Explained: The First Estate

Prior to the French Revolution of 1789, the First Estate was comprised of all the members of the Catholic Church (the clergy). The smallest of the Three Estates, the First Estate nonetheless wielded outsized influence over domestic affairs, benefited from a wide variety of privileges, and controlled significant sums of wealth. Members of the First Estate were critical in initiating the French Revolution.

Composition of the First Estate

The First Estate contained approximately 100,000 to 160,000 individuals, representing roughly 0.5% of the total population of France. Senior ecclesiastics, including Archbishops and bishops, generally originated from the aristocracy (the Second Estate) and were considered members of the ‘higher clergy’. The vast majority of ecclesiastics came from the Third Estate and were considered members of the ‘lower clergy’. The lower clergy consisted of a variety of members, including parish priests (curés), friars, monks, and nuns.

The dominance of the Catholic Church in Pre-Revolutionary France

The First Estate occupied a central place in French society. Although France briefly tolerated protestant Christianity in the 17th century, Louis XIV revoked the Edict of Nantes (1598) in 1685 with the Edict of Fontainebleau. This revocation cemented the Catholic Church’s preeminence over religious affairs in France and helped to keep the country relatively uniform in its religious beliefs. 

Prior to the discoveries of modern science, religion offered the only conventional means for understanding the world’s existence and one’s place within it. As a result, the Catholic Church (unrivaled by other Christian churches thanks to the sponsorship of the French crown) enjoyed a quasi-monopoly on intellectual, ideological, and philosophical thought (which was often centered on matters of religion). With the Church seen as the only avenue to understanding the afterlife and the will of God, this moral and spiritual authority allowed the Church to become a significant cornerstone of the Old Regime’s social and political foundations.

Reinforcing the King’s ‘divine right’ to rule

Throughout history, religion has often supported secular authorities by reinforcing a government’s legitimacy. In the case of Old Regime France, the Catholic Church (as the only established religion of the kingdom) conferred legitimacy to French kings by stating that the monarchs had a ‘divine right’ to rule. According to church teachings, God had preordained the monarch prior to their birth, meaning that the King could legitimately claim that they ruled with the blessing of God. Naturally, this sponsorship of the monarch conferred significant power on the Church (who, in theory, could pronounce another as God’s legitimate choice as monarch). As a result of its power, the Church enjoyed numerous benefits in Old Regime France, in addition to its position as the only authorised religion in the state.

Privileges of the First Estate

Taxation Exemption

Despite owning roughly 10 percent of French land, the church’s assets and income were exempt from a variety of taxes. Instead, the church paid the state a ‘voluntary gift’ (known as a ‘don gratuit’) every five years. This gift was a fraction of the amount that the church would have been taxed if it did not enjoy a variety of exemptions. By the early 1700s, the First Estate was paying a don gratuit of roughly three and four million livres. Throughout the eighteenth century, the don gratuit represented less than 3% of the Royal Treasury’s income. 

The First Estate’s exemption of taxation was not unchallenged, however, even prior to the revolution. Throughout the conflict-ridden 17th and 18th centuries, some royal ministers at times demanded the Church donate a more significant don gratuit to assist the state’s war effort.

The Tithe

The First Estate owned approximately 10 percent of French land and collected significant revenues as result.  Furthermore, the Church was permitted to levy the tithe from members of the Third Estate, which could equate to roughly 10% of a peasant’s income. Yearly revenue for the church totaled roughly 150 million livres each year. The tithe was abolished by the National Assembly during the Abolition of Privileges in August 1789. The abolition of the tithe contributed to a growing resentment amongst the clergy towards the revolution.

Functions of State and Charity

The Catholic Church was responsible for a range of the functions of state that would be conducted by secular governments today. The church was responsible for registering births, marriages and deaths, facilitating weddings and funerals, providing education to children, and administering charity to the poor. As a result of these duties, local parish priests (curés) were influential figures in french communities, particularly in rural regions of the kingdom.

