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