The Last Kingdom Standing Forms the Backbone of France
In the heavenly hall of kings, where the rulers from history feast, the kings of early Medieval Europe generally sit at the kids table. Not because they’re young and immature. They were just weak.
Unlike the mighty ancient emperors of Rome, Persia, China, or Assyria, they did not have terrifying armies. In time, many European nations would control vast empires. But in the sixth to ninth centuries AD, European kings could barely control their own homes.
Medieval kings were highly dependent on the nobility. In theory, the nobles were lower than kings. But they also controlled lands and armies and were often difficult to control. To stay in power, kings had to build and maintain alliances with the nobility. But this was much easier said than done.
One particular family, the Capet family, managed to do it much better than their rivals. This gave them a huge advantage in the real-life Medieval game of Risk. Their rise to power also helped build a powerful dynasty that laid the foundations for modern France.
Their story, while unique to France, speaks to how power and society worked in the Middle Ages.
France in the 8th and 9th Centuries
All said and done, the Capet family, which built the Capetian dynasty, ruled France for more than 800 continuous years. It took a massive revolution in 1789 AD to bring them down.
This makes them one of the most durable royal families in history. Such stability has helped make France the power it is today.
At the early days of their rise (the 10th century), they looked nothing like a world power.
After Charlemagne died in 814 AD, his Holy Roman Empire was divided into three parts, the Western, Middle, and Eastern Frankish kingdoms.
The Eastern Frankish kingdom, united by their Germanic languages, eventually reorganized into the Kingdom of Germany. They took back the name “Holy Roman Empire.” The Western Frankish kingdom eventually reunited, but it took much, much longer.
There were simply too many kings, dukes, barons, earls, etc. who all wanted to be the next king. Like children fighting over who gets to go on the slide next, these nobles fought amongst themselves for control of Western Europe.
For more than a hundred years after the death of Charlemagne, this really meant that no one was in charge.
Rise of Hugh Capet
Hugh Capet was the head of a house that ruled the small piece of land surrounding the city of Paris, known as the Ile de France, or the Isle of France.
Feeling like they needed someone in charge, the nobility of Western Francia elected Hugh Capet as the King of France in 987 AD. It’s not often that you hear of kings being elected. But since this was a new title and a new position, the nobility decided to choose amongst themselves.
But Hugh was a weak king. The kid’s table we talked about might have been too much. It’s unclear if Hugh was even invited to the party.
The reason he was so weak is that he controlled very little land. The Ile de France was a speck compared to the Duchies of Aquitaine, Brittany, Champagne, Normandy, and Vermandois.
This weakness is probably why Hugh was chosen in the first place. The nobility didn’t really see him as a threat. Because he was so little of a threat, they elected his son, Robert I, as his successor while Hugh was still alive.
The hope in doing this was to eliminate the potential fight that could occur upon Hugh’s death for the title of “King of France.”
Little did they know that the Capetian family was ready to rock and roll and take over France. It took a few centuries, but this election was the start of something big.
Staying Alive, Staying Alive, Staying Alive: The Capetians Start to Expand
Remember that in the Middle Ages, wealth and political power had little impact on your ability to survive. You could be the richest man in the world, but the common cold could still kill you.
Often, the key to long-term victory was simply surviving. If you could outlive your rivals, and sometimes their children, you could do a lot of damage.
In a really simple way, that’s exactly what the Capetians did.
Their big rise to power started with Hugh’s heir, Robert II, who reigned for an impressive 35 years.
During this time, he was able to build and maintain strong alliances with the Duke of Normandy and the Count of Anjou (an important territory in central France). He was also able to win control of the Duchy of Burgundy in what is now eastern France. He got this because he was the only living male heir to his uncle, Duke Henry I.
Again, it’s a game of survival.
With these gains, the Capetiians controlled a lot more land. They also turned the “King of France” title into a hereditary one. This did away with elections and meant that it would be passed down to male Capetian heirs.
They now had a base of power and were ready to take on the rest of the French nobility.
The Capetian Dynasty Grows and Grows
Between the 11th and 14th centuries, Capetian power continued to grow. Thanks to their familial ties with England, counts and dukes in western France were often fighting with English monarchs for control over their lands. The Capetians provided strategic assistance that often resulted in territorial gain.
Military victories certainly helped them grow their power. But more than anything the Capetians had one distinct advantage over their rivals: they kept producing clear male heirs.
During this period of French history, power could only be transferred to men related to the lord in charge. First born sons were ideal, but if he died, second born sons were good, so were third-borns. Uncles, nephews, and brothers could also make a claim if the first born son didn’t make it.
When a noble died without a first-born son, the rest of his family would lick their chops and try to take over. These conflicts often weakened the house and could even lead to it splitting.
In the Capet family, this just didn’t happen. In a remarkable turn of fate, they kept producing clear male heirs. Many of their rivals would have child after child hoping to do the same. But all too often it just didn’t work out.
This kind of stability meant everyone knew who was going to take over the royal house when the king died. This kept the Capet house intact and allowed them to maintain and grow their power steadily over time.
All in all, the Capetian dynasty and its two cadet branches, the House of Valois and the House of Bourbon, ruled French politics from 987 AD to 1792 AD. If math is hard for you, that’s 805 years.
Maybe Hugh Capet should get to eat at the adult table after all?
The Dynastic Traditions of Medieval Europe
The story of the Capetian dynasty tells us a lot about the rise of modern France. It also speaks to the reality of politics in Medieval Europe. More than anything, it was all about blood.
Spilling blood, aka waging war, helped to defeat rivals and expand territorial control. This could lead to more political power. But even more importantly, maintaining a continuous bloodline helped keep succession uncontested. It made it easy for power to pass to the next man up when the leader of the house died.
The Capetians did this better than anyone else in Medieval France and became an epic dynasty. But to say they “did” it is a stretch. It was more just good fortune.
As they say, it’s better to be lucky than good.
The importance of blood also shows just how unequal Medieval society was. There was no such thing as social mobility. The only way you could improve your lot in life was through war or marriage.
This helped give the Middle Ages its reputation as a violent, backward time. Constant war and unstable politics made regular life difficult. Economies grew slowly, and regular people were held back from their true potential.
It’s just the way life was, and there was nothing anyone could do about it.
The Capetian Fall and the Birth of Modernity
The endurance of the Capetian dynasty helped build the modern nation of France. But if you go to France today, you’ll notice there are no Capets living in its palaces and royal halls.
This is because in 1789 AD, fed up with the inequalities of society and the monarchy, the French people revolted.
At the time, the monarchy was known as the Ancien Regime, or the ancient regime. It had been around for so long the people saw it as “ancient.” Toppling it marked a true changing of the guard and ushered in a new era. It brought democracy to France.
As such, the rise and fall of the Capetian dynasty can truly be seen as the beginning and ending chapters of an era. The emergence of Hugh Capet, a lowly king with little land, eventually created one of the most powerful monarchies in history.
The fall of his house echoed throughout the world and turned the tides of history forever.
Written by Matthew Jones