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  Countries: France Historical Overview

By Marechal

French Town Center

One of the most fascinating civilizations during the span of 1500 to 1800 was France. France was engaged in almost every war fought before 1700, but it wasn't until about 1700 that France gained the spotlight. Rulers like Louis XIV, the Sun King, Henry IV, Cardinal Richelieu, and Napoleon Bonaparte controlled the French people and their domains. Familiar to most are the palace at Versailles, the Louvre, and most famously, the French Revolution and the Age of Napoleon. The Revolution of 1789 was more than a political revolution, it was a social and cultural revolution as well. What happened in France during and after 1789 changed the entire world, for ever.

By 1500, the French had managed to regain possession of nearly all of France. It had taken several wars, the shedding of much blood, and a great deal of time, but France had finally won back its domains from England, who had ruled parts of France for centuries. The stories of Joan of Arc, Agincourt, and the Hundred Years' War are familiar to all. King Louis XII ended the fifteenth century with his invasion of Italy (his father, Charles VIII had previously campaigned there in the mid-1490s), setting off a series of conflicts and campaigns into and around Italy that lasted until the mid-sixteenth century. These campaigns in Italy--for the most part--proved to be dismal failures.

During the 1500s, France was plagued by financial difficulties. Taxes were an especially difficult task for the government. Taxes were actually collected by citizens, called "tax farmers", who would pay for their job as tax farmer, and were hired to collect the taxes for the government. Multiple taxes (much like those levied on the American colonials in the 1770s) had to be levied to gather sufficient revenue for the operation and maintenance of the Empire. The wars in Italy and abroad proved a great strain on the Empire. The upper middle-class citizens helped raise large sums of money to aid the King and his wars, of course, they paid little or nothing in taxes to the Crown for their support.


French Cathedral

Religious strife between the French Protestants and the French Catholics, was also a potent force behind the history and shaping of France. By the early 1500s, many people began reading the teachings of Luther and his many works. In the 1530s, the ideas of John Calvin took hold of many of the lower class people in France. Huguenotism began, that is, French Calvinism. The tension between the Huguenots and Roman Catholics continued to mount until it erupted in March of 1562, when a congregation of Huguenots was slaughtered at Vassy. The Calvinist and Catholic forces clashed at the Battle of Dreux in December of that same year. Peace was concluded in 1563. This peace was short-lived, however. A second war broke out between September and November of 1567, ending with another battle and another peace in March 1568. In September of 1568, a third war began. Several more battles were fought, but no major gains for either party, and another peace was signed in August of 1570. The final war came about in 1572, after the massacre of three thousand Huguenots at a wedding festival. This war was concluded in 1576, after further bloodshed.

A fresh struggle occurred in 1585. Several Henries of various factions began a struggle for the throne of France. Henry III was assassinated. The Henry of Navarre, became King of France in 1589 upon Henry III's death, ending the war. The conflicts between 1585 and 1589 became known as the War of the Three Henrys. With this war's conclusion, the Wars of Religion, between the French Protestants and French Catholics, came to a close.

The dawn of the seventeenth century presented France with one of the greats: Cardinal Richelieu. From a family of five, he rose in the ranks of the clergy to become bishop at age twenty-two. He did some various work with France's Estates General, a Legislative body, until he fell out of favor and was exiled in 1617. This did not last long, however, and he was brought back in 1619 and was made a cardinal. Louis XIII, King of France (1610-1643) made him the "first minister", one of the most powerful posts in France. One of the first moves of Richelieu was to suppress the nobles who staged several revolts between 1625 and 1627. He then went on and crushed Huguenot military forts, thus ending any military threat from within. Richelieu helped direct the construction of a better French navy and continued colonial expansion for France in the Americas and Indies. France became involved in the War of Mantuan Succession and the Thirty Years' War during this time. These conflicts ended in favorable terms for France. He had helped shape France for the better during his career. His passing away in 1642 left another cardinal, Jules Mazarin, to take over the helm of the state.

After the Thirty Years' War, the conflict between Spain and France continued until 1659, a decade after the Thirty Years' War had ended. The finances of France again went under during this time. Additional revenue was sought out rigorously. From the time of the ending of the Thirty Years' War, 1648, several other rebellions erupted. These rebellions became known as the "Frondes". These were ended in 1653 after causing Louis XIV many problems.

Louis XIV, the Sun King, is one of France's most celebrated leaders. His extremely lengthy rule, 1643-1715, is the longest in French history. Louis established a High Council of ministers who helped him rule the nation with efficiency. The Sun King stepped up efforts to eradicate and hinder Protestantism and various religious organizations outside of the Roman Catholic faith. He ordered the construction of Versailles, the vast palace that is a hallmark of French history. He bent himself on unifying the entirety of the French population, rallying it behind himself as the embodiment of the State.

