Estates of the realm  

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This page Estates of the realm is part of the politics series.
Illustration:Liberty Leading the People (1831, detail) by Eugène Delacroix.

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

The Estates of the realm were the broad divisions of society, usually distinguishing nobility, clergy, and commoners recognized in the Middle Ages and later in some parts of Europe. While various realms inverted the order of the first two, commoners were universally tertiary, and often further divided into burghers (also known as bourgeoisie) and peasants, and in some regions, there also was a population outside the estates. An estate was usually inherited and based on occupation, similar to a caste.

Legislative bodies or advisory bodies to a monarch were traditionally grouped along lines of these estates, with the monarch above all three estates. Meetings of the estates of the realm became early legislative and judicial parliaments (see The States). Two medieval parliaments derived their name from the estates of the realm: the primarily tricameral Estates-General (Template:Lang-fr) of the Kingdom of France (the analogue to the bicameral Parliament of England but with no constitutional tradition of vested powers: the French monarchy remaining absolute); and the unicameral Estates of Parliament, also known as the Three Estates (Template:Lang-sco), the parliament of the Kingdom of Scotland (which had more power over the monarch than the French assembly, but less than the English one), and its sister institution the Convention of Estates of Scotland.

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Estates in the Kingdom of France

France under the Ancien Régime (before the French Revolution) divided society into three estates: the First Estate (clergy); the Second Estate (nobility); and the Third Estate (commoners). The king was considered part of no estate.

First Estate

The First Estate comprised the entire clergy, traditionally divided into "higher" and "lower" clergy. Although there was no formal demarcation between the two categories, the upper clergy were, effectively, clerical nobility, from the families of the Second Estate. In the time of Louis XVI, every bishop in France was a nobleman, a situation that had not existed before the 18th century. At the other extreme, the "lower clergy" ( about equally divided between parish priests and monks and nuns) constituted about 90 percent of the First Estate, which in 1789 numbered around 130,000 (about 0.5% of the population).

In principle, the responsibilities of the First Estate included the registration of births, marriages and deaths. They collected the tithe (dîme, usually 10 percent); served as moral guides; operated schools and hospitals; and distributed relief to the poor. They also owned 10 percent of all the land in France, which was exempt from property tax. The church did however pay the state a so-called "free gift" known as a don gratuit, which was collected via the décime, a tax on ecclesiastic offices.

The French inheritance system of primogeniture meant that nearly all French fortunes would pass largely in a single line, through the eldest son. Hence, it became very common for second sons to join the clergy. Although some dedicated churchmen came out of this system, much of the higher clergy continued to live the lives of aristocrats, enjoying the wealth derived from church lands and tithes and, in some cases, paying little or no attention to their pastoral duties. The ostentatious wealth of the higher clergy was, no doubt, partly responsible for the widespread anticlericalism in France, dating back as far as the Middle Ages, and was certainly responsible for the element of class resentment within the anticlericalism of many peasants and wage-earners.

The first estates had to pay no taxes to the second and third estates.

Similar class resentments existed within the First Estate.

During the latter years of the Ancien Régime, the Catholic Church in France (the Gallican Church) was a separate entity within the realm of Papal control, both a State within a State and Church within a Church. The King had the right to make appointments to the bishoprics, abbeys, and priories and the right to regulate the clergy.[1]

Second Estate

The Second Estate (Fr. deuxieme état) was the French nobility and (technically, though not in common use) royalty, other than the monarch himself, who stood outside of the system of estates.

The Second Estate is traditionally divided into "noblesse de robe" ("nobility of the robe"), the magisterial class that administered royal justice and civil government, and "noblesse d'épée" ("nobility of the sword").

The Second Estate constituted approximately 1.5% of France's population.Template:Citation needed Under the ancien régime, the Second Estate were exempt from the corvée royale (forced labour on the roads) and from most other forms of taxation such as the gabelle (salt tax) and most important, the taille (the oldest form of direct taxation). This exemption from paying taxes led to their reluctance to reform.

Third Estate

The Third Estate was the generality of people which were not part of the other estates.

The Third Estate comprised all those not members of the above and can be divided into two groups, urban and rural. The urban included the bourgeoisie 8% of France's population, as well as wage-laborers (such as craftsmen). The rural includes the peasantry, or the farming class (about 90% of the population). The Third Estate includes some of what would now be considered middle class—e.g., the budding town bourgeoisie. What united the Third Estate is that most had little or no wealth and yet were forced to pay disproportionately high taxes to the other Estates.

The French Estates General

See main articles French Estates General, Estates General of 1789

The first Estates General (not to be confused with a "class of citizen") was actually a general citizen assembly that was called by Philip IV in 1302.

In the period leading up to the Estates General of 1789, France was in the grip of an unmanageable public debt and terrible inflation and food scarcity. This led to widespread popular discontent and produced a group of third estate representatives pressing a comparatively radical set of reforms - much of it in alignment with the goals of finance minister Jacques Necker but very much against the wishes of Louis XVI's court and many of the hereditary nobles forming the second estate. Louis sought to dissolve the estates general after they refused to accept his agenda, but the third estate held out for their right to representation. The lower clergy (and some nobles and upper clergy) eventually sided with the third estate, and the king was forced to yield. The States-General was reconstituted first as the National Assembly (June 17, 1789) and then as the National Constituent Assembly (July 9, 1789), a unitary body composed of the former representatives of the three estates.

See also




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