While the Angevin Empire was being fractured and lost under John, its rival, the Capetian dynasty in France, was gaining strength. They had been overlords in name for centuries, but with the conquests of Philippe II, they became the personal rulers of much of the country. The period was described by Georges Duby as “a period when changes gathered speed” – and they sped up, indeed. What hadn’t been accomplished in over two centuries was realized over not more than a few decades, though some of the deficiencies of the English kings also played a part in the speed at which they rose.
(All charts are from Jean Dubabin’s “France in the Making 843-1180”, and any off-center images are purely the result of the copy machine I used.)
France at the start of the High Middle Ages was a shadow of its former self. Gaul had fractured with the fall of Rome in 476, and the pieces remained for about three centuries. Charles I (better known as Charlemagne) had united much of Europe, but the Carolingian practice of dividing the patrimonial inheritance between sons meant that the union lasted only during his lifetime. The kingdom thus divided into three parts, the fractures were allowed to appear again, and by the tenth century, the so called King of the Franks could lay claim only to a small parcel of land centered on Paris, called the Île-de-France (Isle of France). Though they theoretically were the overlords of much of what is modern France, it was only rarely that they were able to exercise control outside of their own personal domains.
Both Louis VI (r. 1108-1137) and his son, Louis VII (r. 1131 [junior king until 1137] – 1180), the Capetians could do little but hold their own. Far from exercising his authority over far-away nobles, Louis VI had to spend a good portion of his reign subduing his own castellans, who had amassed considerable power in their small domains – enough that many had began to act as petty tyrants, with the feuds between them leading to the maltreatment of all: family, subjects and enemies. By showing that he could assert authority in his own realm – and do so justly – Louis VI was thus more often consulted in matters that involved his vassals. As those vassals had acknowledged that he did hold authority, he was then able to wield it to strengthen his rule, meaning that his second son, Louis VII (the king’s eldest son dying in a riding accident), inherited a throne that was at least a little bit more defined and powerful.
Louis VII is an interesting figure for a few reasons. As a second son, he was educated to start a life in the Church, and even after he became his father’s heir and junior king, he never seemed to lose the piety that his schooling had cultivated – Stephen of Paris goes as far to say that “he was so pious, so just, so catholic and benign, that if you were to see his simplicity of behaviour and dress, you would think, unless you already knew him, that he was not a king but a man of religion.” Unlike his contemporary Stephen of Blois, the king of England (r. 1135-1154), Louis VII’s gentle nature meant that he was widely accepted and liked. But like his English counterpart, it sometimes meant that his authority in military matters was not the best – most notably the lackluster Second Crusade (1145-1149), in which the only success happened when some of the Crusaders en route to the Holy Land stopped ad helped the Portuguese capture Lisbon from the Moors (Louis VII was not involved in this, though).
As praiseworthy as he was, however, he did have more faults than the clerical distaste for war. Many have put forth the claim that he was easily swayed by his close advisers, and Marcel Pacaut, a 20th century French historian, has noted that he might have been more successful one hundred years later, after the Capetians had been fimly established as rulers of France. Though his reign before the Crusade was marked by a zeal that certainly managed to alienate many prominent barons, his later years were more conservative, as he first tried to produce an heir, and then tried to ensure that there was an inheritance to leave him.
In this, his traditional rivals in Blois and Normandy were replaced by the Counts of Anjou, most notably the young Henry. The son of Geoffrey V and Matilda, the daughter of the English king Henry I, he was a claimant to the throne of England, occupied by Stephen – indeed, he was already invested as duke of Normandy, which his father had conquered from the English king seven years previously. The death of Geoffrey a few months later added Anjou, Maine and Touraine to the young duke’s personal holdings, and must have increased the worry of Louis. With only 69 miles and the contested Vexin separating the Normal capital of Rouen from Paris, any strengthening of the Duchy of Normandy could constitute a grave threat to the Capetians – the addition of his patrimony negated the fact that Henry did not have the Norman lands in England as his own.
However, if the fact that an Angevin count held Normandy bothered Louis, what happened next would infuriate him. In 1152, Louis had annulled his first marriage to Eleanor, Duchess of Aquitaine and Countess of Poitou – the couple’s inability to produce a male heir was enough to justify giving up personal control of the lands she had brought to the crown. However, this raised the possibility that some other noble would then be able to claim heir titles and lands – which Henry did, just six weeks later. Louis’s troubles didn’t end there, though – the death of Stephen’s heir the next year held persuade him to name Henry his heir (the rightful heir to England had been Henry’s mother Matilda, and years of civil war had resulted from Stephen’s seizing of the crown), and on Stephen’s death in 1154, Henry (r. 1154-1189) became the direct holder of lands stretching from the Scottish border to the Pyrenees – with the English king holding more French lands than Louis himself.
