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First Estate

In France of the ancien régime and the age of the French Revolution, the term First Estate (Fr. premier état) indicated the clergy; the Second Estate were the nobility, and the rest of the population constituted the Third Estate. From these terms came the name of the medieval French national assembly: the Estates-General (Fr. Etats-Généraux), the analogue to the British Parliament but with no constitutional tradition of vested powers: the French monarchy remained absolute.

In principle, the responsibilities of the First Estate included "the registration of births, marriages and deaths; they collected the tithe (usually 10%); they censored books; served as moral police; operated schools and hospitals; and distributed relief to the poor. They also owned 10-15% of all the land in France. This land, of course, was all held tax-free." [1]

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. At the other extreme, parish priests and many monks had more in common with the Third Estate than the Second, and, within the Third Estate, more in common with the peasants and wage-earners than with the bourgeoisie.

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 great 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 churchly 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.

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]

Table of contents
1 Use of this term outside of France
2 The Estates General
3 1789: End of The Estates General
4 See also
5 References

Use of this term outside of France

The notion of Estates of the realm also exists in Britain, where the closest analogue to the French First Estate would be the Lords Spiritual, corresponding to the highest reaches of the French higher clergy.

The Estates General

See main article French States-General.

The first Estates-General was called by Philip IV in 1302, in order to obtain national approval for his anticlerical policy. Philip organized the assembly into three divisions, and every following Estates-General down to 1789 maintained the division.

The Estates-General of France dwindled in importance, and after 1614 it was not called again for 175 years.

1789: End of The Estates General

See main article French Revolution.

In 1789, the First Estate numbered somewhat over 100,000, with about 10% of these being "higher clergy." The lower clergy would have been about equally divided between parish priests on the one hand and monks and nuns on the other. Almost all of the 139 dioceses were controlled by the great nobles in France. [1]

In May 1789, Louis XVI convened the Estates-General in order to address the financial crisis of the kingdom, which was effectively bankrupt. By this point, however, the French aristocracy has declined in power and influence, while the bourgeoisie had become much more important and conscious of itself as a class. The Third Estate, containing representatives of the bourgeois, asked for greater share of representation than it had possessed in earlier centuries; they were given twice as many representatives, but since voting was to be by the three Estates rather then by individual representatives, this gave them no immediately meanigful advantage. The Third Estate then asked for all estates to meet together as a single body.

On June 12, 1789 the Communes (the representatives of the Third Estate, including some clergy, notably Abbé Emmanuel Joseph Sieyès) invited the other orders to join them. Some clergy who were representatives of the First Estate did so as soon as the following day, and so were among the group that, on June 17, 1789 declared itself the National Assembly and (June 20, 1789 signed the Tennis Court Oath demanding a constitution for France.

Over the next week, most of the First Estate (and some of the Second) joined the National Assembly; on June 27 the king ordered the rest to follow. This was the end of the formal system of Estates of the Realm.

See also

See also: