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Index |  History |  Highlights |  WhatWhenWhere
Prehistory to Roman
French kingdoms
Normans and Capetians
The Valois dynasty
     A disputed inheritance
     Philip VI and John II
     Charles V and Reims
     Charles VI
     Civil war
     The king of Bourges
     The monarchy restored
     Louis XI
     Charles VIII

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

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A disputed inheritance: 1328

In 1325 France is unmistakably the heart of Europe. A French pope is resident in Avignon. The French king, Charles IV, has inherited from his Capetian ancestors a realm which, from its early beginnings around Paris, has grown steadily in size, wealth and influence. The kingdom has a larger population than any rival state in Europe (around 15 million). Paris is the continent's intellectual centre.

Three years later this stability is severely threatened by the early death of the king.


When Charles IV dies, at the age of thirty-four in 1328, he has been three times married but he has no son. Since the death of Hugh Capet in 996 there has always been a son (or very occasionally a brother) to inherit the French crown. In the present generation the pattern is broken. Charles IV succeeds two elder brothers (Louis X and Philip V), and he leaves two daughters - one of them born posthumously.

The claim of Charles's elder daughter is rejected on the grounds of her sex, even though the Salic Law is not yet officially enshrined in the French system. A great assembly of feudal magnates is charged with deciding who is the rightful heir.


The closest male relative of Charles IV is his nephew Edward, the son of Charles's sister Isabella. There is a certain logical objection to Edward's inheritance; if the crown may not be inherited by a woman, it would seem inconsistent for it to be inherited through a woman.

There is another factor which the chronicles of the time imply to be an even more powerful obstacle. Edward is now Edward III, king of England. France does not want an English king.


In the circumstances it is not surprising that the assembly awards the crown to a more distant relation. Philip of Valois is only a cousin of Charles IV, but his descent is all-male and all-French (he is the son of a younger brother of Charles's father, Philip IV).

The Valois prince is crowned king at Reims in May 1328 as Philip VI, beginning a new (though closely related) line on the French throne. The dynasty's first reign is a difficult one. It includes the human and economic disaster of the Black Death. And the disputed succession brings on the long-drawn-out conflict known as the Hundred Years' War.


Two kings of chivalry: 1328-1364

The reigns of the first two Valois kings, Philip VI and John II, are troubled times in France. This is partly due to early English successes in the Hundred Years' War. These in turn result to a large extent from the French kings seeing war and international affairs in terms of chivalry - the code of honour of the medieval knight at arms.

At Crécy in 1346 Philip VI launches an attack on an English army withdrawing from France after a brief campaign of plunder. An old-fashioned and visually impressive cavalry charge against more pedestrian English archers leads to disastrous French losses. An even more significant defeat follows ten years later at Poitiers, under the leadership of John II.


The battle of Poitiers takes place over three days - a long weekend in modern terms, from Saturday to Monday in September 1356. Sunday is a truce, brokered between the two sides by the papal legate. The day of rest reveals, once again, the contrast between the romantically amateur French view of warfare and the new professionalism of the English.

The French knights treat their day off as a holiday, eating, drinking, socializing, relaxing. Meanwhile the English and their Gascon allies are busy digging trenches and making fences. The intention, as at Crécy, is to fight from a defensive position.


The final battle begins early on the Monday morning. By a combination of ambushes, hails of arrows and sudden cavalry charges downhill, the English and the Gascons throw the vanguard of the French army into disarray. The rearguard, commanded by the king himself, fights with great resolve. John II wins renown for his personal courage. But by mid-afternoon his army is overwhelmed, and he is a prisoner in English hands.

It is the beginning of four years of royal captivity, first in Bordeaux and then in the Savoy palace in London. After much negotiation a vast ransom of three million gold crowns is agreed in 1360. The taxation required to raise this sum is yet another burden in France so soon after the Black Death.


