FC68: Rise of the French monarchy (c.1000-1300)



FC68 in the Hyperflow of History.
Covered in multimedia lecture #6986.


In addition to the rise of towns and a money economy, the High Middle Ages also saw the development of strong feudal monarchies in Western Europe, especially in France and England.  These feudal monarchies were a transition between the personal and decentralized feudal system of the Early Middle Ages and the more highly centralized nation states of the modern era.  At the beginning of this era, most people may have believed in the concept of Universal Empire or Universal Church (as embodied in the Holy Roman Empire in Germany and Roman Catholic Church respectively).  However, by the end of this era, it was becoming increasingly apparent that the future belonged to neither Church nor Empire, but to these newly emerging nation-states.  Prominent among these was France.  There were four main factors leading to the rise of the French feudal monarchy.

First of all, there was the ability of the Capetian dynasty to keep its hold on the throne, and that hinged on three things.  First of all, the Capetians were lucky to consistently produce male heirs, which eliminated the need to look outside the Capetian family for a new king to succeed the old one.  Second, the Capetians practiced primogeniture, ensuring that what little they controlled stayed together under one ruler, unlike the disastrous policy of earlier kings of dividing the kingdom.  Finally, they ended elective monarchy by having their sons rule jointly with them, ensuring a smooth transition of power when the older king died.  Over time, the Capetians gradually replaced the elective monarchy with the dynastic principle of son succeeding father to the throne.

The second factor, the medieval agricultural revolution, helped both the French kings and the great dukes and counts since they owned most of the land being cleared and could support the surplus population needed for towns.  In contrast, lower nobles had neither the land to support towns nor the power to defend them.

However, the rise of towns ultimately helped kings against even the dukes and counts, because townsmen and kings were natural allies against the nobles.  While the towns could supply kings with militia, their primary means of help was money with which to buy mercenaries who were much more reliable than feudal armies.  Bit by bit, this alliance of towns and kings helped break the power of the nobles.

The kings' legal position as supreme judge in the land was the third factor helping them. No matter how weak a king might be, his crown distinguished him as the supreme judge whom townsmen and lower nobles could appeal to over the heads of their own lords.  When kings were weak, this was done on a very local level.  However, it helped kings gradually establish their power over the local nobles and assert their authority on a wider level.

Finally, there was the kings' religious position, symbolized by the Church anointing them with oil to mark them as God's chosen agents on earth.  Although this raised the question of who had more authority, kings or the churchmen who anointed them, it did give the king a certain amount of religious sanctity that medieval people took very seriously.  In addition, the king's sanctity also symbolized his alliance with the Church, whose powers, in particular the power of excommunication, could be very useful in bringing rebellious nobles under control.  It is significant that Louis VI's right hand man was a churchman, Suger, abbot of St. Denis.

Together these factors (the Capetians' firm grip on the throne, their sacrosanct nature, their position as supreme judge, and their alliances with the towns who could also supply money with which to buy mercenaries) allowed kings to gradually expand and exert their power and authority across France.  That, in turn, enhanced their judicial and religious authority, bringing them into contact with more towns that could ally with the kings and provide more taxes for mercenaries, and so on.

For over a century (987-1108) the Capetians could barely hang onto their throne, but they did manage to survive.  By 1100, in addition to the king's realm around Pairs, known as the Ile de France, France's numerous independent feudal states were largely gathered into five greater feudal states: Flanders, Normandy, Toulouse, Aquitaine, and Burgundy.  Even in his own small realm, the king's vassals defied him. At one point, the king was taken prisoner by a particularly unruly vassal and only rescued by the loyal militia of Paris.  However, the succession of Louis VI in to the throne in 1108 marked the beginning of over two centuries of expansion for the French monarchy and the Capetian dynasty.  During this time, seven kings reigned, three of who were especially capable.  These three kings, Louis VI, Philip II, and Louis IX, would especially exploit the cycle mentioned above to lay the foundations for the modern French nation.

Louis VI (1108-1137), known as "the Fat" started the process of building up royal power.  The first step, which he accomplished, was to establish the king's authority in his home territory around Paris.  Confronting Louis were several rough and obstinate barons renown for their lawless ways.  Louis had one valuable ally, Suger, abbot of St. Denis, who brought the power of the Church down against these nobles.  In general we find the Church allied to the kings during this period, since both were concerned with ending the chronic violence and feudal warfare plaguing the land.  Suger was a staunch and valuable ally throughout Louis' reign.

Louis' usual method was to call a noble to his court to account for the crimes his vassals and subjects accused him of.  Often, the noble refused to come, giving Louis the legal excuse to claim the noble's lands now belonged to the king.  Of course he had to enforce such a declaration and drive the noble off of the land.  One potent weapon at the king's disposal was excommunication of the noble by the abbot Suger.  This released the noble's vassals from any legal obligations to him and deprived him of some, if not all his support.

Louis still had to ride constantly with his troops from one end of his realm to the other, burning nobles' castles and wasting their lands in order to bring them to heel.  It took him seven years to break the power of a certain Hugh de Puiset and sixteen years to subdue another noble, Thomas de Marley.  This was because Louis had little money and had to rely on feudal armies to break his vassals.  Therefore, he could accomplish little in the 40 days of campaigning he got each year.  Once he was gone, the noble could rebuild any burnt castles and restore much of his power.

