Prehistory to Roman

Cave-dwellers of France and Spain: from 30000 years ago

The area to the north and south of the Pyrenees, in modern France and Spain, is occupied from about 30,000 years ago by palaeolithic hunter-gatherers who make good use of the many caves in the area. They leave astonishing signs of their presence, and of their sophistication, in the paintings with which they decorate the walls.

There are many surviving examples, of which the best known are Lascaux in France and Altamira in Spain. But almost twice as old are the paintings recently discovered in the Chauvet Cave in France.

Neolithic villages and architecture: from 5th millennium BC

In the regions bordering the Atlantic coast, the transition from palaeolithic hunter-gatherers to Neolithic villagers begins in about 4500 BC. These villagers later develop a striking tradition of prehistoric architecture.

In most of Europe Neolithic communities live in villages of timber houses, often with a communal longhouse. But along the entire Atlantic coast, from Spain through France to the British isles and Denmark, the central feature of each village is a great tomb, around which simple huts are clustered. The tomb chambers of these regions introduce the tradition of stonework which includes passage graves and megaliths.

The massive Neolithic architecture of western Europe begins, in the late 5th millennium BC, with passage graves. The name reflects the design. A stone passage leads into the centre of a great mound of turf, where a tomb chamber - first of wood but later of stone - contains the dead of the surrounding community.

A famous early example of a stone passage grave, from about 4000 BC on the Île Longue off the southern coast of Brittany, has a magnificent dome formed by corbelling (each ring of stone juts slightly inwards from the one below). It is the same principle as the beehive tombs of Mycenae, but they are more than 2000 years later.

Over the centuries increasingly large slabs of stone, or megaliths (from Greek megas huge and lithos stone), are used for the passage graves. And an astronomical theme is added. The graves begin to be aligned in relation to the annual cycle of the sun.

An outstanding example is the passage grave at Newgrange in Ireland, dating from about 2500 BC. Huge slabs of stone, carved in intricate spiral patterns, form the walls of the chamber. At sunrise on the winter solstice (the shortest day of the year, when the sun itself seems in danger of dying) the rays penetrate the length of the passage to illuminate the innermost recess.

One of the best-known examples in Spain is the walled settlement of Los Millares. Dating from about 2000 BC, the village has a nearby cemetery of about 100 beehive tombs. The dome of each is constructed on the corbel principle, pioneered on the Atlantic coast some two millennia earlier on the Île Longue, in Brittany.

In a later stage of this deeply mysterious Neolithic tradition the megaliths, previously hidden beneath the mounds of the tombs, emerge in their own right as great standing stones, often arranged in circles. The ritual purpose of such circles is not known. They too, in many cases, have a solar alignment, usually now relating to sunrise at the summer solstice.

The most striking of these circles is Stonehenge, in England. The site is in ritual use over a very long period, from about 3000 to 1100 BC. The largest stones, with their enormous lintels, are now thought to have been erected in about 2500 BC. By this time stone architecture is being used also at a domestic level in parts of the British isles, as in the famous Stone Age village of Skara Brae.

The arrival of the Celts: from the 6th century BC

During the last centuries of their Colonies, France and northern Spain are infiltrated by energetic tribes originating in central Europe. They speak an Indo-European language, and they know how to work iron. Their arrival inaugurates the Iron Age in these regions. They are the Celts, known to the Romans as the Gauls.

Meanwhile civilization has been brought to the coasts of both France and Spain by colonists from further east in the Mediterrean. The most important Colonies are Massilia (Marseilles), settled by Greeks in about 600, and Cadiz, established by the Phoenicians at about the same time (though tradition gives it a much earlier date).

Marseilles and the Romans: 3rd - 1st century BC

The traders of Marseilles extend a network of colonies along the coast, and so become the commercial rivals of the Carthaginians, the successors of the Phoenicians in Spain. This makes Marseilles the natural ally of Rome in the Punic Wars. Thereafter Marseilles is of great importance to Rome in keeping open the coastal route between Italy and Spain.

In 121 a Roman army wins a conclusive victory over the surrounding Celtic tribes. The Roman province of Gallia Transalpina (also called Gallia Narbonnensis, from its capital at Narbonne) is established by 118 BC. Marseilles, a loyal ally to Rome, remains a free city. The tribes elsewhere in Gaul retain their independence until the campaigns of Julius Caesar.

Caesar's years in Gaul: 58-50 BC

Caesar is away from Rome for eight years. During this time he systematically subdues the Celtic tribes in Gaul, making separate alliances with their many independent chieftains. He even adventures beyond the natural boundaries of Gaul - the region framed by the Alps, the Rhine, the Atlantic and the Pyrenees.

In 55 and again in 53 he bridges the Rhine for brief campaigns into Germany. Twice in the same period he crosses the Channel to test the mettle of the Celts in Britain (see Caesar in Britain). According to Plutarch, writing 150 years later, this expedition is the first to prove to certain sceptical scholars in Rome that Britain really exists.

Caesar's campaigns into Germany and Britain suggest that he considers Gaul itself secure. The year 52 BC proves him wrong. The Celts find an inspiring leader in Vercingetorix, a young chieftain of the Averni. His early successes against Roman contingents are in the absence of Caesar, who has been wintering south of the Alps. But the great general's arrival does not make quite the difference to which he has become accustomed.

