In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section The French Monarchy

  • History by Reign
  • The Capetian Kings and the Development of Sacral Monarchy
  • Royal Religion in Later Medieval France
  • The Court, Ritual, and Ceremony
  • The Growth of Royal Power under the Capetians
  • Royal Government under the Valois
  • Royal Taxation during the Hundred Years’ War
  • The Crown and the Princes
  • The Princely States
  • Center and Periphery
  • Town-Crown Relations
  • Queenship
  • Translated Primary Sources

Medieval Studies The French Monarchy
Neil Murphy
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 August 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396584-0258


The study of the ebb and flow of monarchial power lies at the center of the historiography of medieval France. The Capetian and Valois kings ruled over a large and regionally diverse kingdom, and the monarchy was one of the few symbols of unity. The great centralizing narrative of the history of premodern France has led historians to see the origins of the modern state in the efforts the kings of medieval France took to impose their authority across the realm. The collapse of the Carolingian Empire led to a breakdown in central authority and a long period of political fragmentation. This period of decentralization was the era of the castellan, when power was highly localized and where there was an absence of any significant centralized political authority. The early Capetians (the ruling dynasty of France from 987 to 1328) were unable to assert their power over the great nobles, and while there has been some effort to rehabilitate the reigns of these kings, historians largely locate the beginning of the revival in royal power to the reign of Louis VI (ruled 1108–1137), when the monarchy began to emerge as a source of unity. The Capetian monarchs of the 12th and 13th centuries systematically rebuilt monarchial power, first by securing their control over the centers of royal power based around the Île-de-France and then by expanding the scope of their authority. There was a rapid growth in the size of the royal domain under Philip II and Louis IX, and the medieval French monarchy reached its apogee under Philip IV. Yet, the succession problems that dogged Philip IV’s successors initiated a long series of crises that bedeviled the French monarchy and reversed many of the gains made in the 12th and 13th centuries. Under the early Valois kings, the monarchy’s position as a unifying force became much less certain, particularly following the beginning of the Hundred Years’ War and Edward III’s assertion of his claim to the throne of France. This conflict merged with a wider struggle between the king and the great princes of the kingdom. During the 14th and 15th centuries, France fragmented into a number of princely states, whose rulers allied with the kings of England at various times as a means to expand their own powerbase. Charles VII’s eventual victory over the English in the mid-15th century initiated a period of reconstruction, which saw his successors assert their power over the great princes and France emerge as the most powerful monarchy in Christendom by the end of the Middle Ages. Military victories formed only one element in this long process, and the eventual triumph of the monarchy was dependent on a number of key administrative innovations, including the development of permanent taxation and the creation of a standing army. There are a number of resources available to those seeking to go beyond the materials outlined in this article. The two principal anglophone journals of the history of France (French History and French Historical Studies) have excellent reviews sections, as does H-France. The most comprehensive bibliographic resource for the history of France is the Bibliographie annuelle de l’histoire de France. However, copies of this resource can be difficult to locate, and at the time of writing, the long-promised electronic version is not yet available. GALLICA (maintained by the Bibliothèque Nationale de France) is an excellent electronic resource that provides free access to millions of primary and secondary works on all aspects of French history. Similarly, Persée provides open access to a large number of French historical journals, many of which have comprehensive review sections.

History by Reign

French historians have typically eschewed history by reign in favor of focusing on the history of institutions, including the monarchy. Yet, there are a number of good biographies of French kings. Le Goff 2009 provides the definitive study of Louis IX, as does Bradbury 1998 of Philip II, while Françoise Autrand’s studies of Charles V and Charles VI (Autrand 1994, Autrand 1986) are models of scholarship. Louis XI is especially well served by academic biographies (Blanchard 2015, Kendall 1971). Scholarly biographies of French monarchs take a range of forms, with many avoiding the customary chronological approach. In studies of the reigns of Philip VI (Cazelles 1958) and John II and Charles V (Cazelles 1982), Raymond Cazelles avoids concentrating on much of the standard fare of history by reign (such as foreign relations) and instead uses prosopography to reconstruct the domestic workings of the royal government. Blanchard 2015 and Vale 1974 also eschew the traditional chronological approach to royal biographies and tackle the reigns of Louis XI and Charles VII in a thematic manner. Some studies of individual reigns provide key general introductions to the period (Sivéry 1995), while others are useful for specific purposes (Favier 1978 provides a good focus on the workings of the royal government under Philip IV, while Richard 1992 is strong on Louis IX and the Holy Land).

