Previous page Page 4 of 18 Next page
Index |  History |  Highlights |  WhatWhenWhere
Prehistory to Roman
French kingdoms
Normans and Capetians
     Vikings in France
     Feudal upstarts
     Capetian kings
     Lands across the Channel
     Philip II and Louis IX
     Centre of medieval Europe
     France and the papacy

The Valois dynasty
16th century
Louis XIII
Louis XIV
18th century
Political turmoil
Third Republic
Fifth republic
To be completed

Bookmark and Share
Vikings in France: 9th - 12th century

As elsewhere in northwest Europe, Viking raids on the coast of France gradually evolve into settlement. During the last decades of the 9th century, Danes are in possession of the territory round the lower reaches of the Seine. Early in the 10th century they are joined by a Norwegian who has already distinguished himself adventuring in Scotland and Ireland. His name is Hrölfr. He is known in western history as Rollo the Ganger.

Rollo becomes leader of the Seine Vikings and by 911 he is strong enough to besiege the French city of Chartres. The siege ends when the Frankish king, Charles III, agrees at St. Clair-sur-Epte to grant Rollo feudal rights over the territory round Rouen.


The Viking word for a Scandinavian is Northman, which in medieval French becomes Normand. Rollo the Viking and his successors, rapidly expanding their territory beyond his original feudal grant, are known therefore as Normans. Their dukedom, in its larger boundaries, becomes and remains Normandy.

Rollo's descendants rule Normandy for two centuries, until the male line dies out in 1135 with the death of Henry I. Meanwhile they have become keen Christians (Rollo is baptized, though his son William I is the first Norman duke fully committed to the religion). But they lose nothing of their Viking restlessness, which finds expression in adventures outside Normandy.


Feudal upstarts: 9th - 10th century

The external threat from marauding Vikings in the west and from Magyars in the east aggravates an already grave internal problem for the feudal dynasties of Charlemagne's descendants. Feudalism, with its decentralization of military and territorial power, has at the best of times a tendency to foster regional independence. In periods of crisis, when the regions need to be well armed if they are to repel invaders, it is almost inevitable that the feudal holders of large tracts of frontier territory grow in strength until they are capable of challenging their own king.

Baronial contenders upset the succession to the throne in the west Frankish kingdom from the late 9th century and in the eastern kingdom a few years later.


The main rival to the Carolingian kings in Francia Occidentalis is the family of Robert the Strong. Count of extensive territories around the Loire, he plays a leading part in the struggle against the Normans. His son, Eudes, adds Paris to his feudal domains and defends it successfully in 885-6 against a Norman siege.

When the west Frankish king dies in 888, the nobles elect Eudes in his place instead of a member of the Carolingian dynasty. Subsequently the crown returns to Carolingian monarchs, but by the mid-10th century they rule only with the support of the descendants of Robert the Strong. One of them, Hugh the Great, exemplifies the nature of a great nobleman's power base.


Part of Hugh's strength derives directly from his feudal lands; he is count of Paris, with large territories between the Seine and the Loire. He also acquires a title of romantic resonance, capable of inspiring a special kind of loyalty; from 937 he is called 'duke of the Franks'. And he has useful brothers-in-law; his first wife is sister of an Anglo-Saxon king of England, his second is sister of the emperor Otto I.

More surprisingly, Hugh is the lay abbot of at least four great monasteries, bringing him considerable wealth and a voice in the vast network of Benedictines . This astonishing portfolio, as early as the 10th century, reveals the peculiar blend of secular and religious power in European feudalism.


At different periods Hugh supports and opposes the Carolingian dynasty in the west Frankish kingdom, depending on where he considers the best interest of his own family to lie. When he dies in 956, succeeded by three sons, he has considerably extended his territory around Paris and has secured the important duchy of Burgundy for his descendants.

Some thirty years later, in 987, Hugh's eldest son - also Hugh - is elected king by the west Frankish nobles in preference to a Carolingian claimant. His nickname, because of the capa or 'cape' which he wears, is Hugh Capet. His descendants become known as the Capetians.


The Capetian kings of France: 987-1328

The choice of Hugh Capet as king in 987 is the moment at which the western half of the empire of the Franks unmistakably becomes France. By a happy accident Hugh and his descendants for twelve generations have sons by whom they are succeeded without conflict, in a direct line of kings of France ruling from Paris. The last of these kings has no living heir, but he is succeeded on the throne by two brothers - making a total of fifteen Capetian kings in what is called 'the direct line'.

