Story of Europe - H. E. Marshall

The Progress of France Towards Nationality

The Capetians

For more than a century after the Treaty of Verdun (see Chapter X) the Carolingian dynasty struggled on in France and at length, with Louis the Fainéant, it died out in feebleness.

The first king of the new dynasty was Hugh Capet, Count of Paris, and from him the dynasty is known as that of the Capetians. They ruled in France for nearly three and a half centuries.

Hugh Capet came to the throne of France not by inheritance but by election, and in spite of his title as king, he had little more power than he had had as count. His so-called vassals, the dukes of Normandy and Burgundy, the Counts of Anjou, Flanders, and Champagne, might do homage indeed for their lands, but they ruled over these lands like independent sovereigns, paying little or no heed to the wishes or commands of their overlord the king.

There was no awe or reverence for the king's majesty. If, in theory, by his grace they enjoyed the title of duke or count he, no less by their grace, enjoyed that of king. And the angry question which Hugh addressed to one of these turbulent nobles, "Who made you count?" merely brought forth the sharp retort, "Who made you king?"

But weak although it was at first, the Capetian dynasty persisted. King followed king upon the throne without question or revolt. And this fact alone gave at length to the government a stability quite unknown to the neighbouring feudal state of Germany.

William the Conqueror

The chief event of European importance during the reigns of the first Capetians was the conquest of England by William, Duke of Normandy, in the reign of Philip I. By becoming king of England William became a far more powerful sovereign than his overlord the king of France, and the conquest of England by him had almost as great consequences for France as for England. For it laid the foundation of the English king's claim to French land, a claim which plunged both countries into war for hundreds of years. It was during the reign of Philip I's son, Louis VI, that the long struggle between English and French for supremacy in France began. Louis VI was the first king of France to make his power truly felt. As a young man he was known as Louis the Fighter, or Louis the Wide-awake, and he spent the first years of his reign in subjugating the turbulent princes of the realm. He fought them, imprisoned them, and threw down their great castles where they had lived in freedom, oppressing whom they would. And in the end he forced many of them to recognize the superior authority of the king, and to respect the King's Peace and the King's Justice.

But while quelling the nobles Louis protected the villains and the serfs. It was with their help, indeed, that Louis subdued the nobles, and in return for that help he frequently granted them charters of freedom. Thus, from being slaves they became free men. They built towns and surrounded them with walls like the castles of the nobles, coming and going at will, working for whom they would, no longer being tied to the land and forced to serve their overlord. Thus the citizen or burgher class began to rise in France.

The prince whom Louis VI found hardest to subdue was Henry I, king of England who, as duke of Normandy, was Louis's vassal. For Henry had the resources of a kingdom behind him, and when he rebelled against his overlord it was much more than the rebellion of a mere vassal. It was an invasion by a foreign king and the introduction of a foreign influence.

Louis's task was therefore twofold. He endeavoured, first, to subdue the feudal power to the regal power; secondly, he endeavoured to oust foreign influence and unify and nationalize his whole kingdom. These two endeavours form the groundwork of French history for hundreds of years.

Henry II's Angevin Kingdom

Louis VI was, to some extent, successful in keeping his great vassal of England in check, but under his son Louis VII that vassal again became more powerful. For Louis VII made the great mistake of allowing Henry, Count of Anjou and Duke of Normandy, to marry his own divorced wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine. By this marriage Henry became lord of the whole south-west of France which, added to Normandy, Anjou, and Maine, made him ruler of a domain larger than that of the French king.

Two years after his marriage with Eleanor Henry became king of England. Thus strengthened, he began to dream of establishing a great Angevin Empire which would include the whole of France and England. But Henry II's ambitions were frustrated partly through the rebellion of his own sons.

Philip Augustus

Louis VII died in 1180 and was succeeded by his able, brave, if not too scrupulous son, Philip Augustus. France for Frenchmen might have been his motto. It was certainly his aim, and to advance it he made use of the quarrels between Henry II and his sons, siding with these sons and making a great friend of Richard. But when Henry II died, and Philip's one-time friend Richard became king of England, Philip fought him as he had fought his father Henry. He made, however, little headway against the superior military genius of the English king, and it was not until the infamous John Lackland came to the throne of England that the French king's moment arrived.

With the advent of John the struggle entered on a new phase, and the end could not long be doubtful. For on the one side there was an indolent, vicious king, barely tolerated by an alienated people. On the other there was an energetic, calculating soldier-statesman, with behind him a people in whom the sense of loyalty and of nationality was fast awakening.

Every advantage that was his Philip used with vigour. One by one he wrested his French possessions from the English king, until there was nothing left to him except Gascony. John, overwhelmed with troubles at home, fighting his own barons, and casting defiance at the pope, let his French possessions slip from him. But when he saw them gone he desired to have them back again. So he made an alliance with Otto IV, emperor of Germany, and together they made an attack on France. While John landed in the south-west the emperor invaded the north-east. But Philip had little fear of John. He left his son Louis to deal with him, and himself marched against the German emperor.

France 1050 A.D.


Battle of Bouvines

The two forces met at Bouvines, a few miles from Lille, and here one of the great decisive battles of the Middle Ages was fought. The emperor and his allies were utterly defeated. Otto, barely escaping with his life, fled back to Germany, to find himself disowned and rejected, while Philip returned in triumph to Paris, where the people greeted him with cheers and cast flowers in his path. Henceforth he was no longer merely the overlord of French barons, he was king of the French people. The national spirit was awake.

Philip's wars against John of England had brought him broad and fair lands, and had made him the greatest feudal overlord in France. By the battle of Bouvines, and his defeat of the German emperor he won not an inch of territory but he gained for France a first place among the nations of Europe. For from the thirteenth century France takes a leading place. England was still only England, not the United Kingdom, and the great Colonial Empire still undreamed of; Germany, pursuing the quest for world dominion, had already fallen from the high place won for it by Otto and by Henry III. Italy and Spain were without union or nationality; Russia had not yet taken its place as a European nation.

[Illustration] from The Story of Europe by H. E. Marshall