France has played a major part in the history of many countries throughout the world – but what about the history of France itself?
As a relatively large territory in Western Europe, France has endured a lot over the centuries.
From the Roman conquest of Gaul in ancient times to the World Wars during the 20th century, modern France is built on a unique history of invasion and revolution, where royalty was once seen as divine and where five republics have been declared since its abolition.
Its rocky past is what makes the historical study of France so interesting.
However, not only is France famous for its violent past, but also for its people. Some of the most influential people to have ever lived have come from France.
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Everyone has heard the name ‘Napoleon’ before, but who was he? Why exactly does France not have a King or Queen? And what was France’s position during the Second World War?
This guide to the history of a country which seems to have been at the forefront of many domestic and international battles will tell you all you need to know.
So, whether you’re interested in learning more about French military history, the French Revolution, prominent French figures throughout history or Anglo-French relations, this article can enlighten you!
Important Moments in French History
Every country has its key moments that define its history – and France is no exception.
Whether it be child monarchs or era-defining wars, the country we know as France today is the result of centuries of fascinating history.
Here are just a few of some of the most important events in French history:
· Signing of the Treaty of Verdun
The Treaty of Verdun was the document signed in the year 843 AD which laid the foundations for today’s European country borders by dividing the Carolingian Empire into three territories.
The Carolingian Empire, which stretched across much of Western Europe, was established and ruled over by Holy Roman Emperor Charlemagne from 800 AD until his death in 814 AD. He was succeeded by his eldest legitimate son, Louis the Pious.
Emperor Louis the Pious meticulously planned his sons’ inheritance of the empire, however, disagreements between Louis’ sons and their half-brother about the allocations and war broke out.
In the end, the kingdom was separated into East Francia, Central Francia and West Francia, which later became the Kingdom of France.
· Louis XIV Centralises Power in France
August of 1661 saw King Louis XIV shockingly proclaim himself as absolute ruler of the French monarchy following the death of his chief minister, Cardinal Mazarin.
Louis XIV centralised power in France by holding his court at the Palace of Versailles (which was also his home) as well as the place where the French parliament was held. In addition to the Palace’s use as a place of politics and the centre of royal life, it was also used as a party venue for King Louis to host guests.
Holding such a variety of events in one place meant that The Sun King (as he came to be known) was able to unite royal and political life while keeping the unruly nobles in check.
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· The French Revolution
The French revolution is responsible for many of the characteristics of modern-day France.
The revolution began with the storming of the Bastille in 1789 by members of the Third Estate (the name for commoners at that time). The Bastille was targeted because of what it represented: the monarchy and its power.
The anger towards the monarchy and King Louis XVI, in particular, came from the unfair taxation of the Third Estate whilst the nobility and clergy were exempt. At a time of economic downturn, the Third Estate saw fit to take matters into their own hands and formed the National Assembly.
The National Assembly declared itself sovereign of France, meaning that it has control over the government and even the King.
Maximilien Robespierre became the leader of the National Assembly and decided that anyone who was opposed to the revolution was guilty of treason and should be sentenced to death by guillotine.
Among the fatalities of the revolution were King Louis XVI and his wife Marie-Antoinette.
· World War II and Vichy France
The Second World War was a tumultuous time for Europe – and France was caught in the crossfire.
In 1940, an armistice was signed by France and Germany which divided France in two. The Northern and Western regions of France were to be occupied by German forces, while the remaining area was known as the Free Zone.
Since Paris, the capital of the country, was occupied, the French State had to find another centre for political life in the unoccupied Free Zone. They chose the town of Vichy.
Marshal Phillippe Pétain was declared leader of Vichy France, and he went on to establish a regime based on conservative and authoritarian standards similar to those of Nazi Germany.
This led to a dismantling of the progressive movements of Paris and even the national motto of France, Liberté, égalité, fraternité (liberty, equality fraternity), replacing it instead with Travail, famille, patrie (work, family, homeland).
Eventually, Marshal Pétain agreed to collaborate with Germany. However, this was met with a strong resistance movement.
The Vichy regime came to an end with the liberation of France by the Allies in 1944.
The French Revolution
Let’s have a look at the French revolution in more detail.
How did it begin? And how has it left its mark on France?
As we know, the French Revolution of 1789 came about because of the dissatisfaction of the people with the distribution of wealth and power in France.
In terms of standard of living and physical health, the 1700s were a significantly more comfortable period for French citizens of all backgrounds than previously. The result of this was a growth in population and economic prosperity. However, this success was somewhat short-lived as France entered a period of instability towards the end of the century.
Debts from the numerous wars of the 18th century put the rulers of France in a difficult position.
