French History

The Basic History of France

Gaul
Franks
Capetians
The Hundred Years' War
Early Modern France
Revolution
Napoleon
After


Gaul

Modern depiction of Galus
Modern depiction of Galus

Gaul, the Roman name for the country, covered much of modern day France, Belgium, and Germany. The area was populated by Celtic tribes, some of whom migrated to the British Isles and eventually settled there. Early cities formed by these Celtic tribes would later become Paris and Bordeaux. Providence on the southern coast of France was settled by Greek, probably Athenian, sailors, and Marseille and Nice were founded by Phoceans, another Greek country. These settlements brought the Gauls into direct conflict with the Greek port cities. The Gauls were also in conflict with the Aquitanians, in the area that is now Northern Spain and Basque, and the German tribes to the north. In Shakespeare’s Titus, Tamora and her sons are Gauls.

Julius Caesar, the Roman Consul of Gaul, conquered all of Gaul. The Romans divided Gaul into several provinces, relocated populations in order to prevent local identities from creating rebellious populations, and replaced the Gaulish languages with the Vulgar Latin. The Gaulic culture was replaced, over the centuries, with a hybrid Roman culture.

As the Roman empire began to crumble many different tribes began settling in the Gaulish lands, the Franks and the Alamanns, Germanic tribes, entered Gaul, Goths and Vandals settled in the Aquitanian areas, the Burgundians were pushed westward from their native home in present Germany, and the Vascones and the Bretons formed three small kingdoms.


Franks

Charlemagne by Dürer c.1512
Charlemagne by Dürer c.1512

In 486 Clovis I of the Franks defeated a rival tribe and united most of northern and central Gaul under his rule. Ten years later he adopted Christianity as the state religion, which gained him clerical support against the Visigoths. Eventually Clovis defeated the Visigoths and drove them into present day Spain. Clovis made Paris as his capitol, and established the Merovingian Dynasty in France. France would not survive his death. The Frankish tradition was to divide the land of the father between the children upon death, so the united kingdom of Clovis became four smaller kingdoms under his sons, Paris, Orleans, Soissons and Rheims.

The Merovingian rulers of France eventually lost power, when Pepin of Herstal, the majordomo of Austria, defeated another majordomo at Terty. Pepin’s family established what would become the Carolingian dynasty with the assumption of the French crown by Pippin the Short. Pippin’s son became one of the most important kings of Europe, Charlemagne. Charlemagne brought in many German influences, and in 771 he reunited the Frankish domains, and eventually conquered the Lombards, Bavaria, loser Saxony and parts of Islamic Spain as far south as Barcelona.

Charlemagne was crowned Emperor of the Romans by Pope Leo III in 800. However Charlemagne’s empire would not last beyond his son’s reign. Louis I’s three sons broke the kingdom into three. Under the Carolingian the kingdom was ravaged by Vikings. The people that emerged from the interactions between the Vikings and the Franks became known as the Normans, who would eventually conquer England in 1066.


Capetians

Hugh Capet eventually became king of the Franks in 987, defeating the Carolingian claimant, and thus establishing the Capetian line of French kings. The Capetian kings retained the crown, even though they began as a weak dynasty. Henry I had several problems to deal with, the first was his powerful noble, William Duke of Normandy, who conquered England and became a king. The second was his brother, Robert I of Burgundy, who Henry I made Duke of Burgundy, a powerful position, due to the nagging of his mother.

Rose Window in the south transept of St. Denis Cathedral
Rose Window in the south transept of St. Denis Cathedral

Louis VI was able to solidify the Capetian Dynasty by defeating many of the robber barons plaguing the French people. Louis VI’s success is due to the advice of Abbot Suger, the Abbot of St. Denis, who had a new style of Cathedral built at St. Denis, a style that would become known as Gothic. During the reign of the late Capetians a complex system of international alliances and conflicts between the Kings of France and England and the Holy Roman Emperor developed.

The reign of Philip II Augustus marked an important turning point in both French and English history. Early in his reign, Philip II allied himself with the Duke of Aquitaine and son of King Henry II of England, Richard Lionheart. The two launched a decisive attack against Henry II and removed him from power. Richard became king of England. Philip II and Richard I left to fight in the Third Crusade, however their alliance soon fell apart. During the resulting conflict Richard nearly defeated Philip II. Unfortunately Richard died from a wound suffered while fighting his own vassals in the province of Limousin. Richard’s Brother, John became king, and subsequently lost all of the French territory once held by his father, and brother, the so called Angevin Empire.

Henry III of England made one last attempt to revive the Angevin empire and led an attack against Phillip II’s grandson, Louis IX, who would later become Saint Louis. Henry III landed at Sains-Malo with a large force, but Henry’s allies in Normandy and Brittany dared not fight their king, Louis IX as he lead the counter-strike himself. Henry III was eventually defeated, and was forced to recognize the French king as the overlord of the French territories of the Angevin empire. Henry III was able to retail his claim as the Duke of Aquitaine, but he was technically a subject of Louis IX, as any other Duke of French lands.

Under the later Capetian kings France grew in power, so much so that for some time the Papacy was relocated to Avignon, and the Kings of France had great control over the election of the pope. The Capetian dynasty eventually failed in a war of succession between the house of Valois, and he house of Anjou, also known as the Plantagenets in England.


The Hundred Years' War

For a more comprehensive examination of the Hundred Years War please take a look at the English History section, or click here. This section covers only some basic events and outcomes of the war from the French side.