John II is freed in December 1360 and returns to Paris. While the ransom is being raised, two of his sons are held as hostages by the English. In 1363 one of them escapes. In a final gesture of medieval chivalry, John II atones for this dishonourable behaviour by returning to London. In January 1364 he delivers himself back into captivity in the Savoy palace. He dies there three months later.

The first two Valois generations have presided over a reduction in French prestige and power. John II's son, regent during his father's captivity and by nature more canny than chivalrous, reverses this decline during his reign as Charles V.


Charles V and Reims: 1364-1380

Charles V is known as Charles the Wise, a title earned as much by his statecraft as by his love of learning. He is indeed a friend of scholars and a passionate collector of books, building up an impressive royal library in a tower in the Louvre. But he also builds up royal France, recovering territories by patient attrition rather than direct conflict. Where his grandfather and father tend to plunge into battle, Charles prefers diplomacy.

At the centre of his statecraft is a consistent policy to enhance power by emphasizing the divine nature of kingship.


Medieval men and women are predisposed to the idea that divinity surrounds a king. Charles reinforces this theme by emphasizing his anointment during the coronation at Reims. There is a special magic in the oil used in this French ceremony, thanks to the miracle of the Sainte Ampoule or Holy Ampulla. This vessel, together with the holy oil which it contains, was supposedly brought from heaven by the dove of the Holy Spirit for the baptism of Clovis at Reims in 496.

Charles V's emphasis on the unique nature of the ceremony at Reims enhances his own status. And it later proves of paramount importance in resolving the crisis which engulfs France during the reigns of his son and grandson.


Charles VI:1380-1422

The long reign of Charles VI brings disaster to France. During the first eight years the king is a minor; power accrues dangerously to his uncle, the duke of Burgundy. During the last 30 years, from 1392, the king is mentally deranged - bringing him the name Charles the Mad, in contrast to his father (Charles the Wise).

The elder Charles, dying in 1380, entrusts the realm to his three brothers during his son's minority. Of these three dukes one (Louis of Anjou) is mainly concerned with his claims to the Angevin kingdom of Naples. Another, John of Berry, plays some role in politics, but devotes most of his time to his famous collection. The field is open to the youngest (Philip of Burgundy).


Philip the Bold, duke of Burgundy from 1364, is also the heir through his wife to the rich but rebellious territory of Flanders. He persuades the young Charles VI to undertake a campaign to suppress the Flemish cities, a task achieved in a victory at Roosebeke in 1382. The army is French but the advantage of the victory flows to Burgundy. In this contrast lies the seed of much future trouble.

Philip the Bold acts as regent until Charles VI takes power into his own hands in 1388. The young king rules with skill and success, but only for four years. In 1392 he has an attack of violent madness, of a kind which recurs for the rest of his life.


Philip the Bold finds it easy to take control again. He rules, largely in his own interest, for twelve years. But his death in 1404 is followed by a bitter rivalry, leading to civil war, which paralyzes France for three decades.

The two great nobles vying for power are cousins - Louis, duke of Orléans, younger brother of the mad king, and John the Fearless who has succeeded his father as duke of Burgundy. In 1407 the duke of Orléans is murdered in a Paris street by henchmen of John the Fearless. The result is civil war between the Burgundians and the partisans of the murdered duke.


The Orléans supporters are known as the Armagnacs, being led by the count of Armagnac (whose son is married to a daughter of the murdered duke of Orléans ). The situation is much complicated by a third warlike power on the scene.

In 1415 a new king on the English throne, Henry V, escalates hostilities against the French. The Hundred Years' War has been rumbling on at a steady pace in recent years. But the arrival of Henry V in person in the Seine estuary, in August 1415, confronts the squabbling French with a sharp and immediate challenge.


Civil war: 1407-1435

The French array of knightood defeated by Henry V at Agincourt in 1415 represents one half of France's strength. This is only the Armagnac contingent. John the Fearless of Burgundy plays a watchful and duplicitous game, negotiating both with the English and the Armagnacs.

After Henry V takes Rouen in 1419, it seems that the two French factions may unite against the English threat. But this hope is dashed when John the Fearless, meeting the Armagnac leaders to negotiate, is murdered in 1419 in the presence of the 16-year-old dauphin, the future Charles VII.


