John France on Medieval France at War

It seems strange to say that in 885, when my book begins, there was no such thing as France. I first went there as a teenager and I was struck by its unique identity. The smell of Gauloise cigarettes and garlic seemed so different, so particular, so individual, so French. Then there were the very odd-shaped cars, not like the modern sleek things which today glide through our streets. I remember breakfasting at 6am at Carpentras on a market-day, and all around me stall-holders were drinking Pastis 51, anise spirit 40% alcohol!  France, so huge, so tangible, so odorific seemed so eternal.

Yet it was not. In 885 it had no borders, no common language even – at Carpentras they would have spoken a local dialect of Occitan which I would not have understood. At that time there was only a West Frankish monarchy, and for over a century, its throne was disputed between the counts of Paris and the old ruling house of the Carolingians. It was hardly more than chance that the last of these, Louis V, was killed when he fell off his horse while out hunting, leaving his rival, Hugh Capet, to claim the crown. But the crown of what? France, as it is now, is the product of the ambitions and claims of Hugh and his descendants.

But, of course, they came into conflict with the ambitions and claims of others. And that meant war. The Capetian kings were not always (or even often) good soldiers, and often suffered humiliation. In 1057 King Henry II (1031-60) invaded Normandy to curb the ambitions of Duke William (later the Conqueror). As his army crossed the river Dives the tide turned and the duke’s forces fell upon the rear half of the French whose destruction Henry had to watch from the far bank. In July 1194 Richard Lionheart (1189-99) ambushed Philip II (1180-1223) at Fréteval. Philip escaped, but his army was scattered and he lost all his court records. In September 1098 the French king was again surprised by Richard and this time as he fled the bridge over the river Epte collapsed and, in Richard’s words, Philip ‘drank of the river’ before being pulled out by his knights – of whom no less than 18 drowned. But Philip was persistent and Richard’s brother, King John, was no soldier, so that by 1204 Normandy and much else had been conquered.

His son, Prince Louis, invaded England in 1216 and at one stage was supported by more English barons than John, or his son, the child Henry III (1216-72). Louis waged a bitter war for the English crown, provoking popular resistance led by Willikin of the Wield whose men cut off the heads of their prisoners and terrorised the French. But Louis, though defeated in England, strengthened the foundations of a mighty monarchy. Its wealth and prosperity were ensured by the finest army in Europe which had placed a Frenchman on the throne of Sicily, and supported a regiment of the finest troops in the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem. It used to be said that a French minister of education could look at his watch and proclaim that in France every chid of 11 was sitting down to a Latin class at 9 am. Napoleon perfected the governmental structure of France, but he built on the tradition of centralised power first established in the 13th century. And this in turn was founded on the military and political success of the medieval monarchy.

By John France

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