You Gotta Know These Kings of France
- Philip II (1165–1223, reigned 1179–1223; house of Capet): Philip was the first of the great Capetian kings of France. Fighting and negotiating against Henry II, Richard I, and John of England, Philip won back Normandy, Brittany, Anjou, and other territories. He also took part in the famous Third Crusade (with Richard I and Frederick Barbarossa) and made use of the Albigensian crusade to pave the way for the annexation of Languedoc by his successor.
- Louis VIII (1187–1226, reigned 1223–1226; house of Capet): Though he reigned for only three years, Louis’ contributions to the rise of French power were enormous. He annexed Languedoc and captured Poitou from England. Perhaps more importantly, he established the systems of appanages (land grants) which replaced the older, local nobles with barons who owed their fiefs to the crown. This allowed for the subsequent rise in French royal (and national) power.
- St. Louis IX (1214–1270, reigned 1226–1270; house of Capet): Louis led the Seventh Crusade, which ended in military disaster, but after his ransoming he remained in the Holy Land to successfully negotiate for what he couldn’t win. He returned to Europe with his reputation intact and negotiated a peace with England under which Henry III become his vassal. He stabilized the French currency and is generally held to have reduced corruption in the kingdom. He died leading a crusade against Tunisia. St. Louis is the only canonized king of France.
- Charles V (1338–1380, reigned 1364–1380; house of Valois): Charles had an inauspicious start (before his reign even began) with having to ransom his father, John II, from England for three million crowns and most of southwestern France. Later, with military advisor Bertrand du Guesclin, he recaptured almost all of that territory. He also concluded alliances with Portugal, Spain, and Flanders, reorganized the army, and restructured the collection of taxes while leading France’s recovery from the devastation of the early period of the Hundred Years’ War.
- Charles VIII (1470–1498, reigned 1483–1498; house of Valois): Charles’ short reign is remarkable for the enormous cost in men and money of his Italian campaign, but more so for the number of his successors that followed his catastrophic lead. Charles was motivated by a desire to govern Naples, which he had theoretically inherited. He died before he could surpass or absolve his disastrous first campaign with another.
- Francis I (1494–1547, reigned 1515–1547; house of Valois): Francis’s early military victories (like the Battle of Marignano), his lavish court, and his support of luminaries like Leonardo da Vinci augured a splendid reign. His rivalry with Charles V of the Holy Roman Empire, however, spelled his doom. He was captured in battle in 1525 and held for a humiliating ransom. Wars continued after his release, but bankruptcy and religious strife laid France low.
- Henry III (1551–1589, reigned 1574–1589; house of Valois): Henry’s reign was suffused with blood, at first because of the continuous Wars of Religion that pitted Catholics against Huguenots, but later because of the struggles that arose when it became clear that he was going to be the last of the Valois line. The War of the Three Henries broke out after his brother died and the then-Protestant Henry of Navarre (later Henry IV) became heir, leading the Catholic Holy League to strike out of fear for its interests. Henry III was assassinated by a crazed friar in 1589.
- Henry IV (1553–1610, reigned 1589–1610; founder of the house of Bourbon): Henry, the king of Navarre, became the heir to the throne when Henry III’s brother died in 1584. After fighting Catholic opposition in the War of the Three Henries, he renounced Protestantism and accepted Catholicism (supposedly saying “Paris is well worth a mass”) to become king. With the help of Maximilien Sully he erased the national debt and removed much of the religious strife with the Edict of Nantes (1598).
- Louis XIII (1601–1643, reigned 1610–1643; house of Bourbon): Sometimes working with his chief minister Cardinal Richelieu and sometimes against, Louis XIII turned France into the pre-eminent European power during his reign. This was largely achieved via French victories in the Thirty Years’ War. The Three Musketeers is set in the early years of his reign.
- Louis XIV (1638–1715, reigned 1643–1715; house of Bourbon): Louis XIV’s reign is often cited as the best historical example of an absolute monarchy. Louis led France against most of the rest of Europe to win the throne of Spain for his grandson (the War of the Spanish Succession). He championed classical art, religious orthodoxy, and instituted a great program of building throughout France. Known as the “Sun King,” his 72-year reign is among the longest in recorded history.
We have excluded Frankish kings, though some are worth knowing, including Charles Martel and Charlemagne. Similarly, Louis-Philippe, the “king of the French” placed on the throne after Charles X abdicated in 1830, was excluded from consideration.