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Who were the best and worst Kings and regent Queens of France in history?

Best and worst Kings and Queens of France

The Kingdom of France emerged as a distinct political entity after the division of Charlemagne's empire between in three grandsons in 843. It was originally called the Kingdom of the West Franks and its rulers styled themselves as "Kings of the Franks". The first king calling himself King of France was Philip II in 1190. Many historians, including in France itself, consider Hugh Capet as the first King of France as he was the founder of the dynasty that would last until the very last kings in the 19th century. This assessment of the reigns of the kings of France will start with the Capetians. The official numbering of kings, however, starts with the Carolingians, who count among them Charles I (Charlemagne) to Charles III, and Louis I (Louis the Pious) through Louis V, who are not included here. This page attempts to rate the main kings and ruling queens of France in terms of policy, diplomatic, administrative and military skills, ability to keep peace, achievements and long-term impact. They are grouped in categories from best to worst. The order within each category is purely chronological.

The inheritance laws in France did not allow women to inherit the crown, so that they were no reigning queens of France, unlike in England (Mary, Elisabeth I, Anne, Victoria, Elisabeth II) or Spain (Urraca of Castile and León, Isabella I of Castile). However a few queens ruled over France as regents. These include Anne of Kiev (from 1060 to 1067), Blanche of Castile (1226-1234 and 1248-1252), Catherine de' Medici (1552, 1560-63 and 1574), Marie de' Medici (1610-1617), and Anne of Austria (1643-1651). Little is known of Anne of Kiev's regency. Anne of Austria entrusted the government to the chief minister, Cardinal Mazarin, and so had only a passive role as regent.

The outstanding kings

Philip II (1165-1223): Known as "Philip Augustus" for his considerable expansion of the royal domain, Philip II was a gifted military leader. His most impressive victory was at the Battle of Bouvines in 1214 when he defeated a grand coalition of the Holy Roman Emperor, the King of England, the Dukes of Brabant, Limburg and Lorraine, and the Counts of Flanders, Holland and Boulogne. During his 42 years of reign he managed to increased the size of the royal domain nearly six fold, conquering notably Artois, Normandy, Touraine, Maine, Anjou, Poitou, Saintonge and Auvergne. Even Louis XIV's territorial conquests pale in comparison. Philip considerably expanded the city walls of Paris, had its streets paved, built the first fortress of the Louvres, and founded the University of Paris by royal charter in 1200 (making it the second oldest university in Europe after Bologna to be officially recognised as such). He was also the first King of the Franks to start calling himself King of France (Rex Franciæ). He banned gambling and prostitution, but also reformed the feudal administration by replacing the hereditary seneschal by appointed bailiffs and provosts to administer the royal domain and hold justice in the king's name. In order to limit private wars or feuds, the king instituted a compulsory reflection time of 40 days to appease tensions, known as the quarantaine-le-roi, during which the two clans should try to solve their dispute through legal means. This policy would be continued by Louis IX.

Louis IX (1214-1270): A very popular king, Louis IX was known for his kindness, moral integrity and keen sense of justice, so much so that he was considered already a saint during his lifetime. His legendary fairness was held in high esteem by his fellow European rulers, who often sought his arbitration to settle their disputes. His reign is remembered as a medieval golden age in which the Kingdom of France reached an economic as well as political peak. Contrarily to previous kings, he sought to establish a long-lasting peace, notably by signing a permanent peace treaty with Henry III of England, ending 100 years of conflicts between the Capetian and Plantagenet dynasties. He curbed the excesses of feudalism in favor of the notion of the common good and developed royal justice. He banned trials by ordeal and instituted the presumption of innocence to criminal procedures, the first European monarch to do so. Louis IX set up institutions that would later become the Parliament and the Court of Audit. Under his reign, Paris became an artistic capital with elegant architecture and workshops of illuminated manuscripts, ivory, embroidery, tapestries and jewelry. The construction of many of the great Gothic cathedrals in northern France were started (Amiens, Auxerre, Beauvais), continued (Paris, Reims, Rouen) or completed (Chartres) under Louis IX. His 44 years reign was the second longest in French history before Louis XIV.

