The End of Europe's Middle Ages
Across the Channel, the French monarch had greater difficulty moving towards a centralised government than the English monarch. Unlike England, France was composed of many independent states with deeply entrenched laws and customs. Consequently, most French people turned to their local lords for leadership instead of the king. Through a policy that used inheritance, marriage, and war, the French crown finally achieved territorial sovereignty.
While the process of achieving territorial sovereignty was taking place, the French monarch also had to contend with the problem of jurisdictional sovereignty. This was a contentious issue for the aristocracy, and cities jealously guarded the rights and honours they had won over time from the Crown. The monarch's attempt to reclaim former jurisdictions, such as legal rights, was met with distrust and suspicion. The Crown ingeniously solved the problem by following a strategy of the Roman Empire: the Crown allowed the regional powers to maintain their local customs and institutions but it placed royal officials in the important offices of each state, thereby ensuring loyalty to the crown and effective monarchical control.
Philip IV the Fair (1268-1314) initiated France's foray into constitutional government. In his struggle with the papacy over the right to tax the clergy, Philip IV summoned the first Estates General in 1301. Composed of representatives of the clergy, the nobility, and townspeople, the Estates General were intended only to provide support for royal initiatives and never achieved the same level of independent authority as the English Parliament. In an attempt to benefit the royal treasury, Philip VI forced the pope to dissolve the Knights Templar in 1312, allowing him to appropriate the enormous wealth of the Order. Also under Philip IV's influence, the papal court was moved to Avignon in 1307, beginning the so-called 'Avignonese,' or 'Babylonian,' Captivity.
Philip IV's two eldest sons, Louis X and Philip V, reigned in quick succession until 1322 when his third son,
Charles IV (1294-1328), ascended to the throne. Charles IV increased taxes, debased the coinage, and confiscated numerous noble estates during his reign. Charles IV's death without a male heir ended the
Capetian dynasty in 1328 and set up the circumstances for the English claim to the French throne that precipitated the Hundred Years' War.
Philip VI (1293-1350), Philip IV's nephew, was crowned king of France in 1328, founding the Valois dynasty. Edward III of England initially accepted Philip VI as king but later revived his own claim to the French throne and embarked upon the Hundred Years' War. The war did not begin well for the French when the French fleet was destroyed near Sluis in the Netherlands in 1340. The staggering defeat at Crécy in 1346 and the loss of Calais in 1347 forced Philip VI to agree to a truce with Edward III, which continued until Philip VI's death in 1350.
Almost all fighting in the Hundred Years' War occurred on French soil, placing a heavy burden on the French people. Even when pauses in formal hostilities occurred, bands of plundering mercenaries ravaged the countryside. The Black Death that began to sweep through France in 1348 followed famines in the first quarter of the fourteenth century. John II the Good (1319-1364), lacked the ability either to contain the English forces and marauding mercenaries or to adequately cope with the disease and famine that left his kingdom discouraged and demoralised. The loss at Poitiers in 1356 was compounded by the capture of John II by the English.
Although John II's son, the dauphin Charles, was appointed regent during his father's captivity, the Estates General defied the king and met in Paris under the leadership of Etienne Marcel, a cloth merchant who had assumed control of the government. They imposed the Great Ordinance on the dauphin in 1357, granting far-reaching fiscal, judicial, and administrative powers to the Estates General. Pressed by famine, plague, mercenaries, and the loss of their traditional feudal protectors, the French peasantry revolted in 1358. A broad-based expression of frustration and anger, the Jacquerie had no specific goals and lacked effective leadership. Nevertheless, for two weeks, northern France was terrorised until the aristocracy ruthlessly crushed the Jacquerie.
The chaos of the Jacquerie created a resurgence of royalist feeling and support for the constitutional government was swept away. Etienne Marcel was killed in the summer of 1358, the Great Ordinance was declared null, and the dauphin Charles resumed the regency until his father's death in 1364, when he took the throne as Charles V. An extremely competent monarch, Charles V (1337-1380), reversed French fortunes in the Hundred Years' War. By 1380, the English were forced to temporarily abandon further military advances and Charles V turned his attention to strengthening his power and expanding the Crown's revenues.
The tide again turned against France when Charles VI the Mad (1380-1422), succeeded in 1380. A ducal council guided the weak-minded and highly unstable king until 1388 when he began to rule in his own right. Charles VI's ineffectiveness allowed the rivalry between the houses of Orléans and Burgundy to burst into open conflict and Henry V of England took advantage of France's civil unrest to revive hostilities in the Hundred Years' War. The French loss at Agincourt in 1415 forced Charles VI the Mad to accept Henry V as his heir under the terms of the Treaty of Troyes, signed in 1420.
When Charles VI and Henry V both died in 1422, the French throne passed to Henry V's infant son, Henry VI of England. France acquiesced to an English monarch until Charles VI's son, in desperation, accepted the assistance of the visionary, Joan of Arc. Her astonishing victory at Orléans allowed Charles to be crowned Charles VII (1403-1461) at Reims in July 1429. Even though Charles VII abandoned Joan to Burgundian and English forces in 1430, she had invigorated the French army and the English were eliminated from France. The last battle of the Hundred Years' War was fought at Castillon on July 17, 1453, the English having lost all Continental territory except for the port town of Calais. During his reign, Charles VII worked to consolidate royal authority. He issued the Pragmatic Sanction of 1438 that reaffirmed the authority of the French king over the income and personnel of the French Church, ending the dispute that Philip IV had begun more than a century earlier and ensuring the autonomy of the French clergy from the Roman papacy.
Louis XI (1423-1483), dubbed the Spider King for his skill at establishing and manipulating alliances, ascended to the throne of France in 1461. His methods were not always admirable and he did not hesitate to use clandestine murder and public execution to rid himself of opposition. Louis XI confiscated the Burgundian lands when his major rival, Charles the Bold of Burgundy, died in 1477, despite a claim by Charles' daughter, Mary. In 1482, he reached an agreement with Mary's husband, the Holy Roman emperor Maximilian I, to divide Burgundy between the two kingdoms. Despite Louis XI's ruthlessness, his support of trade and commerce in search of revenue for the royal coffers stimulated the entire French economy. His unswerving quest to consolidate his power provided the foundation for royal absolutism that would become the main feature of the French monarchy.
Louis XI's son, Charles VIII (1470-1498), succeeded to the throne under a regency until 1491. In 1494, he invaded Italy and briefly occupied Naples in 1495. The Italian states, normally averse to unified action, joined together and forced Charles VIII from Italy. French monarchs would continue to strive to recapture Italian lands for the next half century.
Despite the ravages of famine, plague, and war throughout the fourteenth century, thanks to a few capable monarchs, France recovered during the fifteenth century. By 1500, France enjoyed a flourishing economy under a monarchy that ruled through a centralised government staffed by noble and middle class bureaucrats.
The End of Europe's Middle Ages / Applied History Research Group / University of Calgary
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