The war began as a battle for the French Crown. Charles IV died with no male heir, and two claimants stepped forward. Philip of Valois, and King Edward III of England. The French crowned Philip VI, but Edward refused to let his claim go unrecognized. The results became a succession of smaller wars fought between the English and the French for the French crown.

The House of Valois was able to retain the French crown for nearly 90 years before Henry V defeated the French and forced Charles VI to name the English royal family as his successors. Henry VI was in fact crowned the King of France, though Charles VII, and many other French nobles refused to acknowledge his dominion over them.

The Hundred Years war ended in 1453 with the English holding only the Channel Islands and Calais in France. All the French territories of the Angevin Empire were lost to the French.


Early Modern France

Louis XIV the Sun King
Louis XIV the Sun King

As England dealt with its own wars of succession France became involved in the Italian Wars. Durring these wars the French found an ally in the Ottoman empire, they saw the rise of Protestantism, and the rise of the Habsburg empire. They also saw the Duke of Guise capture Calais from the English in 1558. France emerged from these wars with a more centralized monarchy that relied on the doctrine of the Divine Rights of Kings, and less on the feudal system.

The conflict between the Catholics and the Protestants in France heated up with the powerful Duke of Guise leading a massacre of the Protestant Huguenots in Vassy in 1562. The Massacre began the French wars of Religion. Marlowe’s Massacre at Paris is based on the Guise’s second massacre, known as the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre in 1572. This event began the War of the Three Henrys.

One of the most famous people involved in the Wars of Religion is Cardinal de Richelieu, who fought with the French crown against the protestants. Though when the Thirty Years War erupted Richelieu entered in on the protestant side, because it was in France’s best interest. The war ended badly for Richelieu and Louis XIII, both died after the Catholic Habsburgs invaded France. The war ended in 1648 leaving France in civil turmoil, and with several new enemies for the French. The War also ended with Louis XIV on the throne.

Louis XIV the Sun King is perhaps the most famous French king. Louis XIV was a great patron of the arts, he built the Palace of Versailles and improved the {Wikipedia:Louvre Louvre], but he also drew France into at least 3 major wars during his reign leaving France bankrupt by the end of his reign. After Louis XIV’s long reign France had become a cultural and linguistic powerhouse in Europe, and a great colonial force in the Americas.

Unfortunately France’s new position would not last. Over the next seventy years France lost much of its influence in the Americas to the British. The recourse of this loss brought the French into an alliance with the American colonies in the Revolutionary war. New ideas about monarchy also began to circulate, ideas that the monarchs were not pleased with.


Revolution

The French Revolution
The French Revolution

The new ideas of government, the American revolution, and the increasingly poor financial state of France lead to the French Revolution. Like England in the 1640’s The French people overthrew the monarchy and eventually executed their own king. Also, like Oliver Cromwell in the English Civil War, the most popular general of the French troops eventually seized power as a dictator, or more correctly Emperor Napoleon. (Image: The French Revolution, artist unknown)


Napoleon

Emperor Napoleon
Emperor Napoleon

Napoleon was crowned Emperor of France on May 18th, 1804. He began to expand his empire making the French into the most powerful European Nation. Napoleon defeated the Austrian Empire, thereby eliminating the Holy Roman Empire. Napoleon was defeated at the naval battle of Trafalgar, which stopped his invasion of England. France defeated Prussia in 1806, and defeated the Russians at the Battle of Friedland. Napoleon signed an alliance with Spain against Portugal, but when the French armies entered Spain on their way to Portugal, they seized key positions in Spain. This act fueled nationalism in the Iberian Peninsula and Spanish and Portuguese troops would band together to fight the French using guerilla tactics. The Austrians organized a coalition and again attacked Napoleon to try and stop his takeover of Europe. They won a victory at Aspern-Essling, but were beaten at Wagram while the Polish allies of France attacked Austria at Raszyn.

War with Russia broke out in 1812, leading to disaster for Napoleon. After a long and inconclusive battle at Borodino Napoleon’s army entered Moscow to find it burning from the Russian scorched Earth tactics. Eventually the Napoleonic army left Russia defeated. France also evacuated Spain as the guerrilla tactics of the Spanish seemed undefeatable. Many of the French subjugated states banded together with The surviving enemies of France and formed a grand coalition to stop Napoleon once and for all. The Battle of Leipzig (also known as the Battle of Nations) was a crushing defeat for Napoleon, though the allies suffered much heavier losses than the French. Napoleon abdicated shortly after this battle and was exiled to Elba. He did escape and tried to restore his Empire, but was defeated finally at Waterloo.


After

After napoleon the Monarchy was restored for a time, though eventual the king Abdicated and the Second French Republic was established. Louis Napoleon Bonaparte was elected the first president and declared himself president for life. Eventually he took the Imperial title Napoleon III. After Napoleon III’s death the Third Republic was formed. The Republic had many internal enemies, royalists and other insurgents who wanted to mold France to their own ideas, but the Third Republic prevailed, even through WWI. The Third Republic finally lost power upon the Nazi invasion of France; however, the Third Republic held power in France longer than any government since the Revolution.

Flag used by the Free French who continued to fight the Germans after the occupation in WWII. The Cross of Loraine on the flag is the cross of Joan of Arc
Flag used by the Free French who continued to fight the Germans after the occupation in WWII. The Cross of Loraine on the flag is the cross of Joan of Arc

WWII saw the French subjugated by the Germans, and ruled by the Vichy Regime. Though the Vichy Regime was established by the Nazis, the government did what it could to preserve the southern portion of France that was not under German occupation. After the liberation of France by the allies the Fourth Republic was established in France.

Presently the French are large supporters of the European Union, though they are dealing with a great deal of civil unrest due to high unemployment.

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