Charles V (1338-1380): Few kings were crowned under such unpropitious conditions as Charles V. The Black Death had ravaged Europe from 1347 to 1351, killing 30% to 50% of the population. The country was ruined and regularly pillaged by the English. The armies of the two previous kings had been crushed by the English at Crécy (1347) and Poitiers (1356). His father, John II, was captured at Poitiers, and in order to free him Charles, as regent, had to sign the Treaty of Brétigny (1360), in which he ceded a good part of Southwest France to England, in addition to paying a ruinous ransom of 4 million écus (1 écu was a gold coin of 4.5 g, with a modern value comprised between 150€ and 200€). Yet, after becoming king, Charles would manage to recover much of the territory lost. His skillful management of the kingdom allowed him to replenish the royal treasury. He established the first permanent army paid with regular wages, which liberated the French populace from the companies of routiers who regularly plundered the country when not employed. Charles V completed the medieval Louvre Castle and built the Bastille. Known as Charles the Wise, he was intelligent and literate and created a vast library housed in the Louvre containing over 1,200 volumes. Concerned with government for the common good, the king commissioned Nicole Oresme to translate Aristotle's Politics, Ethics, and Economics into eloquent French for the first time. He used the two former works as a manual for government, while the Ethics advised the king on how to be a good ma.

Louis XI (1423-1483): Ascending the throne shortly after the end of the Hundred Years' War, Louis XI spent most of his reign striving to reinforce the royal authority against his great vassals and consolidating the borders of France. Louis was an unusual monarch in that he disregarded luxury and the traditional court etiquette in favour of a plainer way of life. Mistrustful of great nobles, he surrounded himself with low-born, but capable and hard-working administrators and a small circle of advisors he had known for years before becoming king. Louis XI was clever, diligent, courteous, humble, loyal, generous, forgiving, and always ready to seek peace and improve the lot of common people. For this he had the unwavering support of French cities. He despised the horrors of war, which he always tried to prevent through diplomacy. The great nobles, though, felt neglected or offended by being sidelined from the matters of state. Louis managed times and again to thwart or crush rebellions by his vassals, including the Duke of Brittany, the Duke of Bourbon, the Count of Armagnac, and particularly the turbulent and bellicose Charles the Bold of Burgundy. The latter had formed the League of the Public Weal aiming at replacing Louis by and his weak half-brother Charles, Duke of Berry, who would act as a puppet king of the great vassals. Tensions with Charles the Bold culminated in the Burgundian Wars (1474–1477), which ended in a victory for Louis, Charles' death on the battlefield, and the division of the Burgundian State between France and the Habsburgian heirs. The subsequent Treaty of Arras (1482) conferred to France the County of Artois, but more importantly also the County of Burgundy, which had been historically part of the Holy Roman Empire. The Duchies of Anjou and Bar and the Counties of Maine and Provence were also peacefully absorbed by the royal domain under Louis' reign. To accomplish his goals and defeat his political adversaries, Louis XI favored the use of cunning and an effective network of informants over force. His intense diplomatic activity, perceived by his adversaries as sneaky, earned him the nickname of "Universal Spider", as his enemies accused him of spinning webs of plots and conspiracies. His admirers noted that he managed to put an end to feudalism with hardly any fighting or loss of life - quite an achievement in itself. Louis XI was one of the first monarchs to clearly understand that it was preferrable to stimulate commerce and industry to increase government revenues rather than to burden his people with higher taxation. In order to achieve this, he tireless worked to promote France's prosperity. He established silk factories in Lyon and Tours, invited foreigners to work in mines, supported the development of the new printing press, encouraged exports of cloth and wine to England, set up trade fairs... Louis spent tax money to build and repair roads, make them safer for travellers and merchants, and created a network of postal relays all over France, which served as a precursor to the modern postal service. Last by not least, he attempted to unify the disparate customary laws from each region of France into a coherent national legal system, and reformed the judicial system to speed up trials and make them more equitable.

Henry IV (1553-1610): Nicknamed Good King Henry or Henry the Great, the sovereign started his reign as King of Navarre and was the first French king of the House of Bourbon. Ascending the throne during the tumultuous time of the Wars of Religion, Henry was originally a Protestant, who pragmatically converted to Catholicism in order to become King of France. With one foot in each camp, he promulgated the Edict of Nantes (1598), which granted religious liberties to Protestants, effectively ending the French Wars of Religion that had killed some 3 million people in the previous 36 years. An active ruler, Henry worked to regularise state finance, promote agriculture, drain swamps, undertake public works, eliminate corruption and encourage education. He and is minister Sully protected forests from further devastation, built a system of tree-lined highways, and constructed bridges and canals (notably the Briare Canal linking the Seine and the Loire). During his reign, the French colonization of the Americas truly began with the foundation of the colonies of Québec and Port-Royal (in Acadia). Henry was a promoter of the arts by all classes of people. He left numerous architectural additions to the Parisian landscape, such as the Place des Vosges, the Place Dauphine, the Pont Neuf, or the 400m long Grande Galerie in the Louvre Palace (the longest edifice of its kind in the world at the time).

