Gateway to the Classics: Peeps at History: France by John Finnemore
Peeps at History: France by  John Finnemore

The House of Capet—I.

Under Hugh Capet, we begin to see the first shaping of the modern kingdom of France. He was King of France, true, but in his day France was but a small portion of the land we now know by that name. It was a mere province, set among other provinces which considered themselves to be of equal importance with France itself; these were the great fiefs of Anjou, Burgundy, Normandy, Aquitane, and many smaller ones.

Each province was ruled by its own Duke, who handed down his authority in his own family. In name he was a vassal, a servant, of the King or France, but in fact he was often as strong as the King, and sometimes stronger, so that he paid very little respect to his master. For hundreds of years, then, the task of the Kings of France was this—to master these provinces, and to take the power of the vassal lords into their own hands. Little by little this was done, and as each great district passed under the actual rule of the King of France, so the name France spread until it covered the land as we know it at the present time.

The first of these great provinces to fall into the hands of the King of France was Normandy. In 1066 William, Duke of Normandy, became King of England. But, as Duke of Normandy, he still owed fealty to the French Crown. This formed a strong connection between England and France. The connection grew stronger when Henry II. came to the English throne in 1154, for Henry held wide lands in France—lands so broad that, together with Normandy, he ruled far more of France than the French King himself. But in the time of his son, the false and cowardly King John, all these lands were lost. John was accused of the murder of his nephew Arthur, and Philip of France called upon John, as a vassal of the Crown of France, to appear before him. John refused, and Philip made war on him, and took from him his French possessions.

This was the period when the great movements known as the Crusades were in progress. For a long time great numbers of pilgrims had set out from Europe to Palestine to visit the tomb of Christ at Jerusalem. In those unsettled days it was a long and dangerous journey; the pilgrim had to face perils by land and sea—perils of storms, of robbers, of heat and cold, hunger and thirst. But the greatest peril of all was to be faced when he gained the Holy City itself, for it was in the hands of the Saracens—men who were Moslems and bitter enemies of the Christian faith. The Saracens treated the Christian pilgrims so cruelly that armies were gathered in France, England, and other countries, to march into Palestine and drive out the Saracens. These movements of armed hosts were called Crusades, or Wars of the Cross, and there were many such expeditions over a space of more than two hundred years.

But in the reign of Philip II. there was not only a Crusade to Jerusalem, but a Crusade in France itself. In the southern part of the country was a district called Languedoc. At that time it did not belong to France; it was ruled by its own Counts, and was a rich and prosperous province, with fine towns filled with well-to-do citizens, and the fertile plains were dotted with pleasant and thriving villages. The chief city was Toulouse, and this name was sometimes given to the province as well.


The coming of the Northmen

Now the people of Languedoc became very dissatisfied with the manner in which their priests conducted the religious services. They also saw that the lives of many of these men were not such as they should be. Nor did they agree with all that was taught by order of the Pope. In the end a movement sprang up in favour of reforming the Church, and it began at a town called Albi. The reformers were known as Albigenses. The Pope became very angry with these men who had broken away from his authority, and ordered their ruler, Count Raymond, to force them to obey the Church of Rome. But Raymond was not willing to do this. He knew that the Albigenses were quiet, honest people, of upright lives, who wished to follow their own faith and do no harm to anyone.

Then the Pope called for a Crusade against the Albigenses. He declared it would be as pious an act as to march against the Saracens. Soon a large army had gathered to attack the "heretics," as the Pope called all those who did not agree with him and follow him. It was easy to collect soldiers to attack Languedoc, for it was known that the province was wealthy and prosperous, and there would be no lack of rich booty.

But the Albigenses fought well, and were not easily overcome. Army after army was sent against them, and in these fierce and cruel wars the beautiful and fertile country was laid waste—the towns and villages became heaps of fire-blackened ruins; the fields lay naked and barren; the people were driven away or put to death. The fighting was of the most savage order: the fierce soldiery of the Pope slew all who fell into their hands, admitting none to mercy. At one desperate encounter the Pope's legate was present; he was a great Churchman, who was there on behalf of the Pope. Word was brought to him that many Catholics were mingled with the heretics whom his men were murdering. "Kill them all," said the legate; "God will know His own."

This terrible persecution began in 1208, and when it closed in 1229 Languedoc was little better than a desert. In the end the territory fell to the Crown of France, for the daughter of the Count of Toulouse married the brother of the King of France, and so a second province passed under French authority.

By this time Philip II. was dead, and his grandson, Louis IX., was on the throne. Louis IX. was so good, so wise, and so gentle, that he won the name of "St. Louis," and for many centuries his memory was held in deep respect among his people. Louis IX. had great regard for law and order, and any who wished to make complaint and seek redress were admitted at once to his presence. He used to sit beneath the shade of a great spreading oak in a forest near Paris, and here he was sought by rich and poor, and he listened to all, and decided every case with the greatest care.

He put down the practice of trial by combat. Hitherto, if two men had a dispute, they took sword and shield, or lance and war-horse, and fought the matter out, and the winner was supposed to have right on his side. But Louis saw that the man in the wrong might easily win if he happened to be the better warrior, and he put aside this foolish plan, and saw that each suit was decided according to the law.

When Louis had been twenty years on the throne, bad news came from the Holy Land. A great army of fierce heathen marauders marched from Northern Asia into Palestine, and seized Jerusalem. These were the Tartars, wild and terrible people, who destroyed all before them as they marched. Now Louis was a devoted son of the Church, and he resolved to go on Crusade and fight against the enemies of his faith. He and his wife and two of his brothers set sail for the East, and landed in Egypt, where at first he won some battles against the Saracens. But the latter proved terrible enemies, and caused great loss to the French army by attacking the camp and flinging into it great masses of Greek fire. This was flaming bitumen hurled from machines, so that it flew through the air like huge balls of fire, setting ablaze the tents and stores, and burning numbers of men. Next many of the Crusaders fell ill, owing to the heat and the badness of the food and water, and soon the army of Louis was so weak that it could not withstand a fierce assault of the enemy, and Louis and his men were made captives by the Saracens.

The King was set free upon payment of a great ransom, but he did not return to France. He was still anxious to strike another blow for the Christian faith, and he stayed another four years in Syria, fortifying and strengthening such towns as were in Christian hands. At last he received news that his mother, the good Queen Blanche, was dead. In her strong and wise hands he had left the government of France, but now he came back to rule the land once more.

For sixteen years he did his duty faithfully, but in his heart he longed to take the Cross again, and go to fight with the infidels. So in I270 he sailed to Africa, and landed at Tunis. Here his army suffered very much from heat, thirst, and the constant assaults of the Moors of Barbary. Pestilence broke out in the camp, and St. Louis fell before it. He died there, and his death marks the close of the last Crusade. His body was carried back to Paris, and laid in the famous old church of St. Denis, amid the sorrow of his people.

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