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Major Events in French History

Updated on October 24, 2009

Major Events in French History - Intro

“The history of France can be used as a blueprint defining the historical, cultural and social development of what we now recognise as modern European States....”

Er..., I guess.

Alternatively, it can read almost like the screenplay for a Hollywood blockbuster.  Let me pitch it to you: a complex tale of Dynastic power, Divine intervention, religious intolerance, political intrigue, and heroism, culminating in extreme violence and bloodshed, and the seemingly endless struggle of the working man over authoritarian dictatorship and tyranny.

Depends on which tickles your fancy.  But I prefer the latter....

Major Events in French History - Dynasty, Divine Intervention And The Church

Circa the third century BC, the two large islands nestled between the banks of the Seine river - the Ile de la Cite and Ile St Louis - were the original homeland to a tribe of ignorant, filthy, disease-ridden Celts (Latin : Parisii) after whom the city of Paris is named.  They’d been there for ages - exactly how long is anyone’s guess - but certainly long before the Romans conquered the territories of Gaul - namely North-Eastern France & Britain.

The Roman conquest, led by Julius Caesar, had a huge impact upon not only France but all European lands and peoples, most notably through the introduction of modern engineering and architectural skills into the lands of savages.  [It also led to entirely new ‘lifestyle’ concepts of authority and servitude, for peoples more used to consulting the elements for leadership guidance, or erecting draughty monolithic stone formations for the ritual slaughter of animals, virgins, and best of all, virgin animals.]

However following the fall of Rome, the “Dark Ages” ensued, as waves of invasionary forces of marauding barbarii destroyed much of the Roman’s hard-earned legacy, and managed to turn the clock back to the good olde days of rape, pillage and every man for himself.

It wasn’t until the latter stages of the first millennium that anything remotely nearing stability occurred again, when an organised tribe of Germanic Franks - known as the Carolingians - under the autocratic leadership of King Clovis and then the Emperor Charlemagne, united the Western world from Germany to Sicily, establishing the largest recognised Empire since the heydays of Rome.

Understanding the influence the Church held over the superstitious, terrified minds of the rural peasantry, these Teutonic warriors ‘Christian’-ised the Kingdom; inspired a ‘mini’ classical-renaissance; implemented judicial law reform; set-up a monetary system; and provided strong political leadership through to the late 10th century.

The division of Charlemagne’s empire, however, threatened to reverse the process all over again. His successors, in true family tradition, returned to quarrelling, in-fighting, and sleeping with each other’s wives.  With the kingdom thus socially and politically fragmented, the way was open for a new dynasty, the Capetians, to disrupt the balance of power and rebuild France via the economic prosperity and cultural vitality left by the Carolingian empire.

The Capetian’s good works, unfortunately, were shattered by the ravages of the Black Death (bubonic plague), and the “Hundred Years’ War” with England.

After a crushing victory under Henry V @ Agincourt in 1415, the French found not only their lands invaded but an Englishman claiming the right to the French throne!

They were saved, however - in a most truly un-English manner - when in 1429 a teenage French peasant girl, claiming a miraculous Divine revelation, persuaded the French King to attack the English at Reims as in her (supposed) vision she had foreseen a decisive French victory and the English being driven from France forever.  Without having any better ideas himself, the King believed the young Joan d’Arc, and listened to her Divine prophecy.  The thus inspired French forces not only turned the battle against the English and drove them back into the North of France, but proclaimed their own Charles VII King of France for good measure, too.

Unfortunately for young Joan, her vision revealed neither the treachery of her own forces - who having betrayed her left her for dead in battle - nor her own painful demise in 1431, where whilst French forces awaited orders, the English burnt her at the stake for being a witch.  Happily, however, Joan had the last laugh, for when the Hundred Years War ended in 1453, only the port of Calais still remained in English hands, the French throne had been successfully reclaimed, and French pride had been restored at the expense of the arch enemy, England.

Within a century, France was at its own throat.  The split in the Catholic Church known as the Reformation led directly to the “Wars of Religion”.  From 1562 - 1593 the new “Protest-ant” religion divided Church and nobility alike as the dividing lines were drawn and sides taken on the debate of Church versus State authority.  A callous wedding-day massacre of Protestants orchestrated by Catherine de Medici in 1572, known as the St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, threatened to tear the country to pieces.  However, when a Protestant, Henry IV, became King of France in 1589 a new era of tolerance was indoctrinated.  Henry himself, as an act of faith, converted to Catholicism in 1593, and the Edict of Nantes legislating religious tolerance followed in 1598.

