Today we had the good fortune of learning about the history of the pre-Revolutionary French state by historian Vincent Delaveau. Specifically, we examined the role that the King of France played in the construction of a unified France as we know it today.
The start of our lecture began with the first King of France, or rather, the first King of the Franks, Clovis I. Clovis was the first Catholic King of the Franks, beginning early expansion into Northern Gaul by the year 500. Thus began the Merovingian dynasty, the first line of Kings in France. The Merovingians, however, would not survive for more than a century, and soon a new line of Kings seized power with Charlemagne at their head, introducing the Carolingian dynasty. In 987, more than two-hundred years later, a new dynasty would begin in France under Hugh Capet, crowned King of France and beginning the House of Valois. In the year 1328, Charles IV died without an heir, and a crisis emerged leading to the crowing of Philip of Valois. However, this decision was contested by Edward III, King of England, who believed that he rightfully should have inherited the French crown. Ultimately, this conflict sparked the 100 Years’ War, where the new kings of France would gain much territory and power as France began to unify into its more modern form. Henry IV would be the first King of France to become a Huguenot, or French Protestant, and following the Edict of Nantes, the Religious Wars in France ended.
It was not until the Bourbons beginning with Louis XIII and the centralization efforts of Cardinal Richelieu that the French crown would begin to dominate modern day France and become a great European power. Under Louis XIII and Louis XIV, centralization of royal power would continue to grow and ultimately, under the absolute monarchy of Louis XV and Louis XVI, the French kings approached a zenith of power unmatched by other European Kings.
A good portion of the lecture was spent discussing the growing territorial gains that the King would make that ultimately caused an explosion in the French economic and cultural growth throughout the Medieval and Renaissance period. It’s truly incredible to think about the geopolitical changes that occurred in France over the course of more than fifteen-hundred years. The French state branched out over the course of many centuries to reach natural barriers and defenses including the Pyrenees Mountains, the Alps, and many rivers including the Rhone bordering Germany.
My favorite part of the lecture was the examination of the relationship between the French king and his citizens. A traditionally Catholic country during and following the medieval period, French kings embodied the role of a Christ-like savior on Earth. The principle job of the king was the ultimate safe passage of his subjects into the Kingdom of Heaven. Clearly, religion played a central role in the history of the French kingdom, and that’s why I find it especially interesting. Today, the idea of a secular Etat in France is, in my opinion, the pivotal foundation for a working democracy. The transformation of French society and the influence of the French kings in the history of the world is truly unique and fascinating!