The First half of France's tenth century was one of unstoppable decline into feudal localization of power and further enervation of Carolingian power under the Viking onslaught. At the death of the last Carolingian king in the west, West Frankish nobles and religious leaders chose as king Hugh Capet, a strong noble from Ile de France surrounding Paris. The motivation was to elect as king someone who was not strong enough to prevent further feudal aggrandizement on the part to the Dukes. The major accomplishment of Hugh were 1) To have his son crowned as associate in kingship, guaranteeing continuity of the Capets as monarchs; 2) succeed in continued rule of his own Ile de France duchy and the loyalty of lesser feudal lords in the region; and 3) maintain the Church's support of his house's rule. Beyond that, his authority was constrained quite severely. Counts enforced his decrees only as they saw fit, and manorial dues on his lands came to him only through his continued enforcement. Though his vassals included al duchies west of Lorraine to Spain, he was seen as only one more--anointed--duke, and beyond his inviolable status as king, was little able to enforce his prerogatives. His successors included Robert the Pious (996-1031) and Henry I (1031-1060), but they possessed absolutely no supremacy in France. Indeed, these were not able to preserve Hugh's power even within the Ile de France. Their greater vassals here built motte and bailey castles as well as stronger fortresses, defying their lords' commands as long as they had the muscle to do so. At this time the king of France needed to obtain permission from other dukes to pass between duchies. Offices such as the provost meant to monitor and collect dues from royal domains throughout France were bought according to highest bids, after which they became hereditary and seeped away from the crowns control.

The tide of unsalvageable feudalization defying royal authority only began to slow under Philip I (1060-1108). He was able to stop the shrinkage of the desmene, and added a few lands to the crown, such as Bourges (purchased from its viscount so the latter could go on Crusade), as well as a small amount of Angevin lands in return for recognizing a count of Anjou. Beyond this however, the stabilization of feudal duchies and counties afforded the crown little room for politicking, just as his neighbors were all at least as strong as he, preventing expansion. It was often difficult to control even his own vassals in Ile de France.

Philip I had grown weak and lethargic in his old age. His son Louis VI (r. 1108-1137) was much more aggressive. He had a multiform program:

  • The enforcement of obedience among his own duchy's vassals. He would often summon lords to his court to hear claims of their abuse. If condemned they would revolt immediately upon return their lands. Louis would then march on them with his forces as well as with church forces, since he was able to count on the Church excommunicating the offensive baron. Though defeated at times or abandoned in the field, Louis was successful enough to enforce his authority. After tearing down castles of powerful adversaries such as Hugh de Puiset and Thomas de Martley, others of his vassals became increasingly loyal, providing Louis' heirs with civil and military officers.
  • The extension of royal influence into the duchies of counts supposedly subordinate to him. This was often the result of the king 'meddling' in affairs his predecessors had not been able or willing to. He intervened when the count of Clermont was attacking that city's bishop, and earned the former's homage (in addition to increased clerical support). Upon the murder of Flanders' count, Louis occupied the region. In 1124 his vigor here had paid off. When Henry V of Germany planned an invasion, Louis successfully summoned forces from all of the Northern duchies, persuading Henry to call off the attack. Around this time Aquitane too allied with him.
  • The crown's administration was entrusted to the Abbot Suger from the St. Denis monastery. When all of the civil offices of the royal crown were entrusted to him in 1125, he was able to increase their literacy and efficiency, at the same time as lessening old household offices dominated by Ile de France's nobility.
  • The protection of the Church and its programs was important to Louis. For pious as well as realpolitik reasons, several French nobles and warriors were encouraged to Crusade, and patronage was given to several monasteries, thereby increasing loyalty to the crown. Also, contacts were made with Bernard of Clairvaux, aiding monastic revival in France.

Louis was succeeded by his son Louis VII (1137-1180), who continued the policy of increasing the crown's reach through defense of the Church. In 1144-1145 the king went on the Second Crusade, with Abbot Suger administering crown lands in his absence. Soon after, the long entanglement between Capetian and Angevin/Norman ambitions in France began. Louis VII had been married to Eleanor of Aquitane, ostensibly enlarging the royal domains. The two did not at all get along, though, and Eleanor was not able to bear the king a male heir. The marriage was thus annulled in 1152. By the next year she was married to Henry, Duke of Normandy and Anjou, and soon to be king of England after Stephen's death in 1154, based upon prior agreement. Henry's lands thus increased greatly to include Anjou, Normandy, Aquitane, as well as England, and Louis VI needed allies. In 1164 he married Adele of Blois, while his daughters (by Eleanor) married the counts of Champagne and Blois. While an alliance was created to head off Henry, the Capetian monarchy came under increasing Blois domination. One of Louis VII's sons, Philip, wanted to break the Blois- Champagne hold over his father, and thus cultivated Flanders-Alsace support through marriage. He also acquired support from England's Henry II, such that by 1180, he took power from both the Blois and his father.

The four decades of Philip II Augustus' rule (1180-1223) saw the emergence of a unitary, somewhat self-conscious France. Almost the entirety of his era was occupied with intrigue or battle against the Angevin Empire. Philip's hope was to manipulate Henry II's sons. He was close to the older two, but their 1180 death removed the potential for control over some Angevin lands. The two remaining Plantagenet sons were Richard and John. Henry II made Richard the chief inheritor, delegating Aquitane to John. At this point, Philip Augustus supported Richard in a small uprising to convince Henry to give him Aquitane as well. Philip thus hoped to increase the chances for Plantagenet civil war in the future. However, Henry died in 1189 shortly after the hostilities, leaving the whole Angevin realm to his son Richard. Philip had miscalculated--passing all of the lands as an indissoluble unit strengthened the Angevin Empire's realness, and Richard was no ordinary king. He was Richard the Lionheart, with great power and charisma, and he was able to frustrate Philip Augustus for a decade until 1199.

In 1189 Richard decided to join the Third Crusade launched in response to Salah al-Din al-Ayyubi's conquest of Jerusalem. He raised the necessary funds by selling several of the offices of Henry II's expanded bureaucracy. In 1190, he proceeded east from France, with Philip Augustus unenthusiastically accompanying the host. Richard was able to capture Acre, after which the French king returned home. Richard then became concerned that Philip would make a claim on his continental lands through collusion with his younger brother John, and so decided to return to England. Along the way, he was discovered in the lands of his foe the Duke of Austria and taken prisoner in 1193. He was soon handed over to the German Emperor Henry VI who disliked Richard greatly and was inclined to hand him over to Philip. At this point, however, the efficient English royal administration from Henry II's days came to the King's rescue, and was able to acquire the funds to bribe Germany's princes into demanding Richard's release. The bribery worked, and Richard returned to England at the end of 1193. At this point, Philip Augustus repudiated Ingeborg, his Danish wife and daughter of Danish king Canute, whom Augustus had hoped to win over to an anti-British alliance.

Popular pages: High Middle Ages (1000-1200)