Kingdom of France

Delice Bette | July 23, 2023


The kingdom of France is the historiographic name given to the various political entities of France in the Middle Ages and modern times. According to historians, the date of the kingdom’s creation can be associated with one of three major events: the advent of Clovis in 481 and the expansion of the Frankish kingdoms; the division of the Carolingian Empire in 843; or the election of Hugues Capet in 987. The kingdom disappeared during the French Revolution in 1792, before briefly re-emerging from 1814 to 1848.

Clovis, King of the Franks, sealed the alliance of the Frankish kingdoms with the Catholic Church at his baptism. This alliance was perpetuated in the kingdom of France by the coronation of kings at Reims until 1824, making them monarchs by divine right. The first Capetians were keen to crown their eldest son during their lifetime, as their authority was in fact limited to the Île-de-France region. It wasn’t until Philip Augustus that their official deeds used the name “Kingdom of France”, and they were able to exercise real authority over the whole kingdom. The territory was made up of the feudal fiefs over which the king of West Francia had been suzerain since the division of the Carolingian Empire in 843.

The gradual integration of feudal fiefs into the royal domain necessitated the establishment of a royal administration. St. Louis attached paramount importance to his role as enforcer, and the Parlement, a superior court of justice, was established. Under Charles VII, the long Hundred Years’ War provided an opportunity to establish an army and permanent taxes. Richelieu, Louis XIII’s minister, and Louis XIV consolidated royal authority in the provinces by bringing local governors from the nobility to heel, and by delegating intendants to the king’s clerks.

The propensity of royalty to exercise increasingly absolute power was challenged during periods of unrest, civil wars and the reigns of minor kings. The challenge became more pronounced with the spread of Enlightenment philosophy and the values it embodied: government by reason, separation of powers, individual freedoms, etc. The French Revolution led to the establishment of a constitutional monarchy. However, the various formulas tried failed in 1792, 1830 and 1848, bringing an end to royalty in France.

Origins (481-843)

The Franks are a people settled on the borders of northern Gaul. They served the Western Roman Empire as mercenaries and quickly became Romanized. They obtained the status of a federated people, but were unable to unite and broke up into several small kingdoms. Several probably legendary kings succeeded one another, including Merove, founder of the Merovingian dynasty. The first king whose existence is certain is Childéric I, who reigned over a small kingdom around Tournai.

Five years after the collapse of the Western Roman Empire, in 481 Clovis inherited a kingdom smaller than the other barbarian kingdoms. In 486, he defeated Syagrius at the battle of Soissons and extended his territories. In 496, he defeated the Alamanni at Tolbiac and was baptized at Reims. He could now present himself as the liberator of the Christian peoples of Gaul, then under the domination of barbarians who practiced Arianism. In 507, he defeated the Visigoths at the Battle of Vouillé, enabling him to expand into southern Gaul. In 509, he was elected king of all the Franks.

Clovis I died in 511, and his kingdom was divided between his four sons. Each inherited part of the kingdom and took the title of “King of the Franks”. Nevertheless, this division did not do away with the idea of a united whole, the Regnum Francorum (Kingdom of the Franks). The latter was divided into three major regions: Austrasia, Burgundy and Neustria, whose borders evolved with wars and inheritances. Several kings managed to reunite the region, but as soon as the sovereign died, it was divided between his descendants. The Franks expanded eastwards at the expense of the Alaman Kingdom and Bavaria.

In 639, a crisis erupted, allowing the aristocracy to consolidate its power. In particular, those occupying the post of mayor of the palace regained real power. The family that held this office, the Pepinids, took over. One of its members, Charles Martel, built up a clientele by distributing profits to his followers, and scored several military successes, including the Battle of Poitiers, which put an end to Muslim expansion in Western Europe.

In 737, the last Merovingian king died to general indifference. After a period of power vacancy, Pepin the Short, son of Charles Martel, was elected King of the Franks in 751, thanks to the support of the Catholic Church, which wanted a strong sovereign. He was also the first king of the Franks to be crowned, to show that his power came from God. He also crowned his sons to establish a hereditary character. In 755, he triumphed over the Lombards, enabling the foundation of the Papal States, and the following decade he drove the Muslims out of Septimania. He imposed a number of reforms, both religious, such as the tithe, and political, such as the monarchy’s monopoly on money creation. On his death, the kingdom was divided between his two sons, and the future Charlemagne reigned alone after his brother’s death. Charlemagne enlarged his kingdom, annexing Bavaria in particular, and waged a holy war against the pagan Saxons. He organized the administration of his territories and established his capital at Aachen.

On Christmas Day 800, Charlemagne was crowned Emperor of the West by the Pope. Charlemagne had become the greatest Christian ruler in the West, and the Pope needed his support at a time when the Byzantine Empire was experiencing an internal crisis and no longer existed in the eyes of Western Christians. To assert his centralizing power, he divided the Empire, and therefore the kingdom, into several hundred counties, each of which he appointed a loyalist with judicial, military and tax-collecting powers.

Charlemagne died in 814; his son Louis the Pious succeeded him as head of the Empire. The question of succession posed a problem, since the imperial title could not be divided. Civil war broke out between the three sons in 830, and Louis the Pious abdicated before being returned to the throne by the bishops. He remained a phantom ruler until his death in 840, when he was succeeded by Lothaire. On June 25, 841, at the battle of Fontenoy-en-Puisaye, Charles and Louis defeated their brother Lothaire and forced him to divide the Empire into three kingdoms with the Treaty of Verdun.

Middle Ages (843-1515)

In 843, Charles II the Bald inherited West Francia. In addition to Middle Francia, Lothaire I inherited the imperial title, but in theory, a brotherhood was to be maintained between the kingdoms. Lothaire’s death in 855 put an end to this idea, and his domain was divided between his three sons. In 869, Charles the Bald seized Lothaire II’s domain, then the imperial crown in 875, but he was not recognized by the whole of Christendom. In 877, he drew up the Capitulary of Quierzy, which reorganized the kingdom by allowing counts to transmit their offices hereditarily. He died the same year, and his successors were faced with political crises and foreign invasions.

Faced with Norman and Hungarian invaders, the great lords of the kingdom called on Emperor Charles III the Fat for help. But he was unable to contain the threat, and they elected Eudes, Count of Paris, of the Robertian dynasty, king. Since monarchy is elective, the Carolingians and Robertians succeeded each other as kings for several years. In 936, Louis IV d’Outremer became king, and was succeeded by his son and grandson, suggesting a Carolingian restoration. However, in 987, the kingdom’s great men elected the Robertian Hugues Capet, who reigned over a principality around Paris.

During this period, territorial principalities emerged. The king no longer had real power, and governed only through the intermediary of princes. To organize resistance against invaders, Charles the Bald created large military commands that grouped together several counties entrusted to a prince with administrative and military powers. During the 10th century, the king lost control over this system, and the princes became almost totally independent, passing on their office to their descendants.

On July 3, 987, Hugues Capet was elected King of the Franks. He ruled over the princes who recognized him as their suzerain, but he had no power over territories other than the royal domain. In the 11th century, the vassals of the territorial princes also acquired de facto independence (except in the Duchy of Normandy, the County of Flanders and the County of Barcelona), and it was the squire who possessed real judicial and economic power. The kings took advantage of this disorganization to impose hereditary transmission of the crown, but realized that their power did not extend beyond the borders of the royal domain. The eldest son was then associated with power by being crowned during his father’s lifetime. In 1066, William, Duke of Normandy, conquered the crown of England. He was vassal to the King of the Franks for continental lands, but independent in his kingdom of England. This marked the start of a rivalry between the Anglo-Norman Empire and the king.

During the reign of Louis VI, the vision of the kingdom began to change. He led several expeditions within the royal domain, to subdue the lords who did not recognize his power, and expeditions outside it, a sign that the Capetians were beginning to imagine the kingdom as a unit. Louis VII continued this policy by marrying Eleanor of Aquitaine. In addition to the kings, the Plantagenet family came to the fore, ruling over an immense territory, much of which depended on the kingdom of the Franks. The Plantagenets were more powerful than the king.

In 1180, Philip II Augustus became king. The title of King of the Franks (Rex Francorum) began to be replaced by that of King of France (Rex Franciæ) under his reign, sporadically from 1190 onwards, officially from 1204. His idea was to extend the royal domain at the expense of the princes. He began by obtaining part of Artois as a dowry. In 1185, a war against several of his vassals gave him the county of Amiens and part of Vermandois. In 1204, he militarily seized part of the King of England’s continental lands, including the Duchy of Normandy, after using feudal law to confiscate them. To retake his lands, John of England formed a grand coalition, which Philip Augustus defeated at the battle of Bouvines. He strengthened his power in the south of France, supporting the Albigensian crusade against the Cathar heresy.

Louis VIII reigned for only three years, but managed to conquer fiefdoms in the south of France. Saint Louis inherited a complicated situation with provinces in revolt. After several major victories, the situation was restored in the 1240s. He went on crusade from 1248 to 1254. On his return, he took advantage of his prestige to become the arbiter of French and European diplomatic conflicts. Within the kingdom, this policy placed royalty above other princes. It also laid the foundations for a royal justice system in which the king acted as judge and arbitrator, particularly against administrative abuses.