Caesar is besieging the town of Gergovia when Vercingetorix attacks and routs the Roman forces, killing 700. This is Caesar's first defeat in all his years in Gaul. It prompts many more tribes to come out in support of the rebels.

The next siege in the campaign reverses the situation. Vercingetorix holds the fortress of Alesia. Caesar and his troops, attempting to blockade the garrison, are themselves threatened by a large army of Gauls. But when the Romans win the first major battle between the two sides, the Gauls melt away. To save further lives, Vercingetorix rides out of the town and surrenders - in a dramatic gesture of Celtic chivalry.

He is kept in captivity for six years, until Caesar finds the right moment to lead him through the streets of Rome in a Triumphal parade.

The Gallic War: 52 BC

It is probably in the autumn of 52 BC, after his defeat of Vercingetorix, that Caesar settles down in his winter quarters at Bibracte (to the northwest of modern Lyons) to record for posterity his successes in Gaul over the past six years.

The title he writes at the head of his Papyrus is 'Gaius Julius Caesar's Notes on his Achievements' - though historians will come to know his book simply as The Gallic War. When the work is finished a copy goes off to Rome, where it is probably published during 51. Caesar has been assiduously cultivating support back in the capital, for political struggles to come. The book of his achievements is an important shot in this other campaign (see Caesar and his book).

Roman Gaul: 1st century BC - 5th century AD

Gaul proves one of the most stable and economically important regions of the Roman empire outside Italy itself. This can be clearly seen in a town such as Nîmes. Founded during the reign of Augustus, it is supplied with water by one of the most spectacular pieces of Roman engineering - the great aqueduct known as the Pont du Gard.

Other superbly preserved buildings in the town demonstrate how the Romans export both their state religion and their favourite entertainment. The famous Maison Carrée is an exquisitely simple temple to the Roman gods. The amphitheatre holds some 24,000 people (about half as many as the contemporary Colosseum in Rome) for gladiatorial shows or chariot races.

But Nîmes also shows traces of the end of Roman Gaul. In 407 it is sacked by the Vandals. About sixty years later it is occupied by the Visigoths, who build a fortress in the amphitheatre.

Great Germanic tribes, of which these are but two, have been pressing for centuries on Gaul's eastern frontier. Often they have made deep and devastating incursions into Roman territory. Always, eventually, the Roman armies have driven them back - until the 5th century, when new forms of accomodation are devised, turning the tribes into Roman allies. The result, by the end of that century, is a Gaul shared between Visigoths, Burgundians and Franks.

French kingdoms

Visigothic kingdoms: 5th - 8th century AD

During the 5th century the Visigoths rule a large kingdom in southern France and frequently campaign south of the Pyrenees into Spain. In both contexts they are acting as allies of Rome. But in 475 a Visigothic king, Euric, declares his independence and energetically extends his own territory on his own account.

Spain is at first of secondary importance to the Visigoths, compared to France. But in 507 Euric's son is defeated by Clovis, king of the Franks, north of Poitiers. The French territory of the Visigoths is reduced to a coastal strip from the Pyrenees to the Rhône.

During the 6th century the Visigothic territory in Spain is steadily extended. There is a temporary setback in the south from 554, when an army of the Byzantine emperor Justinian captures a region from Cadiz in the west to Cartagena in the east. But within seventy years all the territory has been recovered. During the 7th century the whole of Spain is in the hands of the Visigoths (with their capital at Toledo), though hostilities between rival Visigothic clans, between Visigoths and the indigenous population, and between Arians and Catholics make it a turbulent time.

In 711 one faction, in an internal squabble of this kind, invites an Arab commander to lend support. An Arab army crosses from Africa.

The Merovingians: 5th - 8th century AD

The Franks provide the dynasty which can be seen as the first royal house of France. From them, in origin one of the Germanic tribes, the word France derives. The dynasty itself is called Merovingian, from Merovech - a leader of the tribe in the mid-5th century of whom nothing is known but his name.

The fortunes of the Franks begin with his grandson, Clovis. When Clovis inherits the crown, in about 481, he is only fifteen. The tribe's capital is then at Tournai, in what is now southern Belgium.

The reign of Clovis is a turning point in European history on two counts: his establishment of the first great barbarian kingdom north of the Alps; and his adoption of Roman Catholic Christianity, when the other barbarian rulers in Gaul are at this time all Arians (see the Spread of Arianism).

Clovis extends his power from the Somme down to the Loire by using an unscrupulous blend of warfare, intrigue and murder to assert his authority over other Frankish tribes in the region. He then sucessfuly demands tribute from the Burgundians in the southeast and, more significantly, drives the Visigoths from the southwest. By 507 the whole of France, except a narrow strip along the Mediterranean, is his acknowledged realm.

In achieving this territorial success, Clovis has been much helped by his acceptance of the Roman version of Christianity. Many Christians in Gaul, loyal to Rome, accept him as a liberator from the Arian Visigoths.

