Situated in the middle of Western Europe, France is a country with a fascinating history shaped by conquest, conflict and revolution.

From the shaping of the nation in the middle ages to the abolition of the monarchy to its role in the Second World War, the history of France is rich and varied.

Which historical events are the most significant? And which ones have left their mark on modern-day France?

France has seen hundreds of era-defining events as well as a wealth of important figures. When it comes to the building of a republic, it’s fair to say that France has not had an easy ride. Learning more about a country’s past is a great way to gain an understanding of the outlook and traditions of its people.

The victories and hardships seen by the French nation are not only significant in the history of France, but in the history of Europe.

So, let’s take a look at 10 of the most important moments in the history of France!

1.      481 – 511: The Reign of Clovis

Clovis I founded the Kingdom of France by uniting all of the Frankish tribes under one crown.

Originally the king of a Frankish tribe known as the Salian Franks among others, Clovis was born into a Pagan family but explored Arianism (a Christian heresy) before baptised into the Catholic church later in life.

His changes to the political system from one where each tribe had its own ruler, to one where they were all ruled over by a king, homogenised the Frankish Kingdom and ensured that the crown would be passed down to his descendants.

Because of this, Clovis I is considered to be the founder of the Merovingian dynasty, which survived for over 200 years.

2.      800: Charlemagne Becomes Holy Roman Emperor

Charlemagne, also known as Charles the Great, jointly inherited the Frankish crown with his brother, Carloman, following the death of their father, Pepin III.

The division of power over the kingdom made for a fierce rivalry between the brothers, and Charlemagne made as many alliances as he could to secure his position as ruler.

However, when Carloman died suddenly and unexpectedly in 771, Charlemagne was left as ruler of the Frankish Kingdom.

Frankish tradition dictated that as King of the Franks, Charlemagne was a warrior king whose duty was to lead his troops to victory over other territories in the same way that his Merovingian predecessors had.

Charlemagne triumphed over his brothers and ruled over France
Charlemagne eventually became Holy Roman Emperor ¦ source: Visualhunt - santanartist

Charlemagne’s military skill was recognised by Pope Leo III when he crowned him Holy Roman Emperor in the year 800. In his position over most of Europe, Charlemagne was able to keep Christianity in the West alive.

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3.      843: Signing of the Treaty of Verdun

Following the death of Louis the Pious (son of Charlemagne), the Carolingian empire was divided into three territories – one from each of Louis’ surviving sons.

Louis’ eldest son, Lothair I, was not happy with the amount of power he had been left by his father, and so he sought to overrule his brother Louis the German and half-brother Charles the Bald in order to gain control of the whole empire.

In retaliation to Lothair’s greed, Louis and Charles declared war on their brother.

The signing of the treaty of Verdun brought an end to the Carolingian Civil War and partitioned Charlemagne’s empire into three sections: West Francia, Central Francia and East Francia, which were ruled by and Charles the Bald, Lothair and Louis the German respectively.

The signing of this treaty is particularly important as it laid the foundations for the modern-day European countries.

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4.      1461-1483: The Reign of Louis XI

King Louis XI was the king that brought an end to the Hundred Years war with the signing of the Treaty of Picquigny in 1475.

Following the death of his father, Charles VII, Louis was left to rule over the Kingdom of France in 1461.

However, Louis’ relationship with his father made for a complicated situation following his death.

While Louis had been given power over the Dauphiné region during his father’s reign, he was somewhat of a rebel. Despite his father’s forgiveness, Louis he established his own political system in his region which led his father to take action.

However, Charles VII’s troops arrived in Dauphiné to find that Louis had fled to Burgundy, where he was hosted by the Duke of Burgundy.

Upon King Charles’ death, Louis let the Burgundians take control of the Kingdom of France, but this wasn’t the end of the conflict for Louis.

When the next Duke of Burgundy, an enemy of Louis, attempted to rebel, Louis separated him from the English troops (with which the Burgundians were allied) with the signing of the Treaty of Picquigny. This treaty declared peace between England and France.

5.      1661 Centralisation of Power in France by Louis XIV

Louis XIV, also known as the ‘Sun King’ reigned from 1643 to 1715.

