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History of France, 10th Century to 1500’s

Continuing the series of the history of France.

During the 9th and 10th centuries, France, which was frequently threatened with invasion by the Vikings, became a very decentralized state with very little authority. The nobility’s titles and lands became hereditary, and the authority of the king became more religious than secular and thus was less effective and constantly challenged by powerful noblemen. This lead to the spreading of feudalism. Over time, some of the king’s vassals would grow so powerful that they often posed a threat to the king. For example, after the Battle of Hastings in 1066, the Duke of Normandy added “King of England” to his titles, becoming both the vassal to (as Duke of Normandy) and the equal of (as king of England) to the king of France.

 In 987, Hugh Capet was crowned King of France, bringing an end the Carolingian dynasty.  His descendants, the Direct Capetians, the House of Valois and the House of Bourbon, progressively unified the country through a series of wars, such as the Saintonage War, and dynastic inheritance into the Kingdom of France. French knights took an active part in many of the Crusades that were fought between 1095 and 1291 to restore Christian control over the Holy Land. Crusaders were so predominately French that the word “crusader” in Arabic was simply known as “Al-Franj” and Old French soon became the official language of the Kingdom of Jerusalem.

 The Albigensian Crusade was launched in 1209 to eliminate the heretical Cathars in the south-western area of modern-day France. In the end, the Cathars were exterminated and the autonomous County of Toulouse was annexed into the kingdom of France. Later Kings expanded their territory to cover over half of modern continental France, including most of the North, Centre and West of France. Meanwhile, the royal authority became more and more assertive, centered on a hierarchically conceived society distinguishing nobility, clergy, and commoners. Charles IV died without an heir in 1328. Since the crown could not pass to a woman or even through a woman it was given to Philip of Valois, a cousin of Charles. Charles’ nephew Edward, who was denied the throne because of the Salic Law, later became Edward III of England. During the reign of Philip of Valois, the French monarchy reached the height of its medieval power.

 However, Philip’s seat on the throne was contested by Edward III of England and in 1337, on the eve of the first wave of the Black Death, England and France went to war in what would become known as the Hundred Years’ War. Led by such figures as Joan of Arc and La Hire, the French won back all English continental territories and eventually captured Calais in 1558. Like the rest of Europe, France was struck by the Black Death. Around 1340, France had a population of approximately 17 million, which by the end of the pandemic had declined by about one-half.

 The French Renaissance saw a long set of wars between the Kingdom of France and the Holy Roman Empire. It also saw the first standardization of the French language, which would become the official language of France and the language of Europe’s aristocracy. French explorers, such as Jacques Cartier or Samuel de Champlain, claimed lands in the New World for France, paving the way for country’s growth as major colonial power.

 The rise of Protestantism in Europe led France to a civil war known as the French Wars of Religion, where, in the most notorious incident, thousands of Huguenots were murdered in the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre of 1572. The Wars of Religion were ended by Henry IV’s Edict of Nantes, which granted some freedom of religion to the Huguenots. Henry IV was later murdered by a Catholic fanatic and Huguenot rebellions persisted until the 18th century.

Under Louis XIII, the energetic actions of Cardinal Richelieu reinforced the centralization of the state, the royal power and French dominance in Europe, foreshadowing the reign of Louis XIV. The country was also being constantly drawn into war with Spain and royal power quickly rose.

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