Meanwhile the duchy of Burgundy, though a separate realm, is held by members of the same family, beginning with two brothers of Hugh Capet. They tend to act in alliance with their cousins on the throne of France.


In the early years of the Capetian dynasty, their feudal lands around Paris are not vast by comparison with the holdings of other powerful dukes and counts. The Capetians gradually extend their power (they have an advantage as kings, being able to claim various royal dues, rights and taxes all over France). But other great lords also strengthen their territories - enlarging them by warfare, securing them by the building of stone castles, calming them by the establishment of monasteries.

By far the greatest threat to the royal dynasty comes from the neighbouring counts of Anjou, who by judicious marriages become the Plantagenet rulers of England, Normandy and much of western France.


Lands across the Channel: 11th - 15th century

The Norman conquest of England introduces a new situation in northwest Europe. Lands on both sides of the English Channel are from this time under the control of a single dynasty. The kings of England are also the dukes of Normandy.

A Norman-French royal family crowned in Westminster seeks to extend its territories on the French side of the water. At the same time a Frankish-French royal family crowned in Reims strives to assert its authority over the whole geographical region of France. The result is a prolonged struggle, eventually spanning some four centuries, in which the identities of medieval Europe's two strongest kingdoms are gradually shaped.


The struggle is not just one of warfare and battles. It is a complex game of dynastic marriages and interconnecting obligations. William the Conqueror, king of England, is technically the king of France's vassal - in his other role as the duke of Normandy.

Even more dramatic is the case of William's great-grandson, Henry II. Though a vassal of the French king, his lands occupy a region of France which is larger than the royal domain. The French king rules a realm around Paris and Orleans in the north. Henry II inherits a broad swathe down the entire west of the country.


Henry receives Anjou from his father's family, and Normandy (together with England) through his mother. But his largest holding in continental Europe comes through his marriage to Eleanor of Aquitaine. Henry is her second husband. Her first was the king of France, Louis VII. Were it not for this matrimonial switch, Louis rather than Henry would have secured Eleanor's regions of Aquitaine and Gascony.

In such a manner, in feudal Europe, are territories gained or lost. The major players in this vast board game are the two French dynasties - the Norman French line in England and the Frankish (or Capetian) line in France.


The princes of the two houses marry within the same limited circle, so western Europe becomes an interconnected web of French-speaking cousins - often with good claims to each other's territories. Louis VII and Henry II set a powerful example, as kings of France and England who marry the same heiress from Aquitaine. But the point can be made almost equally well among their successsors.

The kings who follow Henry II on the throne of England marry, in this sequence, daughters of the rulers of Navarre, Angouleme, Provence, Castile, France, Hainaut, Bohemia, Navarre, France and Avignon. During the same period kings of France marry daughters of Navarre, Provence, Castile and Hainaut.


In the long run the advantage lies with the French kings. Geography makes the Channel a natural boundary. A gradual trend away from patchwork feudal territories and towards the cohesive nation state means that eventually the proper place for the English must be north and west of this coastal boundary.

The process is a long one, not finally resolved until the end of the Hundred Years' War. The French first make major advances at the expense of the Norman English during the reign of Philip II.


Philip II and Louis IX: 1180-1270

The Capetian dynasty greatly extends its control in France during two reigns, of grandfather and grandson, who between them rule for a span of nearly ninety years.

The grandfather is Philip II. When he comes to the throne in 1180, the greater part of France owes allegiance not to Paris but to Westminster. Henry II, on the English throne, has among his hereditary possessions Normandy, Maine, Anjou, Touraine, Aquitaine (granted to his eldest son, Richard) and Brittany (granted to his second son, Geoffrey). Technically the English king is the feudal vassal of the French king in these territories. But between such powerful rulers this is little more than a nicety.


By the end of Philip's reign, in 1223, he has used a feudal pretext (the failure of the English king to present himself when summoned) as an excuse to seize Normandy, Maine, Touraine and Anjou. He completes this programme of armed acquisition in 1204-5. The territories form a convenient bloc with the royal heartland around Paris.

To the north Philip makes alliances which bring under his control Artois, Valois and parts of Flanders. In the last years of his reign the crusade against the Albigensians results in much of southern France being attached to the French crown.


Philip's son rules for only three years, as Louis VIII. His death in 1226 brings to the throne Philip's 12-year-old grandson, Louis IX. The contribution of Louis, in a reign which lasts until 1270, is to stabilize the newly extended Capetian inheritance.

