Settled mainly by the Gauls and related Celtic peoples (apart from a shrinking area of Basque population in the south-west), the area of modern France comprised the bulk of the region of Gaul (Latin Gallia) under Roman rule from the 1st century BC to the 5th century AD.
In 486, Clovis I, leader of the Salian Franks to the east, conquered the Roman territory between the Loire and the Somme, subsequently uniting most of northern and central France under his rule and adopting (496) the Roman Catholic form of Christianity in preference to the Arianism preferred by rival Germanic rulers.
After Clovis’s death (511) his realm underwent repeated division while his Merovingian dynasty eventually lost effective power to their successive mayors of the palace, the founders of what was to become the Carolingian dynasty. The assumption of the crown in 751 by Pepin the Short (son of Charles Martel) established Carolingian rule in name as well as in fact.
The new rulers’ power reached its fullest extent under Pepin’s son Charlemagne, (Charles the Great), who in 771 reunited the Frankish domains after a further period of division, subsequently conquering the Lombard kingdom in northern Italy (774), incorporating Bavaria (788) into his realm, defeating the Avars of the Danubian plain (796), advancing the frontier with Muslim Spain as south as Barcelona (801), and subjugating Lower Saxony (804) after prolonged campaigning.
In recognition of his successes and his political support for the Papacy, Charlemagne was in 800 crowned Emperor of the Romans, or Roman Emperor in the West, by Pope Leo III: on the death of his son Louis I (emperor 814-840), however, the empire was divided among Louis’s three sons (Treaty of Verdun, 843). After a last brief reunification (884-887), the imperial title ceased to be held in the western part which was to form the basis of the future French kingdom.
France in the Middle Ages
During the latter years of the elderly Charlemagne’s rule, the Vikings made advances along the northern and western perimeters of his kingdom. After Charlemagne’s death in 814 his heirs were incapable of maintaining any kind of political unity and the once great Empire began to crumble. Viking advances were allowed to escalate, their dreaded longboats were sailing up the Loire and Seine Rivers and other inland waterways, wreaking havoc and spreading terror. In 843 the Viking invaders murdered the Bishop of Nantes and a few years after that, they burned the Church of Saint-Martin at Tours. Emboldened by their successes, in 845 the Vikings ransacked Paris.
During the reign of Charles the Simple (898-922) whose territory comprised much of the France of today, he was forced to concede to the Vikings a large area on either side of the Seine River, downstream from Paris, that was to become Normandy.
The Carolingians were subsequently to share the fate of their predecessors: after an intermittent power struggle between the two families, the accession (987) of Hugh Capet, duke of France and count of Paris, established on the throne the Capetian dynasty which with its Valois and Bourbon offshoots was to rule France for more than 800 years.
The Carolingian era had seen the gradual emergence of institutions which were to condition France’s development for centuries to come: the acknowledgement by the crown of the administrative authority of the realm’s nobles within their territories in return for their (sometimes tenuous) loyalty and military support, a phenomenon readily visible in the rise of the Capetians and foreshadowed to some extent by the Carolingians’ own rise to power.
The new order left the new dynasty in immediate control of little beyond the middle Seine and adjacent territories, while powerful territorial lords such as the 10th and 11th-century counts of Blois accumulated large domains of their own through marriage and through private arrangements with lesser nobles for protection and support.
The area around the lower Seine, ceded to Scandinavian invaders as the duchy of Normandy in 911, became a source of particular concern when duke William took possession of the kingdom of England in 1066, making himself and his heirs the king’s equal outside France (where he was still nominally subject to the crown).
Worse was to follow, with the succession (1154) to the disputed English throne of Henry II, already count of Anjou and duke of Normandy before his marriage (1152) to France’s newly-divorced ex-queen Eleanor of Aquitaine brought him control also of much of south-west France. A century of intermittent warfare brought Normandy once more under French control (1204) and French victory at Bouvines (1214).
The 13th century was to bring the crown important gains also in the south, where a papal-royal crusade against the region’s Albigensian or Cathar heretics (1209) led to the incorporation into the royal domain of Lower (1229) and Upper (1271) Languedoc. Philippe IV’s seizure of Flanders (1300) was less sucessful, ending two years later in the rout of her knights by the forces of the Flemish cities at the “battle of the spurs” near Courtrai (Kortrijk).
The extinction of the main Capetian line (1328) brought to the throne the related house of Valois, but as Philippe IV’s grandson, Edward III of England claimed the French crown for himself, inaugurating the succession of conflicts known collectively as the Hundred Years’ War. The following century was to see devastating warfare, peasant revolts in both England (Wat Tyler’s revolt of 1381) and France (the Jacquerie of 1358) and the growth of nationhood in both countries.
French losses in the first phase of the conflict (1337-1360) were partly reversed in the second (1369-1396); but Henry V of England’s shattering victory at the battle of Agincourt in 1415 against a France now bitterly divided between rival Armagnac and Burgundian factions of the royal house was to lead to his son Henry VI’s recognition as king in Paris seven years later under the 1420 Treaty of Troyes, reducing Valois rule to the lands south of the Loire River.
France’s humiliation was abruptly reversed in 1429 by the appearance of a restorationist movement symbolised by the Lorraine peasant maid Joan of Arc, who claimed the guidance of divine voices for the campaign which rapidly ended the English siege of Orlens and ended in Charles VII’s coronation in the historic city of Reims. Subsequently captured by the Burgundians and sold to their English allies, her execution for heresy in 1431 redoubled her value as the embodiment of France’s cause.
