The Political Transformation of Medieval France



The first three decades of the 15th century were a time of civil war, military defeat, and political humiliation in France. The enfeebled monarchy, caught in a vise between England’s Henry V and Henry’s Burgundian ally Philip, went so far as to renounce the dauphin, the heir to the throne, and to bequeath the kingdom to Henry. However, the appearance of Joan of Arc brought a sharp reversal of fortune; by the end of the century, England had been swept from the Continent, and the French monarchy, relying upon medieval institution, had asserted itself as the dominant political element in France.

The Performance of a Crusade Play at King Charles V's Feast (detail), Master of the Coronation of Charles VI, Paris, about 1375–80. From Great Chronicles of France, Bibliothèque nationale de France, Paris. Ms. fr. 2813, fol. 473v

The Performance of a Crusade Play at King Charles V’s Feast (detail), Master of the Coronation of Charles VI, Paris, about 1375–80. From Great Chronicles of France, Bibliothèque nationale de France, Paris. Ms. fr. 2813, fol. 473v

Medieval Institutions

The king was not the dominant political force in early medieval France. The territory under his direct control  (the Ile de France) consisted of small and scattered holdings in the vicinity of Paris. His vassals, though theoretically under his command, were in fact the independent rulers of vast feudal domains. Despite its political weakness, an aura of majesty and divine protection cloaked the Capetian dynasty, whose kings passed the crown from father to son in an unbroken line from 987 to 1328. During this interval the monarchy built an administrative apparatus within the royal domain that slowly expanded to encompass the entire realm.

Curia Regis

Curia Regis

Royal Administration

Under Philip II, “Augustus” (r. 1180 – 1223), the monarchy began relying on the skills of professional civil servants rather than on the spasmodic and lukewarm cooperation of its vassals. These professionalswere rewarded in cash rather than in land, and their continued dependence upon the crown made them stounch supporters of royal prerogative. The first  such appointees were bailiffs (bailis or sénéchaux), who supervised finance and justice within the royal domain. As its duties expanded, the civil service emerged as the nobility of the robe, a new class distinct from the old feudal nobility of the sword. Under Louis IX, “Saint Louis” (r.1226 – 1270), the king’s council (Curia Regis) underwent a transformation in which specialized groups of advisors emerged to administer finances (chambre des comptes) and justice (parlement).

Philip II, “Augustus”

Philip II, “Augustus”

Louis began the practice of issuing decrees with the force of law throughout the kingdom and in this manner banned private warfare and instituted a common currency. The royal courts established by Louis throughout the realm were recognized as the most efficient means of obtaining justice.

Estates General

The clergy, the nobility, and the bourgeoisie, representing the estates of the feudal regime, assembled for the first time in 1302. Called by Philip IV, “The Fair” (r. 1285 – 1314) to strengthen the crown during a controversy with Pope Boniface VIII, this Estates General henceforth functioned as an instrument in the expansion of royal authority rather than as an independent legislative body comparable to the English Parliament.

Philip IV, “The Fair”

Philip IV, “The Fair”

This failure resulted in part from the rigid class structure that precluded cooperation between the lower nobility and the burgeoisie. The Estates General set a dangerous precedent in 1369 by granting Charles V (r. 1364 – 1380) the right to continue indefinately the collection of taxes already voted.

Resurgence of France

The royal prerogatives built into the institutions of medieval France were worthless in the hands of a week king. The dramatic improvement of French fortunes after 1429 brought with it the consolidation of royal authority and French territorial unification.

Joan of Arc and Charles VII

Joan of Arc and Charles VII

Paralyzed by indecision and defeat, Charles VII, “The Well-Served” (r. 1422 – 1461) hardly seemed the man to lead France in a national crusade. He took the initiative after the appearance of Joan of Arc, who broke the English siege at Orléans (1428) and had him crowned king at Reims (1429). Though Joan was captured and burned as a witch, Charles continued the fight. He negotiated a settlement with burgundy and took Paris (1436). Charles received from the estates General the right to collect a permanent land tax (taille), which was the most important source of royal revenue from 1439 to 1789.

Joan of Arc miniature

Joan of Arc miniature

His financial resources were also enhanced under the terms of the Pragmatic sanction of Bourges (1438), which brought the French church and its resources under royal control. Charles used this funds to create a permanent army consisting of independent companies of cavalry, archers and artillery. Not only he had forged the weapons with which the English were expelled from France (1461) but he had also gained financial independence and military protection for the crown.

Louis XI, “The Spider”

Louis XI, “The Spider”

The end of the Hundred Years’ War left Louis XI, “The Spider”, (r. 1461 – 1483) free to concentrate on domestic affairs. He perfected the machinery necessary for the collection of taxes voted to Charles VII. his orders were carried out by decree, for at their own request, the Estates General met only in times of national unification. The incorporation of the Burgundian (1477) and Angevin (1480) dukedoms left only Brittany outside royal control. The marriage of Charles VIII (r. 1483 – 1498) to Anne of Brittany (1491) rounded out the kingdom and brought it under royal administrators.

The Renaissance Monarchy

Francis I (r. 1515 – 1547) and Henry II (r. 1547 – 1559) reaped the rewards of the long struggle waged during the preceding century. The monarch’s self-assurance was reflected in the flowering of Renaissance arts and letters at Francis’s court and in the circle of his sister, Margaret of Navarre. The kings of France, no longer cowering before their English brethren, pursued an aggressive foreign policy in Italy.

Henry II

Henry II

Despite the splendor of the French monarchy, there were two basic and ultimately fatal flows in its institutional structure. First, the nobility, though temporarily subdued, maintained its landed economic power and social status within the rigidly stratified class structure. It struggled to maintain its tax-exempt position and political independence even to the detriment of state interests. Second, the concentration of executive and legislative power in the hands of a hereditary monarch demanded a succession of competent kings, which the Valois dynasty did not produce.

Margaret of Navarre

Margaret of Navarre

The accidental death of Henry in 1559 left his three small sons in the care of his widow, Catherine de Medici. The regency of Francis III opened a new era of aristocratic infighting, compounded by the religious controversies of the age that divided France in bloody civil war for the remainder of the century.

by Charles A. Endress

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One Response to The Political Transformation of Medieval France

  1. Andre Stojka says:

    Thank you for this well written synopsis of the French Monarcy. It was because real power lay in the hands of various Dukes and others that Louis XIV built Versailles. Everyone needed to have a representative at the palace and it placed those representatives under the immediate influence of the king.

    Thank you for sharing

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