It is a task for which he is well suited. His reputation among his contempories for wisdom and piety is not a mask for weakness. A measure of that reputation is the English acceptance of Louis as an arbitrator in 1264 between Henry III and his barons.


The piety of Saint Louis (he is canonized in 1297) is very much in the spirit of his time. He creates one of the most spectacular of Gothic buildings, the Sainte Chapelle, to house a relic - the supposed Crown of Thorns. And he twice goes on crusade to the Middle East, dying in north Africa during the second expedition.

Louis' domestic policy to some extent reflects this piety. Solemn edicts are issued against prostitution, gambling and blasphemy. But he also runs an honest and efficient administration, in which justice and legislation are subject to a new institution, that of parlement, with its own premises in the royal residence in Paris.


Centre of medieval Europe: 11th - 13th century

The Capetian kings preside over a French civilization which is a glittering source of inspiration within a rapidly developing Europe.

Monasteries are powerful forces in that development, and France is the home of the most significant new departures in monasticism. In the 11th century the reforms of Cluny offer an example widely copied throughout the west. In the late 12th century the two most influential new orders have their origins on French soil - the Carthusians in the Chartreuse region, the Cistercians at Cîteaux.


In intellectual matters Paris has a commanding reputation by the 12th century, with teaching carried out in schools attached to the cathedral of Notre Dame and to monasteries in the city. Early in the century Abelard employs his dialectic skills to stimulating and often controversial effect at both Notre Dame and Sainte-Geneviève.

In 1231 pope Gregory IX licences the Sorbonne, Paris's university, as an independent institution. It soon becomes Europe's most famous centre of education, attracting theological students from all over western Christendom. Thomas Aquinas teaches there from 1257.


France enjoys a similar lead in artistic fields. The Gothic style of architecture has its origins here, first in the royal church at St Denis and then in Chartres. Many of the greatest examples of Gothic cathedrals are in other French cities. Pioneering developments in sculpture and stained glass form part of the same burst of creativity.

Meanwhile French vernacular literature invents and elaborates the medieval theme of romance, in poems such as the chansons de geste and in the lyrics of the troubadours of Provence.


France and the papacy: 13th - 14th century

From the early 13th century the papacy develops a particularly intense relationship with France. An example is the joint response to the Catharist heresy; the crusade to stamp it out is conducted by French nobles and the French crown on behalf of the pope.

In mid-century, Rome has close links with the devotedly Christian monarch Louis IX, who goes twice on crusade to the east and is canonized twenty-seven years after his death. In 1263 it is a French pope, Urban IV, who selects Louis' younger brother Charles of Anjou to rule the kingdom of Naples and Sicily.


By the end of the century the relationship is even more intense, but it has turned sour. From 1296 Boniface VIII is involved in a struggle with Philip IV of France about whether the king has the right to tax and discipline clergy in his own realm without the pope's permission. This struggle for temporal power between church and state prolongs, in another form, the earlier tussle of the investiture controversy.

In 1302 Philip enlists the estates general in Paris in support of his cause. Then, claiming that there were irregularities in the election of Boniface, he sends an envoy to Italy with instructions to stir up insurrection against the pope.


Hearing in 1303 that Boniface is about to issue a bull excommunicating his royal master, Philip's envoy (Guillaume de Nogaret) takes a bold step. He raises a small armed force and surprises Boniface at his birthplace, Anagni. He arrests the pope and holds him prisoner for two days.

Boniface dies a month later in Rome. The prestige of the papacy is severely dented by this episode, while Philip IV's power seems enhanced. A few years later he even contrives to destroy the great order of the Templars, forcing a French pope, Clement V, to comply with his wishes. Clement formally suppresses the order in 1312.


For much of the 14th century France appears to have the papacy in its pocket, almost literally. Clement V is the first of seven French popes in an unbroken succession spanning seventy-three years, to 1378. From 1309 these popes are based not in Rome but on French soil, at Avignon.

Clement moves his headquarters to Avignon in 1309 to prepare for a council which he has called in central France, at Vienne, to discuss the king of France's charges against the Templars. The town is friendly, for it belongs to a papal protégé - the Angevin dynasty of Naples. When major extensions to the bishop's palace are undertaken, from 1316, it becomes evident that the papal residence in Avignon is to be a long one.


Previous page Page 4 of 18 Next page
Up to top of page HISTORY OF FRANCE