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The Entire History Of France

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Upon the collapse of the Roman Empire in the 5th century AD, the Germanic people, known as the Franks, came to inhabit the region that is today the country of France. The entire area had been virtually abandoned, which saw the rise of several tribal Frankish kingdoms. After some time, these kingdoms become united as one under the Merovingian dynasty, and even expanded far beyond its origins. Ruling for some 300 years, the Kingdom of the Franks became too large, and communication became impossible. Now ruled by the Carolingian Dynasty, the Kingdom was divided into three, with West Francia being the one we’re going to focus on.

Perhaps the most well known King this early in history is Charlemagne, who became King of the Franks in 768, and became unquestionably the most powerful man in Europe at the time, when, on Christmas Day, 800 AD, he was crowned Emperor of the Romans After the death of Charlemagne, the Carolingian dynasty was weak and finally came to an end in 987, when Hugh Capet was elected by the lords of France. As king, he actually had very little power. His authority barely extended beyond Paris and Orléans. His power came from the influential electors who voted him into the position, and more importantly, the clergy. In 1066, the Normans invaded England, which resulted in on-and-off fighting between France and England, starting a rivalry that would last for several centuries, eventually culminating in the Hundred Years’ War.

Oh, and they also played a huge part in the Crusades to recover the Holy Land from Muslim rule, which was initially very successful. and then a horrible failure. After the death of Charles IV, the throne of France was claimed by both Philip of Valois, and Edward III, king of England. After some disagreements, the French declared a state of war in 1337. The English showed their military superiority over France, winning several victories in battle and even capturing the French king at one point.

A truce was signed in 1360, as Edward renounced his claim to the French throne, and England were awarded substantial French land, land which would be almost entirely recovered by France in the next half-century. In 1393, a regency was put into place for the French King, Charles VI, who was incapable of ruling due to his mental illness, so the Queen ruled on his behalf. A power struggle between Burgundy and Orléans resulted in a civil war when John the Fearless had Louis of Orléans assassinated in 1407. In the infamous Battle of Agincourt, the Burgundians did nothing to try and stop the English, who were once again heavily defeating the French. John the Fearless captured Paris in 1418, and declared himself regent of Charles the Mad, but John was later murdered by a friend of the king.

Seeking revenge, John’s son, Philip the Good, sought an alliance with England, as the English King was recognised as the heir to the French throne. Both Charles VI and Henry V died in 1422. The 9-month-old Henry VI was crowned king of France in Paris having already been crowned Hostilities in the war started up again, and French morale was boosted by the emergence of a 16-year-old girl named Joan of Arc, who claimed to have heard voices from God to drive out the English from France. The French did indeed turn things around and would eventually win the war. Unfortunately for Joan herself, she was captured by the Burgundians and later burned at the stake by the English… Burgundy made peace with France, and the last major battle took place in 1453 with a decisive French victory, effectively ending the war, and English claims to the French throne.

Towards the end of the 15th century, France had themselves a problem: a rapidly growing rival right at their doorstep. The Austrian House of Habsburg, through various political marriages over the years, began to encircle France. In 1477, with the death of Charles the Bold, the last male heir of Burgundy, his daughter married Archduke of Austria, Maximilian I, giving the Habsburgs huge amounts of the land on France’s borders. This, coupled with the fact that various French kings had claims to various part of Italy, most notably Naples and Milan, resulted in over 65 years of wars between the French and the Habsburgs, in a rivalry that would last several centuries. When Charles V became Holy Roman Emperor in 1519, having previously become the King of Spain, the French were completely surrounded by lands that were directly or indirectly under his control.

This resulted in yet more wars in Italy, now with the French King Francis I. Overall the Habsburgs came out ahead, and France would continue to be surrounded. During this time was when France experienced a golden age of art and culture known as the Renaissance, and was also when France began to explore the New World. In the 16th century, the Protestant Reformation caused many countries in Europe to turn their back on the teachings of the Catholic Church and the Pope. Although France remained mostly Catholic, Protestants made up a substantial minority, causing tensions which eventually led to an all-out civil war.

The tensions began with the persecution of French Protestants, also known as Huguenots, under the reign of Francis I. Merely being Protestant was punishable by imprisonment or even execution. The war broke out in 1562, when Francis of Guise who briefly ruled France as regent Francis himself was assassinated the very next year. After a brief period of uneasy peace, the Huguenots hatched a plan to capture the king and the Queen Mother, but when this failed, they massacred 24 Catholic priests and monks, starting the civil war up again. Attempting to ease tensions, King Charles IX arranged for the marriage of his sister to the Protestant Henry of Navarre.

