The French Monarchy: From Clovis to the Capetians

Discover the roots of the French monarchy, starting with a Frank named Clovis who won control of large parts of crumbling Roman Gaul.

Jun 8, 2024By Calvin Hartley, MPhil Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic, BA History & Politics

french monarchy early middle ages


The country we now know as France takes its name from the Franks—a Germanic tribe that occupied the area of Europe known to the Romans as Gaul. The origins of this tribe, and their ruling structures, are obscure. Yet one figure stands tall among the 5th-century Franks, a ruler who is commonly held as the founding father of the French monarchy. This man was Clovis—and his baptism by Saint Remigius in the early sixth century into Nicene (or Catholic) Christianity initiated a form of rule that would persist until the French Revolution.


Clovis and the Merovingians 

the baptism of clovis french monarchy
Baptism of Clovis, by the Master of Saint Giles, c. 1500, Source: The National Gallery of Art, Washington


When Clovis first came to power following the death of his father Childeric in 481, the nature of his power was difficult to grasp. He was king of the Franks, though the nature and extent of the Frankish realm was in a state of flux as the dying Roman state broke down. Moreover Clovis was a pagan. According to Gregory of Tours, Clovis was convinced to convert to Christianity due to the influence of his wife and due to his successful petitioning of Christ to gain victory in battle. His baptism by Saint Remigius, bishop of Reims, in the early sixth century was a foundational moment for the French state, and French kings would be anointed in Reims cathedral throughout the Middle Ages.


The other key event of Clovis’ reign was the battle of Vouillé, fought in 507. Having consolidated and centralized his authority over the Franks in the north of Gaul, Clovis fought a great battle against Alaric II, king of the Visigoths whose authority ranged over the Iberian peninsula and well into southern Gaul. The battle fought near the city of Poitiers, saw a Frankish victory and the death of Alaric II.


This victory confirmed Clovis’ predominant status in Gaul and allowed him to extend his authority southwards. It may even have been a decisive factor in persuading Clovis to receive baptism—although there is a dispute among historians as to whether Gregory of Tours’ dating of Vouillé after the baptism is accurate.

Get the latest articles delivered to your inbox

Sign up to our Free Weekly Newsletter


dagobert i french monarchy
Dagobert I, by Bernardo Giunti, 1588, Source: The British Museum


The Merovingian Dynasty has garnered a reputation for incessant infighting and weak kings. A great part of this stems from how inheritance operated among the Franks at this time. Upon his death, the mighty realm that Clovis had put together was divided between his four sons. They would quarrel incessantly among each other—with no one ruler recognized as superior. The Frankish kingship was not yet a unitary title held by and passed to one individual. Four kingdoms emerged in this period within the overarching kingdom of the Franks—Neustria, Austrasia, Burgundy, and Aquitaine.


The incessant warfare between Frankish kings would lead to occasional unity under rulers like Clothar II and his son Dagobert I (died 639), as they were able to rule all of the Franks (albeit with very powerful nobles), but this disintegrated as the realm was again divided among male offspring. By the eighth century, the authority of the Merovingian monarchs had gradually declined in favor of Frankish nobles, in particular, the “Mayors of the Palace.”


Charlemagne and the Frankish Empire

battle of tours
Charles Martel in the Battle of Tours, by Charles de Steuben, 1837, Source: Wikimedia Commons


The most fundamental legacy of the Merovingians for the French monarchy was the unity of Church and Crown embodied in the baptism of Clovis, and the entrenchment of a Frankish ruling class in a realm populated mostly by Gallo-Romans. However, it is really with the Carolingians that we see the birth of what would become a single, indivisible king of the Franks, a king anointed by the Church and able to claim divine authority from this.


The Merovingian kings who ruled after Dagobert in the late seventh and early eighth centuries have become known as les rois faineants, or the “do-nothing kings.” As the monarchy slid into obscurity, it was resuscitated by a new dynasty—the Carolingians. The first Carolingian of note was Charles Martel (died 741), who as Mayor of the Palace was the most senior noble in Francia and effectively ruled the Frankish territories through a Merovingian puppet king.


