Care to express an opinion on a current or past historical event?

Need to ask a question from our many visitors?

Just visit our Forum and leave your message.


Weekly Poll


Menu Topics


Middle Ages Main Page 


page 2

Political Organization In The Early Middle Ages


page 3

The Church In The Early Middle Ages


page 4

Conclusion to Pages 1, 2 & 3


page 5

The Making Of Modern Britain

page 6

Beginnings of the French Nation

page 7

Re-conquest of Spain

page 8

Government in Germany & Italy

page 9

The Crusades

page 10

The Rise of Trade and Towns

page 11

The Church in the Middle Ages I

page 12

The Church in the Middle Ages II

page 13

The Intellectual Synthesis Of The High Middle Ages

page 14



Additional Topics

Dancing In The Middle Ages

Castle Life

Cultural Expression

Dynamics of the Middle Ages

Influences of Christianity

Monks and Monasticism

Monetary System

Peasant's Life

The Rise of Towns


The Middle Ages

Date:      1992


The Beginnings Of The French Nation

The Beginnings Of The French Nation


     As we saw in chapter 9, the later Carolingian rulers were generally weak

and unable to defend the realm from Viking incursions. This task fell to the

local counts and dukes, who built castles to protect the countryside and

exercised the powers of the king in their territories. In France by the

beginning of the tenth century there were more than thirty great feudal

princes who were nominally vassals of the king but who gave him little or no

support. When the last Carolingian, Louis the Sluggard, died in 987, the

nobles elected as his successor Hugh Capet, count of Paris.


     The "kingdom" that Hugh Capet (987-996) theoretically ruled was roughly

comparable to, but smaller than, modern France. The territory Hugh actually

controlled was a small feudal county extending from Paris to Orleans. It was

almost encircled by rivers. The royal domain was surrounded by many

independent duchies and counties, such as Flanders, Normandy, Anjou, and

Champagne, which were fiercely independent.


[See Feudal France: Feudal France about 1000.]


The Early Capetians


     Starting with little power and limited territory under their direct rule,

the Capetian monarchs gradually extended their control over the great nobles

who resisted centralization. France was literally made by its kings, for

ultimately the royal domain, in which the king's word was law, came to

coincide with the boundaries of the entire realm.


     In the late tenth and eleventh centuries, however, there was little

evidence that the Capetian kings would accomplish much of anything. They were

weaker than many of their own vassals; compared to them, they had little

historical impact. One of their vassals, the duke of Normandy, seized the

throne of England; another, the count of Flanders, became a leader of the

First Crusade and ruler of the kingdom of Jerusalem; another vassal became the

founder of the kingdom of Portugal.


     The major accomplishment of the first four Capetian kings was their

success in keeping the French crown within their own family. The nobles who

elected Hugh Capet had no thought of giving the Capetian family a monopoly on

the royal office. But the Capetian kings, with the support of the church,

which nurtured the tradition of monarchy as a sacred office, cleverly arranged

for the election and coronation of their heirs. Before the king died, the

young prince was crowned by the church and became "associated" with his father

in his rule. For 300 years the House of Capet never lacked a male heir, and by

the end of the twelfth century the hereditary principle had become so

ingrained that French kings no longer took the precaution of crowning their

sons during their own lifetime.


     The advent of the fifth Capetian king, Louis VI (1108-1137), also known

as Louis the Fat, marked the end of Capetian weakness. Louis' pacification of

the royal domain, the Ile de France, paralleled on a smaller scale the work of

William the Conqueror in England. With the support of the church (which

supplied him with able advisers), Louis determined to crush the lawless barons

who were defying royal authority in the Ile de France. Castles of the defiant

vassals were captured and in many cases torn down. Louis made his word law in

the Ile de France, established a solid base from which royal power could be

extended, and increased the prestige of the monarchy so much that the great

duke of Aquitaine deigned to marry his daughter Eleanor to Louis' son.

Unfortunately, Eleanor's behavior so scandalized Louis' pious son ("I thought

I married a king," Eleanor once exclaimed, "but instead I am the wife of a

monk") that he had the marriage annulled, and Aquitaine passed to Eleanor's

second husband, Henry II of England.


