Capetian Dynasty and the End of Civil Wars in France

From the Lecture Series: The High Middle Ages

By Philip Daileader Ph.D., William & Mary University

Civil wars were common in France when a king died. All the potential future kings would fight until one overcame the rest and got the power. The Carolingian Dynasty had many experiences in the matter, as a result of which, France was torn into pieces. However, the Capetian Dynasty that got elected after them combined luck and strategy to not only minimize the wars but also create a notable comeback story. What did they do?

The image shows a part of a warrior's statue, with the sword tightly held in the hands.
Capetians were the first dynasty who stopped the civil wars in France in the High Middle Ages and unified the nation again. (Image: linusa/Shutterstock)

There were almost no civil wars in France between 1000 and 1300, thanks to the Capetian Dynasty. The first Capetian king was elected since the Carolingian Dynasty had no suitable heir to the throne. However, the aristocrats that elected the Capetians imposed many restrictions to make sure that they can elect another dynasty if they wanted to. This never happened, and the Capetians stayed for a long time between 987 and 1328, creating a strong comeback story.

This is a transcript from the video series The High Middle Ages. Watch it now, on Wondrium.

The Results of Anticipatory Succession

The Capetian rulers were, firstly, lucky, and secondly, successful in establishing a hereditary system of succession again. They were lucky that they could produce a suitable heir for all their time as rulers. To weaken and put aside the election system, they created a practice called “anticipatory succession.”

The photo shows a metal sword on a dark background.
Fighting over resources was a common way of getting more until the Capetians changed the practice to create more satisfaction and less civil war. (Image: SPF/Shutterstock)

Eventually, they began specifying and finalizing the next king before the current one died. Hence, when the king died, there was an almost fake election that gave the crown to the new king, already confirmed. This could be a solution for civil wars in France over the throne, but what kept the other potential kings from fighting against the elected one?

The practice continued so strongly that eventually, by the end of the High Middle Ages, the fake elections also vanished. The aristocracy had no power over the king’s election anymore, and they could not replace the Capetian Dynasty by another. After a while, they even stopped the anticipatory succession. For example, Philip II Augustus, who ruled from 1180 to 1223, died without having his eldest son confirmed as the next king. Capetian kings successfully brought back the hereditary system.

There could be a reluctant younger prince who believed he was a better fit for the throne than his older brother. The Capetians took other big steps to check this.

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The Strategies of the Capetian Rulers

The Carolingian Empire just tried to keep things the way they were, and that brought them to an end. The Capetians changed the practice and replaced partible inheritance with primogeniture.

Partible inheritance divided the kingdom among the heirs after a king died. The advantage was that every heir was relatively happy as they got something to rule over. The problem was that the land was fragmented into smaller and smaller pieces after every king. Naturally, a prince or maybe even a princess with a much smaller portion of land than the other brothers and sisters could get angry enough to start another civil war in France.

Primogeniture referred to how one heir, usually the oldest son, got the vast bulk of the dynasty’s resources. However, the Capetians upgraded it to a version that significantly reduced the other heirs’ dissatisfaction. They added apanages, which were grants of land, usually a county or even several counties were given to younger brothers.

The apanages belonged to the younger brother, and he could use, keep, and rule over it. The rulers of apanages were not equal to the king in rank and had to accept his overlordship, but they still had a place to rule. Their direct heirs could inherit the apanages, and if they had no direct heir, it would go back to the king. Thus, the land would never get out of the royal family.

Dukes, counts, and castellans were no longer under royal control when the Capetians got the throne. Louis VI, 1108 to 1137, was the first king that made Ile de France a stable base of power by regaining control over the castellans. In the case of counties and duchies, the Capetian kings would just wait for a line of dukes or counts to die out, and then they would try to impose a member of the Capetian family or someone who was friendly to the Capetians. Sometimes they would also buy out a bankrupt count or duke and bring the county or duchy back under control.

Thus, they put a broken France back into one piece and almost stopped the civil wars to rule for a fairly long time.

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Common Questions about Capetian Dynasty and the End of Civil Wars in France

Q: Did Capetians have an elective principle in France?

The Capetians used to have an elective principle, but eventually they developed a hereditary system that both stabilized their reign and reduced civil wars in France.

Q: Why did other dynasties have civil wars after a king died?

Civil wars in France had become a routine as heirs to the throne would fight until one got the crown and began his rule. There was no rule or election to specify the next king.

Q: What other system did the Capetians adopt to minimize the civil wars in France?

The Capetians minimized the civil wars in France by creating a system of apanages where the younger brothers got properties and lands that their children would later inherit. If there were no children, the king would get them back. Thus, the land would never get out of the royal family.

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