His conversion follows a classic Christian pattern, involving a victory in battle (as with Constantine) and an already pious wife (as with Ethelbert of Kent). Clovis marries a Burgundian princess, Clotilda, who unlike the rest of her people is a Catholic. Her efforts to convert her powerful pagan husband bear fruit once he believes that Jesus has helped him defeat a rival Germanic tribe, the Alamanni, who have recently moved west across the Rhine into Alsace.

Clovis's victory over the Alamanni, taking place at some time between 495 and 506, is followed by a scene of mass baptism. A faith good enough for the king must be good for the army too. At Reims the bishop baptizes Clovis and some 3000 of his soldiers.

Clovis makes his capital in Paris, where he commissions the writing of the ancient pre-Christian code of law of the Salian Franks. His Frankish kingdom will lapse for a while into chaos; Paris will not immediately retain its central status; and only parts of the Salic Law will later be followed. But the kingdom of Clovis is unmistakably a new departure of great significance for northern Europe and for France.

Austrasia Neustria and Burgundy: 6th - 7th century AD

After the death of Clovis, in 511, his territories are divided between his four sons. In the long term this form of equal inheritance will weaken the Merovingian realm, but for the moment expansion continues. The rich and important territory of Burgundy, formerly a tribute payer, is annexed as part of the Frankish kingdom in 534.

Gradually three separate kingdoms emerge within the wider Frankish realm. The original tribal territories, approximating to modern Belgium and northeast France, becomes known as Austrasia. The lands acquired by Clovis in central France are called Neustria (neu meaning 'new'). And Burgundy retains its own identity.

For more than two centuries after the death of Clovis these kingdoms are at least nominally ruled by his descendants, in varying combinations (Neustria and Burgundy often go together). Occasionally rulers are strong enough to unite the whole realm under central control - Clotaire II and his son Dagobert I are the most notable examples, from 613 to 639.

After the death of Dagobert the Frankish kings gradually lose power to their own lieutenants, in a pattern similar to what is happening at this same time in Japan (the process leading there to rule by Shoguns). The Frankish equivalent of the shogun is the mayor of the palace.

Mayors of the palace: 7th - 8th century AD

In the Roman empire large households were run by an official known as major domus ('mayor of the house'), from whom we derive our major-domo. The Frankish kings adapt this system, calling their chief administrative officer major palatii, the mayor of the palace.

Administrators of this kind always tend to enlarge their own fief. The mayors of the palace gradually add to their domestic duties the roles of tutor to royal princes, adviser to the king on matters of policy and eventually even commander of the royal army. From the mid-7th century the usual conflict between Austrasia, Neustria and Burgundy evolves into a power struggle and outright warfare between the mayors of the respective palaces.

In 687, for the first time, one mayor controls all three kingdoms. He is Pepin II, who fights his way to this pre-eminence after becoming mayor of the palace in Austrasia in 679. His rule can be seen, with hindsight, as the start of a new royal dynasty. But the turmoil following his death in 714 makes this seem, at the time, improbable.

Pepin's only male descendants at his death are legitimate grandsons and an illegitimate son, Charles. Civil war results, by 727, in victory for Charles. His military prowess brings him the title Charles Martel ('the Hammer'). And from his Christian name (Carolus in Latin) his descendants become known to history as the Carolingians.


Charles Martel: AD 727-741

After asserting his rule over the traditional territories of the Frankish realm, Charles wages long campaigns against the pagan Germanic tribes who constantly raid his northern and eastern borders - Frisians, Saxons and Bavarians. (He also lends strong support to the missionary activities of St boniface, hoping that conversion to Christianity will tame the heathens). Barbarians on these frontiers have been a constant threat for centuries to settled Gaul. But in recent decades there has also been a new and powerful group of intruders pressing in from the south - the Arabs in spain.

They have advanced rapidly northwards through Spain in the few years since their arrival in 711. They are soon beyond the Pyrenees.

Narbonne is taken in 720. An extended raid in 725 brings the Arabs briefly into Burgundy. There is then a lull until 732, when a Muslim army takes Bordeaux, destroys a church near Poitiers and rides on towards Tours. Here the Arabs are confronted by an army of Franks led by Charles Martel.

It is not known precisely where the battle (known either as Poitiers or Tours) takes place, but it is won by the Franks. It marks the end, in the west, of the apparently inexorable advance of the Arabs. A few years later they withdraw to Spain and never again threaten Gaul. It is a significant turning point. Even so, an uprising by the Berbers of mercenaries in Spain in 741 causes the eventual Arab retreat from Gaul, rather than this one defeat on the battlefield.

The turning back of the Muslims is what assures Charles Martel his place in popular history. But his family's supplanting of the Merovingian rulers is an achievement of equal significance.

Charles himself maintains the fiction of Merovingian power. At first his son Pepin III (also known as Pepin the Short) does the same. He appoints a new puppet king, Childeric III, in 743. But in 751 he decides to replace him on the throne himself. Before doing so he secures the approval of the pope. Such direct involvement in the dynastic politics of Europe is a significant departure for the Papacy.

Charles the Great: AD 768-814

The only empire which has ever united France and Germany (apart from a few years under Napoleon) is the one established in the 8th century by Charlemagne, the grandson of Charles martel and son of Pepin III.