The Growth Of The French Monarchy


     The first great expansion of the royal domain was the work of the next

Capetian, Philip II Augustus (1180-1223), during whose reign the French king

for the first time became more powerful than any of his vassals and France

replaced Germany as the strongest monarchy in continental Europe. Philip's

great ambition was to take from the English Plantagenets the vast territory

they held in France. Philip made little headway against Henry II, except to

make Henry's life miserable by encouraging his faithless sons, Richard the

Lion-Hearted and John, to revolt. Philip took Normandy, Maine, Anjou, and

Touraine from John, thereby tripling the size of the French royal domain


     Philip also greatly strengthened the royal administrative system by

devising new agencies for centralized government and tapping new sources of

revenue, including a money payment from his vassals in lieu of military

service. Salaried officials, called bailiffs, performed duties similar to

those carried out in England by itinerant justices and sheriffs. A corps of

loyal officials, like the bailiffs recruited not from the feudal nobility but

from the ranks of the bourgeoisie, was collected around the king. As in

England, special administrative departments were created: the parlement, a

supreme court of justice (not to be confused with the British Parliament,

which became primarily a legislative body); the chamber of accounts, or royal

treasury; and the royal or privy council, a group of advisers who assisted the

king in the conduct of the daily business of the state.


     In this phase of consolidation of royal power, the papacy, which was

struggling with the German emperors, usually allied itself with the French

monarchy. As in England and Germany, however, the kings sometimes collided

with the popes. Philip II defied Innocent III by having French bishops annul

his marriage; but when the pope imposed an interdict on France, Philip backed

down, and his wife again became his queen.


     On the other hand, the church inadvertently helped expand the royal

domain. In southern France, particularly in Toulouse, the Albigensian sect

flourished. Determined to stamp out this heresy, Innocent III in 1208 called

the Albigensian Crusade. Philip, faced with the hatred of King John and the

German emperor, did not take part, but he allowed his vassals to do so. After

Philip's death, his son Louis VIII (1223-1226) led a new crusade to

exterminate the remnants of Albigensian resistance. Later in the century

Toulouse reverted to the French crown when its count died without heir. The

royal domain now stretched from the coast of the English Channel to the shores

of the Mediterranean Sea.


     After the brief reign of Louis VIII, France came under the rule of Louis

IX (1226-1270), better known today as St. Louis. In contrast to the cunning

opportunism of his grandfather, Louis' ideal was to rule justly, and he made

some sacrifices to that end. For example, special officials were created to

check on the bailiffs, who were forbidden to encroach on the feudal rights of

the nobility. On the other hand, Louis believed himself responsible only to

God, who had put him on the throne to lead his people out of a life of sin.

Accordingly, he was the first French king to issue edicts for the whole

kingdom without the prior consent of his council of great vassals. He also

ordered an end to trial by battle and the time-honored feudal right of private

warfare. Certain matters, such as treason and crimes on the highways, were

declared to be the exclusive jurisdiction of the royal courts. Furthermore,

Louis insisted on the right of appeal from the feudal courts of his vassals to

the high royal court of parlement at Paris. Just, sympathetic, and

peace-loving, Louis IX convinced his subjects that the monarchy was the most

important agency for assuring their happiness and well-being.


[See French Domain: The Growth of French Royal domain.]


Apex Of Capetian Rule Under Philip IV


     The reign of Philip IV, the Fair (1285-1314), climaxed three centuries of

Capetian rule. The opposite of his saintly grandfather, Philip was a man of

craft, violence, and deceit. He took advantage of the growing anti-Semitism

that had appeared in Europe with the Crusades to expel the Jews from France

and confiscate their possessions. (Philip's English contemporary, Edward I,

had done the same.) Heavily in debt to the Knights Templars, who had turned to

banking after the Crusades, Philip had the order suppressed on trumped-up

charges of heresy.


     Philip's need for money also brought him into conflict with the last

great medieval pope. Pope Boniface VIII refused to allow Philip to tax the

French clergy and made sweeping claims to supremacy over secular powers. But

such leaders as Philip IV would not tolerate interference with their

authority, no matter what the source. The result of this controversy was the

humiliation of Boniface, a blow from which the influence of the medieval

papacy never recovered.


     In domestic affairs the real importance of Philip's reign lay in the

king's ability to increase the power and improve the organization of the royal

government. Philip's astute civil servants, recruited mainly from the middle

class, concentrated their efforts on exalting the power of the monarch.

Trained in Roman law and inspired by its maxim that "whatever pleases the

prince has the force of law," they sought to make the power of the monarch



     As did Edward I in England, Philip enlarged his feudal council to include

representatives of the third "estate" or class - the townspeople. This

Estates-General of nobles, clergy, and burghers was used as a means of

obtaining popular support for Philip's policies, including the announcement of

new taxes. Significantly, Philip did not seek to ask the Estates-General's

consent for his tax measures, and thus it did not acquire the "power of the

purse" that characterized the English Parliament.

Home Page

World History Center