Kings excellent at home, but with poor foreign policy

Louis XII (1462-1515): Louis XII was one of the most popular kings France ever had. He was in favour of a moderate monarchy that did not encroach on the power of local governments or the privileges of the nobility, an attitude that led the Estates-General of Tours to proclaim him "Father of the People" in 1506. He reformed and codified the French legal system and attempted to curb corruption in the courts of law. Skilful administrator, he managed to reduce taxes and make good use of tax revenue by maintaining the road network. Notwithstanding his achievements at home, his foreign policy was more hazardous. Fuelled by personnal ambition, Louis XII invaded the Duchy of Milan (1499), then the Kingdom of Naples (1501) based on tenuous claims of inheritance. These Italian Wars and the subsequent War of the League of Cambrai caused over 50,000 deaths and left in its wake a swathe of devastation across Italy, but ultimately achieved nothing. Influenced by Italian art movements, the Louis XII Style marks the transition between Gothic and Renaissance styles in France. It survives in Loire Valley châteaux such as Blois, Chaumont-sur-Loire, or Maintenon, or in the Townhall of Compiègne. Louis XII was the son of Charles of Orléans and his third wife, Marie of Cleves, who was 32 years his junior. The couple remained childless for 17 years, then, as Charles, in his late 60's, was increasingly withdrawn and senile, Marie 'miraculously' had three children in short succession. Even Louis XI, who was Louis XII's godfather, doubted Charles' paternity. His biological father was rumoured to have been a stable boy who often accompanied Marie. Or it could have been Marie's gentlemen of the chamber, whom she secretly married after Charles's death.

Francis I (1494-1597): Considered the embodiment of the French Renaissance period, Francis I was a prodigious patron of the arts, attracting many Italian artists to work for him, including Leonardo da Vinci. He was also a great builder, replacing the Paris City Hall by a new Renaissance edifice, expanding and transforming the royal residences of Blois, Fontainebleau and Saint-Germain-en-Laye, and above all constructing the Château de Chambord, the building most closely associated with him to this day. Francis was also renowned as a man of letters. He considerably expanded the size of the royal library by requesting that a copy of every new book published in France be sent to the library. He was not just a collector of books, but was also known to be an avid reader. In 1530, he declared French the national language of the kingdom and nine years later made French the administrative language of the kingdom as a replacement for Latin. He founded the Collège Royal (now the Collège de France), whose ambition is to teach "the knowledge that is being built up in all fields of literature, science and the arts". Military, Francis I had mitigated record. He started his reign well enough by winning a great victory at Marignano against the combined forces of the Papal States and the Old Swiss Confederacy, thus annexing the city-state of Milan. But the glory was short-lived. The Italian War of 1521–1526 pitted Francis against Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. Francis was defeated and captured at the Battle of Pavia in 1525, then imprisoned in Madrid. In exchange for his liberation, the French monarch was forced to relinquish Lombardy and renounced all his claims in Italy, Artois, and Flanders.

The fairly good kings

Louis VI (1081-1137): A warrior king at heart, Louis VI, nicknamed "the Fighter", spent most of the 29 years of reign battling the robber barons around the Île-de-France region. These feudal lords resisted the King's authority and engaged in brigandry, making the area around Paris unsafe. They would charge tolls, waylay merchants and pilgrims, terrorise the peasantry and loot churches and abbeys. The king led his army from castle to castle, bringing law and order to his domains and restoring the Crown's authority, so that all sectors of French society began to see the King as their protector. He also fought the kings of England for the control of Normandy. Louis VI managed to reinforce his power considerably and became one of the first strong kings of France since the death of Charlemagne in 814.

