French Monarchy: Names & Timeline

Instructor: Nate Sullivan

Nate Sullivan holds a M.A. in History and a M.Ed. He is an adjunct history professor, middle school history teacher, and freelance writer.

In this lesson we will learn about the French monarchy. We will select and identify some of the important monarchs in French history, and we will highlight key themes and developments.

Governments of France: Complex and Ever-Changing

If you know a little bit about French history in general, you know it can be a little complex. After all, there was the First French Republic, the Second and Third French Republics, the First French Empire, the Second French Empire, and on and on and on. And then in the 20th century there was Vichy France, but also Nazi-occupied France. Let's face it, French history is complicated. At times the French changed rulers and governments fairly often. When the people were dissatisfied with King Louis XVI, they cut off his head. And then there was this guy named Napoleon who wasn't really even French, but ruled France and went on to conquer a sizeable portion of Europe. Interspersed between all these governments were a plethora of monarchs. Let's dig in and learn more about the French monarchy. Hang on! It's going to be a roller-coaster ride!

Early Frankish and French Monarchs

What is now France didn't just pop up one day out of nowhere. France evolved from numerous kingdoms and territories over the course of the Middle Ages. Therefore, there is much debate over who was the ''first'' king of ''France''. Clovis I (466-511) is considered by many to be the first King of the Franks, in that sense that he was the first ruler to unite various Frankish tribes.

For our purposes, Hugh Capet is probably a good place to start, who lived about 500 years after Clovis. Hugh Capet (941-996) was the first king of the Capetian Dynasty, transforming the small Kingdom of the Franks into what we know as France. The Capetian Dynasty ruled France from 987 until 1792. Branches of the Capetian Dynasty include the famous House of Bourbon. Hugh Capet is usually considered the first king of modern France. He came to power in 987 and ruled until his death in 996. Capet and his descents expanded the Frankish kingdom, transforming it into the nation we know as France.

Hugh Capet, the first king of the Capetian Dynasty, as depicted in a 12th century drawing.

Phillip II (1165-1223), of the Capetian Dynasty, was the first King of the Franks to adopt the title ''King of France.'' He ruled from 1180 to 1223. Phillip II was a dynamic king. He fought wars against English and Germanic groups, thereby securing France's position as a major European power. Under his rule, France continued to expand. He worked to help the lower and middle classes, while limiting the power of the wealthy nobles. France prospered under his rule.

The ''Sun King'', The French Revolution, and Napoleon

Let's skip ahead a few hundred years because this is where things get interesting. King Louis XIV (1638-1715), known as the ''Sun King'' or Louis the Great, ruled France between 1643 and 1715. He expanded France, but also instituted pro-Catholic policies that caused many French Protestants (called Huguenots) to leave the country. Under Louis XIV, construction of the gorgeous Palace of Versailles was advanced. However, it was Louis XIV's grandson that became possibly the most well-known French king. King Louis XVI ruled France when the French Revolution broke out. The radical, left-wing revolution took place between 1789 and 1799, resulting in the creation of the First French Republic. During the Revolution, Louis XVI along with his wife, Marie Antoinette, were beheaded. Louis XVI had never been a popular king, largely because of high taxes and bread shortages, which caused the masses to hate him, and ultimately kill him.

King Louis XVI and his wife were beheaded during the French Revolution.

The French Revolution went on for ten long years. As it progressed it became bloodier. Thousands of innocent men and women were executed, as it spiraled out of control into pure hysteria. The man who finally brought stability back to France was none other than Napoleon Bonaparte. Napoleon Bonaparte (1769-1821) came to power through a coup in 1799, and crowned himself Emperor of France in 1804. He ruled France for a decade, making significant reforms and waging wars all across Europe. At the height of his power, Napoleon had conquered most of Europe and was the undisputed master of the continent. However, as coalitions rose up against him, he fell from power. He was defeated by the British at the Battle of Waterloo and sent into exile. He escaped though and made one last attempt to reclaim power in 1815, but was exiled a second time. This time it was for good.

Napoleon Bonaparte was the Emperor of France from 1804-1814.

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