His Minister of War, Louvois, helped reorganize and bring the French army up to par. The army grew from a small sixteenth century force, to a national army of fully four hundred thousand troops! With his new army, Louis set out to enlarge France to her "natural frontiers" (the Rhine, Atlantic, Mediterranean, Alps, Pyrenees, and the English Channel). Several wars were fought over territories on the French frontier, disputed by the Holy Roman Empire and the Habsburgs. In 1667, Louis invaded the Spanish Netherlands and scored several victories, culminating in the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle giving the French several fortresses in Flanders. In 1672, a French army invaded Holland. Spanish and Austrian troops arrived to aid the Dutch and eventually the Treaty of Nijmegan ended the war with more forts in Flanders being turned over to France in 1678. In 1688, Louis began the War of the Grand Alliance by marching an army into the Palatinate. The invasion backfired as the whole of Europe suddenly turned on Louis. Several years of war resulted, battles being fought as far away as the Americas, in Italy, on the Rhine, and in other states bordering France. The French won several victories, but were unable to make anything of them. By 1697, a movement for peace was made and accepted. It proved, short-lived however.

In 1700, the War of the Spanish Succession broke out as Charles II died heirless and left the throne to the ascension of Philip (V), Louis XIV's grandson. The English, Dutch, and Austrian/Germans signed an alliance in 1701 to oppose Philip V and the ambitions of Louis. The Duke of Marlborough was dispatched by England and proved himself a worthy general in the field. The armies of France were repeatedly defeated in all the theaters of the conflict, the Rhine, Italy, the Lower Counties, everywhere the French armies were defeated. The ambitions of the new Emperor Charles of Austria and the Holy Roman Empire, however, frightened Britain, and so the House of Bourbon was allowed to be established in Spain under Philip V and peace was concluded in 1713 and 1714. The emerging power of Britain over Continental affairs and the gradual decline of the Spanish and French colonial empires was becoming apparent. In 1715, Louis XIV died.

Louis XV was not the great man his grandfather Louis XIV had been. During his reign, 1715-1774, France became involved in increasingly unsuccessful military campaigns. In 1740, Frederick II invaded Austrian-held Silesia. France was Prussia's ally, and soon after, invaded Bohemia. The Austrians and British rallied, however, and by 1743 had pushed the French back across their own frontiers. One French hero did immerge, the Marshal de Saxe, who conquered the Austrian Netherlands in 1745. In 1748, the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle was signed and few gains were made.


French Diplomatic Center

In 1756, France did an about-face and allied itself with Austria, and declared war on Prussia and Great Britain. This evolved into the Seven Years' War. Russia, Sweden, and several other German states joined the effort against Frederick the Great and his ambitions for Prussia. At first France enjoyed some success, by defeating the Duke of Cumberland's Hanoverian army. The French then advanced against Frederick, who met them and their allied contingents at Rossbach and dealt them a decisive defeat. In 1758, a British-Hanoverian army defeated the French at Krefeld. Simultaneously, the British conducted an excellent offensive campaign throughout the Americas, Indies, and India. The Treaty of Paris, 1763, ended the war between France and Britain. France lost almost the entirety of its North American possessions and most of its domains in India. This was a cruel blow to the aspirations of the French empire.

Louis XV's reign continued its stagnation and decline. France made no gains during the partition of Poland--its influence in the central and eastern Europe was waning. Her great colonial empire had almost vanished. She still had the largest army and population in Europe, but she was starting to totter, from the inside. Louis XV died an in 1774.

His grandson, Louis XVI ascended to the throne. He had earlier married Marie Antoinette, his famous wife, who was the daughter of Maria Theresa of Austria. The first international event to affect his reign was the conflict that began in the Thirteen British Colonies. It was to France's great delight to see the American colonies rebel from the British crown. The time for payback to England for her past victories over France had arrived. Throughout the war, France sent large amounts of munitions, supplies, weapons, and money to aid the American colonies in their struggle with England. In mid-1778, France declared war on Britain and mobilized its forces. The aid France provided to the American colonies, arguably saved them from re-conquest by England. The French fleet proved of the greatest assistance to the Americans. In 1781, it was the French fleet that bottled up General Lord Cornwallis at Yorktown, preventing his escape or aid from the British fleet. On October 19th, Cornwallis surrendered his 7,000 troops to the Americans. Spain and the Netherlands also joined in the struggle against Britain. In 1783, the Treaty of Paris was signed, granting the American colonies independence from England. France was on friendly terms with the new American nation as well as having the satisfaction of seeing England humbled.