Philip V (1293-1322): Second of Philip IV's three sons who would become kings of France, Philip V is generally regarded as the most capable and intelligent of the three. Philip V managed to find a peaceful resolution to the conflict with Flanders that afflicted his father and elder brother's reigns. He set up urban militias (police forces in the service of the king), created the Court of Audit (which still exists today), reformed the Parliament, the Royal Council, and the Treasury, and centralised other institutions to make them more efficient. He sought to impose a standardised set of currency, weights and measures in all the country, despite opposition from his southern vassals, but he died before this could be achieved. Although Philip V only ruled for five years, he was a popular king thanks to his able administration, moderation and wisdom.

The weak but good kings (relying mostly on ministers)

Louis VII (1120-1180): As the second son of Louis VI, Louis the Young was not destined to reign. His ecclesiastical education made him well learned and devout, but also gave him a monastic and austere temperament that would strongly influence his reign. Louis VII had one of the longest reigns of any French monarchs: 43 years as sole king and another 6 years as junior king alongside his father. Through his marriage with Eleanor of Aquitaine, the wealthiest and most powerful women in western Europe at the time, Louis extended the royal domain nearly six-fold. This was not to last however. In 1147 he embarked on the Second Crusade with his wife. The crusade did not go well due to the Byzantine forming a secret alliance with the Turks and betraying the Franks. The objective of the crusade was to retake Edessa, but when the crusaders reached Antioch they learned that the city had been destroyed and its Christian population exterminated. The pious Louis then decided to call it quit and go on a personal pilgrimage to Jerusalem, even refusing to help Eleanor's uncle, the Prince of Antioch, to defend the city against the Muslims. Months of tense relations with Eleanor due to their divergent characters and the hardships of the journey caused them to seek a divorce upon their return to France. Eleanor quickly remarried with Henry II of England, thus passing all her lands in Southwest France to the English crown. Conjugal incompatibility can hardly be blamed on Louis though. Despite being criticised as naive and indecisive during his early years of reign, Louis VII ruled fairly well, surrounded by able councilors. Agriculture, commerce, industry thrived, as did intellectual life and the construction of stone castles.

Louis XIII (1601-1643): Louis was only nine years old when his father, Henry IV, was assassinated. His mother, Marie de' Medici, acted as regent during his minority. After that his rule was dominated by his chief minister, Cardinal Richelieu, who governed the country with great ability. Louis XIII was a very pious Catholic king, but that did not prevent him from being particularly tolerant toward the Protestants. He was perceived as a good and just king. Louis helped the poor and set up the first census office for the unemployed and disabled. Under his guidance French colonists were encouraged to coexist peacefully with Native Americans in New France, unlike other colonial powers. Louis XIII was a warrior king and liked to be present on the battlefield, as was often the case during the French interventions in the Thirty Years' War. Under his reign, although in great part thanks to Richelieu, France occupied Roussillon, Catalonia, Artois and Alsace, who would be officially annexed by two treaties under Louis XIV.

Louis XVI (1754-1793): Usually remembered as the king who was guillotined during the French Revolution, Louis XVI was in many respect a good king that was unlucky to inherit the problems caused by his two predecessors and his wife Marie-Antoinette's bad reputation among the French population. After the disastrous end of reign of Louis XV, with the kingdom on the brink of bankruptcy, Louis XVI immediately started financial reforms with the help of able ministers like Turgot, Calonne and Necker. Louis sought to reform the French government in accordance with Enlightenment ideas, notably by freeing the last serfs and abolishing the death penalty for deserters as well as the corvée, a sort of labour tax imposed by feudal lords. Early in his reign Louis was convinced by Pierre Beaumarchais to support the American Revolution. In 1787 Louis XVI signed the Edict of Versailles, which granted non-Roman Catholics (Protestants and Jews) civil and legal status in France and the legal right to practice their faiths. In 1789, after the storming of the Bastille, Louis, who didn't favour absolute monarchy, accepted to become a constitutional monarch and remained popular among the population. But the revolutionary wind had started blowing and the king's attempt to slow things down led a minority of extremists led by Robespierre and Marat to request the king's execution.

The ambivalent kings

Louis X (1289-1316): Philip IV's eldest son only reigned for one and a half year during which he faced a revolt of the nobility against his father's reforms aiming at increasing the king's power. Unlike his father, Louis X is a weak ruler, although his monikers of the Stubborn or the Quarrelsome do bear a resemblance of character with Philip IV. Louis was forced by his great vassals to get rid of the Grand Chamberlain Enguerrand de Marigny, who masterminded Philip IV's reforms. Marigny was judged and hanged, as would many other royal counselors. On a more positive note, Louis X abolished serfdom, arguing that all men are born equal. Serfs, however, were still required to purchase their freedom, and a commission is set up to assess the value of each serf. The king also readmitted Jews into the kingdom, nine years after they were expelled by his father, although they were still forbidden from usury.

