Charlemagne, the King of Francs
Charlemagne (Charles the Great) is one of the most important figures in French and European history of the early medieval time. His reign marked the set up of the Carolingian Empire that replaced the Roman Empire in the Western parts of Europe (>>>). It’s successor (although with a smaller territory limited to the so-called West Francia) was the Kingdom of France and consequently after the French Revolution the present French Republic.
Statue of Charlemagne standing at the front of the Notre Dame cathedral in Paris.
Charlemagne was not the first ruler of the united realm of Franks. Before him for around 400 years, Frankish kings united and ruled descendants of Germanic, Gaul and Roman people. Although having different roots ‘Frankish’ people seemingly developed a common language and seemed to be a coherent nation for the outsiders. During his reign, Charlemagne extended by far the Frankish territories. This way, he was able to convince the pope (head of the Catholic Church, who that time in history had much political power in Western Europe) to coronate him (800 AD) as the first recognised emperor in Western Europe after the fall of the Roman Empire. Technically, he was already ruling an imperium, but the papal ‘blessing’ gave him the ultimate power. This coronation, was however to the detriment of relations between Rome (Western Europe) and Constantinople (South-Eastern Europe).
Le Roi Soleil
Luis XIV the King of France (1638-1715) is one of the most prominent monarchs in the European history. As his reign lasted for over 70 years (technically it was around 60 years as he inherited the throne at the age of 6), he was able to influence the French policies and social life for many centuries ahead. He was known for running wars with basically all neighbours, using his family ties to actively run the foreign policy, reforming taxation and the state finances, sponsoring medical treatment and social work as well as promoting the art. Having moved from Louvre to Versailles he arranged for Louvre to be the art museum. I am sure historians would point out many other policy moves that changed the country for good or for bad. We should not forget however that only seventy years after the king’s dead the French revolution began overthrowing the monarchy and establishing the Republic.
Luis XIV, statue by Gian Lorenzo Bernini, standing in front of the Louvre.
For years writers and film makers have been fascinated by intrigues and plots of the French royal court initially in Louvre and later in Versailles. Very few realise however that the fact that Luis XIV established the French court as we know it was in itself a handy political move. In past times noble families from all over Europe, basically no matter the country fought for influence making wars with each other. They often plotted against own kings. The move by Luis XIV was simple. He invited the noble or aristocratic families under his reign to practically live at or in the neighbourhood of the royal premises. Having them instantly around he controlled the plots and intrigues. Many years ago a friend of mine, who have lived in the Paris fashion world for sometime explained to me that Luis XIV is told to be the inventor of the fashion seasons. He encouraged the courtsmen to change the garment according to newest fashion trends. Besides the whole fun around the trends in fashion, this requirement was quite a political one. Instead of spending money on plots, the whole court had to constantly spend it on expensive clothing. The king controlled purses of those, who lived at the court but also filled in their itineraries. Another important side effect was boosting the fashion manufacturer’s business (clothing, shoes, various appliances and perfume) in France and abroad. The fashion industry is now a global business, but still the fashion week in Paris is the major fashion event in the world and Paris is the capital of fashion as it used to be in times of the Roi Soleil.
The Great and the Controversial
People who are famous are usually known because they are known or because they did something extraordinary. But only few people though years of history did that much great and that much controversial as this one man. Napoleon Bonaparte.
Bust of Napoleon Bonaparte, seen in Warsaw, Poland
His world story began as he, a Corsican child, went to France to attend school. He was good in mathematics, but also read much. Later on as he was around twenty a revolutionary discovered his political and military talents. He spent much time on battlefields, but later on was thrown into the great politics. Became the First Consul and later the French Emperor.
Although some of his reforms might seem controversial from today’s point of view he did much good like sending all children to school no matter the social class and parents’ wealth. He codified the civil law. Restructured the public administration that was failing in the first years after the French revolution after the old order was destroyed. He put a new light onto the public service in the field of diplomacy, public finance, civil engineering, etc.
For different reasons somewhere between personal ambition and the country’s need to defend against the powers abroad seeking back the old order, or because the French thought that the country’s development should rely on expansion, he engaged into military campaigns that led him to conquer Europe and make strong allies (the so-called Napoleonic Wars), reached Moscow, even conquered it for a short period of time but finally failed under the Russian cold winter.
When we look at all of those campaigns from today’s perspective it was simply no longer possible to maintain such a widespread empire. Although Europe still needed more than a century and a half to come to terms with interests of all countries and nations that live on the continent, although the process took years of bloodshed of the two cruel world wars, the Napoleonic campaigns brought for the first time many (but not all) of the European nations to the negotiation table. The Congress of Vienna (1815) was not held at one negotiations table. It was rather a series of more or less private meetings. But still it was unprecedented.
After a series of military and political defeats Napoleon was banished and sent to the Isle of Elba. Came back to Paris for 100 days. Later he was banished again and spent his final years on the St. Helena island among his closest brothers in arms only.
return to the French history main page >>>