Louis XIV
Louis XIV
Palais Versailles
Palais Versailles

Major Events in French History - Absolutism

There can be no doubt, however, that the outcome of the Reformation’s century of religious warring left the Church in a much weakened position of governmental authority, with the State taking over many of the jobs and roles traditionally carried out by the Church. Old-style baronies were replaced by new modern governments headed by strong “divine” monarchs claiming their right to rule came directly from God, whose authority was all encompassing.  Welcoming strong centralised power, such monarchs welcomed traders and businessmen, and a new merchant-class influence developed alongside the recently relegated Church.  France was developing a secondary three-tier social stratum under the King: the nobility; the Church and trading bourgeoisie; and at the bottom - with no rights or influence whatsoever - the peasants.

Between 1643 - 1715 France’s Louis XIV was Europe’s King of Kings: an absolute example of an absolute monarch - or - as near as mortal man gets to being the Wizard of Oz (right down to his plans to build a boulevard of rubies and diamonds leading to his palace aka: the yellow brick road!).

Ruling for an incredible 70 years he knew nothing but power and how to wield it.  Under his guidance France became the strongest power in Europe; the political and cultural heartbeat of Europe with a population three times the size of it’s arch rival, Britain.  Charming, conversational, polite and sporty he was both respected and well-liked at court.  Proclaiming himself “le roi soliel” (Sun King) his public image portrayed the sun bouncing off him onto the people of France.

However fame and power bring with them jealousy and suspicion.  Fearing the claustrophobic ‘cloak-and-dagger’ environment of Paris, Louis built himself a palace outside of the city limits and moved the administrative centre of his government, in its entirety, to Versailles.  Here, he had complete control over all his nobility and ministerial functionaries.

In real terms, Louis lost the plot.  But within the parameters of 17/18th century France he ruled the roost.  Believing his own hype, Louis began to believe that he, himself and everything he said and did was a work of art.  Accordingly, he lived his entire life in the public eye, to the extent that not only would someone watch over him while he ate, slept and bathed, his wife was even obliged to give birth in public, too !

So powerful was his cult of personality that to be in favour with the King became the be all and end all for members of the nobility.  Louis would often invite lesser nobles to play the part of living pieces on his life-size outdoor chessboard, and to receive such an invitation was held in high esteem indeed! When Louis’ hair began to thin on top, he bought himself an elaborate ringlet wig.  Within days, to be seen without a wig was tantamount to a personal insult on the King.  Along with bouffant wigs came powder-puff facial make-up, beauty spots, and knee socks.  In effect, Louis emasculated his nobles, trivialising their existence by playing them off against each other and removing any positions of importance or power at a moment’s notice, in order to keep them on their toes, and reducing them to petty socialites in a state of loyal servitude.  Life at court, basically, was a living pantomime!

It seems ludicrous to the modern mind, but Louis inherited a strong France, and based his entire rule on ruthless efficiency, military strength and wealth, in times when socialist ideals of equality and human rights were only barely in their conceptual infancy.

For all his extremism, though, Louis established France’s “Golden Age”, and may have shown a rather astute understanding of the times when he is reported to have advised his 5yr old son from his deathbed , “ Do not imitate my extravagance..., alleviate the suffering of your people.”

(Although, of course, it’s easy to be clever when you’ve never had to account for your own actions!)

Major Events in French History - Enlightened Despotism

However his advice fell on deaf ears and the reigns of Louis XV and XVI became known as the era of the “enlightened despots”. For while courtiers talk may have been ‘enlightened’ by new social philosophies such as Rousseau’s “Social Contract” (govt. is servant to the people); “laissez-faire” economic theories; and a growing secularism away from the Church..., the kings still ruled as petty dictators, refusing to share power with the middle and lower classes.

Gradually, however, in the social hotbeds of the coffee houses around the university, “new radicals” began advocating a shift of popular loyalty away from both the monarchy and the Church, towards the Nation. A new term, “Nationalism”” - fuelled by the spirit of the American War of Independence (1776) - barrelled through the backstreets and slums of Paris’ bawdy Latin Quarter.

Meanwhile, oblivious to the winds of change blowing along the boulevards beneath their feet, the Ancien Regime continued their petty power plays at court, whilst around them, Paris festered.