Louis XVIII (1755-1824): Louis XVI's younger brother was known as the Count of Provence from his birth until his accession to the throne of France at the age of 58. Following the French Revolution and during the Napoleonic era, Louis XVIII lived in exile for 23 years until the Sixth Coalition finally defeated Napoleon in 1814. Having accepted the results of the Revolution, Louis XVIII was a moderate king, leading a court life without excessive pomp. He accepted the Charter of 1814, which curtailed the king's power and guaranteed many of the individual liberties acquired during the French Revolution. However, the Second Bourbon Restoration of 1815, following Napoleon's return during the Hundred Days and his eventual defeat at Waterloo, led to the Second White Terror, in which thousands of people were emprisoned or exiled, and hundreds executed or assassinated. Nevertheless, Louis XVIII did not support the ultra-conservative led by his brother, the future Charles X. He always made a point of choosing a ministry from the parliamentary majority, although nothing forced him to do so. His relatively moderate attitude at home may just have been a front to prevent another overthrowing of the recovering Bourbon monarchy. In 1820 a liberal revolt took place in Spain in reaction to the absolutist tendencies of Ferdinand VII of Spain, resulting in the establishment of a liberal government. Pressured by France's ultra-royalists, Louis XVIII sent troops to invade Spain to restore his cousin Ferdinand VII as an absolute monarch. This French intervention started what would be known in Spain as the Ominous Decade (1823-1833).

Charles X (1757-1836): Younger brother of Louis XVI and Louis XVIII, Charles X was the leader of the ultra-royalists after the Bourbon Restoration in 1814. As such he attempted to revive the divine right of kings and opposed the concessions towards liberals and guarantees of civil liberties. His reign is for France a period of political stability and economic prosperity. Charles X was a patron of artists, scholars, writers, such as à Victor Hugo, Chateaubriand, and Lamartine. He supported the Greek War of Independence from the Ottoman Empire with the Morea expedition. However Charles' devot Catholicism and conservative ideas alienated part of public opinion, notably by reinstating of press censorship, reimposing capital punishment for sacrilege, increasing the power of the Catholic Church, granting compensation to former landowners for the abolition of feudalism, and attempting in other ways to undo the social reforms of the French Revolution. This led to the July Revolution of 1830 that overthrew him in favour of the pro-liberal Louis Philippe, Duke of Orléans, who became a constitutional monarch.

The strong, but bellicose, greedy and despotic kings

Philip IV (1268-1314): Known as the Iron King for his inflexibility and autocratic attitude, Philip is nevertheless remembered as the first "modern" sovereign of France. Surrounding himself by skillful civil servants and lawyers, he started the transformation of France from a feudal country to a centralised early modern state. He sought to reduce the wealth and influence of the nobility and the clergy by restricting their privileges. He was the first king to summon the assembly of the Estates General, an institution similar to the Parliament of England, and which would last until the French Revolution. He called them six times between 1302 and 1314, more than any other king later. The Estates General, which represented the nobility, the clergy, and the commoners, advised the king in terms of legislation and taxation. The two first meetings dealt with Philip IV's dispute with Pope Boniface VIII. The conflict arose when Philip started levying taxes on the French clergy of one half their annual income. The Pope forbid it and threatened to excommunicate the king and decree an interdict over France. Supported by the Estates General, Philip sent Guillaume de Nogaret to Italy to arrest the pope and have him judged in France. The pope escaped but died soon afterward. The French archbishop Bertrand de Got was elected pope as Clement V and the papal court transferred to the enclave of Avignon in 1309. The papacy would remain seated in Avignon, subjected to French control, for the next 67 years. A 10 year conflict with Edward I of England was settled by the Treaty of Paris (1303), in which Philip's daughter Isabella was to be married to Edward's son (the future Edward II). Unfortunately the peace didn't last long and the union gave an eventual English claimant to the French throne itself, resulting in the Hundred Years' War. The Franco-Flemish War (1297-1305) was the scene of a historically significant battle in which elite French knights suffered a humiliating defeat at the hands of a Flemish militia of pikemen at the Battle of the Golden Spurs near Kortrijk on 11 July 1302 (the date is still commemorated in Flanders today). To finance his wars, Philip IV accumulated huge debts towards the Jews, the Lombards and the Knights Templar. He first ordered the arrest of the Lombard merchants and seizure of their assets by the government, and expelled the Jews of various regions between 1289 and 1303, then enact an Edict of Expulsion for all the Jews in France in 1306, also seizing their assets. But his biggest creditors were the Knights Templars, who had become an international bank and were seen as a "state within the state" and a recurring threat to royal power. Under pretext of heresy, hundreds of Templars in France were simultaneously arrested on 13 October 1307 and their assets seized. This led to the Trials of the Knights Templar, the dissolution the order in 1312, and the burning at the stake of dozens of Templars in 1314, including the Grand Master Jacques de Molay.

