The Capetian Dynasty in the Medieval France

From the Lecture Series: The High Middle Ages

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

The Capetian Dynasty got the throne when France was one of the weakest kingdoms in Europe and was severely fragmented due to the former dynasty’s inability to gain control and defeat raiders. It looked as if France was soon to be separated into smaller independent regions forever, but the Capetians made a great comeback possible. Read on to see how.

Equestrian Statue of Saint Louis at the Basilica of the Sacred Heart in Paris, France.
The Capetian Dynasty began its rule in 987 when France was torn into pieces, but they put it back into one country. (Image: Ingus Kruklitis/Shutterstock)

In the High Medieval Ages, struggles and conflicts were common in a country after a king died. France was no exception, and it had become independent in parts and raided many times. England was no exception either, and in 1066, when the Anglo-Saxon king of England died without a direct heir, struggles began. William the Bastard, better known as William the Conqueror, won the battle and became the new king.

The Norman Conquest of England left significant impacts on the sophistication of England and complicated its politics. It became more complicated when the French-speaking dukes of Normandy became kings of England as they were still subordinate to the French king. The ultimate level of complication happened when Henry Plantagenet, who was crowned as Henry II in 1154, acquired almost the whole western half of France while he was the king of England. What was going on in France?

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

Before the Capetian Dynasty

The Capetian Dynasty began its reign in 987 and ended it in 1328. The Carolingian Dynasty was too weak to control France and rule, so the Capetians wiped them out of history and replaced them. France was badly fragmented and raided in different parts, and Carolingian kings had been unable to stop the Viking raiders, Magyar raiders, and Arab raiders. Consequently, the upper ranks of the French aristocracy had broken almost independent of the royals. In fact, royal authority was limited to a small region around the town of Paris.

That was when the Capetian Dynasty entered the scene of kingship in 987, to a broken and chaotic France. Kings were no longer able to fire or hire the counts and dukes because they had made their positions hereditary. Back in 800 A.D., kings had that right, but they eventually lost it, along with dukes and lords’ homage and swearing fealty. They were acting so independently that they did not allow royal officials to travel within their counties and duchies.

Learn more about The People’s Crusade.

The First Capetian King

When Hugh Capet was elected as the first Capetian king in 987, Ile de France was the only area still under royal control. The local aristocrats were still too powerful for the royal officials to gain control over. Elections were not common back then as monarchy had a hereditary system. Yet, if there was no clear or suitable Carolingian heir to the throne, the French aristocracy would elect someone as a ruler.

The Capetians were not elected to stay. The aristocrats had set strict rules that allowed them to elect a new dynasty if the Capetian king went against the aristocrats who had elected them. Further, they had no hereditary claim to the throne. Likewise, the first few Capetian kings had not much power and control over France. The fragments of France kept breaking into smaller pieces called “castellanies,” one of which was Normandy with its bright future.

Normandy had to wait a fairly long time until the Norman conquest. The Capetian Dynasty, however, did not want to wait so long. They wanted to rule as real kings, not limited rulers that have no claim to the throne.

Learn more about The Norman Conquest.

Establishing Capetian Rule Over France

Eventually, the Capetian Dynasty could overcome all the limitations and aristocrat observations. They had two foundations for success: luck and strategy.

Between 987 and 1328, the Capetian Dynasty always produced a clear heir to the throne, for almost 11 generations. This was an unusually high level of stability in the medieval era. Many other kingdoms faced the same fate as England did in 1066: the kingdom of Germany had significant problems in dynastic continuity. In the 11th, 12th, and the 13th centuries, lines of kings died out, and very often, chaos followed and spread within the kingdom, but not the Capetians.

Photo shows a crown kept on a wooden table.
The Capetian kings were chosen and elected before the current king died, and the elections were held. (Image: tomertu/Shutterstock)

The second reason was that Capetians established a hereditary system to avoid civil wars over the throne every time a king died and to cut the power of aristocrats in electing other dynasties. A king would simply make arrangements before his death so that his son or brother is elected after him.

Thus, the Capetian Dynasty came to stay and ruled for a long time with very few civil wars.

Common Questions about The Capetian Dynasty in the Medieval France

Q: Why was the Capetian Dynasty important?

The Capetian Dynasty was one of the French dynasties of the High Middle Ages, with the fewest civil wars over the throne. King Philip II Augustus, who won important battles with England, was also a Capetian ruler.

Q: Who was the first Capetian King of France?

The first king of the Capetian Dynasty was Hugh Capet, elected in 987. However, he did not have the power to go against local aristocrats and establish full control over France.

Q: Who ruled in France before the Capetian Dynasty?

Before the Capetian Dynasty, the Carolingian Dynasty ruled in France. They had failed to deal effectively with Viking raiders, with Magyar raiders, and with Arab raiders. Thus, the upper ranks of the French aristocracy had broken free of royal control.

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