Philip III the Bold became king in 1270, and reunited the county of Toulouse with the royal domain. He now reigned over the whole kingdom, where he could legislate and apply justice, but he only received income from his domain. Philip IV the Fair did his utmost to increase the royal treasury, reorganizing the administration and devaluing currencies. He also convened the Estates General for the first time to raise new taxes. In 1312, he dissolved the Order of the Temple, to which he was indebted. The same year, he attached Lyon to the kingdom. His marriage to Jeanne I of Navarre led to the union of the two kingdoms and the attachment of the county of Champagne to the royal domain.

On the death of Philip the Fair in 1314, the lesser nobility revolted against the central power, which imposed itself in fiscal and judicial matters. A dynastic crisis erupted with the premature death of Louis X le Hutin in 1316. A king without descendants was a first since the accession of Hugues Capet, and it was decided to exclude Louis X’s daughter from the crown. Philip the Fair’s other two sons reigned successively until 1328, but died without heirs. The nearest male heir was his mother’s King of England, but this choice was rejected by an assembly that preferred Philippe de Valois to see the kingdom fall under English rule.

In 1337, Philip VI confiscated the continental lands of the King of England for lack of obedience. In response, the latter claimed the crown of France. The conflict began with an English victory at Crécy, but the Black Death epidemic, which reduced the population, prevented England from capitalizing on its victories. Parallel to these events, in 1349 Philip VI, through the Treaty of Romans, purchased the Dauphiné de Viennois from Humbert II, attaching it to France and making it the province of Dauphiné. In 1350, Jean II le Bon was taken prisoner during the Poitiers disaster. To be freed, he was obliged to sign the Treaty of Brétigny, which committed him to granting independence to the English mainland. Several aristocratic, bourgeois and peasant revolts broke out against royal power. In 1360, a stable currency, the franc, was created.

The new king, Charles V, fought against the companies ravaging the country and reconquered lost territories with leaders like Bertrand du Guesclin. By the time of his death in 1380, the English controlled only five ports in France. From 1392 onwards, Charles VI suffered from fits of madness. The rivalry between the princes of the blood for control of the government became a civil war between Armagnacs and Burgundians. The English renewed hostilities in 1413. Two years later, the Battle of Azincourt, a crushing defeat for the French nobility, led to the signing of the Treaty of Troyes, which disinherited the Dauphin in favor of the King of England.

In 1422, Charles VI died a few months after Henry V, King of England. Charles VII proclaimed himself King of France: the kingdom was in fact divided between the provinces occupied by the English, those loyal to Charles VII and the States of Burgundy. In 1429, a young peasant girl known today as Joan of Arc convinces Charles VII to go and be crowned King at Reims, making him legitimate in the eyes of a large part of public opinion. She was finally burned by the English in 1431. In 1435, the Treaty of Arras reconciled the Armagnacs and Burgundians and put an end to the civil war. Charles VII reorganized the state, introducing the first army and the first permanent tax. In 1449, the Duchy of Brittany joined the French side and Normandy was reconquered. In 1453, the English lost Aquitaine for good.

With the English defeated, the king turned his attention to the Duchy of Burgundy and the Duchy of Brittany, both quasi-independent principalities. In 1465, several princes joined forces in the Ligue du Bien Public against Louis XI’s increasing powers. Charles le Téméraire, Duke of Burgundy, led the slingshot, but the time was no longer ripe for the crumbling of power, and the princes aspired to a rapprochement with the king. The Duke of Burgundy was found dead in 1477, and his lands were divided between the King (who recovered the Duchy of Burgundy and Picardy) and the Emperor. This division gave rise to a rivalry with the Habsburgs that lasted until the 19th century. Charles VIII, who became king in 1483, prepared for the union of Brittany by marrying his heir to the duchy. Territories such as the County of Anjou and the County of Provence were attached to the Crown, while the County of Flanders was lost. The Italian Wars began in 1494 to assert Valois rights to the Kingdom of Naples, then the Duchy of Milan for Louis XII, who became King in 1498.

Modern period (1515-1789)

The Ancien Régime saw the culmination of the king’s reconquest of public power. The key institutions of the Ancien Régime have their roots in the reign of François I.

François I became king in 1515 and won the battle of Marignan, which enabled him to reconquer Milan. In 1519, King Charles V of Spain, heir to the Dukes of Burgundy, was elected Emperor: his territories encircled France, which in response allied itself with the Ottoman Empire. In 1525, following the disaster of Pavia, the Emperor took François I prisoner, who remained so for over a year, and demanded that the Duchy of Burgundy be handed over to him. But the States of the province refused: they asked to remain subjects of the King of France, a sign that the King, despite centralization, could not decide everything. In 1539, the King promulgated the Ordinance of Villers-Cotterêts, which made French the official language of the State, in place of Latin.

From the 1530s onwards, the Protestant Reformation provoked a crisis in the Church. Protestants in France were led by the Condé and Châtillon families. Repression of heretics intensified with the advent of Henri II. Catherine de Médicis assumed the regency after his death, and tried to avoid civil war by promulgating several edicts that authorized freedom of worship for Protestants, but outraged fervent Catholics.

The Wars of Religion between Catholics and Protestants began in 1562 with the Wassy massacre. Towns fell into the hands of both protagonists, and Catholic leader François de Guise was assassinated. A truce was signed with a clause providing for the marriage of Henri III of Navarre (future Henri IV) to the king’s sister. The wedding took place in 1572, and Protestant nobility gathered in Paris for the occasion. A few days later, an attack led to the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre, which spread to many towns in the kingdom. This event triggered a break between Protestants and the Catholic monarchy. They began to emancipate themselves in the Midi, organizing a “state within the state”.

Henri III became king in 1574 and granted the Edict of Beaulieu. Catholics found the provisions excessive and formed leagues that carried out military operations. In 1588, a Catholic insurrection broke out in Paris, forcing the king to take refuge in Chartres. In response, he had Henri I de Guise assassinated, breaking with the League and allying himself with the Protestants to regain his throne. His assassination in 1589 propelled the Protestant leader to the throne, but the League refused to recognize him. In 1593, Henri IV converted to Catholicism and had to fight until 1598 to conquer his kingdom. That same year, the Edict of Nantes was signed, recognizing Protestants’ freedom to worship. With the reunification of the two crowns, the kings now bore the title of King of France and King of Navarre.

Henri IV established one of France’s first real economic policies. French colonization of the Americas began with the founding of Port-Royal in 1604 and Quebec City. The king was assassinated in 1610, and after a regency under his wife Marie de Médicis, Louis XIII surrounded himself with ministers such as Cardinal de Richelieu. He and his father incorporated Bourbon fiefs such as the County of Armagnac, the County of Foix and the Viscounty of Béarn into the crown.

In 1635, France embarked on the Thirty Years’ War, which enabled it to expand eastwards, notably by annexing Upper Alsace.

Louis XIII died in 1643: his son was just five years old, and his mother Anne of Austria assumed the regency with Cardinal de Mazarin. In 1648, parliamentarians, worried about the rise of monarchical authority and taxes, attempted a coup de force to control the monarchy. A riot broke out in Paris, forcing the court to leave the capital. The princes joined the Fronde, but their armies were defeated and in 1652, Louis XIV, who had come of age the previous year, was able to enter Paris. In 1659, under the Treaty of the Pyrenees, Spain ceded the counties of Roussillon and Artois to the kingdom.

In 1661, Louis XIV declared that he reigned and governed alone, and reformed administrative management. Jean-Baptiste Colbert became the king’s main collaborator, and together they pursued a policy of supporting manufacturing, creating major trading companies and promoting the arts. Marked by the Fronde, the king wanted to silence the nobility. To keep them in check, he built the Château de Versailles, which he moved into in 1682. He set up a courtly society where the great lords had to live for most of the year to obtain royal favors. In 1682, the colonization of America accelerated with the founding of Louisiana.

To cope with war, the royal army and navy were strengthened, and Vauban fortified key towns. France established itself as the continent’s leading power through numerous military conquests, including French Flanders and Franche-Comté. In 1685, Louis XIV revoked the Edict of Nantes: the remaining Protestant elite went into exile. He introduced the policy of Reunions, aimed at annexing enclaves such as Strasbourg. The following wars were more difficult, and he had to fight against a united Europe in the War of the League of Augsburg and the War of the Spanish Succession. The latter allowed his grandson Philip V of Spain to accede to the Spanish throne if he renounced his claims to the French throne.

Louis XIV died in 1715; his successor was his great-grandson Louis XV, then aged five. The regency was assumed by Philippe d’Orléans, who began by overturning the deceased king’s will, which was intended to control him in his position. Policies were implemented to avoid bankruptcy, including Law’s system, which led to economic disaster. The regency ended in 1723, and Louis XV appointed André Hercule de Fleury as his principal minister. Louis XV embarked on the War of the Polish Succession, which resulted in his Polish father-in-law being appointed to the Duchy of Lorraine and the Duchy reverting to the Crown on the Duke’s death. Despite the French victory in the War of the Austrian Succession, Louis XV did not ask for any territory, causing discontent in the kingdom. The Seven Years’ War sounded the death knell for French possessions in the Americas.