Louis XVI
Louis XVI
French Revolution
French Revolution
Napoleon Bonaparte
Napoleon Bonaparte

Major Events in French History - Revolution

The First Estate - the clergy and nobility - owned one third of the land in France, yet paid no taxes.  The newly emerged “middle class” of traders and intellectuals wanted a slice of that pie and began clamouring for reform.  Meanwhile, out in the fields, successive harvest failures were forcing rural peasants to head for the City - Paris - in search of work and food.

To be fair, Louis XVI did, finally, look down from his ivory towers and realise he had a major problem on his hands.  With women’s groups and localised political activists inciting the peasants and organising public rallies which were threatening to spill over into violence, he convened a meeting of the Estates General at Versailles (ironically to plead for an increase in taxes to plough into social reform).  The refusal of the First Estate to recognise the legitimacy of the peasant leaders turned this into an open confrontation from which the Third Estate ultimately removed itself.  In retaliation they organised a protest in the grounds of the tennis courts where they declared themselves the “National Assembly” and demanded a National Constitution.

This was a revolutionary step.

Louis sent in troops to disperse the meeting and it’s taggers-on, and sent its furious participants wounded and bleeding back to Paris with their tails between their legs.

On July 14, 1789, the dam holding back the surge of public anger finally broke.  Insulted, volatile and - most importantly - starving, the restless masses took to the streets out of sheer frustration.  Perhaps, maybe, a few intellectual theorists or political leaders understood the process taking place before their very eyes, and provided some invisible guidance to the seething mob.  Maybe.  Whatever, the face of Europe was about to change.  Forever.

Storming the Bastille prison - the symbolic stronghold of the monarchy, supposedly used to house political prisoners - the mob ran riot through the streets of Paris, eventually trapping the King and Queen in the Hotel de Ville.  Whilst many French ‘regulars’ joined the mob, a determined stand by the King’s bodyguard - the Swiss Guard - in the Tuilleries Palace, resulted in the slaughter of these elite troops to a man, and the imprisonment of the King.

Complete social mobilisation, a burning sense of national patriotism, and a new breed of risk-taking generals kept the threat of Europe’s ‘old regimes’ at bay.  In the meantime serfdom was physically destroyed, and the “Declaration of the Rights of Man & Citizen” became the theoretical basis for a new regime.

However revolutionary excess, political power plays, economic problems and disillusionment at the rate of change drove the situation out of control.  The “Reign of Terror” plunged France into a bloodbath of suspicion and fear.  In the year 1793/4 alone over 17,000 nobles, peasants and bourgeoisie were guillotined, including the King and Queen Marie Antoinette, and successive leaders such as Murat, Danton and Robespierre were accused of treachery and either deposed and imprisoned or assassinated.

The situation called for a cool, disciplined approach and into the breach stepped the brilliant young general, Napoleon Bonaparte.  Having his Revolutionary army’s confidence Napoleon assumed complete control, confiscating Church lands, abolishing the privileged classes and burying feudalism.  With Europe’s major players too scared to intervene and riding the crest of a wave of popularity he took the revolutionary war to Europe.  Between 1799 - 1814 his brilliant political administration and military tactics conquered all before him and France once again reigned supreme in Europe.  The “Code Napoleon” became the blueprint for legal systems across Europe, and wherever French forces took control, they took their new social charter with them.

Unfortunately for Napoleon, he never quite managed to gain complete naval superiority over the British, which deterred him from launching an invasion across the English Channel.  Instead, he turned to the Eastern front and tried to crush the Russians.  This was his undoing.  In 1812 he led the ‘Grande Armee’ of half million soldiers into Russia.  But he underestimated the ravages of the sub-arctic winter on his supply lines, troops and morale, and also the determination of Cossack raiding parties whose “scorched earth” policy left his starving armies nothing to feed on.  By the time he realised his mistake his troops were lost in no-man’s land, and by the time the retreat straggled it’s way back across the central plains of Europe, he had lost over 80% of his veteran army.  Seizing the opportunity the European alliance partners fought back under the British, Austrian and Prussian flags eventually forcing Napoleon to surrender to avoid humiliation.

He was exiled to the island of Elba, where he still maintained his belief of invincibility.  In 1815 he escaped and landed in France.  Re-calling his former commanders he marched on Paris, seizing power and demanding France’s return to glory.  This is known as “Napoleon’s Hundred Days” and was his last military fling.  Hampered only by bad weather, he was, nonetheless, finally out-flanked and defeated by the Duke of Wellington at the Battle of Waterloo, and sent to the tiny South Pacific island of St Helena where he lived out his last years in relative obscurity.