On the death of his father in 768, Charles - whose name Charlemagne is a version of the Latin Carolus Magnus (Charles the Great) - inherits the western part of the Frankish empire, a coastal strip from southwest France up through the Netherlands into northern Germany. Three years later his brother Carloman dies. Charlemagne annexes Carloman's inheritance - central France and southwest Germany. By the time of his own death, in 814, he rules much of the rest of Germany together with northern Italy.

The Carolingian inheritance: AD 814

Charlemagne intends, in the tradition of the Franks, to divide his territory equally between his sons. But the two eldest die, in 810 and 811, leaving only Louis - who succeeds as sole emperor in 814. His subsequent name, Louis the Pious, reveals a character different from his father's; he is more interested in asserting authority through the medium of church and monastery than on the battlefield.

Charlemagne's great empire remains precariously intact for this one reign after his death. Its fragmentation begins when Louis dies, in 840. But the name of Charlemagne in legend and literature remains vigorously alive .

The region united by Charlemagne includes, in modern terms, northeast Spain, France, Belgium, the Netherlands, much of Germany, Switzerland, Austria and north Italy. In 840, on the death of Charlemagne's son Louis the Pious, war breaks out between his three sons over their shares of this inheritance.

A division between the brothers is finally agreed, in 843, in a treaty signed at Verdun. The dividing lines drawn on this occasion prove of lasting and dark significance in the history of Europe.

Three slices of Francia: AD 843

Two facts of European geography (the Atlantic coast and the Rhine) dictate a vertical division of the Frankish empire, known in Latin as Francia. The three available sections are the west, the middle and the east - Francia Occidentalis, Francia Media and Francia Orientalis.

It is clear that Francia Occidentalis will include much of modern France, and that Francia Orientalis will approximate to the German-speaking areas east of the Rhine. Francia Media, an ambiguous region between them, is the richest strip of territory. Allotted to Charlemagne's eldest son, Lothair I, it stretches from the Netherlands and Belgium down both sides of the Rhine to Switzerland and Italy.

This central Frankish kingdom is in subsequent centuries, including our own, one of the great fault lines of Europe. The northern section becomes known as Lotharingia (the territory of Lothair) and thus, in French, Lorraine; between it and Switzerland is Alsace.

As power grows or decreases to the west or the east, in the great regions emerging slowly as France and Germany, these Rhineland provinces frequently change hands. So, for many centuries, do the Low Countries, Burgundy and northern Italy.

This central Frankish kingdom is in subsequent centuries, including our own, one of the great fault lines of Europe. The northern section becomes known as Lotharingia (the territory of Lothair) and thus, in French, Lorraine; between it and Switzerland is Alsace. As power grows or decreases to the west or the east, in the great regions emerging slowly as France and Germany, these Rhineland provinces frequently change hands or allegiance.

So, for many centuries, do the Low Countries, Burgundy and northern Italy.

Members of the Carolingian dynasty maintain tenuous power on both sides of the Rhine through the 9th century. But they lose control of Germany in 911 and of France in 987.

From 919 the ruling dynasty in Germany is Saxon in origin. But Hugh Capet, who becomes king of western Francia in 987, is a Frank. His descendants rule from Paris for nearly four centuries. In the name of their emerging nation, France, they perpetuate the achievement of the Franks.

Normans and Capetians

Vikings in France: 9th - 12th century AD

As elsewhere in northwest Europe, Viking raids on the coast of France gradually evolve into settlement. During the last decades of the 9th century, Danes are in possession of the territory round the lower reaches of the Seine. Early in the 10th century they are joined by a Norwegian who has already distinguished himself adventuring in Scotland and Ireland. His name is Hrölfr. He is known in western history as Rollo the Ganger.

Rollo becomes leader of the Seine Vikings and by 911 he is strong enough to besiege the French city of Chartres. The siege ends when the Frankish king, Charles III, agrees at St. Clair-sur-Epte to grant Rollo Feudal rights over the territory round Rouen.

The Viking word for a Scandinavian is Northman, which in medieval French becomes Normand. Rollo the Viking and his successors, rapidly expanding their territory beyond his original feudal grant, are known therefore as Normans. Their dukedom, in its larger boundaries, becomes and remains Normandy.

Rollo's descendants rule Normandy for two centuries, until the male line dies out in 1135 with the death of Henry i. Meanwhile they have become keen Christians (Rollo is baptized, though his son William I is the first Norman duke fully committed to the religion). But they lose nothing of their Viking restlessness, which finds expression in Adventures outside normandy.

Feudal upstarts: 9th - 10th century AD

The external threat from marauding Vikings in the west and from Magyars in the east aggravates an already grave internal problem for the feudal dynasties of Charlemagne's descendants. Feudalism, with its decentralization of military and territorial power, has at the best of times a tendency to foster regional independence. In periods of crisis, when the regions need to be well armed if they are to repel invaders, it is almost inevitable that the feudal holders of large tracts of frontier territory grow in strength until they are capable of challenging their own king.

Baronial contenders upset the succession to the throne in the west Frankish kingdom from the late 9th century and in the eastern kingdom a few years later.