Still, the effects of excommunication and yearly raids gradually broke the nobles' power.  By the end of Louis' reign, the Ile de France was firmly in royal control, giving the king the troops and resources to expand even further.  Louis' prestige was enhanced to the point that he was able to restore the infant lord of Bourbon and bishop of Clermont to their rightful places.  He was even able to arrange a marriage alliance between his son and Eleanor, daughter and heiress of William X, the powerful duke of Aquitaine.  Much of the subsequent history of France and England would revolve round this woman.

When Eleanor of Aquitaine married Louis VII (1137-80), she claimed she married a king only to find him a monk.  Eleanor's fun loving ways certainly clashed with the pious king's personality and eventually led to getting the marriage annulled.  Not only did this cost Louis the valuable lands of Aquitaine, it let Eleanor marry Henry II of England.  The result of this union was what is known as the Angevin Empire, whereby the king of England controlled Aquitaine in addition to his hereditary lands of Normandy and Anjou (hence the name Angevin).  This gave Henry II control of one-third of France, much more than the king of France, his nominal overlord, ruled.  However, the size of Henry's empire alarmed other French nobles and drove them to support Louis.  At the time the English holdings seemed like a threat to the very existence of the French monarchy.  The next French king, Philip II, would destroy this threat.

Philip II (1180-1223), called "Augustus", was certainly one of the greatest of French monarchs, being responsible for establishing the French monarchy as the recognized power throughout most of France.  He was an astute and unscrupulous diplomat, though not a great general.  In the early years of his reign he was lucky to maintain his own against Henry II, his main tactic being to stir Henry's rebellious sons against their father.  Philip had little luck against the warrior king Richard I "the Lion-hearted" (1189-99).  His luck was better against Richard's brother and successor John I (1199-1216) of Robin Hood fame.

Philip skillfully used his position as John's overlord in France to bring charges against John and summon him to court.  Of course, John refused and Philip declared John's lands forfeit and now belonging to the French crown.  War resulted in which a powerful coalition of England, Flanders and Germany was formed against Philip.  Luckily for Philip, John moved too slowly and the French king was able to crush the Flemish and German forces at Bouvines in 1214.

This battle had far reaching consequences for France, England and Germany.  In France it tripled the size of the king's realm at one stroke while driving the English out of France except for Bordeaux and Bayonne.  The blow to king John's prestige was such that the next year the English barons rebelled and forced John to sign the Magna Charta, one of the cornerstones of British and American democracy.  Bouvines also helped some with the disintegration of the German monarchy, as we shall see.

However, our main concern here is Philip's victory and what he did with it.  Not since Charlemagne had any ruler so effectively controlled France.  However, times had changed, and Philip found he had different and more effective means for ruling France than Charlemagne had.  Whereas Charlemagne had been forced to rely on giving land to uneducated nobles in return for service, Philip had money and an educated middle class at his disposal to help him rule.  As a result he started putting middle class baillis (bailiffs) paid with money, not land, to administer his far-flung state for him.  Such baillis were loyal to him and were kept in line by the threat of the king cutting off their salaries.  Also their lower social status made them less likely to try to gain power for themselves.  Philip rotated them from place to place so they would not get established in one area.  Since soldiers would not follow middle class baillis in battle, any offices requiring military duties were filled by lower nobles called seneschals.  Being lower nobles, they were less likely to rebel, although their power and prestige could increase after years of service with the king.

The size of the king's realm and its efficient administration provided him with money that allowed him to hire mercenaries who helped him further increase his power within his realm and in areas of France still outside it.  This of course gave him more revenues that allowed him to further increase his power, and so on.  Philip II made the French monarchy the most powerful and respected in Western Europe. The work of his successors mainly embellished upon what he had accomplished.  Keep in mind, however, that Philip was building on the foundations laid by Louis VI.  Still, it is safe to say that Philip II's reign was a major turning point in French history.

Louis VIII (1223-26) made one significant innovation: the appanage system whereby younger sons of the king were given lands (appanages) to rule in the king's name.  These princes were not independent rulers in their own right, such as happened with earlier Frankish kings.  But the system did have its dangers, as seen by the appanage of Burgundy, which almost established itself as an independent power in the 1400's.  The appanage system shows the limits of medieval government.  Since royal power and prestige still depended largely on dealing with affairs in person and the king could not be everywhere at once, members of the royal family were the next best choice for enforcing royal control.  Despite its dangers, the appanage system worked fairly well.

Louis IX (1226-70), known as Saint Louis, extended royal power even further.  He asserted that lower nobles could appeal directly to the king's courts over the heads of their immediate lords.  Nobles were excluded from interfering with Church elections.  He also hemmed in the nobles by outlawing trial by combat and making restrictive rules that took the "fun" out of feudal warfare.  Nobles could not slaughter peasants or burn their crops.  They had to give enemies notice of impending attacks and had to grant truces when asked to do so.  Royal officials scoured the land to enforce these rules.  Louis also launched two disastrous crusades that deprived France of many of its troublesome nobles, although that was not his intention.  Bit by bit, peace and order were replacing feudal anarchy in France, which by 1300 was the most powerful and respected state in Western Europe.