Monarchy in an Age of Enlightenment

Written by Kesia Wills and William Jarvis

In the last years of the seventeenth century a new ideology was born in Europe. Tangible or not, this European intellectual movement was heavily influenced by great thinkers such as Voltaire, Rousseau, Kant and Descartes. In crude summary, the movement emphasised reason and individualism rather than tradition and divine law (that had thus far dictated life in Europe).

The Enlightenment, as it would go on to be called, had a profound effect on the culture of Europe but also became popular in the highest rungs of European society. In fact by the late eighteenth century there was an entire generation of monarchs dedicated to this philosophy, they would become known as the Enlightened despots. This article will explore the lives of five of these 'Enlightened despots', who they were, how the Enlightenment transformed their rule, and their lasting legacy.


Catherine the Great of Russia (1729-1796)

In the last years of the Seven Years War Peter became Tsar of Russia, and with him came his wife and consort, Empress Catherine. Yet, the reign of Tsar Peter was not destined to last, in almost all aspects his policy ran contrary to the interests of Russia. When Peter was assassinated in 1762, it came as no surprise. Nor did it come as any particular shock that Catherine herself was rumored to have been a prime instigator in the plot, for she now became Empress of Russia in her own right.

Almost immediately Catherine launched herself into her new role, especially regarding foreign policy. She formed treaties with both Prussia and Britain but also launched a monumentally ambitious plan of Russian expansion. Through fighting two wars with the Ottoman empire, she secured the Black Sea and annexed parts of modern Ukraine, against Persia she secured the Caucasus, and, in the north, she repelled a Swedish invasion. Her most sweeping conquests were, however in Poland. Jointly instigating all three partitions of Poland, Catherine added 463,200 km of territory to the Russian Empire.

Catherine II By Follower of Johann Baptist von Lampi the Elder - Kunsthistorisches Museum, Public Domain,

Much of Catherine’s greatness came from her enlightened reforms, economically she kickstarted Russian industry, and through encouraging migration from Germany she modernised much of Russia. She was also a patron of the arts - in 1770 she began the collection that would later become the Hermitage museum. She pushed for the better education of her subjects by establishing a national school system, bringing Russia ever closer to western European standards. She embraced science, becoming one of the first monarchs to have herself inoculated against smallpox, ushering in over 2 million immunisations.

Catherine’s reign came to an end on the 16th November 1796 when she was found dead (later diagnosed as the result of a stroke). Catherine embraced all the Enlightenment could offer, autocratic but reformist, Catherine was a model enlightened despot.

Voltaire had called her ‘The Star of the North’, certainly she had guided Russia to greatness.

Frederick the Great (1712-1786)

Philosopher, musician, patron, and warrior king, Frederick stood for everything the enlightenment had to offer. Of all these monarchs none were as bellicose, Frederick’s reign was dominated by war and his legacy would be militarism. Yet, Frederick had much to offer the arts and sciences.

Friedrich der Große by Anton Graff, Public Domain,

Frederick ascended to the throne in 1740 after the death of his father Frederick William I. Immediately seeing the potential of a temporarily weakened Austria, he invaded, sparking off the war of Austrian Succession. Tearing away the province of Silesia from the Habsburgs, Frederick almost doubled the size of Prussia, which at the time was nothing more than a secondary power.

Frederick’s audacity would be a prime cause for a second round of fighting, collectively known as the Seven Years War. Here, Frederick gained the epithet ‘the great’, fighting against Russia, the Habsburgs and France, Frederick’s small kingdom was besieged by empires. Despite some spectacular victories, Frederick stood little chance of ultimate victory and by 1762, the sixth year of the war, it seemed as though Frederick had lost.

Yet, the vicissitudes of Russia, saved Frederick at the last hour. In what has become known as the ‘Miracle of the house of Brandenburg’, Elizabeth of Russia died, leaving Tsar Peter III to promptly call off the Russian armies. In 1763 peace was restored, little had changed geographically, yet now Prussia could proudly claim to be a Great Power.

War had elevated Prussia to greatness, yet had left Frederick and Prussia exhausted, the currency devalued and massive German immigration had to be encouraged to reconstitute the Prussian population. In his last years he became known as old Fritz, the wars had left him weak and bitter. Yet in him he still managed to enact sweeping reform, in agriculture, religion, the arts and education, making Prussia the gold standard for enlightened Europe.

‘Where some states have an army, the Prussian Army has a state.’ - Voltaire

Charles III of Spain (1716- 1788)

‘Probably the most successful European ruler of his generation. He (Charles) had provided firm, consistent, intelligent leadership … winning the respect of the people.’

No stranger to a crown, Charles succeeded to the Spanish throne in 1759, having already ruled Naples and Sicily, his previous experience proved most valuable. His Spanish reforms proved successful and his legacy lives on in Spain to this day. . Ferdinand VI, displaying signs of depression (after losing his beloved wife), named Charles as his heir presumptive in December 1758, dying just under a year later, Charles succeeded to the Spanish throne. Respecting the third Treaty of Vienna, Charles did not join the Neapolitan and Sicilian territories with Spain.