Charles IV (1294-1328): Philip IV's youngest son shared his father's rigid attitude, raw ambition and greediness. Crowned in 1322, Charles already thinks of leading a new crusade the next year, but the pope rejects the project, suspecting Charles of using the funds for other reasons. At the same time, a succession crisis on the Holy Roman Empire allows Charles to make a bid for the imperial crown through his marriage to Emperor Henry VII's daughter, Marie of Luxembourg. However Marie dies in 1324, cancelling his claim. That same year, Charles invades and conquers the Duchy of Guyenne, possession of King Edward II of England, simply because Edward refused to pay homage to him. In 1326, Charles plans to lead an expedition against the Byzantine Empire, but dies in early 1328 before he could set his plans in motion. During his six-year reign Charles IV carried out reforms of the Court of Auditors, the Parliament, the Chancellery, and other government offices in order to save money and prevent fraud. As in previous reigns, the royal state faced financial difficulties and Charles sought twisted and unpopular ways to fill his coffers, e.g. by debasing the coinage, selling offices, increasing taxation, exacting burdensome duties, and confiscating estates from enemies or those he disliked, such as the Italian merchants and the Jews.

Louis XIV (1638-1715): Probably the most famous of all French monarchs, the Sun King, as he liked to call himself, marked the history of France by instituting an absolute monarchy of the divine right, thereby eliminating the remnants of feudalism. Traumatised by a rebellion of the aristocracy during his childhood, during which he had to flee and hide, Louis XIV decided to build the largest palace in Europe at Versailles, where he would compel the high-ranking nobles to live, so that he could keep them in check. His reign of 72 years is the longest recorded of any monarch of a sovereign country in history, yet it was by no means the best for the country. Obsessed by personal glory, the Sun King would wage numerous wars against France's neighbours, but also more distant countries like Portugal or Sweden, at tremendous cost for the finances and populations alike. The three worst were the Franco-Dutch War (1672–1678), the Nine Years' War (1688–1697), and the War of the Spanish Succession (1701–1715), which together resulted in relatively minor territorial changes at the cost of over 2 million lives. On the home front, Louis XIV's policies weren't much more peaceful. His Revocation of the Edict of Nantes (1685) abolished the rights of the Huguenot Protestants granted by his grand-father Henry IV and subjected them to officially-sanctioned persecutions. This effectively forced Huguenots to emigrate or convert. Three months later, Louis XIV claimed that out of a Huguenot population of 800,000 to 900,000, only 1,000 to 1,500 had remained in France. Despite the wars and religious persecutions, Louis XIV did a great deal to foster French culture by sponsoring artists such as Molière, Lully or Rigaud, as well as founding the French Academy of Sciences.

The good-hearted by inept kings

Louis XV (1710-1774): Succeeding his great-grandfather Louis XIV at the age of five, Louis XV started what was to become the second longest reign in French history (nearly 59 years). During his early years the regency was held by the Duke of Orléans, a period of ostentation and constant partying following the stringency of Louis XIV's late years. Still too young to rule effectively upon his official coming of age (set at 13 years old at the time), the government was ruled by the Duke of Bourbon, then by Cardinal Fleury, who was chief minister from 1726 until his death in 1743. It is only from that time on that the king took sole control of the kingdom, in the midst of the War of the Austrian Succession that involved a good part of Europe. After winning the right over the Austrian Netherlands at the Battle of Fontenoy (1745), Louis inexplicably ceded them back at the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle (1748), prompting the English writer and politician, Horace Walpole, to write "wonderful it is...why the French have lost so much blood and treasure to so little purpose." The king was then force to relinquish New France in North America to Great Britain and Spain at the conclusion of the disastrous Seven Years' War (1756–1763), which effectively put an end to France's colonial ambitions (at least until the second half of the 19th century). Although Louis XV was a gentle, kind, honest and humble monarch, he was also shy, retiring and a poor communicator. His numerous and costly wars, his dismissal of popular ministers like Choiseul, the influence of his mistresses over political affairs, and the increasing gap between the court at Versailles and the common people all contributed to make him hugely unpopular during his last decade of life.

