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

The House of Capet—II.

St. Louis was followed on the throne by his son, Philip the Bold. Philip the Bold was not as good a man as his father. He was idle and pleasure-loving, and allowed himself to fall into the hands of favourites. His reign is remembered for the terrible massacre of French people in the island of Sicily. Philip's uncle, Charles of Anjou, had become the ruler of Sicily, but he ruled so badly that his fiery subjects hated him bitterly, and because of him they hated the many thousands of French people living in their midst. So the Sicilians resolved to sweep every Frenchman out of the island.

A secret plot was formed, and everything was ready for an attack on the French, when the matter was brought suddenly to a head. One evening, when the bells of Palermo were ringing to Vespers to evening prayers—a quarrel arose between a Frenchman and a Sicilian. With one accord the people flew to arms, and murdered every French man, woman, and child in the city. The example was followed in other cities and villages, and scarce a Frenchman was left alive throughout the whole of Sicily. This dreadful slaughter is remembered as "The Sicilian Vespers," because it commenced at eventide, when the sweet bells were ringing to Vesper prayers.

After Philip the Bold came Philip the Handsome, but he was only handsome in his looks, and not at all in his ways. He was a cold, crafty, money-loving King, whose chief purpose was to increase his power and his wealth. The time had now come when the personal power of the King of France began to grow steadily. This growth had started under St. Louis, and it had come about easily under that good King, because he was so well beloved and used his power to such good ends, that his subjects were glad to see him gain authority. One great reason for the growth of kingly power was that the power of the great Barons was failing and growing less. The time when these feudal lords ruled their estates like little kings was passing away, and they could no longer join together and overawe their King. The King was now really their overlord, and his army was the chief in the land, and gave him mastery over all.


The Roman arch at Orange, in the south of France.
This shows one of the beautiful buildings raised by the Romans when they were masters of Gaul.

By the gain of the French possessions of the English Kings and the province of Toulouse, France had greatly extended her borders. She now touched the Channel, the Atlantic, and the Mediterranean, and the French King was constantly on the watch to interfere in the affairs of the great provinces not yet in his hands, in order to seize them if an opportunity should come.

Upon one neighbouring province Philip made an attack, and tried to seize it, but here he burned his fingers. This country was Flanders, and at first Philip made good headway, for he took the Count of Flanders prisoner and set a Frenchman in his place. Up rose the Flemings like one man, and in 1302 there was a battle at Courtrai, in Flanders, where the French had a most terrible beating. Four hundred golden spurs were found upon the battle-field, showing how great a number of the French nobles and knights had fallen at the hands of the tradesmen and citizens who filled the Flemish ranks. In 1304 Philip made peace with them, and the brave Flemings recovered their independence.

Philip's love of money caused him to cast greedy eyes on the wealth of the Templars. The Templars were an Order of religious knights, of Crusaders, who wore a red cross upon the left shoulder to show their devotion to the Christian faith. The founders of this Order were so poor that they adopted, as a device to show their poverty, a picture of two knights riding on one horse, and they called themselves "Poor soldiers of the Holy Cross." But as time went on the traditions of poverty were cast aside, and the Templars grew into a very powerful and wealthy body. Not only did they bring home vast booty from the East, but many fair estates and great sums of money had been left to them by rich and pious people, who thought they were thus aiding in the defense of Christendom.

Philip dared not attack them openly, for these famous warriors would have easily put to flight his best soldiers. So he laid a plot against them, and on a certain day, at a certain hour, every Templar was seized, cast into prison, and loaded with chains. Then the prisoners were tortured in order to make them confess that they had been guilty of many evil deeds, and the tortures were so terrible that many were ready to confess anything in order to escape from the dreadful pain they were forced to endure. Upon these confessions all their wealth was taken from them by Philip, and many were put to death. The head of them all, the Grand Master of the Order, was burned to death in company with one of his chief officers.

Philip's reign is also marked by the calling together of the States-General, the Parliament of France. The people of France were looked upon as belonging to three Estates. The clergy formed the First Estate, the nobles the Second Estate, the townspeople or burghers the Third Estate. Members were chosen by each Estate to represent them at the meeting of the States-General, and these members were called Deputies. The King asked the States-General for aid or money; the States-General asked for new laws, or made complaints as to matters that had gone wrong in the affairs of the country. All this sounds very much like our early English Parliaments, but we must observe one most important difference. In England, as a rule, nobles and commons stood shoulder to shoulder against a bad Sovereign; in France they were enemies, and divided. Thus the King could play one Estate off against another, and their quarrels gave him much greater strength.

When Philip the Handsome died in 1314, he left three sons, Louis, Philip, and Charles, and each of them came to the throne in turn as Louis X., Philip V., and Charles IV. Louis X. did not enjoy a long reign. He was weak and sickly, a feeble man and a feeble ruler. His reign is to be noted, because at its close the Salic Law was set up in France. This law forbade a woman to come to the throne as Queen of France in her own right. Louis was the first King of France who died and left no son to take his place. He had a daughter, but she was set aside, and his brother took the crown.

This brother, Philip V., called Philip the Long, because he was a tall man, was as feeble in health as Louis, and only reigned six years. He made, however, some good laws. His short reign was much disturbed by a rising among the poorer people of his realm. Vast numbers of poor labourers and shepherds became filled with the idea of going on a Crusade, and they left their work and their homes. They rambled through the land in great riotous troops, killing all the Jews they could seize, and plundering houses and shops for food. In some towns the citizens drove them away, and there were disturbances in which many were killed on both sides. At last an army was sent against them, when many were killed or taken prisoners. The rest fled, and made their way back to their homes as well as they could. This is remembered as the "Shepherds' Crusade."

There was also great trouble with the unhappy lepers, of whom there were many in France. The dreadful disease of leprosy cannot be cured, so that people who suffered from it were driven apart from their fellows lest it should spread to the healthy. A rumour flew through the land that the lepers were poisoning the wells and streams, so that the healthy would be seized with leprosy or some other mortal illness. There was no proof that this story was true, but it was believed on all hands, and the French people went wild with fright. By order of the King all lepers were shut up, and many were put to death. Those left alive were not allowed again to ramble about the country begging for food, as it had been their custom to do. They had now to depend on their friends or charitable people, who brought food to the places where they were imprisoned.

The third brother, Charles IV., reigned six years, the same time as his brother, Philip the Long, and, like his father, he was called "le Bel," the Handsome. His reign was of slight importance, and it was the last of the House of Capet. When he died he left a daughter, and her succession was barred by the Salic Law. So the crown went to his cousin, Philip of Valois, the first of the line of Valois Kings.

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