This delighted Protestants but horrified Catholics The King ordered the killings of some of the Huguenot leaders, but spiraled way out of control and turned into a 3-day massacre of about 30,000 Huguenots. The massacre was organised by the Guises, and was widely suspected to have been assisted by the Queen Mother. Charles IX died in 1574, making Henry III king. With the death of their younger brother Francis, and the fact that Henry was already in his 30s and yet to produce an heir, the next in the line to the throne became, quite unbelievably, This period of the war is sometimes referred to as the War of Three Henrys. Henry III, Henry of Guise, and Henry of Navarre.

The King had Henry of Guise assassinated, and fled from Paris into hiding, but he himself was assassinated by a knife to the abdomen. As he was dying, he instructed his senior officers to be loyal to Henry of Navarre, who became King Henry IV, and he converted to Catholicism, famously stating that “Paris is worth a Mass”. The King passed the Edict of Nantes, which granted some rights to Huguenots, which pleased neither side, and tensions remained high. Henry IV was assassinated in 1610. Before his death, colonisation of the New World began under his rule, and continued for several decades afterwards.

The Thirty Years’ War started between the various Protestant and Catholic states of the Holy Roman Empire, and was mostly a religious war, but later escalated into a continent-wide power struggle, becoming less about religion, and more about politics. France, although a Catholic nation, sided with the Protestants. The reason for this -- the Habsburgs. Countering their long-term rival was more important. The Thirty Years’ War was one of the most destructive wars Europe had ever seen with approximately 8 million deaths, and the result of the war was… inconclusive.

The Peace of Westphalia granted some territory to France, Switzerland became independent from the Empire, and the independence of the Dutch Republic was recognised. More than just territorial changes though, the Thirty Years’ War was a real turning point in European history, both in terms of religion and politics. It put an end to the violence of the Protestant Reformation and more generally was the beginning of freedom of religion. Politically, it was arguably the first war that really highlighted the importance of the Balance of Power, the necessity of ensuring that one single nation doesn’t become too powerful to dominate all of the others. After 23 years of marriage and four stillbirths, the Queen of France finally gave birth to the nation’s future king: Louis XIV, who ruled France for 72 years, the longest reigning monarch of European history.

This impressive feat was helped by the fact that his father died just a few years after his birth, as he became King of France at just 4 years old. During his minority, the country was ruled by his mother, Anne of Austria, and Cardinal Mazarin, the country’s chief minister. In 1648, Paris rose up in revolt, because the country was sick of being ruled by a Spaniard and an Italian, as well as increased taxes to pay for the debt of several decades of war. The revolt was suppressed, and didn’t really achieve much, however, it had a huge impact on the now 10-year-old king Louis. He vowed to be a king that would never be revolted against.

Louis XIV became known for being an absolute monarch, and was the most powerful king in all of French history. He is often quoted as saying “L'état, c'est moi” -- “I am the State”. Louis XIV was a devout Catholic and believed in his policy of One King, One Law, One Faith, and, to that end, he revoked the Edict of Nantes issued by his grandfather, Henry IV, causing a mass exodus of over 400,000 Huguenots and major economic problems. Louis XIV was involved in several wars during his long reign, which expanded France’s borders to their near modern-day extent. First, there was a war against Spain, then against the Dutch, a war against… basically all of Europe, and most importantly of all: the War of the Spanish Succession.

The Spanish King died in 1700, without any heirs to succeed him, probably due to several generations of inbreeding, but anyway, he left in his will the entire Spanish Empire to Philip of Anjou, grandson of Louis XIV. Having a joint monarchy of France and Spain would seriously upset the balance of power. So, the Grand Alliance that had been formed against France in the Nine Years’ War, regrouped in support of their candidate for the Spanish throne: the Archduke of Austria, Charles, of the Habsburg House. Now despite the odds being severely stacked against them, and despite suffering some heavy defeats early on, France actually managed to hold their own, and after nearly a decade of war, fighting had basically become deadlocked. In 1711, the situation completely changed.

The Holy Roman Emperor Joseph I, unexpectedly died of smallpox at the age of 32, and the Archduke Charles became the new Holy Roman Emperor. Great Britain immediately backed out of the war against France, and pressured their allies to do the same. The whole reason they were fighting against France was to prevent one monarch becoming too strong and disrupting the balance of power, but now the Habsburgs had the potential to become even more powerful than France could have ever been. Negotiations had to be made. An agreement was made where Philip would become the king of Spain, but had to renounce his claim to the throne of France for himself and his ancestors.

