Story of Modern France - Helene Guerber

The Old Monarchy

The most thrilling and important events in the history of France are those which have occurred within the last two hundred years, about which you will read in this book. But to know the condition of France, and how it was governed two centuries ago, it is well to begin with a brief review of previous events.

Stretching from the Atlantic Ocean to the Alps, and from the Pyrenees almost to the Rhine, France has long held a leading place in the history of Europe. The French are descended in part from the Gauls,—a half-civilized people—who gave their name to the country two thousand years ago, and from various other nations who, at different times, made their way into the land.

Greatest among these invaders were the Romans, who conquered Gaul before the Christian era, gave it their Latin language and civilization, and made it one of the important divisions of the great Roman Empire. The barbarian invaders—Goths, Vandals, Burgundians, Franks, and others—in the fifth century destroyed much of the work done by the Romans, and broke the country up into petty states. Then the whole land was gradually conquered by the Franks, a Germanic tribe from which France derives its present name, and some of its aristocratic families. But the French language contains mainly Latin and Gallic elements, and has few from other sources.

[Illustration] from The Story of Modern France by Helene Guerber


The conversion and baptism of the first great Frankish ruler, Clovis (496), earned for him and for his successors the proud title of "Eldest Son of the Church," and made France the Catholic country it has been ever since. The greatest of all Frankish monarchs, Charlemagne, ruled wisely and well over a vast empire, which included France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Switzerland, most of Germany and Italy, and part of Austria (800-814). Under his descendants this empire was repeatedly divided and reunited, but before long France became independent, while the other lands remained in the Empire, under German Emperors, for many centuries.

During this period the country suffered greatly from frequent struggles between rival kings and from constant disputes between monarch and nobles, each of whom wished to rule his share of land independently. Finally one of these nobles, more powerful than the rest—Hugh Capet (carpet, or, caper)—became King of France (987) and established his capital at Paris, which has ever since been the center of the French government.

Hugh Capet was the founder of the Capetian dynasty, which includes all of the later kings of France, and which two hundred years ago was at the height of its power. This dynasty respected the "Salic Law," by which the Franks decreed that the French throne should pass to males only; that is why no queen has ever reigned over France.

The throne of the Capetian kings was claimed at times by monarchs of other countries, but never successfully. For about one hundred years (13371453) France was devastated by kings of England who tried to gain the French crown in addition to their own. During that time the English held large parts of the country, but they were at last driven, from French soil by the efforts of Joan of Arc, whose heroic example rekindled dying patriotism in France.

The throne was again in danger during the Religious Wars (15621598), for, although less than one tenth of the population was Protestant, among that tenth was the king, Henry IV., the first of the Bourbon branch of the Capetian family. The majority of the French refused him obedience until he changed his faith and became a Catholic.

At first the power of the Capetian rulers was not great, because the people of France, by the old feudal system, owed allegiance to their lords. These lords, it is true, were vassals in turn to the king, but if a noble chose to rebel he could generally count on the support of the people in his own domain. In the Empire, many nobles thus succeeded in becoming petty monarchs, but in France the king gradually grew strong enough to enforce obedience from his vassals, and to keep the land one united country.

The first real French king, Hugh Capet, was himself a powerful noble, and his successors gradually increased the royal domain through conquest, marriage, inheritance, and purchase, until they became direct masters of the whole realm. Still, parts of these royal domains were sometimes granted to favorites or relatives, and thus the ranks of the nobles were recruited from princes of the royal blood. Under weak monarchs the great lords were at times nearly independent, but strong kings were able to exact submission, and in the end Louis XIV., third ruler of the Bourbon line, made himself an absolute monarch.

In the Middle Ages, besides king, nobles, and peasants—tillers of the soil—there grew up a merchant and manufacturing class, which collected in cities. Many of these centers soon purchased certain rights of self-government from nobles and kings, but these rights did not extend beyond the city limits. French burghers (bourgeois)  never exercised any such influence in national affairs as was gained by the same class in England.

Unlike the English Parliament, French bodies bearing that name were simple courts of justice, composed of the lawyers and judges of certain towns, each of which had a separate parliament. The duty of each parliament was to "register" the decrees of the king, and see them properly enforced in a certain section of the country. Occasionally the parliaments—especially that of Paris—protested against unpopular decrees and exerted some little influence in lawmaking by delaying or refusing to register them. But Louis XIV. commanded his parliaments to register every decree of his without discussion or delay, and he was obeyed.

The only national assembly in France—the States-General—met only at the call of the king and had no real power. It consisted of the three divisions or estates of society: the Nobles, entitled to sit in it by right of birth; the Clergy, by right of office; and the Burghers, representatives of the Commons or Third Estate. The States-General had met fifteen times by 1614, but during Louis XIV.'s long reign (16431715) he never summoned this body. It met only once thereafter, a most momentous meeting, as you will see.

In the early part of Louis XIV.'s reign was reached the high water mark of prosperity under the Old Regime, or absolute monarchy. It was this king who built the great palace of Versailles, and gathered there the most magnificent court in Europe. But the glories of the age of Louis XIV. were greatly dimmed by useless wars and by boundless extravagance, in which he was closely imitated by his nobles. As a result, the state was burdened with an immense debt, the taxes were greatly increased, and the Third Estate—the only class paying direct taxes—was reduced to dire poverty. General discontent naturally ensued, which set in motion the thrilling series of events which overthrew the old monarchy and gave birth to modern France.