France in the Middle Ages

Upon Charlemagne‘s death in 814, the empire was inherited by his son Louis the Pious who reigned until his death in 840. The death of the emperor in 840 led to the outbreak of war between his sons. Charles allied himself with his brother Ludwig the German to resist the pretensions of the new emperor Lothair I, and the two allies defeated Lothair at the Battle of Fontenay-en-Puisaye in 841. Finally the war was brought to an end when they signed the Treaty of Verdun in 843. The settlement gave Charles the Bald the portion west of the Rhine, known as the kingdom of West Franks (or West Francia), the precursor of modern France. Ludwig received the east portion of the Carolingian Empire, which was called East Franks; it would later become Germany.

The first years of Charles’s reign were comparatively peaceful. During these years the three brothers continued the system of “confraternal government”, meeting repeatedly with one another, at Koblenz, at Meerssens, and at Attigny. Nevertheless, after the death of Lothair I in 855, the disaffected nobles in West Franks asked Ludwig the German for help to oust Charles the Bald. Charles was so unpopular that he was unable to organize an army. He was saved by the bishops who refused to crown Ludwig and by the Welfs who were related to his mother.

Besides these family disputes, Charles also fought against the Vikings who devastated the country of the north, the valleys of the Seine and Loire, and even up to the borders of Aquitaine. Several times Charles was forced to purchase their retreat at a heavy price. Charles led various expeditions against the invaders and, by the Edict of Pistres of 864, made the army more mobile by providing for a cavalry element, the predecessor of the French chivalry so famous during the next 600 years.

Charles the Bald died in 877. He was succeeded by his son Louis II the Stammerer who reigned from 877 to 879. Louis the Stammerer was said to be physically weak and outlived his father by only two years. He had relatively little impact on politics. When Louis the Stammerer died, his son Louis became king of West Francia as Louis III who reigned jointly with his brother Carloman. But Louis III died in 882 at Saint Denis, having fallen from his horse whilst chasing a girl with amorous intent. Since he had no children, his brother Carloman became the sole king until his death in 884. Carloman was succeeded by Charles the Fat.

In 893 Charles the Simple was crowned king. In 911 Charles gave the lower Seine area, eventually known as Normandy, as a fief to the Norse leader Rollo in the Treaty of Saint-Clair-sur-Epte, thereby ending the series of Viking raids into France.

The Capetian Dynasty

With the death in 987 of King Louis V, the last direct descendant of Charlemagne, the French throne became vacant. Upon the advice of Adalbero, archbishop of Reims, the nobility offered the crown to Hugh Capet, count of Paris. Capet thus became the founder of a dynasty that converted the loose feudal monarchy of France into a centralized government and laid the foundations of the modern French state.

The first four Capetians are not especially notable, but with the accession of Louis VI, who ruled from 1108 to 1137, the royal power began to assert itself over its feudal rivals. Under Philip Augustus (1180-1223), the annexation of Normandy and other English fiefs in France more than doubled the royal domain, while the establishment of Paris as the seat of government marked the beginning of an administration directly under royal control.

Under Louis VII ‘the Young’ (1120–1180), the House of Capet rose in their power in France – Louis married Aliénor (1122–1204), the heiress of the Duchy of Aquitaine, and so became Duke. The growth of a national government, as opposed to feudal claims, was continued by Louis IX (1226-1270) and reached its climax under Philips IV (1285-1314). Under this monarch, the institutions of the French state assumed the forms they were to maintain until the French Revolution. he direct House of Capet came to an end in 1328, when the three sons of Philip IV all failed to produce surviving male heirs to the French throne.

The House of Valois

The house of Valois succeeded the Capetian dynasty and ruled France for 250 years, from 1328 to 1589, playing a crucial role in its establishment as a major European power. They were descendants of Charles of Valois, the fourth son of King Philip III, Capetian, and based their claim to be ahead of Edward III of England and Jeanne de Navarre on a reintroduction of the Salic law, which only recognized the male line.

The Capetian dynasty seemed secure both during and after the reign of Philip IV. Philip had left three surviving sons (Louis, Philip and Charles) and a daughter (Isabella). Each son became king in turn, but died young and withouth male heirs (all had daughters though). When Charles IV died in 1328, the French Succession was thrown wide open, but Philip the Fortunate 1328-1350, son of Charles of Valois was eventually crowned king as Philip VI.

Philip VI was the King of France from 1328 to his death in 350. He was also Count of Anjou, Maine, and Valois from 1325 to 1328. Philip’s reign was punctuated with crises. It began with military success in Flanders at the Battle of Cassel (August 1328), where Philip’s forces reseated Louis I of Flanders, who had been unseated by a popular revolution. The able Jeanne gave the first of many demonstrations of her competence as regent in his absence.

Philip initially enjoyed relatively amicable relations with Edward III, and they planned a crusade together in 1332, which was never executed. However, the status of the Duchy of Aquitaine remained a sore point, and tension increased. Philip provided refuge for David II of Scotland in 1334 and declared himself champion of his interests, which enraged Edward. By 1336, they were enemies, although not yet openly at war.

The final breach with England came when Edward offered refuge to Robert III of Artois, formerly one of Philip’s trusted advisers. However, after he committed forgery to try to obtain an inheritance, he barely escaped France with his life, and was hounded by Philip throughout Europe. Edward made him Earl of Richmond and honored him; in retaliation, Philip declared on May 24, 1337 that Edward had incited Aquitaine to rebellion and disobedience. Thus began the Hundred Years’ War.

List of Valois Kings of France

Philippe VI, the Fortunate 1328-1350, son of Charles of Valois
Jean II, the Good 1350-1364
Charles V, the Wise 1364-1380
Charles VI, the Well-Beloved, later known as the Mad 1380-1422
Charles VII, the Victorious or the Well-Served 1422-1461
Louis XI, the Universal Spider 1461-1483
Charles VIII, the Affable 1483-1498

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Thor is Carlos Benito Camacho, the manager and writer of this blog.