Friday, May 20, 2011

My Favorite Kings of France

(since the accession of the Capet dynasty)

I - King Philippe II Augustus: Philip II was a success in almost every way a King of France from his era could be judged. He built up his own estates and forces until he was the most powerful man in his kingdom, unified the squabbling factions under his leadership and launched a war against the King of England that brought down the Angevin Empire from its peak of greatness. He went on the Third Crusade and participated in the siege of Acre until ill health and tensions with England caused him to return home. He fought King Richard I to stalemate in France, not winning but at least avoiding defeat. He later defeated the forces of King John, driving him back to England and taking control of a great deal of English territory in France. When England, the Germans and the Flemish all allied against him, he still emerged victorious. He improved the French government and economy and though he was unpopular with many nobles and Churchmen, he was adored by the people.

II - King Louis VIII: Known as “Louis the Lion” began his reign by immediately taking the battle to the English in their on-going struggle and steadily regaining ground for France. During his reign the French knights seized Poitou, Saintonge, Avignon and Languedoc. He also made efforts to improve the economic situation and to improve relations with the Church. King Louis VIII was also one of the major leaders (on the Catholic side of course) of the Albigensian Crusade in the south of France, leading the French crusading forces into the fight in 1226. Unfortunately, he did not live to rule for very long and after taking the throne in 1223 he died later in 1226 while still on crusade against the Albigensians. His reign had been short but eventful and had seen the forward momentum continue of French victories and defeats for the English as well as local rebels and the heretical dissidents in the south. He was also father to one of the greatest kings of France: Louis IX.

III - King Louis IX: Better known as St Louis, set the standard by which all subsequent monarchs, not only in France but across Christendom, would be judged. His endeavors were not always unqualified successes, but his character and behavior were unparalleled. Because of him, in France as in no other country, the person of the King took on a sacred nature in the hearts and minds of the people. He was a devoted husband and despite coming to the throne at the age of 11, was a successful ruler overall. His combat against the English was mostly indecisive but he won several important victories over other enemies within France. He was a fair and just ruler, deeply religious even though the full extent of his devotions were never known to the public. When peace in France was secure his paramount objective was a crusade to retake the Holy Land, which was attempted but never successful. Still, he was brave, generous, just and upright in every way and as such was canonized after his death by Pope Boniface VIII.

IV - King Charles V: Known as “Charles the Wise”, King Charles V was not perfect but was ultimately the man who saved France from irrevocable disaster in the Hundred Years War. He intervened successfully in a civil war in Castile, blocking English influence there, but his greatest victories came when he renewed the war against the “Black Prince” of England. Disregarding traditional confrontation, his forces focused on wearing down the English and in the end they succeeded in driving the feared Black Prince back to England. As a result of the campaigns of his reign, earlier English conquests were reversed and Charles V restored his rule over all of France save for Calais and Aquitaine. His relations with the Church were not very admirable but were fairly common for the time. Charles V also embellished France a great deal, building or rebuilding the Bastille, the Louvre and a number of famous French castles.

V - King Louis XIV: The Grand Monarch, the Sun King, Louis the Great, is probably the only monarch I can like and dislike to the same great extent at the same time. He enacted many policies that were to have devastating consequences in the future, he led a very immoral lifestyle and his foreign relations were often despicable. Yet, at the same time, he was French greatness personified. All of Europe, and to a large extent the world, revolved around him. Virtually everything that was done by all the major powers in his lifetime was done in reaction to some action of his. During his reign France was the envy of the world with the most feared army, the brightest thinkers, the most astoundingly magnificent palaces, the most pious saints and some of the greatest sinners as well. He hoped to extent French power to the Rhine but did not quite make it though it took nearly every power in Europe to stop him. His relations with the Church were almost always strained yet he never crossed the line. His efforts to put the Stuarts back on the British throne failed but his effort to put the Bourbons on the Spanish throne did not. Today he is still remembered as the very personification of absolute, divine-right monarchy. No other monarch before, perhaps even since, embodied and exuded greatness to the same extent as Louis XIV. He is a hard man for me to admire and yet simultaneously hard for me not to.

Honorable Mentions: King Louis XVI for being a good man of upstanding moral character and King Charles X for his preference to chop wood ;-) I think you all know what I mean on that one.


  1. MM-

    I feel exactly the same way about the Sun King. Specifically, I think his destruction of the power of the regional nobility -and the consequent growth of a bureaucratic class to take their place- is probably one of the most overlooked causes of the French Revolution.

    I remember a story that after his reign, the hapless Louis XV, on touring the countryside, saw that some public buildings had damaged roofs. He quipped something like "If only I were a minister, I could have those fixed!"

    In any event, his life was far too grand for the likes of us to judge; only God can do so (and I hope it turned out well for him).

  2. I never had a problem with his absolutism but his centralization of power, I agree, is a major negative for me, especially considering how things turned out. That, the debt he piled up and the decline in the moral character of the upper class all helped contribute to the "deluge" down the line. On the other hand, the man was a giant, undeniably "great" and simply a magnificent figure in French history. I'm really torn.

  3. He got rid of Calvinists by revocation of l'édit de Nantes and then imported Lutherans (like the Cuviers) by conquering Holy Roman Territory.

    In the France/HRE quarrel, I am of course very firmly a sympathiser of HRE.

  4. Actually I dislike little about Louis XIV. Even if one doesn't like him, it is impossible not to admire him. Even Napoleon and ardent republicans would admire this man.

  5. Even if you don't like centralization, the French Republic post revolution played the real game of centralized power. They needed it, as it wasn't a popular revolution, but just started by some disloyal upper class lawyers, aristocrats and clergymen.

    1. Yes, he started what the French Revolution completed.

  6. Anyway, what is with his morals? I don't get it.

    1. "he led a very immoral lifestyle"

      1) He wanted to marry a young pretty girl but failed, she was brought off to a monastery persuaded her best act of love to him was to get out the way so he could marry royalty;
      2) Then he married a Spanish Princess, whom he did not quite love and was not faithful to (but whose son was father or grandfather to the next king);
      3) Then he had a mistress, madame de Montespan, who used black magic performed by hired witches to get him, and whose husband dressed up as a widower but also as "carrying horns" (cabrón and cornudo are Spanish expressions for "a husband whose wife is unfaithful", I don't know if French has one word equivalents, but one can say "Louis XIV mit des cornes à M. de Montespan").

      This lasted to 1707, 8 years before he died.

      By then the queen was dead. He discovered Madame de Montespan had used magic and had witches executed (if still alive) and her shut up in a monastery.

      Their children in common had been so neglected by their mother that they had a governess, Madame de Maintenon, who was a widow.

      The last years, the widower and the widow married, so he had time to make up for the sins. And to become again a fervent Catholic. She was.

      Sorry, when I look her up, she seems to have married Louis XIV as early as 1683, according to wiki, so Montespan would have been disgraced before that.

  7. My personal favorites are (in this order) Henry IV, Charles V, Louis VI, Louis XIV, Philip II, Philip IV, Louis IX and Louis XI.

    ...and of course Clovis, Charles Martel, Charlemagne and Henry II of England (who ruled most of France), but my understanding is that by 'French kings' we only mean the Capetian dynasty.


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