The main rival to the Carolingian kings in Francia occidentalis is the family of Robert the Strong. Count of extensive territories around the Loire, he plays a leading part in the struggle against the Normans. His son, Eudes, adds Paris to his feudal domains and defends it successfully in 885-6 against a Norman siege.

When the west Frankish king dies in 888, the nobles elect Eudes in his place instead of a member of the Carolingian dynasty. Subsequently the crown returns to Carolingian monarchs, but by the mid-10th century they rule only with the support of the descendants of Robert the Strong. One of them, Hugh the Great, exemplifies the nature of a great nobleman's power base.

In 911 the east Frankish king dies without a male heir. The only legitimate claimant within the Carolingian dynasty is Charles III, ruler of the west Frankish kingdom. Rather than do homage to him, and reunite the empire of Charlemagne, the eastern Franks and the Saxons elect one of their own number to the vacant throne. Conrad, the duke of Franconia, becomes the German king.

Although not of the Carolingian line, Conrad is nevertheless a Frank. But on his death the Franks and the Saxons together elect a Saxon king. In 919 Henry I becomes the founder of the Saxon, or Ottonian, dynasty.

Part of Hugh's strength derives directly from his feudal lands; he is count of Paris, with large territories between the Seine and the Loire. He also acquires a title of romantic resonance, capable of inspiring a special kind of loyalty; from 937 he is called 'duke of the Franks'. And he has useful brothers-in-law; his first wife is sister of an Anglo-Saxon king of England, his second is sister of the emperor Otto I.

More surprisingly, Hugh is the lay abbot of at least four great monasteries, bringing him considerable wealth and a voice in the vast network of Benedictines . This astonishing portfolio, as early as the 10th century, reveals the peculiar blend of secular and religious power in European Feudalism.

At different periods Hugh supports and opposes the Carolingian dynasty in the west Frankish kingdom, depending on where he considers the best interest of his own family to lie. When he dies in 956, succeeded by three sons, he has considerably extended his territory around Paris and has secured the important duchy of Burgundy for his descendants.

Some thirty years later, in 987, Hugh's eldest son - also Hugh - is elected king by the west Frankish nobles in preference to a Carolingian claimant. His nickname, because of the capa or 'cape' which he wears, is Hugh Capet. His descendants become known as the Capetians.

The Capetian kings of France: AD 987-1328

The choice of Hugh Capet as king in 987 is the moment at which the western half of the empire of the Franks unmistakably becomes France. By a happy accident Hugh and his descendants for twelve generations have sons by whom they are succeeded without conflict, in a direct line of kings of France ruling from Paris. The last of these kings has no living heir, but he is succeeded on the throne by two brothers - making a total of fifteen Capetian kings in what is called 'the direct line'.

Meanwhile the duchy of Burgundy, though a separate realm, is held by members of the same family, beginning with two brothers of Hugh Capet. They tend to act in alliance with their cousins on the throne of France.

In the early years of the Capetian dynasty, their feudal lands around Paris are not vast by comparison with the holdings of other powerful dukes and counts. The Capetians gradually extend their power (they have an advantage as kings, being able to claim various royal dues, rights and taxes all over France). But other great lords also strengthen their territories - enlarging them by warfare, securing them by the building of stone castles, calming them by the establishment of monasteries.

By far the greatest threat to the royal dynasty comes from the neighbouring counts of Anjou, who by judicious marriages become the Plantagenet rulers of England, Normandy and much of western France.

Lands across the Channel

The Norman conquest of England introduces a new situation in northwest Europe. Lands on both sides of the English Channel are from this time under the control of a single dynasty. The kings of England are also the dukes of Normandy.

A Norman-French royal family crowned in Westminster seeks to extend its territories on the French side of the water. At the same time a Frankish-French royal family crowned in Reims strives to assert its authority over the whole geographical region of France. The result is a prolonged struggle, eventually spanning some four centuries, in which the identities of medieval Europe's two strongest kingdoms are gradually shaped.

The struggle is not just one of warfare and battles. It is a complex game of dynastic marriages and interconnecting obligations. William the conqueror, king of England, is technically the king of France's vassal - in his other role as the duke of Normandy.

Even more dramatic is the case of William's great-grandson, Henry ii. Though a vassal of the French king, his lands occupy a region of France which is larger than the royal domain. The French king rules a realm around Paris and Orleans in the north. Henry ii inherits a broad swathe down the entire west of the country.

Henry receives Anjou from his father's family, and Normandy (together with England) through his mother. But his largest holding in continental Europe comes through his marriage to Eleanor of Aquitaine. Henry is her second husband. Her first was the king of France, Louis VII. Were it not for this matrimonial switch, Louis rather than Henry would have secured Eleanor's regions of Aquitaine and Gascony.

In such a manner, in Feudal europe, are territories gained or lost. The major players in this vast board game are the two French dynasties - the Norman French line in England and the Frankish (or Capetian) line in France.

The princes of the two houses marry within the same limited circle, so western Europe becomes an interconnected web of French-speaking cousins - often with good claims to each other's territories. Louis VII and Henry ii set a powerful example, as kings of France and England who marry the same heiress from Aquitaine. But the point can be made almost equally well among their successsors.