Louis XVI became king in 1774. He quickly broke with the policies of his predecessor. He appointed Turgot minister with the task of reforming the state. Turgot began by liberalizing the sale of grain, which led to the Flour War and broke the people’s trust in the king, who until then had been seen as the foster father. To avenge the loss of its American territories, France supported the rebels in the American War of Independence, but the costs incurred plunged the kingdom back into financial difficulties.

The century ended with a significant change in mentalities. The theory of universal gravity formulated by Isaac Newton in 1687 and promoted in France, notably in 1734 by Voltaire’s Lettres philosophiques, undermined the idea of any divine transcendence that would lead to a monarchy of divine right in France. The publication in 1748 of Montesquieu’s Esprit des lois and, from 1751 onwards, of Diderot and D’Alembert’s Encyclopédie ou Dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers paved the way for a more reasoned and scientific vision of the world, in which the alleged omnipotence of royal power was called into question. The spread of new ideas was facilitated by advances in literacy and the development of reading.

Constitutional monarchies (1789-1848)

To extricate the country from its financial crisis, the king called for the Estates General. The Estates General opened in May 1789, but on June 17, 1789, the deputies of the Third Estate proclaimed themselves the National Assembly and began a tug-of-war with the king. The dismissal of Jacques Necker and the concentration of royal troops led to unrest. On July 14, 1789, Parisians attacked the Bastille to recover weapons, then in the countryside, the Great Fear forced the deputies to vote for the redemption of feudal rights on the night of August 4, 1789. In October, the King was brought back to Paris by an angry mob, and had to stay at the Tuileries Palace.

The National Assembly took a series of measures to consolidate national unity, including equal rights, the unification of law at the national level, and the creation of departments to rationalize administrative divisions.

The law on the Civil Constitution of the Clergy reorganized the French Church, turning clergy into civil servants.

Enclaves such as Comtat Venaissin were attached to France.

Feeling in danger, Louis XVI secretly left Paris to join royalists in Montmédy, but was caught and brought back to the capital. From then on, the link between the king and the population was severed. The constitution was promulgated in September 1791, officially ending the monarchy of divine right and transforming it into a constitutional monarchy.

In April 1792, the National Assembly declared war on Austria, but one defeat after another brought France to the brink of invasion. A manifesto sent by the head of the foreign armies, threatening Parisians, ignited the fuse. On August 10, 1792, crowds invaded the Tuileries courtyard. The king was forced to take refuge in the National Assembly, which suspended him.

On September 21, 1792, the day after the Battle of Valmy, the French deputies voted to abolish royalty in France: the Republic succeeded the constitutional monarchy. During the Terror, the King was tried, sentenced to death and guillotined on January 21, 1793, Queen Marie-Antoinette was executed a few months later and the Dauphin died in prison on June 8, 1795.

Royalty was re-established on April 6, 1814, following Napoleon Bonaparte’s defeat by the European armies. The Senate appointed Louis XVIII, brother of Louis XVI, who became head of state by granting a charter. This constitutional charter limited the scope of his power.

Louis XVIII wanted a policy of reconciliation between the old and new France, and forgetting and forgiveness were the watchwords of his policy from 1814 to 1820, the aim being to royalize the Nation and nationalize royalty.

In March 1815, Napoleon returned from exile and re-established the Empire during the Hundred Days, while Louis XVIII took refuge in Ghent.

Louis XVIII returned to the throne after Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo, and began a liberal policy. The King died childless in September 1824. He was succeeded by his brother Charles X. Unlike his brother, Charles X was very pious, wishing to favor the Church and the nobility, and supported by ultraroyalist deputies.

Faced with the Liberals’ electoral rise, a number of ordinances were passed in July 1830 to restrict civil liberties, such as the re-establishment of censorship for the press and the dissolution of the Chamber of Deputies. These provoked riots, known as the “Three Glorious Years”, which led to the King’s abdication on August 2, 1830.

The Chamber of Deputies appoints Louis-Philippe I, head of the younger Capetian branch of the Orléans family, “King of the French”. On August 9, 1830, he took the oath and promised to uphold the Charter. The tricolor flag definitively replaced the white flag. The regime took hold, and the bourgeoisie “took power” by excluding the majority of the people from suffrage. The conquest of the future Algeria, begun under the previous regime, accelerated, relaunching the colonization policy. France also established itself in the Gulf of Guinea, Gabon, Madagascar and Mayotte, and signed a protectorate with the Kingdom of Tahiti. Corruption and the economic crisis created many dissatisfied people. To get around the ban on meetings, opponents organized Republican banquets. The banning of one of these banquets provoked unrest that turned into a riot after the troops fired on demonstrators. Louis-Philippe, who refused to be responsible for a massacre, abdicated the next day. That same evening, the provisional government proclaimed the Republic, which would organize repression against the angry workers during the days of June 1848.

The king is the central figure in our institutions. His will is the law, but he is obliged to seek advice from the court, then the council. To carry out his prerogatives, the king delegates his power in the form of venal office, but also manages numerous public agents.

Since Carolingian times, the king, a monarch by divine right, has been a sacred figure embodying the sovereignty of the state. He is vested with all his powers as soon as his predecessor dies, but only becomes legitimate in the eyes of the people after the coronation ceremony in Reims Cathedral. This ceremony shows God’s intervention in the awarding of the crown, manifested in two ways: as a righteous king, who must uphold peace and divine justice, and as a king who can cure scrofula by touching the sick. The king escapes the common condition, is a public figure who is obliged to show himself and cannot have a private life. At the time of the Merovingians, the king’s power came mainly from conquest, the prestige of the ruler and, above all, the personal loyalty that united him to his subjects.

From the 10th century to the end of the 15th century, royalty struggled to impose its full sovereignty inside and outside the kingdom. In France, the king had to free himself from feudal ties and show that he was the supreme ruler of everyone, apart from personal ties, so that he no longer had to go through his vassals to reach the mass of the kingdom’s subjects. Outside the kingdom, he fought for France’s political independence, so that no temporal or spiritual power was above him, notably the Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire and the Pope. After centuries of struggle against the Papacy, the French sovereigns succeeded in gaining recognition for the idea that they derived their power from God alone. With the doctrine of Gallicanism, they established the autonomy of the French Church from Rome.

Under the Ancien Régime, all three powers were concentrated in the person of the king, following a process that began in the 12th century. Previously, the king could not legislate outside his domain without the consent of his vassals, nor could he dispense justice to the detriment of seigneurial and ecclesiastical jurisdictions. Subsequently, it was accepted that the king’s will had the force of law, but he was required to enlist the help of advisors to assist him in his decisions. In judicial matters, as the king could no longer exercise justice personally, he delegated his powers to the courts.

In practice, however, his power is limited by that of many other institutions with which he must contend, such as the Assemblées d’Etats, the Estates General and the Sovereign Courts. It is determined by customary law and the fundamental laws of the Kingdom of France.

More specifically, the king possesses regal rights such as legislative, judicial, defensive and monetary power. He expresses his will through edicts or ordinances, which he signs with the phrase “for such is our pleasure”. He can also create offices and ennoble commoners. The king is master of the defense of the kingdom. He is therefore obliged to defend his vassals and subjects, but also to wage war in recognition of interests injured by foreign powers. Among his other obligations, he is required to dispense justice to his subjects. The latter may bring any dispute before the royal court. The king also had the power to punish or pardon anyone he deemed in the kingdom’s best interests. From the late Middle Ages onwards, the king was the only person with the power to mint money, but in return he was the guarantor of its value.

The queen shares the honors of the throne, but has no claim to power, except during periods of regency. From the 17th century onwards, the royal family was divided into three orders: direct descendants of the king, close relatives (brothers and sisters and their children) and male princes of the blood. In theory, the latter are all the male descendants of Hugues Capet, but in reality they only include the descendants of Saint Louis. They are the only ones entitled to the French crown, and the sovereign must consult them on major affairs of state. Their order of precedence is dictated by the rules of succession to the throne.

The crown is not the king’s property. He cannot dispose of it as he pleases, since he must obey the fundamental laws of the Kingdom of France, the first of which is the Salic Law. The crown is transmitted from male to male in primogeniture, excluding women and their descendants, but also bastards (even if legitimized) and Protestants. Laws were not written down, but were enacted as circumstances dictated, in response to a given problem.

During the Carolingian and early Capetian eras, the crown was elected by acclamation of the kingdom’s great barons. Until Louis VII, the Capetians’ tradition was to have their eldest son, called Dauphin from 1349, crowned during his lifetime, thus gradually turning election into a symbolic formality. However, the king remained the head of the nobility, who gathered around him at court. In periods of open succession, great lords took the liberty of influencing events, such as the Guise family from 1584 to 1594 during the succession of Henri III, or the Duc d’Épernon during the assassination of Henri IV in 1610.

The court first took off under François I and the Valois-Angoulême family. It was itinerant between the châteaux of Île-de-France and the Loire Valley, when it didn’t embark on a journey across the kingdom, as Catherine de Médicis did at the start of her regency.

