The Franks were one of the Germanic barbarian tribes known to the Romans.
In the early part of the fifth century, they began expanding south from
their homeland along the Rhine River into Roman-controlled Gaul (modern
France). Unlike other Germanic tribes, however, they did not move out of
their homelands but, rather, added to them.
Clovis, a Frankish chieftan,
defeated the last Roman armies in Gaul and united the Franks by 509,
becoming the ruler of much of western Europe. During the next 1000 years,
this Frankish kingdom gradually became the modern nation of France.
kingdom of Clovis was divided after his death among his four sons, according
to custom. This led to several centuries of civil warfare and struggle
between successive claimants to the throne. By the end of the seventh
century, the Merovingian kings (descendants of Clovis) were rulers in name
In the early eighth century,
Charles Martel became mayor of the
palace, the ruler behind the throne. He converted the Franks into a cavalry
force and fought so well that his enemies gave him the name of Charles the
In 732 the Frankish cavalry defeated Muslim invaders moving north
from Spain at the Battle of Poitiers, stopping forever the advance of Islam
from the southwest. Charles Martel's son,
Pepin, was made king of the Franks
by the pope in return for helping to defend Italy from the Lombards. Pepin
founded the dynasty of the Carolingians, and the greatest of these rulers
was Charles the Great, or
Charlemagne, who ruled from 768 to 814. He
expanded the Frankish kingdom into an empire and was responsible for a
rebirth of culture and learning in the West.
empire was divided among his
grandsons and thereafter coalesced into two major parts. The western part
became the kingdom of France. Later kings gradually lost political control
of France, however. Central authority broke down under the pressure of civil
wars, border clashes, and Viking raids. Money and soldiers could be raised
only by making concessions to landholders. Fiefs became hereditary and fief
holders became feudal lords over their own vassals.
By the tenth century,
France had been broken into feudal domains that acted as independent states.
In 987 the French nobility elected Hugh Capet their king, mainly because his
fief centered on Paris was weak and he was thought to pose no threat. He
founded the Capetian line of kings, who worked slowly for two centuries
regaining the power by making royal roads safe, adding land to their domain,
encouraging trade, and granting royal charters for new towns and fiefs in
vacant lands. By allying themselves with the church, the Capetians took a
strong moral position and benefited from the church's cultural, political,
and social influence. Royal administrators were made loyal to the king and
more efficient by eliminating the inheritance of government offices.
Beginning with Philip II in 1180, three superior rulers established France
as one of the most important nations in Europe. They improved the working of
the government, encouraged a booming trade, collected fees efficiently, and
strengthened their position atop the feudal hierarchy. Although a national
assembly called the Estates General was established, it held no real power
and was successfully ignored. From 1337 to 1453 France and England fought
the long conflict called the Hundred Years War to decide ownership of lands
in France that had been inherited by English kings. The eventual French
victory confirmed the king as the most powerful political force in France.