The bad kings

John II (1319-1364): One of the most unlucky kings of France, John II came to the throne in 1350, right in the middle of the bubonic plague (the "Black Death") pandemic in Europe, and just after its passage in France, where it had killed approximately 40% of the population. Politically, it was the beginning of the Hundred Years' War (1337–1453). On July 1356, Edward, the Black Prince, son of Edward III of England, took an army on a great chevauchée through France, burning and pillaging all on his way. John II pursued him with an army of 15,000 and attacked Edward's Anglo-Gascon army of 6,000, who held a strong defensive position near Poitiers. In one of the worst military defeat in medieval history, John lost the Battle of Poitiers, in which half of the French army was annihilated. The king was captured by the English and taken as a prisoner to Bordeaux, and from there to England, where he would remain in captivity for four years. For the king's release, the English asked one of the largest ransoms in medieval history, 3 million crowns, or roughly the equivalent of two or three years worth of revenue for the French Crown. To add to the humiliation, the Treaty of Brétigny also forced France to cede most of Southwest France from the Pyrenees to Poitou and Saintonge as well as the coast of Picardy between Montreuil and Calais. As a guarantee for the payment of his ransom, John gave as hostages two of his sons, Louis I, Duke of Anjou and John, Duke of Berry, and several princes and nobles. But in 1362 Louis escaped from captivity and John felt honour-bound to return to captivity in England, where he died in 1364. During his captivity, peasant revolts took place in northern France, while other regions (Rhône valley, Languedoc) were ravaged by free companies (armies of mercenaries). In spite of all this, John II was not the worst possible king. His behaviour showed that he had a strong sense of honour and he did personally fight valiantly at Poitiers. Before that fateful battle, John had created a well-structured royal army, simplified taxation, and in 1360 he created the gold franc to fight devaluation.

Charles VIII (1470 -1498): King at the age of 13 under his elder sister's regency, Charles VIII only starts ruling on his own in 1491 at the age of 21. That same year, Charles forced Anne of Brittany, the reigning Duchess of Brittany, to marry him, even though she had already been married by proxy to the Habsburg Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I. Charles wanted to avoid total encirclement by Habsburg territories and threatened to invade Brittany if the duchess didn't renounce Maximilian and marry him instead. The marriage contract stipulated that, should she be widowed, she could only remarry with the next King of France. He did happen and Anne married Louis XII. Charles's seven years of reign were chiefly defined by the expedition to Italy to secure the throne of the Kingdom of Naples, whose rights he claimed to have inherited from the Angevin dynasty. To prevent invasions from neighbouring countries while he was waging war in Italy, Charles bought the neutrality of Henry VII of England by paying him £159,000, and had to let go and abandon some of his father's most important acquisitions, Roussillon and Cerdagne, which he ceded to the King of Aragon in 1492 and 1493, and Franche-Comté, Artois and Charolais, which he sold to Emperor Maximilian I in 1493. He sacrificed French provinces for the gamble of gaining Naples, a gamble which he eventually lost. Charles only controlled the Kingdom of Naples for a few months in 1495. Alarmed by the presence of a strong French army in the peninsula, in March 1495 the Pope and several Italian states, including the Duchy of Milan, the Republic of Venice, the Duchy of Mantua, and the Republic of Florence, formed the League of Venice to expel the French out of Italy, which they did in July of that year. Charles VIII died in 1498, aged 28, after accidentally striking his head on the lintel of a door at the Château d'Amboise.

The worst monarchs

Charles VI (1368-1422): Crowned king at the age of 12, Charles was first nicknamed the Beloved during the regency of his uncles. This wouldn't last. In 1392, at the age of 24, he suffered a fit of delirium during which he attacked his own men in the forest of Le Mans. This would be the first of numerous psychotic episodes which plagued him throughout his life. The king would frequently alternate between periods of mental instability and lucidity. From now on Charles would be known as the Mad and his reign was beyond a doubt disastrous for France. At war with Burgundy and England, Charles VI would lose the territory regained by his father and almost lose the whole kingdom to the king of England.