Under the Bourbons, the court settled in the Île-de-France region. Whereas in England and Spain, the role of the court declined from the 1660s onwards, in France it enjoyed a new lease of life under Louis XIV, who established it at Versailles, where it remained until 1789. Louis XIV’s policy is presented a priori as a domestication of the nobility, insofar as it enables the king to belittle the great and to decide on the rise or fall of lineages. However, it does reflect the establishment of a direct relationship between the sovereign and his nobility, which he federates around him, in practice stabilizing the position of the lineages in relation to each other.

Etiquette is therefore a social rite that externalizes a social order, insofar as each individual uses it to express his or her hierarchical position within the elite.


In the early days of the Capetian dynasty, the central government was organized around two elements: the King’s household, which grouped together the great officers and the servants who formed the King’s household. In addition, the king chose from among ecclesiastics, vassals and administrative advisors to form the court. In the 13th century, the expansion of the royal domain meant that specialists in administrative tasks had to be recruited, to the detriment of the princes and barons. It was during this period that the king’s council emerged, dealing with government affairs at the highest level. Under the Ancien Régime, the king’s council was the central element of government, where the king made his sovereign decisions that guided the political life of the kingdom.

The council originated in the French court of the Middle Ages, where the king’s relatives and vassals gathered to give advice to the sovereign. The court followed the king on his travels, and met whenever the king needed advice. The court is made up of the people who are closest to the king by circumstance, although some of the kingdom’s most important figures sit there by right: members of the royal family, as well as high barons and ecclesiastics. All major decisions concerning the kingdom had to be deliberated in the council. From the time of Louis VII the Younger onwards, a restricted council was set up alongside the broad council of the kingdom’s grandees, with advisors whom the king trusted. The composition of the council changed in the 13th century, with councillors no longer sitting according to rank, but according to their ability to carry out administrative work that the barons could not or did not know how to do. Gradually, the king called them to the council only to deal with matters that concerned them. It was at this time that administrative tasks were divided into three branches: judicial with the parliament, financial with the chamber of accounts and political with the king’s council.

The council meets according to the king’s needs. The sovereign can call on whomever he wishes, depending on the agenda and political circumstances, but the great officers and princes of the blood naturally sit on the council. Alongside them sit men chosen by the king for their skills, who from the 14th century onwards take the title of king’s advisors. The council’s role is purely consultative, since the final decision rests solely with the king, but it can sit in his absence to deliberate on current affairs. It is during the councils that the king exercises his justice retenue, which allows him to interrupt ordinary justice to take up a case. In 1497, the Grand Council was detached from the rest of the council and sat to deal with judicial matters that the king wished to remove from the jurisdiction of the parliaments.

From Henry II onwards, the council began to be regulated and divided into several specialized formations. The council of affairs is a select group of the king’s intimate advisors who manage the important and secret affairs of state. The king calls in whomever he wishes, depending on political circumstances. This secret council had no official existence and depended solely on the royal will. With Louis XIII, it became organized and official, taking the name of the Conseil d’en haut. It became the supreme body for decisions on foreign policy, war, internal affairs and the most important financial matters. The composition of the Council became increasingly fixed, with the Prime Minister, the Chancellor, the Superintendent of Finance and the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs sitting on the Council as of right. Other members were appointed by the King. At the same time, the Conseil des Dépêches was detached to deal with internal affairs. The Conseil pour les Finances was established in 1563, and existed intermittently as financial institutions were reorganized. In addition to financial matters, it is the final authority on general affairs (hierarchically superior to the Council above). The privy council (or council of parties) is the council that sits as the supreme court of justice for private lawsuits.

Under Louis XIV, two types of councils were distinguished, and remained so until 1791: councils of government and councils of justice and administration. The conseil d’en haut is a very restricted council (from three to seven members), comprising only persons appointed by the king and none by right. While the council was competent to rule on all political matters, its powers were gradually restricted to foreign and military policy. The Conseil des Dépêches dealt with the kingdom’s internal affairs, reading and replying to dispatches from the provinces and examining political disputes. The main members of the government sit on this council. The Royal Council of Finance assists the King in his function as authorizing officer, and determines the State’s economic policy. The Conseil Royal de Commerce (Royal Trade Council), which met from time to time, managed trade and economic policy. In special situations, specialized councils were set up to deal with topical issues, such as the Conseil de Santé to manage the plague in Marseille. On August 9, 1789, they were merged into a single council, known as the Conseil d’Etat.

The councils of justice and administration include the privy council, still the supreme court of justice, but reformed between 1673 and 1738. It comprised a large number of people (up to fifty), and its action took three different forms: evocation, which was an intervention in an ongoing trial by a higher or different court; cassation, which allowed the court not to judge the case, but to verify whether the law had been correctly applied; and the settlement of judges, which was an arbitration in a conflict between two higher courts. The Conseil d’État et des finances disappeared at the end of the 17th century, divided into two commissions: the grande and petite directions des finances, whose mission was to judge financial disputes.

In the Middle Ages, great officers performed domestic tasks, giving them a very important role in the government of the kingdom. These offices were often hereditary, and provided substantial income. From the time of Philip I onwards, each position became more clearly defined. The seneschal, who has existed since the Carolingians, is the first of the great officers. He managed the King’s household, but also supervised the administration, the King’s agents, commanded the army and dispensed royal justice. His excessive power meant that the king preferred to entrust this office to loyal lords, often far from the palace, before abolishing it in 1191. The bouteiller managed not only the king’s cellar, but also the vineyards on the royal estate and the wine trade in general. Later, he took on various financial tasks, such as co-chairing the Chambre des Comptes, and even political missions. The office was abolished in 1449. The chamberlain was responsible for the king’s bedroom, as well as for the upkeep of the palace, the king’s effects and the royal treasury. The connétable, whose office was created under the Carolingians, looked after the royal stables before taking over the military responsibilities of the seneschal. With the Hundred Years’ War, he became the kingdom’s military leader, and all nobility was placed under his command. The chancellor has been the drafter and dispatcher of royal acts since Frankish times.

The hierarchy of grand officers was established under Henri III. The connétable was first among them, but his very advantageous position meant that the office was often vacant, before being abolished in 1627. He was responsible for the administration and financing of the army, but was also considered its military leader. He is then replaced by the chancellor as the first of the grand officers (previously second), the grand master who looks after the internal service of the king’s household, the grand chamberlain who administers the king’s chamber, and the admiral who is the head of the royal navy. The marshals are the heads of the army under the authority of the constable. They head the company of provost marshals, who exercise military justice and maintain order in the countryside. They hold the tribunal du point d’honneur, which settles disputes between gentlemen to avoid duels. The grand écuyer is the head of the royal stable. From the 17th century onwards, the majority of grand officers became purely honorary court offices. Only the chancellor and military offices remained governmental.

The chancellor is one of the great officers of the kingdom. He was the head of the chancellery, responsible for drafting general, legislative and special royal acts. His role evolved with the increasing centralization at the end of the Middle Ages, and he even became the head of government, deputizing for the king in his absence, speaking on his behalf at the Estates General and presiding over Parliament. With the hierarchization of grand officers under Henry III, the chancellor became second in dignity, then first after the abolition of the office of constable in 1627. The Chancellor has several responsibilities, including the control and sealing of royal deeds during the ceremony of the audience du sceau. He is also responsible for verifying that royal decisions comply with justice and the interests of the kingdom; if they do not, he can refuse to seal them; he is the kingdom’s chief magistrate and the king’s spokesman at sovereign courts; he is the head of the Council, which he presides over in the sovereign’s absence. His political powers declined with the reforms. In 1661, he was dismissed from the Conseil d’En Haut and lost his status as Minister of State; he was responsible for the intellectual life of the kingdom: from 1566, he controlled the book trade, which theoretically enabled him to control and censor all books published.

In the 18th century, a Chancellery Council was set up to advise and enforce the Chancellor’s decisions. It was responsible for the operation of the chancellery, the administration of justice and the book trade. It has the status of an administrative tribunal, adjudicating disputes concerning book regulations. When the chancellor is disgraced or unable to perform his duties, the king removes the seals from him and entrusts them to a garde des sceaux, who becomes a grand officer of the crown. At times, the Keeper of the Seals is appointed while the Chancellor is in office, and the two men share the Chancellor’s responsibilities.

The Grande and Petite Chancelleries report directly to the Chancellor. The King’s secretaries work in the Grande Chancellerie, and have a monopoly on drafting and dispatching royal acts. From a dozen or so in the 13th century, their number rose to 350 by 1694, well above the number required to run the Chancellery. As the office was transmissible and the easiest way to acquire nobility, most secretaries did not fulfill their duties. Other officers of the Grande Chancellerie included the Grand Audiencier, who was responsible for organizing the audience du sceau and counting the fees collected on the sealing of letters; the Contrôleur général, who inherited the financial powers of the Grand Audiencier; the Garde des Roles des Offices de France, who kept an up-to-date list of available offices; and the Chauffe-cire, who carried out the sealing operation. In the 15th century, Petites Chancelleries were created in the provinces to bring the public closer to the seals. The letters they issue apply only in the jurisdiction where the Petite Chancellerie is located. Staff numbers were smaller than those of the Grande Chancellerie, but the duties were the same.