By this time the mad king and his heir are on opposite sides of the struggle. Charles VI's queen, Isabella of Bavaria, has brought her incapacitated husband into the camp of the Burgundians. From 1418 they control Paris, after an uprising in the city ejects the Armagnacs. The dauphin, son of Charles VI and Isabella, escapes with the Armagnacs to Bourges where he declares himself to be regent of France.

This hollow boast is mocked by the treaty of Troyes, agreed in 1420 between Isabella and her Burgundian ally (the new duke, Philip the Good) on one side and Henry V of England on the other.


At Troyes Isabella disowns her son, the dauphin. Instead she offers his sister Catherine to Henry V as bride and heiress to the French throne. It is agreed that Henry will become king of France on the death of Catherine's mad father, Charles VI.

Events soon make a mockery of this cynical liaison. The marriage takes place in June 1420. A son, the future Henry VI of England, is born in December 1421. Henry V dies campaigning in France in August 1422. His father-in-law dies seven weeks later. By the terms of the treaty, a ten-month-old English infant becomes the king of France.


The king of Bourges: 1422-1437

Meanwhile the dauphin, the rightful king by descent, proclaims himself Charles VII of France. But he is confined south of the Loire, with Paris in the hands of his enemies (the English and Burgundians in alliance). Charles is known mockingly as the king of Bourges, where he maintains his court.

There is political impasse and desultory warfare until a dramatic development in 1429. For six months the English have been besieging Orléans, an important town on the Loire commanding the route south towards Bourges. In April a French force arrives to raise the siege. It is unusual in that it is led by a young peasant girl, Joan of Arc.


Inspired by Joan, the French drive the English north from Orléans. The raising of the siege proves the turning point in the long war. Joan leads Charles VII to Reims, where his consecration in 1429 brings him for the first time the undivided allegiance of the French people. Even the death of Joan at English hands, in 1431, does nothing to stem the new surge of national enthusiasm and success.

The duke of Burgundy, Philip the Good, acknowledges the trend when he makes peace with Charles VII in 1435 at Arras. This treaty ends the civil war. In 1437 the king enters Paris, now once again the capital. The French kingdom is almost back to normal.


The monarchy restored: 1437-1461

Charles VII's reign, beginning so unpromisingly in 1422, takes a remarkable turn for the better after his return to Paris in 1437. In his remaining quarter of a century he greatly enhances the power of the French monarchy.

He improves the kingdom's revenue. Taxes, increasingly fixed now by decree of the king's council, begin to be accepted as a permanent levy. Previously they were special payments granted by the estates general to meet a particular crisis in the royal finances. One result of this change is that the estates general meet less frequently, and thus gradually lose their power.


On the ecclesiastical front the freedom of the French king is much improved by an assembly of French clergy at Bourges in 1438. They declare a policy, immediately adopted by the king as a 'pragmatic sanction', which restricts the power of the pope to raise money or to make ecclesiastical appointments within French territory.

The pragmatic sanction of Bourges is an important step in the development of Gallicanism, the political creed which asserts the indpendence of the French church (though in reality exchanging papal control for royal interference).


In military matters Charles VII takes two important initiatives. He establishes France's first permanent professional army, with cavalry drawn from the nobility and infantry from the rest of the population. And he invests heavily in the new weapon which is only now beginning to come into its own on the battlefield - artillery.

Charles's guns play a part in the victories which recover from the English first Normandy and then Aquitaine. The battles of Formigny in 1450 and Castillon in 1453 are the last two major engagements of the Hundred Years' War, though the long conflict drags on formally for another two decades.


Even in commerce there is a strong advance, with much improvement in French trade - as seen in the extraordinary career of a merchant of Bourges, Jacques Coeur.

