors of the Estates General in France were the expanded sessions of the king’s council (with the addition of the city leadership) as well as the provincial assemblies of the estates. (These assemblies laid the foundation for the formation of provincial estates.) The first Estates General was convened in 1302 during the conflict between Philip IV and Pope Boniface VIII. At that time it was an advisory organ, convened at the king’s initiative in times of crisis to aid the government. Its main function was to vote taxes. Each estate was seated separately in the Estates General and had only one vote, regardless of the number of representatives it had. The third estate was represented by the leadership of the townspeople. The significance of the Estates General increased during the Hundred Years’ War (1337-1453), when the king was in particular need of money. During the 14th-century popular uprisings (the Paris Uprising of 1357-58 and the Jacquerie of 1358) the Estates General claimed a more active role in governing the country. The Estates General of 1357 expressed similar demands in the Great March Ordinance. However, there was a lack of unity between the cities and their irreconcilable enemy, the nobility. As a result, the French Estates General failed to gain the rights that the English Parliament had succeeded in obtaining.

In the late 14th century the Estates General was convened less and less frequently, and it was often replaced by meetings of notables. From the late 15th century the institution of the Estates General declined as absolutism began to develop, and from 1484 to 1560 it was not convened. (Its activity was revived to some extent during the religious wars, when it was convened in 1560, 1576, 1588, and 1593.) Again from 1614 to 1789 the Estates General was not convened. Only on May 5, 1789, during the acute political crisis on the eve of the French Revolution, did the king convene the Estates General. On July 17, 1789, the deputies of the third estate declared themselves the National Assembly. On July 9 this group proclaimed itself the Constituent Assembly and became the highest representative and legislative organ of revolutionary France. In the 20th century the name “estates general” was assumed by some representative assemblies that reviewed current political problems and represented broad public opinion (for example, the Estates General for Disarmament, May 1963).


Picot, G. Histoire des états généraux, 2nd ed., vols. 1-2. Paris, 1888.


In the Netherlands the Estates General also consisted of delegates from the clergy, the nobility, and the city leadership. It was first convened in 1463, after the unification of the Netherlands by the Burgundian dukes. It had the power to vote taxes. The Great Privilege of 1477 gave the Estates General particularly wide authority. During the 16th-century Dutch bourgeois revolution the Estates General became the center of opposition to the Spanish regime by the bourgeoisie and nobility. After the creation of the northern Netherlands the Estates General became the highest permanent legislative organ of the Republic of the United Provinces. In the modern Kingdom of the Netherlands, the Estates General is called the Parliament.

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