In a bid to put his country’s financial issues to bed, King Louis XVI sought the help of a team of advisors. Unfortunately for King Louis, their advice that a reformation of the tax system was needed was not what he wanted to hear.
After subsequently giving his advisors the boot, King Louis appointed Charles de Calonne, who attempted to tax the aristocracy for the first time. Unsurprisingly, the nobility was less than thrilled at this prospect and refused to comply with Calonne’s demands, driving France towards an inevitable financial crisis.
An unsettled aristocracy, a bitter bourgeoisie and the fed-up peasants in a country on the brink of bankruptcy made for an ideal climate for revolution.
In 1789, King Louis XVI made a final bid for resolution of France’s financial issues by bringing together the Estates-General. The Estates-General was an assembly in which all of the three sectors of the French population were represented.
Unfortunately for King Louis, this meeting at Versailles did not go as planned, and a disagreement on the way in which a final decision would be reached ended in the departure of the Third Estate (who represented the commoners) from the Estates-General. Following this, the Third Estate formed the National Assembly and declared themselves sovereign rulers of the country.
As the National Assembly grew in popularity, they also grew in power, and so the appetite for revolution also increased significantly.
Members of the National Assembly took the Tennis Court Oath in June of 1789, when they swore that they would not disassemble until an agreement for the new constitution for France has been reached.
Revolution was in the air and the people of France had united for a common cause. This was not good news for King Louis, who began gathering troops to defend his regime whilst yielding to some of the pressures of the National Assembly.
The public outrage at the monarchy and those favoured by it led to riots and acts of vandalism across the country. The most notable of these was the storming of the Bastille, a Parisian fortress which represented the power of the monarchy in France which was attacked by members of the Third Estate who sought to commandeer the arms held within the prison. Further afield in the countryside, peasants attacked their landlords’ residences and freed themselves from their unfair contracts.
Eventually, the debt owed by the country was paid off by the nationalisation of the land owned by the Church. This gave many commoners and farmers the opportunity to buy land and own their own properties.
As the country’s financial issues took a back seat, the problems caused by them developed.
There was now a divide in the National Assembly – should the monarchy stay or go?
From this rift emerged two main groups in the National Assembly: the Girondins (in favour of keeping the monarchy) and the Jacobins (pro-abolition).
Following more civil unrest and nationalistic wars with neighbouring countries, the National Assembly was replaced by the National Convention, who declared France to be a republic after abolishing the monarchy.
The National Convention sentenced Louis XVI to death by guillotine in January 1793, and his wife, Marie-Antoinette, was executed in October of the same year.
However, the execution of the royal family did not mark the end of the revolution.
The leader of the Jacobins, Maximilien Robespierre, sentenced over 15,000 people to the same fate of King Louis and his wife in fear of a counter-revolution. This was known as the Reign of Terror.
Once the French economy has become more stable and the threat of attack had disappeared, Robespierre himself was executed since the continuation of his killing spree was no longer justifiable.
The French Revolution came to an end with Napoleon Bonaparte’s defeat of the newest attempt to rule France and his self-declaration as ruler of the new republic.
Important Figures Throughout French History
France has its fair share of famous people – so what are the stories behind the famous names?
· Joan of Arc (1412-1431)
Joan of Arc was born in 1412, during the Hundred Years War, which she later brought to an end at just 18 years of age when she led to French army to victory. This war, which was being fought between England and France, had started over which country had the heir to the French throne.
Joan of Arc is perhaps most famous for her piety, which led her to her victory as well as to her death.
Joan claimed to see St Michael and St Catherine in a series of visions when she was told that she was to be the saviour of her country. Her first mission from the divine was to seek an audience with the heir to the French throne, Charles, in which she would discuss the expulsion of the English which would result in Charles’ taking of the throne as King.
Following a series of battles led by Joan alongside Charles, France regained power over land seized by the English, and in July 1429, Charles was crowned Charles VII.
However, this was not the end of the conflict, and when Joan of Arc was taken hostage by the English-supporting Burgundians, who then sold her to the English.
Still unconvinced of the truth in Joan’s religious experiences, Charles VII made no attempt to free her, and Joan of Arc was taken to court where she was charged with heresy and witchcraft– offences for which she was later burnt at the stake at age 19.
· Napoleon Bonaparte (1769-1821)
While the French Revolution was in full swing, a young Napoleon Bonaparte was swiftly rising through the ranks of the French military and eventually declared himself emperor of France in 1804, following his victory in a coup d’état five years earlier.
Napoleon is most famous for his goal to expand the French empire and the wars he fought against various European countries in an attempt to achieve this.