By the end of the reign, in 1461, the French king directly controls nearly all the vast area once held by his vassals. The only territories enjoying effective independence are Burgundy, Flanders and Brittany. Much of Burgundy and Flanders is lost in subsequent reigns, but Brittany is brought into the fold in 1491 when an heiress to the dukedom marries Charles VII's grandson, Charles VIII. All in all France's great martyr, Joan of Arc, would be well pleased with the turn of events in the decades after her death.


Louis XI: 1461-1483

The trend towards an autocratic monarchy is continued by Louis XI, son of Charles VII, though at times during his reign it seems as though he will lose control to rebellious nobles or to his great rival and enemy, Charles the Bold of Burgundy.

Louis fails diplomatically in relation to Burgundy, doing nothing to ensure that the Burgundian heiress, daughter of Charles the Bold, marries his own son, the French dauphin. Instead she marries a Habsburg, and most of the extensive territories of Burgundy are lost to France.


But diplomacy pays off, at a price, when Louis brings the Hundred Years' War to its final conclusion in 1475. He persuades the English king, Edward IV, to take his invading army straight home with financial compensation for lost opportunities.

Louis takes active steps to improve his kingdom's trade and commerce, as when he begins a great tradition of Lyons fairs by granting the city the privilege in 1463 to hold four such events annually. In the following year he establishes an official postal system for government business. He bequeaths a strong and prosperous France to his son, Charles VIII. But the young king has romantic ideas which endanger French interests.


Charles VIII and the Italian campaign: 1494-1495

Charles VIII is thirteen when he inherits the crown of France in 1483. He is twenty-four when he marches south, in 1494, to involve the kingdom in a series of disastrous Italian campaigns which will drain its resources to no good purpose over the next five decades.

Charles is misled by a romantic notion (encouraged by the duke of Milan, who needs support in Italy) that he can march to claim the throne of Naples, to which he has a right through the Angevin line. He even dreams of a further stage of glory. He imagines himself sailing from Naples to drive the Turks from Constantinople or Jerusalem. He will be crowned a new eastern emperor.


Charles VIII crosses the Alps in September 1494 with a massive army of 30,000 men. They pass peacefully through the territory of Milan and no doubt expect to do the same through Florence's Tuscan lands. France's quarrel is only with Naples.

But Florence has been recently identified as an ally of Naples. Sensing a crisis, the young Piero de' Medici imitates his father's famous act of personal diplomacy (his visit in 1479 to the king of Naples). Without informing the signoria, the official government of Florence, Piero makes his way to the camp of the French king.


In this encounter between two inexperienced young rulers, both in their early twenties, the Frenchman has the better of the bargain. Charles VIII emphasizes that all he wants is an assurance of Florence's good will, but adds that a convincing token of this would be the delivery into French hands of several key castles together with the ports of Pisa and Livorno. The records suggest that the French are astonished when Piero agrees.

So, when they hear of it, are the signoria in Florence. They protest that Piero has no authority to cede these Florentine possesssions, but it is too late. The French enter Florence and occupy Pisa (glad to be rid of the Florentine yoke) before moving on south.


Charles VIII and his army reach Rome on the last day of 1494. Pope Alexander VI, powerless to resist them, takes shelter in the Castel Sant' Angelo. On February 22, still unopposed, the French enter Naples. Two months later, on May 12, Charles is crowned king in his new city.

But in his inexperience he has left his line of withdrawal undefended. During March the pope and the other main Italian powers (except Florence) form the League of Venice against the intruder. As Charles withdraws north he is confronted at Fornovo, in July, by an army of the League (also sometimes known as the Holy League). The battle is confused and indecisive. Charles and his army escape to safety in France.


Charles has left French garrisons in Naples, but they soon lose the kingdom again to the Aragonese. Nevertheless Charles is preparing a new expedition to Naples when he dies, as the result of an accident at Amboise, in 1498.

This Neapolitan adventure, fruitless though it is, gives the kings of France a taste for campaigning in Italy. They briefly recover part of the kingdom of Naples in 1501-3. But their ambitions focus increasingly on northern Italy - which becomes in the early 16th century an almost permanent international battleground.


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