From this point, Louis’s biggest obstacle to the expansion of Capetian power became Henry II. A weaker English king, such as Stephen, would have been easier to work with, but Henry was everything that Louis wasn’t: forceful, harsh when the need arose, and one of the brilliant military minds of his age. In addition, Eleanor gave him the sons – five in all, with four reaching adulthood – that she had never borne the French king. Thus it was that when a daughter of Louis’s second marriage was betrothed to Henry’s eldest surviving son, Hal, it was conceivable that on the death of Louis, an Angevin could conceivably claim and hold the thrones of both England and France.
Luckily for Louis, this crisis was avoided by the birth of a son, Philippe, in 1165. Though he almost continuously got the worse end of any deal with Henry, he did manage to pass off his kingdom to Philippe II (r. 1179 [junior king until 1180] – 1223). Philippe had many qualities his father lacked – namely cunning and political acumen. Like his father, he got his start by playing on the divisions that were forming in the Angevin ranks. Henry II had four sons: Hal (crowned as Henry the Young King in 1170, predeceased his father in 1183), Richard (invested as Count of Poitou in 1169), Geoffrey (married to Constance of Brittany and invested as its Duke in 1181, he predeceased his father in 1186), and John (named Lord of Ireland in 1177), and though their father gave the eldest three titles and nominal power in their realms, it was not enough to quench their urges, and from 1173 to Henry’s death in 1189, Louis VII and Philippe were able to play the sons against the father somewhat successfully – though none of the revolts succeeded, they did serve to plant seeds of doubt in Henry’s mind, meaning that he English succession was never settled until about a month before the king’s death.
Unfortunately for Philippe, the death of Henry II did not immediately mean that the Capetian hold on France was secure. Henry’s heir was his son Richard (r. 1189-1199) – who, if anything, was perhaps stronger than his father had ever been. A pale and sickly youth, he stood in stark contrast to the tall (perhaps 6’3″ or 6’4″) and robust English king, who would become his comrade on the Third Crusade. Richard stayed in Outremer until the Crusade’s end in 1192, but Philippe had lost his fervor and returned the year before, and in Richard’s absence (while returning from Crusade, Richard would be captured and held in Germany until 1194) made war on his lands in league with Richard’s brother John.
Philippe’s military acumen was improving, but he proved no match for Richard on the latter’s return, and soon lost everything he had gained. Once again, it seemed that the Angevins had stifled Capetian attempts to consolidate power – but this was only briefly. Richard was killed suddenly, in an attempt to put down a revolt in the Limousin, and it was not immediately clear who his heir was, as he had died without legitimate issue. While Norman law held that John (r. 1199-1216) was the rightful successor as the only surviving son of Henry II, Angevin law held that Arthur, as a son of John’s older brother Geoffrey, be given precedence. Here, perhaps, was a breach that Philippe could exploit – the more ancient ties of England and Normandy in disagreement with the Angevin lands and Brittany (John’s mother, Eleanor, had managed to sway Aquitaine, Poitou and Gascony towards her son). However, John – who was far from the military mind his father and brother had been – managed to win a few stunning victories, and Philippe was compelled to recognize him as the overlord of the English lands in France.
However, John continued to give Philippe opportunities – a dispute with the Count of La Marche, Hugh de Lusignan, over Isabella of Angoulême. The heiress had been engaged to de Lusignan, but was instead married off to John, without sufficient compensation to the count. De Lusignan appealed over John’s head to Philippe, and a summons to explain his actions was refused by John. This gave Philippe all the ammunition he would need – he declared all of John’s French lands forfeit and started to back up words with actions. With the death of his first wife in 1190, the county of Artois had fallen to the crown and parts of Vermandois were ceded to the royal demesne by treaty in 1186 (with the king getting control in when the final heiress renounced her claims to become a nun). With a large number of secession among John’s barons, Normandy, Brittany, Maine, Touraine and, most damningly to an Angevin king, Anjou fell to Philippe over the course of about four years (He had also overrun Poitou, but a defection from the seneschal there brought the county back to John).
Though John tried to reclaim these lands, his lack of military skill meant that none of his attempts ever came to fruition. He even assembled a vast coalition against Philippe, but it was defeated convincingly at Bouvines in 1214. With Flemish and Boulogne nobles captured and the Holy Roman Emperor deposed, Philippe now stood supreme in France. Poitou was recaptured by his son, Louis VIII (r. 1223-1226), who held it, and the French nearly used a rebellion against John to win the throne of England as well. Though the death of John caused the barons to rally around the young Henry III (r. 1216-1272), Philippe and his son managed to establish direct (albeit shaky at first) control over much of France – which, except for dark days during the Hundred Years War – would never be reversed.