He is most notable for literally bringing France’s royal and political centres under one roof at his home, the palace of Versailles.

Versailles was the location of the French court for a number of years
The Palace of Versailles was built by a young King Louis XIV ¦ source: Pixabay - charlemagne

Louis achieved this firstly by declaring himself as divine ruler of the Kingdom of France following the death of Cardinal Mazarin, his chief minister. Though this move was strictly against French political and royal tradition, Louis was convinced of his divine right to rule over the Kingdom as a dictator.

During his time as ruler of France, Louis saw it as his duty to address the problems being caused by the nobility, which usually appeared in the form of civil wars. He managed to do thing by hosting events for the aristocracy as well as the parliament and other members of the royal family at Versailles.

While this united political and royal life, it also meant that Louis had a means of keeping an eye on the nobles.

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6.      1789: The French Revolution

The French Revolution was a pivotal point in the history of France.

Starting with the riots by a disgruntled Third Estate (made up of peasants), and ending with the abolition of the French monarchy, the French Revolution saw many bloody battles, executions and triumphs for the rebels.

There were many causes of the revolution. For instance, a financial crisis and hefty debt left King Louis XVI looking for a way to raise funds. Unfortunately, his proposed taxation of the traditionally-exempt nobles was rejected, and when he brought together the Estates-General in an attempt to resolve the issue.

However, this did not go to plan, and the Third Estate declared itself sovereign ruler of France after separating from the Estates-General.

The revolution culminated in the execution of the royalty and anyone who was suspected to be planning a counter-revolution by Maximilien Robespierre.

7.      1789: Declaration of the Rights of the Man and of the Citizen of 1789

The drafting of the Declaration of the Rights of the Man and of the Citizen of 1789 marked a key point in the French revolution when it was adopted by the National Constituent Assembly as part of the creation of a new French constitution.

The document is made up of seventeen articles detailing the rights of man within the context of a new France. For instance, the Declaration calls for an end to feudalism and therefore to aristocratic powers over land and the people that work on it, as well as granting the French people sovereignty over their country.

This declaration was used alongside the Magna Carta as inspiration for the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948.

8.      1940-1944: The Vichy Regime

During World War II, the signing of an armistice between France and Germany in 1940 divided France into two zones: The Northern zone which was occupied by German forces and the unoccupied Southern part of the country known as the ‘Free Zone’.

Vichy was the site of the French government during the occupation
As the country’s political hub was under German rule, the French government had to relocate to the town of Vichy in the Free Zone ¦ source: Visualhunt - jp-03

Although it seemed that the French State would try to carry on as normal, its leader, Marshal Pétain had other ideas. Pétain established a regime with values of that being followed in Nazi Germany. Pétiain’s subsequent agreement to collaborate with Germany was met with protest, and the Vichy regime ended in 1944 when France was liberated by the Allies.

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9.      1959: Declaration of the Fifth Republic

The Fifth Republic is a system of government which was drafted by president Charles de Gaulle and later approved by the French people in a referendum.

The key difference between the fourth and the fifth republics is that the president was given more authority at the expense of the National Assembly, which is now the lower house of parliament.

A relatively new form of government, the Fifth Republic is still present today with Emmanuel Macron serving as its president.

10. 1968: Riots of May ’68

The events of May 1968 marked the lives of a generation of French students.

The 1960’s saw a lot of political turmoil for France. Algerian independence, the declaration of the fifth republic and the Vietnam war meant that there was plenty to discuss, and with the significant growth in the number of young people attending university in France, students had a voice of their own.

Tired of a country preoccupied with old values of imperialism and traditionalism, the students’ disdain for the way the country was being run was ignited by a dispute on the presence of males and females in the same university dormitories.

This argument led to a snowball effect which led to the imprisonment of students, building of barricades and the closing of the Sorbonne University.

May 1968 is remembered as a demonstration of anti-authoritarianism and the rejection of conservative values in France.

You may not learn about these momentous occasions during french lessons london, however, you will certainly get a chance to understand a bit about the French culture and, of course, the language.

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