One year after the war ended, Louis XIV died at the age of 76. And, having outlived his son, grandson, and even his first great grandson, was succeeded by his second great grandson, Louis XV. Now that Spain no longer had a Habsburg monarch, they sought to retake lands that they had lost in the Treaty Utrecht, and France actually joined the an alliance against Spain and their fellow Bourbon monarch. The Spanish were decisively defeated, and Spain was no longer the Great Power it once was. Yet another war of succession broke out, this time in Poland, although very little of the fighting actually took place in Poland, it was primarily fought between France and Austria, and their respectively allies.

The Austrian backed Augustus III took the throne, but French backed Stanisław was made Duke of Lorraine, which would be inherited by France on his death. France once again was at war with Austria, this time the Austrians themselves had a succession crisis. Charles VI was the last male of the Habsburg House. To ensure the inheritance of their land, they passed the Pragmatic Sanction in 1713, allowing daughters to inherit their vast possessions. While most initially accepted this, when Maria Theresa ascended to the throne in 1740, a war ensued between all major European powers.

The French led the alliance against Maria, in favour of the new Holy Roman Emperor, Charles VII, price-elector of Bavaria. After 7 years of war, Maria successfully defended her Habsburg inheritance. Speaking of wars that lasted seven years, there was also the Seven Years’ War in 1756… which lasted seven years. This war was strange though because the alliance from the last war completely flipped. Long-term rival Austria, was actually allied with France, with the British and Prussians allied with each other.

The Seven Years’ War was a truly global conflict The war has even been described by some as “World War Zero”. Although some minor skirmishes happened in North America between the French and British colonies, the war really took off between Austria and Prussia over Silesia. Unfortunately for the French, the war was lost, and Britain became the superior colonial power, as France was forced to cede the majority of its colonial possessions to Britain and Spain. Although the British won the war, it was financially devastating for them. The increase in taxes on the colonial subjects soon became one of the factors which led to American Revolution.

Keen for revenge against Britain, France was more than happy to help. For centuries France had been ruled by a political and social system known as the Ancien Régime, in which the power was concentrated with the wealthy and privileged. The people were divided into three estates: the clergy, nobility, and… everyone else. The first two estates made up about 3% of the population, and had huge tax exemptions, with the third estate paying most of the taxes. Taxes which had increased due to their support of the American Revolution.

The age of enlightenment caused many people to question the King’s right to rule, the Church’s influence in politics, and the entire nature of the hierarchical structure of French society. Attempting to solve the country’s financial crisis, the King gathered the Estates General, from all three estates. Disagreements however caused the third estate to leave and form their own government, declaring themselves the National Assembly, and vowed not to give up until France had a constitution. Shorty afterwards, the king dismissed his financial minister, Jacques Necker, which causes riots in Paris and three days later, the Storming of the Bastille. In August of 1789, feudalism was abolished, and the Assembly adopted the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen.

The king, beginning to fear for his life, attempted to flee the country, but was discovered and captured. This outraged the people and a petition drive to depose of the king was organised, but things got out of hand, and 50 people were shot dead, as the revolutionaries began to split into various factions. Austria and Prussia vowed to help the king by invading France if his life was threatened. So France just went ahead and invaded Austria, because why not. In 1792, the monarchy was abolished and France was declared a republic.

King Louis XVI was found guilty of high treason, and was executed by guillotine. This is when things took a turn for the worse, when the radical revolutionaries known as Terror, led by the ironically named Committee of Public Safety, headed by Maximilien Robespierre. A process of dechristianisation began, even creating a new calendar, and new days of the week. This led to counter-revolutions and eventually, on the 9th of Thermidor Year II, Robespierre was denounced by his own people, and later he himself was executed, ending the Reign of Terror. Outside of France, the French army were actually having great success despite a large coalition of nations fighting against them, largely due to the leadership of a certain military commander, known as Napoléon Bonaparte.

Napoleon went on to take control of France by a coup d'état, declaring himself First Consul of France. The French Revolution sought to stop one man from having absolute power, but they had effectively just swapped one for another. Napoleon’s rule of France was very much a military dictatorship, he was a king in all but name. 5 years after seizing power, Napoleon assumed the imperial title, being crowned Emperor of France. During his rule, he was almost constantly at war with most of Europe, as no less than seven coalitions formed against him, as the various monarchies of Europe fought to protect the status quo.