It was Martel’s son Pippin III who, by overthrowing the Merovingians and having himself crowned king of the Franks in 751, re-established the king as the most powerful magnate in the Frankish realm. Pippin was swift to establish his sacral legitimacy—having himself anointed by the Pope in 754 and thus becoming the first king of the Franks to be anointed. Pippin’s accomplishments (which included expanding his realm and undertaking governmental reforms) are generally overlooked by history. That is due largely to the greatness of his son.


charlemagne crowned at mass
The Coronation of Charlemagne, by Friederich Kaulbach, 19th century, Source: World History Encyclopedia


Pippin’s son Charlemagne is the ruler upon whom centuries of French kings (and German emperors) would seek to model themselves. Clovis is an extremely distant founding figure, and he echoes through history as a haze, a figure commanding respect yet insufficiently comprehendible to be used as a template for rulers. Charlemagne, on the other hand, is a figure whom historians and successive French kings could get a firm grasp of, and his conquests of the Lombards and the Saxons and his overseeing of a Carolingian renaissance made many see him as an almost perfect king. He elevated the authority of the Frankish Crown to supreme heights, and bolstered its spiritual authority through his relationship with the Pope and the great revival of church power and creativity that he helped unleash.


Charlemagne’s crowning as emperor by Pope Leo III on Christmas Day 800 cemented his legendary reputation, and it helped cause a fragmentation of claims to his legacy. Charlemagne the emperor was seen as the progenitor of the Holy Roman Emperors of Germany and Northern Italy. Charlemagne, King of the Franks, was claimed by later French kings. What both sets of rulers laid claim to was a deeply sacral legitimacy as well a memory of his earthly power.


The Carolingian Fragmentation

charles the bald french monarchy vivian bible
Count Vivien offers a manuscript of the Bible to Charles the Bald, from The Vivian Bible, 9th century, Source: Wikimedia Commons


Charlemagne was above all a pan-European figure, whose legacy was grasped at by a number of rulers both in the decades after his death and centuries later. In terms of defining the scope of the French king’s power, the Treaty of Verdun, drawn up in 843 between the warring grandsons of Charlemagne, was perhaps the most important legacy of the Carolingian dynasty. This treaty divided Charlemagne’s empire into three realms: West Francia, Lotharingia, and East Francia. Unbeknownst to those who made the treaty, West and East Francia would persist for centuries as territorial units, their borders roughly equivalent to modern France and Germany. The energetic rule of Charles the Bald (ruled 843-77) in West Francia, and his capture of much of the western half of Lotharingia upon the death of its ruler Lothar II in 870, helped to consolidate West Francia as a kingdom.


However, just as the power of the Merovingian kings gradually eroded, so too did the last whimpers of the Carolingian dynasty see royal power shrink in the face of mighty regional nobles. The first non-Carolingian since the Merovingian dynasty took the west Frankish throne when Odo, count of Paris and hero of the Viking siege of 885, was elected as monarch.


His energetic reign from 888 to 898 could not prevent the increasing decentralization of power. Successive Carolingian rulers in the 10th century then fought a losing battle to maintain their authority, with Viking raids along the many river systems of Francia adding further pressure. Twice more before 987 the Frankish nobles placed non-Carolingians on the Frankish throne, but the reigns of Robert (922-23) and Rudolph (923-36) were brief and the Carolingians were able to regain the throne after the latter’s death.


vikings besiege paris
Vikings Besieging Paris, from Der Spiegel Geschichte, 19th century, Source: Wikimedia Commons


In post-Roman Europe, centralization of power was an aberration rather than the norm—thus the fragmentation of Charlemagne’s empire was in many respects inevitable. Regions such as Normandy, Flanders, Brittany, Aquitaine, and the south of France (centered on Toulouse) became virtually autonomous in the 10th and 11th centuries. They acknowledged the king of the Franks as their feudal overlord, but this did not equate to any real cessation of power (and some nobles did not even make this acknowledgement). Even as the Ottonian Dynasty came to imperial power in the lands of East Francia and Lotharingia, centralizing power, West Francia came to take on the form of a series of autonomous lordships, held together by only the mildest acknowledgement of a king of the Franks.