Retrato del rey Carlos III de Espana by Anton Raphael Mengs - infopic, Public Domain,

A new type of ruler, Charles when reigning in Naples had embraced the principles of the Enlightenment and intended to do the same in Spain, making it once more a first-rate power. Promoting science and university research, Charles stressed the importance of facilitating trade and commerce, and modernising agriculture. The Enlightenment, and the emphasis it placed upon critical thinking, encouraged Charles to reduce the influence of the Catholic Church, in its place Charles advocated an increase in royal authority. Charles III also forbade bullfighting – regarding the sport as barbaric and uncivilised!

Whilst Charles’s reforms improved domestic policy, he struggled to restore Spain to its former splendour. Essentially a puppet of the French in the Seven Years War, Charles similarly overestimated Spanish Naval power and as a result lost Florida to England. . Under the rule of Charles III, Spain embraced its national identity rather than the regional identities of several kingdoms. Charles commissioned a national flag, anthem and named a new capital city, thus forging the modern nation of Spain.


King Gustavus III of Sweden (1746- 1792)

King Gustavus III, perfectly represents the dichotomy of Enlightenment philosophy. For sure he was a reformer, who pushed for the greater prosperity of his people but ultimately his reforms ended an age of liberty in Sweden. Gustav enacted reforms that removed power from parliament and restored royal autocracy.

Gustav III in coronation-robe by Alexander Roslin - Cropped from this image. See also Nationalmuseum., Public Domain,

At the time of Gustavus’ succession the Swedish Parliament, ‘Riksdag’, held much power. Parliament was divided, making the nation vulnerable especially in the face of an ever-encroaching Russia. Gustavus therefore proposed that his power should be elevated in order to heal the divisions in Sweden and secure its’ independence, yet parliament would not acquiesce.

As such, in 1772 Gustav led a coup to secure his authority and Parliament’s subservience.

Rallying the army he marched to parliament, where he gave a speech scolding the weak Parliament and took absolute control.

Having gained the reigns of power, Gustav set about securing Sweden’s security through an attempted annexation of Norway from Denmark (with Russian support), when this failed, he declared war on Russia, neither of these enterprises came to much.

On the outbreak of the French Revolution, Gustav attempted to form an anti-Revolution alliance, yet finance and a lack of internal and external support meant that this also ultimately achieved little. Interestingly, Gustav was the first King to recognise the USA in 1775!

Gustav spent a large proportion of the state funds on cultural programmes, establishing the Swedish Academy, building the Royal Swedish Opera House and founding the Order of Vasa to reward Swedes who contributed to the sciences. In order to help fund these, he introduced economic reforms aimed at moving toward free trade practices, though he did attempt to form a government monopoly on alcohol. He also promoted religious freedom for Catholics and Jews. Gustav’s actions had made him very unpopular and, on the 16th March 1792, he was shot by conspirators, dying 13 days later.

“If you follow me, just like your ancestors ... I will risk my life and blood for you and the salvation of the fatherland!"

Maria Theresa (1717-1780) and Joseph II (1741-1790) of Austria

Maria Theresa’s reign began in turmoil, her very accession had sparked a war that would define the remainder of the century. Because of Maria Theresa’s gender many monarchs in Europe claimed that under Salic law she was unable to inherit a unified Habsburg Empire. Her father had worked to ensure that female succession would be accepted, yet on her accession, Frederick II used the succession of a female to declare war on Austria.

The war of Austrian Succession had begun in 1740 and would drag on for eight years. Although truncated, the Empire would come out of the conflict intact, with Maria Theresa as helmsman. Though her husband Francis I was officially Holy Roman Emperor, Maria held all the power. With the advent of the Seven Years War, Maria hoped to reconquer Silesia, although this ultimately failed. Throughout her reign Maria would enact many reforms, modernising the army, streamlining taxation. Under her reign the Viennese medical school was built, as were academies for diplomats and officers. In all she ran one of the largest empires in Europe, fought for, and reformed, her nation, all the while she gave birth to 16 children over a 42-year reign.

Kaiserin Maria Theresa by Martin van Meytens - Buchscan, Public Domain,

Despite co-ruling for several decades, when Joseph II came to the throne, he was markedly less successful, though not through lack of trying. Joseph attempted to create a truly enlightened state, abolishing serfdom, the death penalty, and lightening censorship. His religious policy was radical aimed at not only modernising the Catholic Church in his empire, but also permitting Jews and Protestants to worship freely. In war Joseph attempted to expand the state - though his war with the Turks proved fruitless. Towards the end of his reign reactionary politics forced him to redact many reforms. In the last few years Joseph was a bitter man believing that he had failed in his Enlightened mission.

Bildnis Kaiser Joseph II by Carl von Sales - Dorotheum, Public Domain,

Joseph died on 20th February 1790, on his crypt the words ‘Here lies Joseph II, who failed in all he undertook’ are inscribed.

Written by Kesia Wills and William Jarvis (Co-founders of InFocus History)

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the InFocus History website or its editors.

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