Napoleon was initially incredibly successful, and for a long time, undefeated in battle. He moved across Europe, creating puppet states and installing his family members as royalty of the countries he conquered. His greatest victory was in the Battle of Austerlitz, which led to the dissolution of the Holy Roman Empire. Securing victories against Austria, Prussia, and Russia, the only real threat to the Napoleon was Great Britain. A planned invasion of the the British Isles had to be called off after the entire French fleet was destroyed in the Battle of Trafalgar France instead opted for economic warfare, with the introduction of the Continental System, which forbade European countries from trading with the British.

In 1812, Napoleon invaded Russia for refusing to adhere to the blockade on trade with Great Britain. This turned out to be a fatal mistake, as Napoleon lost half a million men in the brutal campaign. Encouraged by his defeat, the countries of Europe once again formed a coalition against him, and decisively defeated the French army in the Battle of Leipzig, eventually leading the surrender of Napoleon. The monarchy was restored with Louis XVIII being crowned king, and Napoleon was exiled to the island of Elba. However, he managed to escape less than one year later, gained support in Paris, overthrew the monarchy, and raised an army… but the coalition formed against him and he was defeated at Waterloo by Britain and Prussia.

Napoleon abdicated for a second time, and was exiled to the even more remote island of Saint Helena, where he died at the age of 51. After decades of unrest, France once again had a monarchy, but the French Revolution and Napoleon had such a profound impact on not only France, but Europe as a whole. In 1815, the monarchies of Europe convened at Vienna, to restore the pre-revolution borders as best they could. France was to remain a Great Power. France soon had another revolution, as the people were once again sick of being ruled by the absolute monarchy of Charles X.

The king was overthrown in what became known as the July Revolution, and he was replaced by the “citizen-king”, Louis Philippe, a distant cousin of Charles X. Almost simultaneously, France invaded Algeria, which became an incredibly important part of their colonial empire, and within a few decades ruled over huge parts Africa. Throughout the July Monarchy, there was a distinct atmosphere of revolt and protest in the air, so to protect the monarchy, political meetings were banned. In 1848, coinciding with many revolutions throughout Europe, the king was forced to abdicate, and France was once again a Republic. Louis-Napoleon, the other Napoleon’s nephew, was elected President.

In 1851, unable to run for re-election, he organised a coup and declared himself President for life in referendum of questionable integrity. France briefly became an Empire again when Napoleon III took the imperial title in 1852. Napoleon III was nothing like his uncle when it came to war and diplomacy. Poor decisions and humiliating defeats, culminated in a war with Prussia in 1870, which ultimately led to the unification of Germany, who became the dominant power on the continent. The Second French Empire quickly collapsed and France became a Republic for the third time.

Ever since their unification, Germany had been a major rival of France. In order to try and isolate them, France signed an alliance with Britain and Russia, the Triple Entente. France joined the first world war in 1914 when Germany declared war on them for mobilising their army to support Russia, who had mobilised their army in support of Serbia, who had been declared war on by Austria. Germany’s plan was to quickly defeat the French, and they actually did get close to Paris, but the allied powers were able to hold them off, and the Western Front quickly become a stalemate in trench warfare. Despite winning the Eastern Front against Russia in 1917, the tens of thousands of American reinforcements became too much for Germany, who were slowly pushed back, eventually resulting in victory for the allies.

With the signing of the Treaty of Versailles in 1919, French Marshal Ferdinand Foch said This is not a peace. It is an armistice for 20 years”. if only he knew just how true his words would be. In 1939, France declared war on Nazi Germany after Hitler’s invasion of Poland, however they initially took a defense position, and therefore were unable to prevent Poland from being conquered. France itself was invaded 1940, as the Nazis bypassed the French defensive fortifications known as the Maginot Line by simply… going around it via Belgium.

Unable to deal with the German Blitzkrieg tactics, Paris soon fell, and most of France would be under Nazi occupation for the next four years. General Charles de Gaulle declared himself head of a government in exile in London, and when the Nazi power began to decline, the Resistance was formed, and Paris was liberated in 1944, as the Allies were ultimately victorious. In the 1950s, France began the process of decolonisation, starting with Libya. When it came to Algeria though, things were a little more complicated… Algeria was considered an integral part of the French Republic, and with France indecisive about what to do, a war for independence began in 1954, lasting for more than seven years. The crisis in Algeria caused the French Fourth Republic to collapse, and Charles de Gaulle, who had previously resigned from politics, returned, and proclaimed a new constitution.

Algeria officially gained their independence in 1962. With the establishment of a new constitution, the French Fifth Republic was founded, the country that France is today. And so, that’s where I’m going to leave things, because in the words of historian John Julius Norwich, “all history books must have a clearly defined stopping place, if they don’t, they drag on til they become works on current affairs”.

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