Reconciliation between the king and Philippe of Burgundy (1435) removed the greatest obstacle to French recovery, leading to the recapture of Paris (1436), Normandy (1450) and Guienne (1453), reducing England’s foothold to a small area around Calais (lost also in 1558). After the war, France’s emergence as a powerful national monarchy was crowned by the incorporation of the duchy of Burgundy (1477) and Brittany (1491).
The losses of the century of war were enormous, particularly owing to the plague (the Black Death, usually considered an outbreak of bubonic plague), which arrived from Italy in 1348, spreading rapidly up the Rhone valley and thence across most of the country: it is estimated that a population of some 18-20 million in modern-day France at the time of the 1328 hearth-tax returns had been reduced 150 years later by 40% or more.
Despite the beginnings of rapid demographic and economic recovery, the gains of the previous half-century were to be jeopardised by a further protracted series of conflicts, this time in Italy (1494-1559), where French efforts to gain dominance ended in the increased power of the Habsburg Holy Roman Emperors of Germany.
Barely were the Italian Wars over than France was plunged into a domestic crisis with far-reaching
consequences. Despite the conclusion of a Concordat between France and the Papacy (1516), granting the crown unrivalled power in senior ecclesiastical appointments, France was deeply affected by the Protestant Reformation’s attempt to break the unity of Roman Catholic Europe.
A growing urban-based Protestant minority (later dubbed Huguenots) faced ever harsher repression under the rule of King Henri II. Renewed Catholic reaction headed by the powerful dukes of Guise culminated in a massacre of Huguenots (1562), starting the first of the French Wars of Religion during which English, (Scottish?), German and Spanish forces intervened on the side of rival Protestant and Catholic forces.
The conflict was ended by the assassination of both Henri of Guise (1588) and king Henri III (1589), the accession of the Protestant king of Navarre as Henri IV (first king of the Bourbon dynasty) and his subsequent abandonment of Protestantism (1593), his acceptance by most of the Catholic establishment (1594) and by the Pope (1595), and his issue of the toleration decree known as the Edict of Nantes (1598), which guaranteed freedom of private worship and civil equality.
France’s pacification under Henri laid much of the ground for the beginnings after his assassination (1610) of France’s rise to European hegemony under Louis XIII and his minister (1624-1642) Cardinal Richelieu, architect of France’s policy against Spain and the German emperor during the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648) which had broken out among the lands of Germany’s Holy Roman Empire.
An English-backed Huguenot rebellion (1625-1628) defeated, France intervened directlly (1635) in the wider European conflict following her ally (Protestant) Sweden’s failure to build upon initial success. After the death of both king and cardinal, the Peace of Westphalia (1648) secured universal acceptance of Germany’s political and religious fragmentation, and the Treaty of the Pyrenees (1659) formalised France’s seizure (1642) of the Spanish territory of Roussillon after the crushing of the efemerous Catalan Republic.
During the reign of Louis XIV (1643-1715), France was the dominant power in Europe, aided by the diplomacy of Richelieu’s successor (1642-1661) Cardinal Mazarin and the economic policies (1661-1683) of Colbert. Renewed war (1667-1668 and 1672-1678) brought further territorial gains (Artois and western Flanders and the free county of Burgundy, left to the Empire in 1482), but at the cost of the increasingly concerted opposition of rival powers.
Following the seizure of the (then separate) English, Irish and Scottish thrones by the Dutch prince William of Orange in 1688, the anti-French “Grand Alliance” of 1689 inaugurated more than a century of intermittent European conflict in which Britain would play an ever more important role, seeking in particular to keep France out of the Netherlands (the Dutch provinces and the future Belgium, then under Spanish rule).
After the war of 1689-1697 gained France only Haiti (lost to a slave revolt a century later), the War of the Spanish Succession (1701-1713) ended with the undoing of Louis’s dreams of a Franco-Spanish Bourbon empire: the two conflicts strained French resources already weakened by disastrous harvests in the 1690s and in 1709, as well as by the revocation (1685) of the Edict of Nantes and the consequent loss of Huguenot support and manpower.
The reign (1715-1774) of Louis XV saw an initial return to peace and prosperity under the regency (1715-1723) of Philippe II, duke of Orleans, whose policies were largely continued (1726-1743) by Cardinal Fleury, prime minister in all but name, renewed war with the Empire (1733-1735 and 1740-1748) being fought largely in the East. But alliance with the traditional Habsburg enemy (the “Diplomatic Revolution” of 1756 against the rising power of Britain and Prussia led to costly failure in the Seven Years’ War (1756-1763).
Louis XVI’s reign (1774-1792) saw a temporary revival of French fortunes through intervention (1778-1783) in support of Britain’s rebel American colonies. But the over-ambitious projects and military campaigns the past century had produced chronic financial problems. Deteriorating economic conditions, popular resentment against the complicated system of privileges granted the nobility and clerics, and a lack of alternate avenues for change were among the principal causes of the French Revolution. This led to the formation of the First Republic. The Second Republic was later proclaimed on February 26, 1848.
Although the revolutionaries advocated republican and egalitarian principles of government, France reverted to forms of absolute rule or constitutional monarchy four times:
the First Empire of Napoleon
the Restoration of Louis XVIII
the July Monarchy of Louis-Philippe
the Second Empire of Napoleon III.
First French Empire
Second French Empire
After the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, the Third Republic was established and lasted until the military defeat of 1940.
World War I (1914-1918) brought great losses of troops and materiel. In the 1920s, France established an elaborate system of border defenses (the Maginot Line) and alliances (see Little Entente) to offset resurgent German strength.
France during World War II
France surrendered to Nazi Germany early in World War II (June 24, 1940). Nazi Germany occupied three fifth of France’s territory leaving the rest to the new Vichy collaboration government established on July 10, 1940 under Henri Philippe P