Brief History of France

Instructor: Flint Johnson

Flint has tutored mathematics through precalculus, science, and English and has taught college history. He has a Ph.D. from the University of Glasgow

Learn about 1500 years of France - from Clovis to Napoleon III, through colonization and the World Wars all the way up to the modern day. This lesson has it all.

From Gaul to Frankia

In Roman times, what is now France was a part of a larger territory named Gaul. Over the next 1500 years, wars and treaties would change the country's borders until they reached their current form in 1947. Despite the fact that Rome lost Gaul, the term Gallic is still used to refer to the French people and culture.

France takes its name, though, from a Germanic tribe called the Franks. In 481 Clovis I, King of the Franks, took advantage of the fall of the Roman Empire and crossed the Rhone River, settling his people in northern France. By 511, he had conquered most of what is now France, and the land was known as Frankia.

Interestingly, while he took France from the Romans, Clovis also converted from paganism to Roman Catholicism. With the conversion of his people, the Roman Catholic Church strengthened and grew, beginning a relationship that continues to this day.

Clovis being crowned by the pope
Clovis

From Clovis to Charlemagne

When Clovis died, Frankia was divided equally among his four sons. They and their descendants both fought among themselves and allied to conquer neighboring areas. The dynasty was weakened by their infighting, and much of the ruling was left to Mayors of the Palace, or Captains of the Guard, who led the people and fought kings' battles for them.

In 732, a Mayor of the Palace named Charles Martel conquered the Muslims at the Battle of Tours. His leadership is credited with stopping the Muslim invasion of Europe, and he earned the nickname, Martel (Hammer), in the process. His son, Pepin the Short, became King of the Franks, starting the Carolingian rule, with the blessing of the Pope and the nobles. Pepin's son, Charlemagne or Charles the Great, would reconquer all of France, along with a small piece of Spain, the northern half of Italy, and much of Germany. He was so powerful that the Muslim leader of the time, Harun al-Rashid, actually sent an emissary to open up diplomatic relations.

Charlemagne's son, Louis the Pious, managed to keep the kingdom together, but his grandsons divided it again, leaving the kingdom to Charles the Bald (who was actually very hairy) according to the Treaty of Verdun (843).

Viking Raids, Crusades, and 100 Years of War

In the 800s, the Vikings raided France, attacking Paris and then Burgundy. They plundered what they wanted, burned everything else, and left once bribes were paid. Their siege of Paris marked the beginning of the end of the Carolingian dynasty, as Charles the Fat not only failed to protect Burgundy but paid the Vikings for leaving France.

After Charles the Fat's descendants died, Hugh Capet became king in 987. He and his descendants would set about reconquering France and the Capetian Dynasty would go on to become one of the longest ruling royal houses in Europe.

In 1095, the First Crusade was declared and France's nobles and people joined in. France sent more crusaders than any other kingdom for every crusade. Back at home, the conquest of France continued until in 1190, Philip II Augustus could call himself the king of France. Hel didn't control Normandy, which was still in the hands of the Norman dynasty in England, but the Normans did swear fealty to him.

In 1328, Charles the Fair died without a male heir. The crown would normally have gone to the son of his sister, his nephew, Edward III of England. However, according to Salic law, inheritance couldn't be through a female line, so Philip of Valois, who was the closest relative through a male line, inherited the throne. In 1337, Edward contested that decision which led to The Hundred Years War. Charles VII finally won the war in 1453, but not before the heroics of Joan of Arc stopped an English advance that might have ended things in 1430.

The 1400s and 1500s saw wars against the Holy Roman Empire to the east and Italy to the south. There was also a French civil war between the Protestant Huguenots and the Catholics that was ended by the Edict of Nantes. The 1600s saw France gaining territories in Canada while Cardinal Richelieu helped to centralize French authority. Louis XIV, known as the Sun King, would take advantage of all these changes, bringing France to its second empire.

Louis XV, his grandson, would lose all of France's overseas territories in The Seven Years War. His court was widely known for its debauchery and callousness toward the poor. Louis died in 1774, and the French Revolution began in 1789, resulting in the execution of his son, Louis XVI and Louis' wife, Marie Antoinette.

Vive La République!

Napoleon, the leader of France
Napoleon Bonaparte

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