That was the one bright moment in Louis XVI's reign. As the 1780s rolled on, trouble began to brew in France. The eve of arguably the most earth-shaking event in history had dawned. The aristocrats continued playing their power cards during the 1780s, hindering the Louis XVI and the already weakening government. By 1789, things had worsened, food shortages and crop failures had only aggravated the already mounting tension. Fiscal woes also weighed down the government, the financing of the American revolution had proved quite costly. And so it was in May of 1789, that the Estates-General was convened. The Estates-General was divided into three separate States: the Nobility represented the First, the Clergy the Second, and the rest of the people, the Third. With King Louis XVI too slow to take any action, the Third Estate "rebelled" after being refused the right to sit with the other Estates. The Third Estate declared itself the National Assembly. Louis gave in and the Estates were united. Fearful of the National Assembly, Louis XVI began to bring troops into Paris for security. In response, the citizens of Paris stormed the Bastille on July 14. The tension in France continued mounting. A National Guard was formed by the citizens to protect the Assembly. Nobles and clergy found themselves and their lands attacked by mobs of peasants. By August, the National Assembly had assumed full power in France. Within months, thousands of the nobility fled France in fear of their lives. In 1791, a new Constitution was established. The National Assembly then dissolved and the Legislative Assembly was born.

In June of 1791, Louis and his family attempted to flee Paris. They did not make it far, and were soon placed under arrest. The monarchs of Europe sat at the edges of their seats, watching breathlessly the events taking place in France. The Legislative Assembly was not particularly successful in the administration of France, but it did manage to declare war on Austria and Prussia in the spring of 1792. A series of revolts and uprisings then shook France and Paris. Louis XVI lost the title of King and his Swiss Guards were slaughtered. In the fall of 1792, the Legislative Assembly dissolved and the National Convention convened. The National Convention was the most radical of the governments by far, and in early 1793, sentenced Louis XVI to death. He was guillotined on January 21st. The Battles of 1792 and 1793 had largely fallen in France's favor. The invasion forces of Prussia and Austria had been turned back.


French Academy

However, the wars took a turn for the worse as the monarchs formally organized the First Coalition and pushed the Republican armies back into France. Rebellions arose and France degenerated into a state composed of mob rule rather than that of an organized government. In the Fall of 1793, the Reign of Terror began. Thousands of people were arrested, imprisoned, or executed in a ruthless purge throughout France. In 1795, the First Coalition began to fall apart and the National Convention disbanded in turn leading to the creation of the Directory.

It was during the reign of the Directory that a young Corsican general began his glorious rise to fame and power: Napoleon Bonaparte. After breaking up a threatening royalist mob in Paris, the Corsican foreigner was given command of the Army of Italy. With this ragged band of thirty thousand demoralized Frenchmen, Napoleon changed history forever. In 1796, he set off across the Alps and into Italy with his army. By 1797, the Sardinian and Austrian armies had been annihilated, the whole of northern Italy under French control, and Napoleon was within sixty miles of Vienna. The Peace of Campo Formio effectively ended the Second Coalition against the Republic.

Hailed as the hero of France, Napoleon returned the most popular man in France. The Directory ,concerned with his popularity, quickly agreed to a secondary mission to Egypt. With 40,000 men and a small fleet, General Bonaparte and the Army of the Orient were sent across the Mediterranean to Egypt in 1798. Here, as in Italy, Napoleon triumphed on over a dozen fields of battle, scattering his opponents to the wind. The Mamelukes were broken and routed, their corrupted administration replaced by a Republican administration similar to that of France. Napoleon struck off into Syria in 1799 and scored several victories against large Ottoman armies. However, at Acre he was forced to withdraw after suffering reverses made possible by the British fleet's intervention. It was the same British fleet that had annihilated the French fleet in Aboukir Bay earlier.

Fresh wars broke out against France while Napoleon was away. Invasion threatened the Republic yet again. Corruption riddled the current administration. After decisively crushing an Ottoman invasion of Egypt at Aboukir, Napoleon found himself without any opposition. Hearing of the French reverses in Europe and the weakness of the Directory, Napoleon returned to France in 1799.

Before the eighteenth century drew to a close, the young Bonaparte was the most powerful man in France. He had created the Consulate after his coup de'etat removing the Directory from power. As First Consul, he gradually centralized the powers of the Constitution on himself. The early nineteenth century found France an imperial police state with Napoleon Bonaparte as Emperor of the French and half of Europe under his direct authority. The Age of Napoleon had begun.

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