Frankish Kingship in the Year 1000

miniature of hugh capet french monarchy
Miniature of Hugh Capet, 13-14th century manuscript, Source: Wikimedia Commons


The Frankish kingship by the year 1000 was thus a complex institution. In practical terms it was a weak position, certainly when compared to the king of the English across the channel in the late 10th century. The latter exercised a great deal of authority throughout his kingdom, standing atop a remarkably effective state apparatus that approached what we might call a “bureaucracy.”


And yet the English Crown was vulnerable, prone to instability and deadly competition. The 11th century would see English kings killed, dynasties supplanted and then re-established on the throne, and very few instances of father-son succession. The Frankish Crown, due both to its weakness and to its deep spiritual significance, would move away from this turbulence in the 11th century.


That the authority of the Frankish Crown was more significant than the meager lands it ruled directly is evident from the fact that the great nobles of West Francia could not or did not make successful claims to the title of king. The rulers of Aquitaine and Brittany made feeble attempts to claim the title “king” in the late 9th and very early 10th century, but quickly reverted to “duke.” The ruler of Burgundy would lay claim to a kingship until the 11th century, yet the power of this monarch did not expand far beyond the territory surrounding Lake Geneva.


The aura of legitimacy held by the king of the Franks, the successor of Clovis and Charlemagne, was such that kings held an imperceptible sway over the realm of France long before they claimed any form of direct sovereignty. When he took up the throne in 987, Hugh Capet could hardly have known that he was to be the founder of a dynasty that would realize the Crown’s sovereignty over France.


france map under hugh capet french monarchy
Map of France under High Capet, by Le royaume des Francs sous Hugues Capet, Source: Wikimedia Commons


However, things would get worse for the French kings before they got better. Despite their weakness in the later 10th century, the Carolingians were a mighty dynasty whose royal legitimacy was well established. Pre-Capetian kings could expect regular contact with the most powerful Frankish lords as well as their presence at the royal court. When Hugh Capet, the most powerful noble in the realm, was elected as king of the Franks in 987, the links between the king and the powerful regional nobles were already splintering.


Hugh was appointed king by the Frankish nobles after the Carolingian Louis V died without an heir. Hugh was the most powerful nobleman in Francia and had been effectively ruling the kingdom for many years as Dux Francorum (similar to Charles Martel and the Merovingians). He came from the same house as the short-lived Robert I who had ruled from 922-3. However, Hugh did not have the close links of vassalage to the Frankish nobility that the Carolingians did. As king he ruled lands only 200km by 100km (124 miles by 62 miles), and his only effective vassals were lords from within the vicinity of the strip of land known as the Ile de France.


hugh capet 1801 illustration
Hugh Capet, by John Chapman, 1801, Source: The British Museum


Hugh Capet and his successors had to manage a relationship between the great nobles of Francia that resembled a friendship more than a hierarchical bond. The dukes of Normandy, for instance, did not owe military service to the 11th century kings, as a vassal would owe a lord. The power of local lords was further strengthened by the growth of castles.


There was not just an increase in the number of castles, but the use of castles as centers of government and military domination. By building castles across their lands, the great nobles could cement their authority over these territories in an age where offensive warfare was underdeveloped and well-built castles could withstand almost any attack.

Author Image

By Calvin HartleyMPhil Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic, BA History & PoliticsCalvin has a BA in History and Politics and an MPhil in Early Medieval History from Cambridge University. His particular interests are in Ancient Rome and Medieval Western Europe.