In the 16th century, the position of Secretary of State first appeared within the Chancellery, before becoming fully autonomous. Secretaries of State originated from the king’s notaries, who were responsible for formatting the sovereign’s personal deeds. Their remit evolved over time, and some took on important political and diplomatic tasks. In 1547, the four secretaries were assigned to foreign countries and provinces of the kingdom, where they were responsible for dispatching State business, and later to certain departments such as war and religion. They then became the executors of the royal will and the heads of the central administration of the State. They became so powerful that the sovereign took a series of measures to define their powers, which varied until 1791.

To govern the kingdom, the king had to rely on a large number of agents with different statuses. They fall into three main categories: officers, commissioners and civil servants. Officers were not only at the service of the royal administration; there were also seigneurial, municipal and provincial officers. Two types of office are distinguished: casual offices, which revert to the king on the death of the holder (or for non-exercise of the office), and domanial offices, which are venal and hereditary. The holder can pay someone to perform the duties of the office in his or her stead, and can also sell the office to a third party. Venality was introduced as early as the 12th century, and became official at the end of the 15th century. Officers were an advantage for the monarchy, since their sale (even if the office was theoretically a gift from the king) helped to fill the coffers, but also a disadvantage, since the king could not choose his officers at the risk of having an incompetent person occupy a post.

The commissaires were created to provide the king with revocable agents, whose powers were limited by the tasks conferred on them by the letter of commission each of them received. Although the term “fonctionnaire” (civil servant) did not appear until the 1770s, it then covered an older category of agents: the king’s engineers, clerks (clerks who worked in the ministries, intendances and Ferme Générale) and inspectors (whose mission was to ensure the smooth running of the state’s economic institutions). Civil servants were revocable and remunerated according to grade and seniority. This method of remuneration prefigured the status of the modern civil service.


In the kingdom of France, the law was not unified and, on the eve of the Revolution, no fewer than 18 jurisdictions, generally called parlements, rendered final judgments. Some, such as the Exchequer of Normandy in Rouen, were born of the confirmation of pre-existing jurisdictions, while others, such as the Parliament of Toulouse, were created to bring judicial administration closer to the people.

Whereas in England, public offices are essentially voluntary, in Spain and France they are for sale. The kings of France did not hesitate to put magistrates’ offices up for sale, unlike the Habsburgs of Spain, who were careful not to sell them in order to retain control of the justice dispensed in their name. In the kingdom of France, the venality and then heredity of judicial functions ensured the formation of an autonomous body that was quick to express itself and even to make demands.

Parliaments register laws, and have a right of remonstrance if they do not seem to conform to the fundamental laws of the kingdom: the kings of France can resort to forced registration by a lit de justice. Under Louis XIV, the Parlement de Paris overturned the king’s will in exchange for the restoration of his right of remontrance. Under Louis XV and Louis XVI, the parliaments echoed the values of the Enlightenment, demanding a political system in which the tendency towards royal absolutism was counterbalanced by other powers, including the judiciary, which they embodied.

The king’s most important function is to dispense justice to his subjects. This task comes to him from the coronation, when it is acknowledged that justice is delegated by God to monarchs. The king cannot exercise justice personally; he must therefore delegate it to qualified personnel. Justice is considered delegated when it is exercised by magistrates in the name of the king, and withheld when the king and his council intervene directly in a case. Royal delegated justice comprises ordinary courts and exceptional courts. The former form a pyramidal hierarchy of four levels. At the bottom are the provosts, viscounties and châtellenies, dating from the 11th century, followed by the bailliages and sénéchaussées, which appeared in the 12th century, then the présidiaux, created in 1552, and finally the parlements and sovereign councils. The King’s Council, the supreme court of justice, is at the very top of the edifice. Exceptional courts are empowered to judge certain categories of cases or individuals. Higher courts may intervene in a case pending before a lower court, and take jurisdiction by means of an evocation procedure.

The prévôté (also called châtellenie, vicomté, viguerie, bailie or jugerie depending on the province) is the smallest and oldest of the local royal jurisdictions. It mainly heard the civil and criminal cases of commoners at first instance. Until the end of the Middle Ages, its staff consisted of a judge and a clerk, before expanding and specializing to include lieutenants, advisors and king’s attorneys. The Bailliage and Seneschaussée were created by the Dukes of Normandy and taken over by the Kings of France at the end of the 12th century, with the principal mission of controlling the work of the Provosts. Over the centuries, they lost their administrative and military powers, retaining only their judicial powers. On appeal, they judge the cases of the lower royal, seigniorial and municipal courts. At first instance, they judged cases concerning nobles and the king. Under the Ancien Régime, the bailli did not reside in his district, and let magistrates exercise his powers.

The Presidial Court was created in 1552 to bring justice closer to the people. It could judge misdemeanors and crimes committed by people of war, as well as civil cases in first or last instance, depending on the sums at stake. The institution declined over the years, falling victim to the hostility of parliaments. The composition of the courts varied, and nine judges were needed to hand down a sentence. The Paris presidial court, the Châtelet, occupies a special place in the judicial organization, since its head is the king, represented by the Paris provost guard, and its jurisdiction extends to the whole kingdom for certain cases. It was also a court of exception, allowing certain religious communities and the University of Paris to be tried only at the Châtelet.

Parliaments and sovereign councils were created between the 13th and 18th centuries, depending on the province, by dismembering an existing jurisdiction, transforming a seigniorial court or simply creating a new one. They are courts of last instance, and appeal courts for all lower courts under common law, as well as seigniorial, municipal and specialized courts, and for certain ecclesiastical matters. They also judge exceptional cases, such as those involving the crown. The Parliament of Paris has specialized powers, such as judging the princes and peers of France. A parliament is made up of several permanent and temporary chambers: the Grand Chamber is the most important, where the king holds a lit de justice and where the most important decisions are taken; the Chamber of Requests is responsible for receiving individuals and sending them to the appropriate jurisdiction, and then in modern times, for judging in the first instance; the Chamber of Inquiries investigates cases on behalf of the Grand Chamber. A parliament is headed by the first president, then each chamber has its own president. The bulk of the members are deliberative councillors, magistrates and court officers.

Retained justice was exercised by the king in person. It became very rare under the Ancien Régime, and was exercised in different ways. The lit de justice is a solemn session of parliament in the presence of the king. The magistrates’ power of delegation was then suspended, and parliament became a mere advisory body. The king also exercised justice through letters of cachet. This involved depriving people of their liberty in order to prevent ordinary justice from fulfilling its role. They were used to prevent trials that would harm the interests of the kingdom or the royal family. They must be verified by the lieutenant-general of police to validate their validity and prevent abuse of power. The king also has the right of pardon, which allows him to cancel a sentence.

Alongside the royal justice system, there were tens of thousands of seigneurial courts, each with its own jurisdiction, as well as municipal courts, whose jurisdiction was reduced from the 16th century onwards. At the end of the Middle Ages, jurists developed the theory that, since the king was the lord of the lords, the latter would render justice in his name. Over the centuries, the royal state reduced the powers of non-royal justice by theorizing the notion of the “royal case”, which reserved for the king cases considered important or involving his sovereignty. In addition, these powers were limited, since it was possible to appeal a decision of a non-royal court to a royal court.

With the break-up of the royal state around the 10th century, the lords regained a share of judicial power. Depending on the region, the lord exercised lower justice (notably land justice) or higher justice (blood justice, which included the death penalty). Seigniorial courts operate according to no rules, only the lord’s will. Most customs recognize that the court must be composed of at least four vassals. It wasn’t until the end of the Middle Ages that seigniorial courts became more professional. From the 12th century onwards, a struggle began with the royal power, to control and reduce the power of this justice, with the introduction of three recourses: appeal, prevention and cases reserved for the king. Seigniorial justice was still in operation on the eve of the French Revolution, but important rulings had to be confirmed by a parliament, and it mainly settled local disputes.

The mission of ecclesiastical justice is to judge the internal affairs of the Church and the faithful in matters of faith and morals. In the 15th century, the notion of abuse was introduced, making it possible to appeal to the royal courts if a church judge exceeded the limits of his jurisdiction. This judicial order was abolished in August 1790.

The main jurisdiction is that of the bishops within their diocese. Busy with their many tasks, from the 12th century onwards they delegated their judicial functions to a judge called the official, assisted by an administration. Exceptional jurisdictions, called Inquisitions, were set up between the 12th and 14th centuries to judge heretics according to a special procedure. From the 13th century onwards, the royal power set out to reduce the powers of the Church’s justice system in a number of areas, ranging from faith to the maintenance of order. Royalty introduced the concepts of privileged cases and abuse. The Pragmatic Sanction of Bourges, promulgated in 1438, enabled the king to control ecclesiastical justice.

Municipal justice extends to all the inhabitants of a town. Jurisdiction varies from one commune to another, and few have full justice, which is usually shared with the lord. The institutions and laws applied vary from region to region, depending on the charters issued. Justice may be dispensed by an agent of the lord, a police court made up of inhabitants, mayors or aldermen. Municipal justice declined from the 16th century onwards, as a result of the royal government’s legislative measures and the special provisions applied to rebellious towns. In the 18th century, the majority of towns retained only police powers, with the exception of some that were very loyal to the crown, such as Toulouse.

