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Key Events in French History

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The 100 Years War 1337 - 1453

A dispute over English holdings in France led to Edward III of England claiming the French throne; a century of related warfare followed. The French low point occurred when Henry V of England won a string of victories, conquered great chunks of the country and had himself recognised as heir to the French throne. However, a rally under the French claimant eventually led to the English being thrown out of the continent, with only Calais left of their holdings.

Reign of Louis XI 1461 - 1483

Louis expanded the borders of France, re-imposing control over Boulonnais, Picardy, and Burgundy, inheriting control of Maine and Provence and taking power in France-Comté and Artois. Politically he broke the control of his rival princes and began centralising the French state, helping transform it from a medieval institution to a modern one.

Habsburg-Valois Wars in Italy 1494 - 1559

With royal control of France now largely secure, the Valois monarchy looked to Europe, engaging in a war with the rival Habsburg dynasty – the de facto royal house of the Holy Roman Empire – which took place in Italy, initially over French claims to the throne of Naples. Fought with mercenaries and providing an outlet for the nobles of France, the wars were concluded with the Treaty of Cateau-Cambrésis.

French Wars of Religion 1562 - 1598

A political struggle between noble houses exacerbated a growing sense of hostility between the French Protestants, called Huguenots, and Catholics. When men acting on the orders of the Duke of Guise massacred a Huguenot congregation in 1562 civil war erupted. Several wars were fought in quick succession, the fifth triggered by massacres of Huguenots in Paris and other towns on the eve of Saint Bartholomew's Day. The wars ended after the Edict of Nantes granted religious toleration to the Huguenots.

Government of Richelieu 1624 - 1642

Armand-Jean du Plessis, Cardinal Richelieu, is perhaps best known outside France as one of the "bad guys" in adaptations of The Three Musketeers. In real life he acted as chief minister of France, fighting and succeeding to increase the monarch’s power and break the military strength of the Huguenots and nobles. Although he didn’t innovate much, he proved himself a man of great ability.

Mazarin and the Fronde 1648 - 1652

When Louis XIV succeeded to the throne in 1642 he was a minor, and the kingdom was governed by both a regent and a new Chief Minister: Cardinal Jules Mazarin. Opposition to the power that Mazarin wielded led to two rebellions: the Fronde of the Parliament and the Fronde of the Princes. Both were defeated and royal control strengthened. When Mazarin died in 1661, Louis XIV took over full control of the kingdom.

Adult Reign of Louis XIV 1661–1715

Louis was the apogee of French absolute monarchy, a vastly powerful king who, after a regency while he was a minor, ruled personally for 54 years. He re-ordered France around himself and his court, winning wars abroad and stimulating French culture to such an extent that the nobilities of other countries copied France. He has been criticised for allowing other powers in Europe to grow in strength and eclipse France, but he has also been called the high point of French monarchy. He was nicknamed "The Sun King" for the vitality and glory of his reign.

The French Revolution 1789 - 1802

A financial crisis prompted King Louis XVI to call an Estates General to pass new tax laws. Instead, the Estates General declared itself a National Assembly, suspended tax and seized French sovereignty. As France’s political and economic structures were reshaped, pressures from inside and outside France saw first the declaration of a republic and then government by Terror. A Directory of five men plus elected bodies took charge in 1795, before a coup brought Napoleon Bonaparte to power.

Napoleonic Wars 1802 - 1815

Napoleon took advantage of the opportunities offered by both the French Revolution and its revolutionary wars to rise to the top, seizing power in a coup, before declaring himself Emperor of France in 1804. The next decade saw a continuation of the warfare which had allowed Napoleon to rise, and at the start Napoleon was largely successful, expanding the borders and influence of France. However, after the invasion of Russia failed in 1812 France was pushed back, before Napoleon was defeated finally at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815. The monarchy was then restored.

Second Republic and Second Empire 1848 - 1852, 1852 - 1870

An attempt to agitate for liberal reforms, coupled with growing dissatisfaction in the monarchy, led to an outbreak of demonstrations against the king in 1848. Faced with the choice of deploying troops or fleeing, he abdicated and fled. A republic was declared and Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte, relative of Napoleon I, was elected president. Only four years later he was proclaimed emperor of a “Second Empire” in a further revolution. However, a humiliating loss in the Franco-Prussian war of 1870, when Napoleon was captured, shattered confidence in the regime; a Third Republic was declared in a bloodless revolution in 1870.
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