Major Events in French History - Post Napoleon and Revolution

In the aftermath the Allied forces wanted a return to the old order and restored the Bourbon dynasty.  In doing so they tried to gloss over all that had taken place in France over the previous thirty years and reinstate the former feudal / class system.  Inevitably this led to a coup in 1830 and the July monarchy under Louis Philippe took over.

The onset of the Industrial Revolution had his regime in trouble from the start.  Politically inept it had no answers for social problems like overcrowding, excessive working hours, poverty and slum dwellings.  Out of its league, and bearing the brunt of the disillusionment of a nation which had known recent glories only to be pushed under in defeat, the regime’s leaders were toppled in 1848, and Napoleon’s nephew swept to power.

In 1851 he proclaimed himself Emperor Napoleon III, (there was no Napoleon II) wishing to distance himself from the glories of his uncle, knowing he could never emulate them.  He ushered in a series of half-hearted liberal reforms but was goaded into a war he could not hope to win by the Chancellor of Prussia, Otto von Bismarck (the “Em’s Telegram”).  The French were out-manoeuvred and the war over in 6 weeks.  Bismarck personally took the French surrender and proclaimed a new German Empire from the balcony of France’s own Hall of Mirrors at Versailles.  To add injury to insult he also annexed the regions of Alsace and Lorraine from the French territories, and demanded crippling reparations from the French nation.

The humiliation of this was too much for the proud French people and they, once again, took to the streets.  The Paris Commune of 1871 was another attempt by the French people to assert the rights of the common man in the face of undemocratic leadership.  But once again, they were defeated by superior firepower.  Having burnt down the TuilleriesPalace the Communards barricaded themselves in the area surrounding La Madeleine and the Opera.  State troopers eventually flushed them out and pursued them through the city.  Over 20,000 were killed in 71 days, the final stand being made in the cemetery of Pere Lachaise where the final stalwarts were executed against the “Mur des Federes” (Martyr’s Wall).

A century of civil upheavals in France clamouring for social reform and rights for common men had sent shockwaves across Europe as the old system of Royal Dynasties struggled to maintain control.  The disintegration of these old social orders resulted in The Great War.

Basically, WWI was fought on the fields of France.  Over 2 million French men were killed, and the nation industrially crippled.  France fought on the winning side alongside the old enemy Britain and an unusual ally in Russia.  A small measure of revenge was satisfied in defeating the Germans and regaining the formerly annexed territories of Alsace and Lorraine.

The aftermath of the war was economic depression, 700% inflation and political instability, with over 25 cabinets between 1918 - 1934.  Struggling to recover from WWI, World War II could not have come at a worse time.  North and West France was occupied by the Nazis early in 1940 and for the next four years organised pockets of resistance kept the war on the western front alive.  In SE France, a collaborationist govt was set up under the puppet general Marshal Petain, believing Germany’s victory inevitable.  This VichyState remains a fiercely shameful blot on France’s own collective conscience.  The Free French Army was led by Charles de Gaulle in London, and Jean Moulin led the Resistance.  In 1944, after four years of occupation, de Gaulle finally liberated a battered, but intact, Paris.

The Cold War period saw France lose colonial influences abroad, notably in Indo-China (1954) and Algeria (1962), whilst also becoming a founding member of NATO. At home sentiment has retained a solidly socialist aspect with student / worker revolts in 1968 and the 1990’s, and almost constant protests from French agricultural workers demanding better pay and trading tariffs to protect French industry.

However, France has maintained a spear-heading influence in the political development of the European Union, being the key player alongside Germany, and the continued testing of nuclear capability in the South Pacific maintains her position both at the head of European affairs, and as a dominant global player.

My name is Robee Kann, for four years I was a tour guide throughout Europe. I loved my job and I would love to hear from you. You are most welcome to message me to say hello or request a hub about a European subject. Please look at my other hubs and leave a comment for me.

Comments On Major Events in French History

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    • profile image

      krishna sharma 

      6 years ago

      Thanks for writing such a great history with such an ease. It was very interesting to read it and first time i enjoyed history

    • profile image


      7 years ago

      omg u r like smart

    • profile image


      7 years ago

      Thank you for such well written information. I am still learning more and more of my direct ancestors the family line of the Capetian and Carolingian Dynasty's. Thank you for sharing this!

    • Robee Kann profile imageAUTHOR

      Robee Kann 

      9 years ago

      Thanks James I am glad you enjoyed the read

    • James Mark profile image

      James Mark 

      9 years ago from York, England

      This is a tour de force! A useful summary in a very readable style which I hope makes people want to read more deeply.


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