Judicial personnel became established during the 16th century. It was divided into two categories of officers: magistrates and court officers. They were divided into three categories: senior magistrates, who ran the court (called presidents in sovereign courts and presidiaux, and lieutenants in lower courts); councillors, who studied and judged cases; and specialized magistrates, who performed specific functions. The Public Prosecutor’s Office, whose origins date back to the 13th century, is responsible for defending the interests of the king and society, to ensure the common good. It is made up of the public prosecutor, who heads the public prosecutor’s office within the jurisdiction, and the king’s attorneys, who represent the king in court. Magistrates were assisted in their tasks by court officers: clerks, who recorded court decisions in writing; bailiffs and sergeants, who oversaw hearings and served sentences; public prosecutors, who drafted and monitored proceedings; and accountants, who collected court fees and fines.


For a long time, the resources of the kings of France were limited to revenues from the royal domain, making it difficult to finance the king’s political actions on a kingdom-wide scale. Philip the Fair therefore resorted to makeshift solutions: solicitations from the Church, seizures of property (from Jews, the Templar Order or the Lombards), manipulation of the exchange rate… It was the Hundred Years’ War that provided the opportunity to introduce permanent taxes: the fouage of Charles V and the taille of Charles VII.

Under the Valois-Angoulême family from 1515 to 1589, the development of court life and wars brought public finances to the brink of bankruptcy, and Sully only restored the situation through draconian measures. The royal budget and taxes underwent a new phase of development with the resumption of the war against Spain from 1635 to 1698. Louis XIV resorted to expedients to finance his wars and his court: sale of titles of nobility and offices, creation of new taxes (capitation, dixième)… From 1726 onwards, Cardinal de Fleury brought finances back into balance, and had the merit of stabilizing the exchange rate until the Revolution.

The personal reigns of Louis XV and Louis XVI, marked in particular by three costly and unprofitable wars with Great Britain, resulted in a further drift in public finances, and it was to resolve this crisis that the Estates General were convened in May 1789.

Since Charlemagne, the main currency of account has been the livre, followed by the sou and the denier. This is an abstract currency used for counting. Physical coins all have a value in terms of money of account. In the Middle Ages, each lord (large or small), bishop or town minted its own currency. Philippe II Auguste tried to impose the livre parisis (Parisian pound), which was used in Paris, and then took over the workshops that minted the livre tournois (Tournois pound), which was used in the central and western parts of the kingdom. Saint Louis imposed the royal coinage within the royal domain, in competition with the coinage of lords outside the domain. With each royal decree, seigneurial coinage lost more and more influence and independence. In 1347, coinage became a royal monopoly, but in return the king became the guarantor of its value. Until the French Revolution, several different coins were in circulation, including the ecu, the louis, the franc à cheval, the liard and the gros tournois. During the various restorations, the single currency of the kingdom was the French franc, imposed by the revolutionaries in 1795.

Under the Capetians, royal finances were divided into two management systems: ordinary and extraordinary. The ordinary was responsible for managing the royal estate and the royal coinage. Revenues from the domain were varied, and could be fixed, such as tolls, or irregular, such as taxes levied on fairs. Before Philip II Augustus, revenue collection was managed by the provost. Subsequently, the bailiffs and seneschals were responsible for this task, and after 1320 the receivers regained a monopoly on revenue collection. Since the reign of Louis VII the Younger, the royal treasury had been under the responsibility of the Order of the Temple. Philippe Auguste set up a bureau des comptes, comprising six Parisian bourgeois and the king’s clerk. Together, they drew up a real budget for royalty. After 1295, Philip IV the Fair withdrew the management of the treasury from the Knights Templar and entrusted it to royal treasurers. Their mission was to draw up a forecast of income and expenditure for each receiver. From the 14th century onwards, their powers increased, as they were responsible for administering the estate’s resources and carrying out audits throughout the kingdom. From 1379 onwards, one of them remained permanently in Paris, assisted by the Treasury’s moneychanger. From the mid-15th century, the other four were each assigned a district.

The extraordinary is responsible for tax management. It was instituted in the 14th century to meet royal expenses that could no longer be covered by ordinary taxation. Prior to this date, in addition to ordinary taxes, sovereigns levied taxes on the Church to finance the Crusades. From Philip IV the Fair onwards, various experiments were carried out to diversify the forms of contribution. Defeats during the Hundred Years’ War made it clear that financial reform was necessary to establish the defense of the kingdom. Initially exceptional and with the agreement of the state assemblies, taxes became permanent from 1436 to finance a standing army.

The first tax collections were entrusted to commissioners. The Estates General of 1355 set up a real administration managed by nine general superintendents (three for each order), who themselves chose representatives for each district, with the task of distributing the taille among the parishes. A Receiver General and a Receiver Particular were responsible for accounting. The administration soon came under royal control, with the appointment of four superintendents general, each responsible for a district. Treasury officers and superintendents general came together in a joint finance council.

It was under François I that the financial administration inherited from the Middle Ages underwent major reforms. In 1523, he created a central fund known as the Trésor de l’Épargne. Managed by a high-ranking accountant, it financed court and government expenditure. The powers of the treasurers and generals of finance were reduced and merged some time later under the title of Treasurer General. The kingdom was divided into sixteen generalities, each headed by a treasurer general. Ordinary and extraordinary finances were then brought under the same administration, and the number of general treasurers was increased for each generality. The central administration of finance was henceforth headed by the king, assisted by his council, from which emerged a number of specialists chosen by the king, who supervised and coordinated the financial administration. The titles of Comptroller General of Finances, Intendants and Superintendent of Finances were thus created.

Intendants des finances appeared in 1552 to manage the funds of the German voyage and report to the council. Initially numbering four, their numbers varied from period to period. They sat in a ministry that replaced the one formed by the Treasurers of France and the Finance Generals. Among them, one member emerged and gave rise to the title of superintendent of finance, but depending on the reforms, his function was intermittent with the finance council, before being abolished in 1661. This prestigious title gave its holder the power to delegate the royal function of authorizing state expenditure.

In 1661, Louis XIV replaced the Superintendent of Finance with a Royal Council of Finance, over which he presided. In 1665, the King retained only a Controller General of Finance, and abolished the other offices. Until the end of the Ancien Régime, the Comptroller General was the member of the government with the most responsibilities, and was also the position that most frequently changed hands. The title is not always constant, and at times he is replaced by a council or bears a different name, such as Director General of Finance. He is in charge of financial administration, including management of the royal treasury, budgeting, taxes, the royal estate and coinage. He oversees the General Farm and controls all economic activities. He is assisted by the central finance administration, which comprises several departments. The first finance clerk, together with the comptroller general, manages the royal treasury. The intendants des finances run the departments like a ministry, with considerable autonomy. The intendants du commerce were the rapporteurs and coordinators of the bureau du commerce. In 1791, the Contrôle Général des Finances was replaced by the Ministère des Contributions et Revenus Publics, and by the Ministère de l’Intérieur for its non-financial tasks.

The first direct tax to become widespread was the fouage, which had the disadvantage of not being precise in its forecasts. The taille gradually replaced it throughout the kingdom, becoming a royal monopoly in 1439 as lords were forbidden to levy it. Nobles (who paid the blood tax) and clerics were exempt, but the Church paid the decime. Among indirect taxes, the salt gabelle held a special place. It was administered by grenetiers, royal agents who sold salt. The gabelle differs between “petite” and “grande” gabelle countries, and is exempt in some others. Goods were taxed on export, as this was considered to diminish the kingdom’s wealth.

Farms were created to collect indirect taxes. Initially, each tax had several separate farms with powers such as marketing and taxation, which collaborated with royal agents who had powers of justice and police. From Henry III onwards, the state began a process of centralizing farms with the five Grosses fermes. Farmers were required to pay a lump sum each year. In 1726, the General Farm was created as an administration that was not legally part of the State, but included tens of thousands of people with a status similar to that of civil servants.

Financial administrations began to spread to the provinces around the 15th century. They grew out of single institutions initially located in Paris. At the top of the hierarchy were several sovereign courts, such as the chambres des comptes (audit chambers), whose mission was to control public accounting and the conservation of the royal estate; the cours des aides (aid courts), responsible for extraordinary finance; and the cours des monnaies (mint issues and the conservation of standard weights). Below these, finance offices were created in 1577 to provide a link with the higher courts and local tax authorities. Below this, certain taxes had their own institutions and formed this local level. There are three of them: the elections, which collect the old taxes of taille and aides; the salt granaries, which collect the gabelle; and the traites, which represent customs duties on entering and leaving the kingdom, or from certain provinces to others.

External relations

The foreign policy of the Kingdom of France was initially shaped by successive conflicts with the Kingdom of England, starting with the 1186 rupture between Philip Augustus and Henry II Plantagenet, over pre-eminence within the borders of the Kingdom of France. Under the Treaty of Picquigny in 1475, the King of England renounced his French fiefdoms in fact, if not in law.

At the same time, relations with the Papacy were an important chapter in the kingdom’s foreign relations, both in the context of the crusades of 1095 to 1396, with the ultimate failure at Nicopolis, and in the division of temporal and spiritual powers. Following disputes over the delimitation of tax exemptions and judicial immunity for clerics, the expedition of Philip the Fair’s emissaries to Anagni against Pope Boniface VIII in 1303 preceded the installation of the popes in Avignon, closer to the kings of France, until 1376.

