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French History

The Romans called the inhabitants of the country we know as France the Gallia or Gauls. They were skilled metal workers and traders who had established links with the Ancient Greeks. The Romans, led by Julius Caesar, conquered the Gauls between 58 bc and 51 bc. Gallia Transalpina—“Gaul across the Alps”—was the name given by the Romans to the area they won.

Mélanie Laurent


As the Roman Empire grew weaker, Gallia Transalpina was invaded by peoples from the east, from today’s Germany. They also came from the north, from the British Isles. The area they settled was named Brittany, after the Ancient Britons. The most powerful of these invading peoples were the Franks, from whom France and the French get their name. Under their king Clovis, who ruled between ad 481 and 511, the Franks ruled much of the land that now makes up modern France and south-western Germany. Clovis made Paris his capital and converted to Christianity. After his death, his lands were divided between his sons. Not until the rule of Charlemagne in the later 8th century were the Frankish lands unified again under one ruler.

Not long after Charlemagne’s death, the empire of the Franks has divided again. The western division included most of modern France. However, the invasions were not over. In the 10th century, the Vikings invaded northern France. The French called them the “Northmen”, or Normans. They were allowed to settle in a region that became known as Normandy.


During the early Middle Ages, the king of France was not a powerful figure. France was divided into dukedoms, and the dukes who ruled them had a lot of independence. One of these dukedoms called Aquitaine was ruled by Henry II, the King of England, from 1152. The French king Philip II (Philip Augustus) extended his royal authority over Normandy and some of the other English territory in France. He also made the king more powerful than he had been for centuries.

Philip’s son Louis VIII strengthened royal power in the south by leading a crusade against a religious sect called the Albigenses, who lived in the southeast of France. The Albigenses were wiped out with great brutality, while the regions of Languedoc and Provence were absorbed into the kingdom of France. A later king, Philip IV (the Fair) was confident enough to take on the Pope, Boniface VIII, who did not agree with Philip about the extent of his authority over the Church. In 1303, Philip captured and imprisoned Boniface. Later, after Boniface had died, Philip made sure that his favourite candidate was elected to replace him. Philip even forced the new Pope to leave Rome and live in the French town of Avignon, where the king could keep a close watch over him!


At the time of Philip the Fair’s death in 1314, France was the greatest kingdom in Europe. However, the kingdom came very close to being broken up over the next century, which was dominated by the Hundred Years’ War. This long war (that actually lasted 116 years) was caused by the claim of the English king Edward III to the throne of France. Although the English won many battles they were never able to totally defeat the French.


Under King Francis I, France once again had one of the most magnificent courts in Europe. He built up an incredible library, employed great artists (including Leonardo da Vinci) and commissioned a magnificent chateau at Chambord in the Loire Valley. As a Renaissance prince, Francis was also keen to demonstrate his skills on the battlefield, and this led to some military adventures in Italy. These were not always successful. In 1525 he was captured by the Spanish and held the prisoner for two years.

After the death of Francis, the kingdom was deeply divided between Catholics and followers of the Protestant reformer John Calvin, who were known as Huguenots. The civil wars raged until 1598. At this time Henry IV was king. Although he was brought up as a Huguenot, he converted to Catholicism when he came to the throne. This move eased the religious hostilities that were devastating France.


France’s rulers in the 17th century set about making the country an absolute monarchy—where the king was the source of all power. Louis XIII’s chief minister, Cardinal Richelieu, encouraged industry, sent explorers to North America and forced France’s nobility to respect the Crown. He also built up France’s military power and intervened successfully in the Thirty Years’ War against the Habsburgs.

Louis XIV was known as the “Sun King” and he benefited from Richelieu’s work. Louis built himself a magnificent new palace at Versailles, outside Paris. This became the centre of a glorious court, at which the playwrights Molière and Jean-Baptiste Racine, the composer Jean-Baptiste Lully and the painter Hyacinthe Rigaud produced their masterpieces. Under Louis, France was the most feared military power in Europe. France was at war through almost his entire reign.


During the 18th century, France began to have serious financial problems. The country continued to get involved in very expensive wars, some unsuccessful (for example the Seven Years’ War of 1756-1763), some successful (France helped the Americans to defeat the British in their War of Independence). By the time King Louis XVI came to the throne in 1774 there was an urgent need for reform. However, Louis did not want to give up any of his power as king. This was one reason why revolution broke out in 1789. Louis was overthrown in 1792 and executed. France became a republic.


Other European countries were worried that the French Revolution would spread across their borders. They sent their armies to fight against France, but the French held them off. The most successful general in Revolutionary France was Napoleon Bonaparte. He became emperor in 1804. Under his rule, France controlled most of Europe, until he was finally defeated by Britain and Prussia at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815.

For the rest of the 19th century, France was divided into different political groups. Royalists supported the monarchy and it was restored in 1815. Bonapartists wanted members of Napoleon’s family to rule. Republicans wanted France to be a democratic republic. There were revolutions and uprisings in 1830, 1848 and 1871 as the groups fought for power. Finally, after 1871, a republic was established. France has been a republic ever since.


France’s military rivalry with Germany was one cause of World War I. The German army swept into France in 1914 and did not leave until after its surrender in 1918. Germany invaded again in 1940, and France was divided into an occupied zone and a semi-independent zone. This second zone was called the Vichy Republic and it co-operated with the German military. A group called the Free French, led by Charles de Gaulle, continued to resist the Germans though, and in 1944 the country was liberated.


In the years after the war, France lost its empire. Sometimes this happened after bitter fighting, as in Vietnam between 1946 and 1954 and in Algeria between 1954 and 1962. Many people from France’s former colonies have since moved to live in France. France was a founder member of the European Economic Community (today called the European Union) in 1957.

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