During these wars, known as the Napoleonic wars, Napoleon experienced victory as well as defeat in battle. The most famous of these battles is the Battle of Waterloo, in which Napoleon was defeated by the combined force of the British and Prussian military – a defeat which forced him to let go of the French crown.
Following his defeat at Waterloo and his abdication, Napoleon was exiled to St Helena, a British territory where he later died.
· Marie Curie (1867-1934)
Originally from Poland, Marie Curie was a naturalised French citizen whose feats in the world of science, specifically in the study of radioactive substances, made her one of the most famous French women in history.
Along with her husband Pierre, Marie Curie is credited with the discovery of radioactivity itself, as well as the discovery of the elements polonium and radium.
Her research and discoveries in radioactivity, a term coined by Curie herself, led Marie Curie to not only be the first female winner of the Nobel Prize, but also to be the first person to be awarded the prize twice.
However, Curie’s work in physics and chemistry didn’t stop with this prestigious recognition.
When the Great War broke out in 1914, Marie Curie worked to promote the use of portable X-Ray machines at the site of conflict so that injured soldiers could get the treatment they needed as quickly as possible.
Curie’s life is believed to have been shortened by her prolonged exposure to radioactive substances during her years of research. She died at the age of 66 from aplastic anaemia.
Famous French Military Victories and Defeats
France’s position in the middle of Europe has meant that it has been the site of many European conflicts. Not only this, but the French also have a reputation for starting conflicts of their own.
Whichever war you study, the French seem to play a major role, and there are several battles which always crop up when talking about military history – so, what was France’s role in these battles? And what led to their victory or defeat?
Here are some of the most famous French conflicts.
· Battle of Hastings
1066 is a very famous date for Brits, as it marks the year in which England was invaded and its crown taken from King Harold by William of Normandy.
It seemed that William’s attack could not have come at a worse time for King Harold, who had just returned from another battle in which he had successfully defended his crown against Harald Hardrada of Norway.
Once the battle had commenced, the English troops reportedly stood their ground while William’s army attacked. The tactic of King Harold’s troops eventually deterred the Normans, and upon hearing that their leader, William, had been killed, the Norman army began to flee.
In a shocking act of bravery and protest, William of Normandy rode in front of his troops and removed his helmet, declaring the rumours to be untrue and that he would conquer.
The Norman troops, with their new-found confidence, successfully attacked the English for a second and third time.
Following the death of King Harold and a number of high-ranking military officers, the English army fled, and William of Normandy became William the Conqueror.
· Battle of Agincourt
The Battle of Agincourt was fought in the North of France between the English and the French in 1415, during the 100 Years War. It resulted in the defeat of the French.
The victory of the English and Welsh troops was a particularly significant one, given the fact that the French had more men on their side.
The English and Welsh troops were led by King Henry V, who claimed to be the heir to the French throne. On the other side, the French troops were led by Charles d’Albret, the Constable of France at the time.
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· Second Battle of Ypres
The Second Battle of Ypres, which took place in the midst of the First World War, in 1915, was fought between the Allies (which included countries of the British Empire, France and Belgium) and Germany. The battle resulted in an allied victory, of which France was a part.
The Second Battle of Ypres lasted for nearly a month and was made up of a series of smaller battles.
Located close to the Belgian-French border, the Flemish town of Ypres was a sought-after strategic asset, and control over it was the reason why battle broke out.
The attack tactics used in this battle by the German Troops are what makes it so famous. The Second Battle of Ypres was the first battle in which toxic gas was used as a weapon.
Chlorine gas was selected by Germany for its high toxicity which caused many men to lose their lives at Ypres when they inhaled it. The gas was released from cylinders which had been placed along the border of an area held by French troops. Those who were not killed by the gas immediately fled the scene in panic.
Remarkably, this gas did not secure a victory for Germany, and the defence of the territory by Anglo-Canadian troops meant that the allies triumphed.
Britain vs France: A Love-Hate Relationship
When you live on the British Isles, it’s not uncommon to hear jokes about the French and their frogs-legs, baguettes and tendency to strike – but are there any good reasons for the opinion of the French held by Brits?
By looking at the two countries’ military history alone, it’s plain to see that Britain and France have has their fair share of conflicts in the past, however, their working together as allies in recent history, as well as their shared interests of imperialism makes for a complex relationship between the two nations.
Signs of disagreements-gone-by can still be seen in the political discourse of today between the UK and France, with the French president, Emmanuel Macron, insisting that the UK must pay for a post-Brexit deal. In the wake of Brexit, the French opinion of the Brits seems to carry more weight than previously.
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