Military Service and Judicial Exemptions

Members of the clergy were exempt from compulsory military service. Furthermore, clergymen were under the jurisdiction of special ecclesiastical courts.

The Affluence of the Higher Clergy

Although the church was responsible for charity and improving the lives of everyday citizens, the significant wealth of the First Estate was not always used appropriately. Members of the higher clergy, including cardinals, archbishops, and bishops, amassed considerable levels of personal wealth while fulfilling their ecclesiastical duties. Some of this income was collected through relatively legal means (e.g. rent), while outright corruption and graft also enriched members of the Church’s elite ranks. 

As a result of this significant personal wealth, many members of the higher clergy could indulge in luxurious lifestyles. The extravagance of higher clergy created considerable tension with thoe parish priests who advocated a more simple and pious lifestyle (see below). 

This illustration, "They only want our good", negatively depicts the over-indulgence and greed of the privileged orders. A member of the higher clergy is deliberately portrayed as excessively fat, alluding to the First Estate's luxurious lifestyle at the expense of the Third Estate.
This illustration, “They only want our good”, negatively depicts the over-indulgence and greed of the privileged orders. A member of the higher clergy is deliberately portrayed as excessively fat, alluding to the First Estate’s luxurious lifestyle at the expense of the Third Estate.

Commons Criticisms of the First Estate

Prior to the revolution, the Catholic Church enjoyed an unrivaled position as the state’s preeminent religion. However, despite its prominence within the Old Regime, the church experienced notable criticisms from a variety of detractors. The church’s reluctance to tolerate dissent (including protestant Christians) and reform (such as forging taxation exemptions) was criticized not only by philosophers but also by some members of the government. Furthermore, the corruption of the higher clergy was perceived by many as an outrageous misuse of church funds. 

Division within the First Estate

The misuse of church funds by the higher clergy was also contentious within the First Estate as well. Roughly one-third of all clergy were simple parish priests (curés). Most priests were well-educated respected members of their communities, and fulfilled their duties with dedication and diligence. However, as parish priests generally originated from the Third Estate, they were often frowned upon by the elitist higher clergy. Furthemore, cures were often poorly paid for by the church.

Throughout the 18th century, tensions grew between the poorly paid priests and their superiors in the higher clergy. Advocating a more simple lifestyle, and the redirection of church funds towards causes that would help the common people, some priests began to resent the opulence of cardinals and other senior clerics. 

Spotting an opportunity to encourage reform, many parish priests called for changes in the cahiers de doleance. Some members of the lower clergy requested changes to the church’s exemption from taxation, and asked for greater empowerment in church decision-making. 

As the quotes below demonstrate, the divisions between the higher and lower clergy were reflected at the Estates-General. Common priests were the first to defect from the First Estate to the Third Estate when three curés from the Cherigny joined the Third on the 14th of June 1789. The lower clergy were responsible for the First Estate voting to join the National Assembly on the 19th of June (the vote was 149 to 137). Defections from the Second Estate did not come until almost a week later. 

“Upon arriving here I was still inclined to believe that bishops were also pastors, but everything I see obliges me to think that they are nothing but mercenaries, almost Machiavellian politicians, who mind only their own interests and are ready to fleece – perhaps even devour – their own flocks rather than to pasture them.”

– Abbe Barbotin

“It is not without repugnance that I accept this commission”.

-The Bishop of Luçon, upon being elected as a delegate alongside several parish priests.

Quick Answers for Students

Did the First Estate Pay Taxes?

No. The assets and income of the First Estate were exempt from taxation. However, the church did pay the government a ‘voluntary gift’ (‘don gratuit’) every five years. This gift was substantially smaller than the taxation it would have had to pay without taxation exemptions.

What percentage of the population was the First Estate?

Approximately 0.5% of the population of France. The First Estate consisted of roughly 100,000 to 160,000 people.

How much land did the First Estate own?

Approximately 10% of the land in France was owned by the church. This number varied greatly between various cities and regions. In Paris, the First Estate owned as much as 25% of all property.

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