When Hugh Capet (c. 938-996) came to the throne of France in 987, he was the first of a male line that was to continue uninterrupted for almost 350 years. Like the Byzantine emperors, but with better luck, the Capetians had procured the election and coronation of the king’s eldest son during his father’s lifetime. When the father died, the son would already be king.
For a hundred years before the accession of Hugh Capet, his ancestors had been rivals of the Carolingians for the throne. As king of France, Hugh was recognized by all the feudal lords as their suzerain, but they were actually more powerful than he. Thus he might not be able to collect the aid (military service), the counsel, and the feudal dues that his vassals in theory owed him. He was also lord of his own domain, the Ile de France.
This was a piece of land including Paris and the area immediately adjacent, and extending south to Orleans on the Loire River. It was far smaller than the domain of any of the great feudal lords, yet it was compact and central, easy to govern and advantageously located. Hugh and his immediate successors concentrated on consolidating the administration of their center of power.
The Capetians also enjoyed the sanctity of kingship that came with coronation and unction (anointing) with holy oil. In the eyes of the people, this ecclesiastical ceremony brought the king very close to God. In this way the king was raised above all other feudal lords, however powerful.
Furthermore, the church was his partner. In the great sees near Paris, the king could nominate successors to vacant bishoprics and archbishoprics, and he could collect the income of bishoprics during vacancies. As in Germany, these royal powers aroused the opposition of the papacy, but the French kings abandoned lay investiture without a prolonged struggle. The king retained his right of intervention in episcopal elections, and the bishops still took oaths of fealty to the king and accepted their regalia at his hands. This unbroken partnership with the church greatly strengthened the early Capetian kings.
The history of the Capetians during their first two centuries of rule in France is, on the surface, far less eventful than the contemporary history of several of their great vassals, such as the dukes of Normandy, who were conquering England, and whose vassals were establishing a great state in Sicily, or the dukes of Burgundy, whose relatives were taking over the throne in Portugal. The Capetian kings stayed at home, made good their authority within their own domain, and, piece by piece, added a little neighboring territory to it. Within the royal domain, the Capetians increased their control over the curia regis (king’s court), which consisted of an enlargement of the royal household.
The great offices at first tended to become hereditary, thus concentrating power in the hands of a few families. Under Louis VI (r. 1108-1137) one man held the key household offices of chancellor and seneschal (steward) as well as five important posts in the church. Louis VI, however, ousted this man and his relatives from their posts and made appointments of his own choosing. These new men were lesser nobles, lower churchmen, and members of the middle classes that were now emerging in the towns. Since they owed their careers to the Crown alone, they were loyal and trustworthy royal servants. Most important among them was Suger (1081-1151), the abbe (abbot) of St. Denis, a man of humble origin and learned attainments who efficiently served both Louis VI and Louis VII (r. 1137-1180) for decades.
The most important single factor in the development of Capetian France, however, was the relationship of the kings with their most powerful vassals, the dukes of Normandy. By the mid-eleventh century, these dukes had centralized the administration of their own duchy, compelling their vassals to render military service, forbidding them to coin their own money, and curbing their rights of justice. The viscounts, agents of the ducal regime, exercised local control.
After Duke William conquered England in 1066 and became its king, he and his successors were still vassals of the Capetians for Normandy. But they became so much more powerful than their overlords that they did not hesitate to conduct regular warfare against them. Norman power grew even greater during the early twelfth century, when an English queen, Matilda, married another great vassal of the French king, Geoffrey IV, count of Anjou. In the person of their son, King Henry II of England (r. 1154-1189), England was united with the French fiefs of Normandy, Anjou, Maine, and Touraine in what is sometimes called the Angevin, or English-French, Empire.
But this was not all. King Louis VII of France had married Eleanor, the heiress of Aquitaine, a great duchy in the southwest of France. When he had the marriage annulled (1152) for lack of a male heir, Eleanor lost no time in marrying Henry II and adding Aquitaine to his already substantial French holdings. So when Henry became king of England in 1154, he was also lord of more than half of France. He added Brittany and still other French territories.
Philip II, or Philip Augustus (r. 1180-1223), first supported Henry Ifs rebellious sons against him. Then, after Henry’s death, Philip plotted with Henry’s younger son, John, against John’s older brother, Richard the Lionhearted. Philip married a Danish princess with the idea of using the Danish fleet against England and making himself heir to the Danish claims to the English throne. He later divorced her, but the mighty pope Innocent III was able to force him to take her back in 1198. Even Innocent, however, could not force Philip to accept papal mediation in his English quarrel. When John succeeded Richard in 1199, Philip Augustus supported a rival claimant to the English throne—John’s nephew, the young Arthur of Brittany.
Through legal use of his position as feudal suzerain, Philip managed to ruin John. In 1200 John married a girl who was betrothed to someone else. Her father, vassal of the king of France, complained to Philip, his suzerain and John’s. Philip declared John’s fiefs forfeit and planned to conquer them with Arthur’s supporters. John murdered Arthur and lost his supporters on the Continent, and in 1204 he had to surrender Normandy, Brittany, Anjou, Maine, and Touraine to Philip Augustus.
Only Aquitaine was now left to the English, who had been expelled from France north of the Loire. In 1214, at the battle of Bouvines in Flanders, Philip Augustus, in alliance with Frederick II, now supported by the pope, defeated an army of Germans and English under the emperor Otto IV, John’s ally. Unable to win back their French possessions, the English finally confirmed this territorial settlement by treaty in 1259.