Charles VII (1403-1461): Son of Charles VI, Charles VII inherit the throne in inauspicious circumstances. The North of France, including Paris, being in the hands of the English and the Burgundians, Charles established his own court in Bourges and a Parlement in Poitiers. For this reason he was derisively known as "King of Bourges" instead of King of France. The situation was desperate and the new king appeared to be almost as weak as his deranged father. Then came a teenage girl named Joan of Arc who claimed she had been instructed by God through the archangel Michael to support Charles and recover France from English domination. She inspired French troops and managed to lead them to victory several times. Charles was crowned King of France in Reims in 1429. Despite Joan's decisive role in reversing the course of the Hundred Years' War in France's favour and giving the king his kingdom back, when she was captured in Compiègne in 1430, Charles VII did nothing to try to rescue her, pay a ransom to liberate her, or prevent her burning at the stake in Rouen the next year. Charles also seemed to have been quite indifferent toward his son, the future Louis XI, ever since his childhood. Worse than that, the king seems to have been jealous of his son's abilities and constantly prevented him from achieving anything that could cast a shadow over himself. He frequently recalled him from military campaigns when the Dauphin won battles, to Louis' great frustration. Charles went as far as to try to prevent his son from marrying, threatening to invade the allied Duchy of Savoy when Louis, still childless at 28 years of age, decided to marry the duke's daughter. Perverse father, indecisive and indolent as a ruler, more interested in his numerous concubines than in matters of state, Charles VII also had a mean streak. Jacques Cœur, a wealthy merchant and banker who served as the king's financier, was arrested by the king's men and absurdly accused of poisoning the king's mistress. Clearly innocent, Cœur was nevertheless imprisoned and had all his possessions seized by the king. Charles VII's only notable achievement was the creation of France's first professional army (l'armée royale), although it is not certain the idea was his.

Catherine de' Medici (1519-1589): Catherine was Queen consort of France from 1547 until 1559 by her marriage to King Henry II, and mother of kings Francis II, Charles IX and Henry III. Each of her sons died young while king and she acted three times as regent of France (in 1552, 1560-63 and 1574). Her influence over her sons' reigns resulted in the period being called "the age of Catherine de' Medici". This was a period of almost constant civil and religious war in France. The repressions against the Protestants culminated with the infamous St. Bartholomew's Day massacre during which up to 30,000 Huguenots were killed in the night of 23–24 August 1572. Although that was the worst single day massacre, the French Wars of Religion caused the deaths of some 3 million people and most ot it took place during the age of Catherine de' Medici and in great part because of her hard-line policies against them. History remembers her as a power-hungry, Machiavellian, despotic and cantankerous woman, recoiling from no crime to maintain her influence, although this is surely exaggerated.


In English

  1. Capetians: Kings of France, 987-1328, by Jim Bradbury
  2. The Valois: Kings of France 1328-1589, by Robert Knecht
  3. Louis XI, the Universal Spider, by Paul Murray Kendall
  4. Francis I: The Maker of Modern France, by Leonie Frieda
  5. Catherine de Medici: A Biography, by Leonie Frieda
  6. Henri IV of France: His Reign and Age, by Vincent J. Pitts
  7. King of the World: The Life of Louis XIV, by Philip Mansel
  8. Louis XV, by Olivier Bernier>
  9. The Life of Louis XVI, by John Hardman

In French

  1. 1180-1328: L'âge d'or capétien, by Jean-Christophe Cassard and Jean-Louis Biget
  2. Philippe Auguste: Le batisseur du royaume, by Bruno Galland
  3. Saint Louis, by Jacques Le Goff
  4. Philippe le Bel, by Georges Minois
  5. Louis X, Philippe V, Charles IV: Les derniers Capétiens, by Christelle Balouzat-Loubet
  6. Charles V: le Sage, by Georges Bordonove
  7. Charles VI: La folie du roi, by Françoise Autrand
  8. Louis XI, by Paul Murray Kendall
  9. Louis XII: un autre César, by Didier Le Fur
  10. Louis XII: Le Père du peuple, by George Bordonove
  11. Catherine de Médicis, by Jean-François Solnon
  12. Les Rois de France, by Patrick Weber

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