The kings who follow Henry ii on the throne of England marry, in this sequence, daughters of the rulers of Navarre, Angouleme, Provence, Castile, France, Hainaut, Bohemia, Navarre, France and Avignon. During the same period kings of France marry daughters of Navarre, Provence, Castile and Hainaut.

In the long run the advantage lies with the French kings. Geography makes the Channel a natural boundary. A gradual trend away from patchwork feudal territories and towards the cohesive nation state means that eventually the proper place for the English must be north and west of this coastal boundary.

The process is a long one, not finally resolved until the end of the Hundred Years' War. The French first make major advances at the expense of the Norman English during the reign of Philip II.

In the long run the advantage lies with the French kings. Geography makes the Channel a natural boundary. A gradual trend away from patchwork feudal territories and towards the cohesive nation state means that eventually the proper place for the English must be north of this boundary.

But the process is a long one, not finally resolved until the end of the Hundred Years' War.

Philip II and Louis IX: AD 1180-1270

The Capetian dynasty greatly extends its control in France during two reigns, of grandfather and grandson, who between them rule for a span of nearly ninety years.

The grandfather is Philip II. When he comes to the throne in 1180, the greater part of France owes allegiance not to Paris but to Westminster. Henry ii, on the English throne, has among his hereditary possessions Normandy, Maine, Anjou, Touraine, Aquitaine (granted to his eldest son, Richard) and Brittany (granted to his second son, Geoffrey). Technically the English king is the feudal vassal of the French king in these territories. But between such powerful rulers this is little more than a nicety.

By the end of Philip's reign, in 1223, he has used a feudal pretext (the failure of the English king to present himself when summoned) as an excuse to seize Normandy, Maine, Touraine and Anjou. He completes this programme of armed acquisition in 1204-5. The territories form a convenient bloc with the royal heartland around Paris.

To the north Philip makes alliances which bring under his control Artois, Valois and parts of Flanders. In the last years of his reign the crusade against the Albigensians results in much of southern France being attached to the French crown.

Philip's son rules for only three years, as Louis VIII. His death in 1226 brings to the throne Philip's 12-year-old grandson, Louis IX. The contribution of Louis, in a reign which lasts until 1270, is to stabilize the newly extended Capetian inheritance.

It is a task for which he is well suited. His reputation among his contempories for wisdom and piety is not a mask for weakness. A measure of that reputation is the English acceptance of Louis as an arbitrator in 1264 between Henry iii and his barons.

The piety of Saint Louis (he is canonized in 1297) is very much in the spirit of his time. He creates one of the most spectacular of Gothic buildings, the Sainte chapelle, to house a relic - the supposed Crown of Thorns. And he twice goes on Crusade to the Middle East, dying in north Africa during the second expedition.

Louis' domestic policy to some extent reflects this piety. Solemn edicts are issued against prostitution, gambling and blasphemy. But he also runs an honest and efficient administration, in which justice and legislation are subject to a new institution, that of parlement, with its own premises in the royal residence in Paris.

Centre of medieval Europe: 11th - 13th century

The Capetian kings preside over a French civilization which is a glittering source of inspiration within a rapidly developing Europe.

Monasteries are powerful forces in that development, and France is the home of the most significant new departures in monasticism. In the 11th century the reforms of Cluny offer an example widely copied throughout the west. In the late 12th century the two most influential new orders have their origins on French soil - the Carthusians in the Chartreuse region, the Cistercians at Cîteaux.

In intellectual matters Paris has a commanding reputation by the 12th century, with teaching carried out in schools attached to the cathedral of Notre Dame and to monasteries in the city. Early in the century Abelard employs his dialectic skills to stimulating and often controversial effect at both Notre Dame and Sainte-Geneviève.

In 1231 pope Gregory IX licences the Sorbonne, Paris's university, as an independent institution. It soon becomes Europe's most famous centre of education, attracting theological students from all over western Christendom. Thomas Aquinas teaches there from 1257.

France enjoys a similar lead in artistic fields. The Gothic style of Architecture has its origins here, first in the royal church at St Denis and then in Chartres. Many of the greatest examples of Gothic cathedrals are in other French cities. Pioneering developments in Sculpture and stained glass form part of the same burst of creativity.

Meanwhile French vernacular literature invents and elaborates the medieval theme of romance, in poems such as the chansons de geste and in the lyrics of the Troubadours of Provence.

France and the papacy: 13th - 14th century AD

From the early 13th century the papacy develops a particularly intense relationship with France. An example is the joint response to the Catharist heresy; the crusade to stamp it out is conducted by French nobles and the French crown on behalf of the pope.

In mid-century, Rome has close links with the devotedly Christian monarch Louis ix, who goes twice on crusade to the east and is canonized twenty-seven years after his death. In 1263 it is a French pope, Urban IV, who selects Louis' younger brother Charles of Anjou to rule the kingdom of Naples and Sicily.

By the end of the century the relationship is even more intense, but it has turned sour. From 1296 Boniface VIII is involved in a struggle with Philip IV of France about whether the king has the right to tax and discipline clergy in his own realm without the pope's permission. This struggle for temporal power between church and state prolongs, in another form, the earlier tussle of the Investiture controversy.

