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The Middle Ages
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.