The division in 1477 of the inheritance of Charles the Bold, Duke of Burgundy, led Louis XI to begin a period of conflict with the Habsburgs of Austria, which ended with the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle (1748): France had considerably extended its borders as far east as the Rhine. Rivalry with England resumed in 1689, on a European and then global scale, and ended with the Treaty of Versailles (1783). In 1763, with the Treaty of Paris, France concluded its North American adventure by ceding Quebec to Great Britain and New Orleans to Spain. But it kept Saint-Domingue and its trading posts in Senegal, including the island of Gorée, which supplied slaves to its prosperous West Indian plantations.

During the Middle and Late Middle Ages, the king sent ambassadors to foreign courts, but always for a specific mission, and returned when the mission was over. Permanent ambassadors began to appear in the 16th century. The Department of Foreign Affairs was created in 1589 (abolished from 1624 to 1626), and was responsible for correspondence with heads of state and with diplomatic agents accredited by France. It was also responsible for foreign trade, in competition with other offices. The Secretary of State was a member of the Conseil d’en Haut, which deliberated mainly on foreign policy. In the 18th century, responsibilities were divided between the political department, specialized services and agents attached to no single service.

The offices of the political department are headed by a first clerk, with three to six clerks reporting to him. Depending on the period, responsibilities were divided into geographical sectors or simply into two offices, one for the North and one for the South. Specialized departments gradually appeared, first with the archives, then the fund office, responsible for financial management as well as administrative tasks such as passport issuance, the interpreters’ office, the topographical office and a geographical office for map storage. The Secretary of State could call on the services of advisors or experts to resolve problems of international law, such as the services of a jurisconsult for Germanic law. Under Louis XV, occult diplomacy was set up alongside official diplomacy.

The ambassador represents the king in person. When he leaves France, he receives instructions defining the guidelines of his mission. The king did not send ambassadors everywhere. In some countries, he maintained legations and residences, and even occasional envoys for distant sovereigns. The hierarchy is as follows: ambassadors, plenipotentiary ministers and residents. All are assisted by secretaries who can take care of business when their superior is unavailable. During their missions, ambassadors correspond with the Secretary of State, informing him of the political situation and concluding treaties.

Until the 12th century, the royal ost was made up of knights from the royal domain and grand officers from the palace. It only became a real army with the addition of great vassals with their own troops, and pedestrian militias supplied by towns and abbeys. Vassal service declined during the 13th century, but in return royal military service was extended to all lords of the kingdom. The Hundred Years’ War saw the army evolve. The great companies were employed, providing the services of dozens of professional warriors in return for payment. When they were demobilized, they didn’t hesitate to plunder the population and cut off the provinces. The connétable became the head of the French armies, ahead of even the great princes and officers, but also responsible for military justice. In 1445, the first standing armies in the kingdom were created, the compagnies d’ordonnance. Under the supervision of a captain, they carried out military operations in the event of war, and garrisoned towns to ensure the kingdom’s day-to-day security. At the same time, an archery corps, known as franc-archer, was formed, eventually replaced by gunpowder artillery.

The army was thoroughly reformed in the 17th century. Civil administration was developed to manage the army, and the military hierarchy was reorganized to promote merit-based promotion for the lower nobility and bourgeoisie. The provincial militia, a reserve army made up of men chosen by lot, introduced a form of conscription. The ost service was called up for the last time in 1703. The Secretary of State for War was created in 1472. Its remit increased over the years, and by the middle of the 18th century, it was responsible for all military affairs, especially after the office of constable was abolished in 1627. The central administration of the War Department began to develop in 1635. As the wars progressed, it organized and structured itself into specialized offices. In 1791, the Secretariat of State for War was replaced by the Ministry of War, with no continuity with the former administration.

The French fleet was created when territorial expansion in the 13th century provided maritime outlets for the royal domain. The first navy was made up of small, non-combatant transport ships captained by pirates. For major campaigns in the Mediterranean, the king called on Genoese and Venetian fleets, while in the Atlantic Ocean and English Channel, he requisitioned fishing and trading vessels. It was under Philip IV the Fair that a real naval policy was put in place, with the creation of an arsenal in Rouen for the industrial construction of warships. In the mid-14th century, the admiral, whose office was created in 1270, was given the same powers at sea as the connétable on land. His authority was exercised over both military and civilian vessels, such as fishermen and merchants. He is assisted in his task by lieutenants who represent him in each of the kingdom’s major ports. As annexations progressed, maritime provinces were created (Provence, Brittany and Guyenne), headed by admirals who came into conflict with the Admiral of France, whose power was now limited to the maritime provinces of Normandy and Picardy.

It was under Richelieu that a true administration was created for the Royal Navy, uniting and centralizing the offices linked to maritime power, with the creation of the title of Grand Master of Navigation and his appointment to this post in 1626. The following year, the office of admiral was abolished, as it was too powerful in its own right. Until 1635, he bought out or abolished competing offices, by which time he possessed total maritime power. The office of Grand Master of Navigation was abolished and that of Admiral re-established in 1669, but it became essentially honorary and was often held by children so as not to interfere with the Secretary of State for the Navy, who exercised real maritime power, despite tensions when the holder of the office of Admiral came of age. The Secretary of State for the Navy was at the head of the military and commercial administrations, with authority over fleets, ports and arsenals, consulates and colonies, as well as the supervision of trading companies.

Special features

The French colonies in North America legally formed a single entity, called New France. This was divided into five governments: Quebec, Trois-Rivières, Montreal, Louisiana and Acadia. Administration was organized in much the same way as in the metropolis. A Governor General exercised royal authority over the whole of New France. Below him, power is shared between a governor (with military powers) and an intendant or commissaire-ordonnateur (with judicial and financial powers). In town, they were represented by a lieutenant, a major and an aide-major, while in the countryside their authority was relayed by commandants and storekeepers. Justice was dispensed by a sovereign council, but unlike in the metropolis, the offices were not venal, increasing the magistrates’ submission to royal power. In Canada, each government had a royal court of first instance, leaving lower justice to the seigneurial courts, which eventually disappeared in the 18th century.

When he came to the throne in 1814, Louis XVIII endowed France with a Charter that endorsed some of the gains of the Revolution, notably the equality of the French, but reintroduced concepts of the Ancien Régime. Nevertheless, it did not establish a separation of powers. The King alone held executive power and part of the legislative power (he initiated and promulgated laws). Two chambers were created: the Chamber of Peers, whose dignity is hereditary, and the Chamber of Deputies, elected on the basis of censal suffrage. They voted on laws (but amendments had to be approved by the King) and could issue wishes and petitions. The charter specifies that ministers are accountable, but does not specify whether to the king or to the chambers. Despite the passing of laws restricting liberties and attempts to return to absolutist practices under Charles X, institutions remained unchanged during this period.

The institutions of the July monarchy were relatively similar to those of the previous regime. However, there were a few changes: the King could no longer legislate by ordinance when State security was at stake, nor could he suspend laws. The chambers now have the power to initiate legislation at the same time as the king. Royalty became a hereditary function (and no longer a dignity), and the king was considered head of state, deriving his power from the Nation, represented by the chambers. Ministers had to have the confidence of both the chambers and the king to hold office. The hereditary nature of the Chamber of Peers was abolished in 1831.

The kingdom of France is the set of territories that recognize the domination of the King of France, or under the feudal period, the territories of lords who recognize themselves as vassals of the King. Until the French Revolution, borders were blurred, with the king possessing external enclaves and foreign sovereigns internal enclaves. Internally, the districts were either homogeneous or heterogeneous, depending on their nature. France is divided into two parts: on the one hand, fairly centralized electoral districts with relatively uniform institutions, and on the other, state and tax districts with a high degree of autonomy. The only constituencies with clear boundaries are those formed from parishes, i.e. dioceses, elections and generalities. The others are more lists of localities and fiefs than a mapped linear territory.

Different degrees of integration into the kingdom

The royal domain is the set of fiefs of which the king is the direct lord. It began in the 11th century with the territorial division of the kingdom, and continued to expand until the end of the Middle Ages, when it merged with the boundaries of the kingdom. Territorial expansion of the royal domain began with Philip II Augustus and ended with the purchase of Corsica in 1768 and its military conquest the following year. From the 13th century onwards, the domain was inalienable. Prior to this, kings did not hesitate to give crown fiefs to their youngest sons so that they could earn an income. Subsequently, a distinction was made between the fixed domain belonging to the crown and the casuel domain, made up of fiefs acquired by the king during his lifetime (by conquest, succession or inheritance), which he could dispose of in the interests of the kingdom. It is also possible for the king to pledge the domain or exchange land for goods of equal value.

The apanage consists in giving a fiefdom to one of the king’s younger sons, so that he can hold his rank. This practice sometimes gave rise to new principalities, such as the Burgundian state. It also enabled princes of the blood to participate in the defense of the kingdom. Over time, the practice became codified and, from the 14th century onwards, the prince’s powers within his apanage became increasingly limited. If the prince had no male heir, the apanage reverted to the crown.

A territorial principality is a quasi-sovereign state in which the prince exercises legislative, diplomatic, judicial and fiscal powers, but recognizes the king as his suzerain. They appeared in the 10th century, when the counts, who had become independent, incorporated the neighbouring counties into their domain and exercised the authority previously held by the king. The principalities declined with the rise of central power, and were gradually integrated into the royal domain. They declined sharply during the Ancien Régime, but several dozen principalities remained, most of them the size of towns.