In 1302 Philip enlists the Estates general in Paris in support of his cause. Then, claiming that there were irregularities in the election of Boniface, he sends an envoy to Italy with instructions to stir up insurrection against the pope.

Hearing in 1303 that Boniface is about to issue a bull excommunicating his royal master, Philip's envoy (Guillaume de Nogaret) takes a bold step. He raises a small armed force and surprises Boniface at his birthplace, Anagni. He arrests the pope and holds him prisoner for two days.

Boniface dies a month later in Rome. The prestige of the papacy is severely dented by this episode, while Philip IV's power seems enhanced. A few years later he even contrives to destroy the great order of the Templars, forcing a French pope, Clement V, to comply with his wishes. Clement formally suppresses the order in 1312.

For much of the 14th century France appears to have the papacy in its pocket, almost literally. Clement V is the first of seven French popes in an unbroken succession spanning seventy-three years, to 1378. From 1309 these popes are based not in Rome but on French soil, at Avignon.

Clement moves his headquarters to Avignon in 1309 to prepare for a council which he has called in central France, at Vienne, to discuss the king of France's charges against the Templars. The town is friendly, for it belongs to a papal protégé - the Angevin dynasty of Naples. When major extensions to the bishop's palace are undertaken, from 1316, it becomes evident that the papal residence in Avignon is to be a long one.

The Valois dynasty

A disputed inheritance: AD 1328

In 1325 France is unmistakably the heart of Europe. A French pope is resident in Avignon. The French king, Charles IV, has inherited from his Capetian ancestors a realm which, from its early beginnings around Paris, has grown steadily in size, wealth and influence. The kingdom has a larger population than any rival state in Europe (around 15 million). Paris is the continent's intellectual centre.

Three years later this stability is severely threatened by the early death of the king.

When Charles IV dies, at the age of thirty-four in 1328, he has been three times married but he has no son. Since the death of Hugh capet in 996 there has always been a son (or very occasionally a brother) to inherit the French crown. In the present generation the pattern is broken. Charles IV succeeds two elder brothers (Louis X and Philip V), and he leaves two daughters - one of them born posthumously.

The claim of Charles's elder daughter is rejected on the grounds of her sex, even though the Salic law is not yet officially enshrined in the French system. A great assembly of feudal magnates is charged with deciding who is the rightful heir.

The closest male relative of Charles IV is his nephew Edward, the son of Charles's sister Isabella. There is a certain logical objection to Edward's inheritance; if the crown may not be inherited by a woman, it would seem inconsistent for it to be inherited through a woman.

There is another factor which the chronicles of the time imply to be an even more powerful obstacle. Edward is now Edward iii, king of England. France does not want an English king.

In the circumstances it is not surprising that the assembly awards the crown to a more distant relation. Philip of Valois is only a cousin of Charles IV, but his descent is all-male and all-French (he is the son of a younger brother of Charles's father, Philip IV).

The Valois prince is crowned king at Reims in May 1328 as Philip VI, beginning a new (though closely related) line on the French throne. The dynasty's first reign is a difficult one. It includes the human and economic disaster of the Black death. And the disputed succession brings on the long-drawn-out conflict known as the Hundred Years' War.

Two kings of chivalry: AD 1328-1364

The reigns of the first two Valois kings, Philip VI and John II, are troubled times in France. This is partly due to early English successes in the Hundred Years' War. These in turn result to a large extent from the French kings seeing war and international affairs in terms of Chivalry - the code of honour of the medieval knight at arms.

At Crécy in 1346 Philip VI launches an attack on an English army withdrawing from France after a brief campaign of plunder. An old-fashioned and visually impressive cavalry charge against more pedestrian English archers leads to disastrous French losses. An even more significant defeat follows ten years later at Poitiers, under the leadership of John II.

The battle of Poitiers takes place over three days - a long weekend in modern terms, from Saturday to Monday in September 1356. Sunday is a truce, brokered between the two sides by the papal legate. The day of rest reveals, once again, the contrast between the romantically amateur French view of warfare and the new professionalism of the English.

The French knights treat their day off as a holiday, eating, drinking, socializing, relaxing. Meanwhile the English and their Gascon allies are busy digging trenches and making fences. The intention, as at Crécy, is to fight from a defensive position.

The final battle begins early on the Monday morning. By a combination of ambushes, hails of arrows and sudden cavalry charges downhill, the English and the Gascons throw the vanguard of the French army into disarray. The rearguard, commanded by the king himself, fights with great resolve. John II wins renown for his personal courage. But by mid-afternoon his army is overwhelmed, and he is a prisoner in English hands.

It is the beginning of four years of royal captivity, first in Bordeaux and then in the Savoy palace in London. After much negotiation a vast ransom of three million gold crowns is agreed in 1360. The taxation required to raise this sum is yet another burden in France so soon after the Crécy.

John II is freed in December 1360 and returns to Paris. While the ransom is being raised, two of his sons are held as hostages by the English. In 1363 one of them escapes. In a final gesture of medieval Chivalry, John II atones for this dishonourable behaviour by returning to London. In January 1364 he delivers himself back into captivity in the Savoy palace. He dies there three months later.