  • Autrand, Françoise. Charles VI: La folie du foi. Paris: Fayard, 1986.

    In this excellent scholarly biography of Charles VI, Autrand provides a thorough study of the difficulties that plagued the king’s reign, including revolt, foreign invasion, and civil war. The book focuses especially on the difficulties caused by the king’s madness and the weakness of royal power.

  • Autrand, Françoise. Charles V: Le sage. Paris: Fayard, 1994.

    A comprehensive study of the reign of Charles V. The first part focuses on Charles’s actions as dauphin in navigating the series of crises that beset the Valois monarchy during the 1350s, including defeat at the battle of Poitiers, the captivity of his father, and widespread dissension within the kingdom. The second part of the book examines Charles V’s kingship, focusing on his various achievements, from regaining territory lost to the English to his cultural accomplishments.

  • Blanchard, Joël. Louis XI. Paris: Perrin, 2015.

    Blanchard avoids the traditional chronological approach to royal biographies and adopts a thematic approach. He explores themes such as warfare, the royal administration, the church, justice, diplomacy, finance, and the royal image. The book is particularly valuable because, rather than relying on the standard published documents of Louis XI’s reign, Blanchard makes use of a range of archival materials.

  • Bradbury, Jim. Philip Augustus: King of France, 1180–1223. London: Longmans, 1998.

    The principal academic biography of Philip II. Bradbury examines key aspects of Philip’s reign, including his actions toward the church, foreign policy and his attitudes toward his contemporaries, and his actions as a crusader king, as well as his relationships with his wives. The book is also especially useful on the king’s military actions. Bradbury also considers the growth of royal power and the nature of the French monarchy in the central Middle Ages.

  • Cazelles, Raymond. La société politique et la crise de la royauté sous Philippe de Valois. Paris: Librarie d’Agences, 1958.

    The first part of the book provides a political narrative of the reign of Philip VI, albeit one in which foreign affairs and progress of the Hundred Years’ War are largely excluded. In the second part of the book, Cazelles looks in detail at the royal bureaucracy, providing a study of the men who filled the key positions, before concluding with a consideration of how far the king was in control of the direction of his government.

  • Cazelles, Raymond. Société politique, noblesse et couronne sous Jean le Bon et Charles V. Geneva, Switzerland: Droz, 1982.

    In this prosopographical study, Cazelles identifies the people who held power during the reigns of John II and Charles V. He seeks to rehabilitate John II by downplaying many of the achievements traditionally credited to his son. While this is a revisionist study, Cazelles does not ignore the negative aspects of John’s reign. He also seeks to shows that John was manipulated by his nobles.

  • Favier, Jean. Philippe le Bel. Paris: Fayard, 1978.

    Favier considers the role that Philip IV played in the great developments that took place during his reign. He draws on a wealth of the surviving primary sources, though a lack of footnotes makes it difficult at times to see the evidence on which his conclusions rest.

  • Kendall, Paul Murray. Louis XI: The Universal Spider. New York: Norton, 1971.

    While this book was the principal modern biography of Louis XI for a long time, Kendall’s work has been superseded by more-recent works (especially those by Blanchard and Favier). Nonetheless, it still provides a useful overview of the king’s reign.

  • Le Goff, Jacques. Saint Louis. Translated by Gareth Evan Gollrad. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2009.

    A monumental study of Louis IX by one of France’s leading medieval historians. It breaks down the king’s life (and afterlife) into key phases: from birth to marriage, from marriage to Crusade, the Crusade and his stay in the Holy Land, the end of his reign, and death and canonization.

  • Richard, Jean. Saint Louis: Crusader King of France. Translated by Jean Birrell. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1992.

    Richard has mined the abundant sources on Louis IX to focuses on the ruler himself rather than on the royal administration. Richard makes good use of his background as a Crusade historian to provide a valuable account of the king’s activities relating to the Holy Land.

  • Sivéry, Gérard. Louis VIII: Le lion. Paris: Fayard, 1995.

    The standard biography of Louis VIII. It examines his role in his father’s actions against England, his campaigns in England and France, his style of rule, and the organization of the royal administration.

  • Vale, M. G. A. Charles VII. London: Methuen, 1974.

    Vale offers a reappraisal of Charles VII’s reign by assessing his qualities as a king. He examines his relations with the French nobility, considers the ceremonial presentation of monarchy and the growth of sacral kingship, and places Charles in a wider European context, looking in particular at the Italian dimension to his politics.

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