Local government

There are many of them, and they are not the same as the provinces, nor the boundaries of the parliaments, nor feudal geography. Bailliages and sénéchaussées are ancient circumscriptions with different powers depending on their nature. Originally, a bailliage was a representative of the king, responsible for dispensing justice, supervising provosts, managing estates, protecting royal churches and supervising and transmitting royal orders to vassals. Over time, the bailli’s jurisdiction was restricted to the judicial sphere, but some old powers remained, such as the lifting of the ban. Governments are districts controlled by a governor who represents the king. Generality is a financial district administered by a finance office, and by an intendant in electoral countries. It is homogeneous and formed from parishes with linear contours. The intendance is a district administered by an intendant. It merges with the generality in countries of election, and with the province in countries of state. The Revolution rationalized administrative division by dividing the kingdom into 83 départements.

The governor represents the king in the field. He must act in the same way as the king would if he were present, and is obliged to obey the monarch’s orders. He is a kind of viceroy in his district, which is called the military government. His jurisdiction is nevertheless limited in judicial and financial matters, where he must not usurp the power of the sovereign courts. He may, for example, follow sessions in the king’s chair, or communicate the sovereign’s orders and intentions, but may not intervene in the course of judgments. In financial matters, he has no power to dispose of public funds, nor to levy taxes. The office of governor is not an office, and the king can dismiss its holder at will. It could also be conferred on women. Governors in the colonies had more extensive powers than those in France, and were obliged to reside in the colonies.

The office of governor emerged in the 15th century, following the reorganization of the kingdom after the end of the Hundred Years’ War. In the following century, governors often held high positions at court and were often absent from their provinces. To assist them, they were assisted by a lieutenant general, who carried out the duties of the incumbent in his absence, and by a council of state. The latter was made up of a staff to assist in military matters, and then, from Henry II onwards, by long-serving members of the robe to deal with judicial, administrative and financial matters. The governor employed collaborators such as a secretary, responsible for liaising between his boss and the king.

Intendants had their origins in Henry II’s administrative reforms, aimed at strengthening royal power. He placed superintendents alongside governors in conquered or annexed provinces. The institution evolved with each reform. Henri IV sent intendants to handle financial tasks independently of the governors, and appointed commissioners to oversee the application of edicts in the provinces, a practice that had appeared under the last Valois. The commissioners regained the power of justice under Louis XIII. The Journée des Dupes episode led to a proliferation of intendants in the provinces to maintain order. Then, in 1633, Minister Pierre Séguier used the intendants to reform tax administration. From the 1680s onwards, intendants became the government’s intermediary for controlling towns. Unlike governors, who represented the king, intendants represented the state independently of the person at its head.

In the field of justice, the intendants can enter the higher courts, preside over the lower courts and have their own tribunal to give final judgment on cases referred by the Council. They also receive the population’s complaints about abuses of judicial administration. They oversee towns and communities, particularly in terms of financial management and town planning, but also manage forests, roads and other common property. Their fiscal prerogatives vary from country to country. In countries with elections, they oversee the collection of the taille, in countries with states they simply communicate the sum the king expects from the province, while in countries with taxation they manage the entire administration. Under their authority, they oversee the offices’ staff, divided into three categories: secretaries, clerks and subdelegates.

Given the extent of the district they managed, and with the multiplication of their tasks, the intendants got into the habit of delegating missions to personal subdelegates. Initially hostile to the practice, the central government formalized it in 1704, making it an office, while keeping the subdelegate under the authority of the intendant, who had to present candidates to the king. The subdelegate’s geographical area of jurisdiction was set at the election in countries subject to taxation, and at the bishopric or bailliage and seneschaussée in countries subject to state control. In countries subject to taxation, a new district, the subdelegation, was created around the towns. Subdelegates were divided into two categories: particular subdelegates and general subdelegates. The former provided information to the intendant, but had no decision-making powers. The latter were responsible for coordinating the work of the offices, and could even replace the intendant in the event of a legitimate vacancy.

Territorial communities

Provinces are territories with common customs, traditions and privileges, as well as political bodies that form a common will. Each administrative district is referred to as a province, but the most common meaning is communities based on ancestral tradition. In the 18th century, there were some sixty provinces, subdivided into three hundred natural countries. For each province, the king must respect the customs and charters of law. The provinces have representative bodies such as parliaments, the sovereign court, the chamber of accounts and the sovereign council, but above all the provincial states, which act as a counterweight to the king to protect their subjects.

Seigneuries reached their peak between the 10th and 13th centuries. A seigneury is a territory of varying size organized around a castle, where the lord commands all the people who live on the land. Until the French Revolution, the kingdom was divided up into seigneuries, both in the countryside and in the towns, and they remained the main territorial community for the management of men and the possession of land. The chief exercised political, administrative, judicial and military powers. The men live under the lord’s military protection. They paid this protection in the form of various taxes, depending on their social category, of which serfdom was the most servile form. During the Ancien Régime, the seigneury became a delegation of judicial public power, with the seigneur exercising police power under royal control. It also became a source of profit, and even trade.

In the kingdom of France, a town is first and foremost a city wall with housing groups inside. It is also a privileged honorary or tax zone. Legally, towns exist in three different forms: seigneurial towns, towns of the bourgeoisie and towns of the communes. The former are administered directly by the seigneur and his officers. Paris, for example, is administered directly by the king. Bourgeoisie towns are administered by the bourgeoisie through a group of magistrates and municipal officers. Cities such as Bordeaux, Toulouse, Marseille and Lyon are governed in this way. Towns of communes are administered by the entire population, bound together by an oath authorized by the king. This is the case in towns such as Beauvais, Bayonne, Angoulême, La Rochelle and Arras. Town statutes were abolished on August 4, 1789.

Villages in the kingdom of France are self-governing communities of inhabitants that, unlike towns, do not need the king’s authorization to be legally recognized. Villagers organize themselves in assemblies held several times a year. To take decisions, at least ten inhabitants must be present, but to decide on a loan or dispose of a common asset, the presence of everyone is required. The organization of the assembly depends on province and custom, but very often voting takes place aloud and is presided over by a syndic elected for one year by acclamation. Village communities have local policing powers (drafting rural police regulations) and economic powers (such as maintenance and construction of common property). They are largely responsible for local royal administration.

The parish is the basic subdivision of a diocese in the Catholic Church. France’s parish network took shape in the 12th and 13th centuries, in line with the strong demographic growth in the countryside and towns. The parish map remained virtually unchanged until the French Revolution, which transformed them into communes. The parish is governed by a parish assembly, often made up of the same people as the village and urban communities. The head of the parish is the parish priest, sometimes elected by the parishioners, who owe him lodgings and tithes. The congregation administers the parish’s assets and revenues through the conseil de fabrique. To this end, it elects one or more churchwardens for a one-year term. The parish assembly is often the owner of goods allocated to the poor, and controls the administration of the charity office in charge of distribution.

The kingdom’s coat of arms appeared around 1180. They are said to be “azure semé de fleurs de lis d’or”: blue is the color of the Capetian dynasty and the fleur-de-lis symbolizes the royal function since, according to legend, they were sent from heaven to Clovis I. Gradually, the semé was replaced by three fleurs-de-lis symbolizing the Trinity, and it was under Charles V the Wise that the change was ratified. Under the Kingdom of France, coats of arms were used by all inhabitants, as well as by corporate bodies as a mark of ownership. In June 1790, the revolutionaries abolished coats of arms throughout the kingdom.

During the Ancien Régime, the kingdom had no official flag, but the white flag was used as the symbol of regal military and maritime power, often studded with fleur-de-lis or the royal coat of arms. From 1790, the blue, white and red flag, now the colors of the French nation, became the official flag of the kingdom for naval vessels, then for military units. With the Restoration, the plain white flag became the symbol of the kingdom, although not without controversy, since white had become the color of surrender. The July monarchy definitively established the blue, white and red tricolor as the flag of the kingdom.

There is no national motto for the kingdom; each king has his own. The closest thing to a national motto is the French knights’ war cry “Montjoie Saint-Denis!”, but this fell into disuse in modern times. During the constitutional monarchies, several mottos were written on official documents, referring to the king, the law, the nation, liberty and justice. There was no national, or even royal, anthem. From the 17th century onwards, two songs stood out and became national: Vive Henri IV! and Charmante Gabrielle. They were revived during the Restoration as songs to the glory of the royal dynasty, but never became official.

Related articles


  1. Royaume de France
  2. Kingdom of France
  3. a b et c La France au Moyen Âge, p. 32.
  4. La France au Moyen Âge, p. 33.
  5. Clovis, p. 201.
  6. Clovis, p. 206.
  7. Clovis, p. 253.
  8. Domine, salvum fac regem («Боже, храни короля»)
  9. a b Gauvard, p. 32.
  10. Gauvard, p. 33.
  11. ^ Old [rei̯ˈjau̯mə də ˈfrantsə], later [ˈfransə]
  12. ^ pronounced [ʁwajom d(ə) fʁɑ̃s]
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