The first two Black death generations have presided over a reduction in French prestige and power. John II's son, regent during his father's captivity and by nature more canny than chivalrous, reverses this decline during his reign as Charles V.

Charles V and Reims: AD 1364-1380

Charles V is known as Charles the Wise, a title earned as much by his statecraft as by his love of learning. He is indeed a friend of scholars and a passionate collector of books, building up an impressive royal library in a tower in the Louvre. But he also builds up royal France, recovering territories by patient attrition rather than direct conflict. Where his grandfather and father tend to plunge into battle, Charles prefers diplomacy.

At the centre of his statecraft is a consistent policy to enhance power by emphasizing the divine nature of kingship.

Medieval men and women are predisposed to the idea that divinity surrounds a king. Charles reinforces this theme by emphasizing his anointment during the coronation at Reims. There is a special magic in the oil used in this French ceremony, thanks to the miracle of the Sainte Ampoule or Holy Ampulla. This vessel, together with the holy oil which it contains, was supposedly brought from heaven by the dove of the Holy Spirit for the baptism of Clovis at Reims in 496.

Charles V's emphasis on the unique nature of the ceremony at Reims enhances his own status. And it later proves of paramount importance in resolving the Crisis which engulfs France during the reigns of his son and grandson.

Charles VI: AD 1380-1422

The long reign of Charles VI brings disaster to France. During the first eight years the king is a minor; power accrues dangerously to his uncle, the duke of Burgundy. During the last 30 years, from 1392, the king is mentally deranged - bringing him the name Charles the Mad, in contrast to his father (Charles the wise).

The elder Charles, dying in 1380, entrusts the realm to his three brothers during his son's minority. Of these three dukes one (Louis of Anjou) is mainly concerned with his claims to the Angevin kingdom of Naples. Another, John of berry, plays some role in politics, but devotes most of his time to his famous collection. The field is open to the youngest (Philip of Burgundy).

Philip the Bold, duke of Burgundy from 1364, is also the heir through his wife to the rich but rebellious territory of Flanders. He persuades the young Charles VI to undertake a campaign to suppress the Flemish cities, a task achieved in a victory at Roosebeke in 1382. The army is French but the advantage of the victory flows to Burgundy. In this contrast lies the seed of much future trouble.

Philip the Bold acts as regent until Charles VI takes power into his own hands in 1388. The young king rules with skill and success, but only for four years. In 1392 he has an attack of violent madness, of a kind which recurs for the rest of his life.

Philip the Bold finds it easy to take control again. He rules, largely in his own interest, for twelve years. But his death in 1404 is followed by a bitter rivalry, leading to civil war, which paralyzes France for three decades.

The two great nobles vying for power are cousins - Louis, duke of Orléans, younger brother of the mad king, and John the Fearless who has succeeded his father as duke of Burgundy. In 1407 the duke of Orléans is murdered in a Paris street by henchmen of John the Fearless. The result is civil war between the Burgundians and the partisans of the murdered duke.

The Orléans supporters are known as the Armagnacs, being led by the count of Armagnac (whose son is married to a daughter of the murdered duke of Orléans ). The situation is much complicated by a third warlike power on the scene.

In 1415 a new king on the English throne, Henry v, escalates hostilities against the French. The Hundred Years' War has been rumbling on at a steady pace in recent years. But the arrival of Henry v in person in the Seine estuary, in August 1415, confronts the squabbling French with a sharp and immediate challenge.

Civil war: AD 1407-1435

The French array of knightood defeated by Henry V at Agincourt in 1415 represents one half of France's strength. This is only the Armagnac contingent. John the fearless of Burgundy plays a watchful and duplicitous game, negotiating both with the English and the Armagnacs.

After Henry V takes Rouen in 1419, it seems that the two French factions may unite against the English threat. But this hope is dashed when John the fearless, meeting the Armagnac leaders to negotiate, is murdered in 1419 in the presence of the 16-year-old dauphin, the future Charles VII.

By this time the mad king and his heir are on opposite sides of the struggle. Charles VI's queen, Isabella of Bavaria, has brought her incapacitated husband into the camp of the Burgundians. From 1418 they control Paris, after an uprising in the city ejects the Armagnacs. The dauphin, son of Charles VI and Isabella, escapes with the Armagnacs to Bourges where he declares himself to be regent of France.

This hollow boast is mocked by the treaty of Troyes, agreed in 1420 between Isabella and her Burgundian ally (the new duke, Philip the Good) on one side and Henry V of England on the other.

At Troyes Isabella disowns her son, the dauphin. Instead she offers his sister Catherine to Henry V as bride and heiress to the French throne. It is agreed that Henry will become king of France on the death of Catherine's mad father, Charles VI.

Events soon make a mockery of this cynical liaison. The marriage takes place in June 1420. A son, the future Henry vi of England, is born in December 1421. Henry V dies campaigning in France in August 1422. His father-in-law dies seven weeks later. By the terms of the treaty, a ten-month-old English infant becomes the king of France.

The king of Bourges: AD 1422-1437

Meanwhile the dauphin, the rightful king by descent, proclaims himself Charles VII of France. But he is confined south of the Loire, with Paris in the hands of his enemies (the English and Burgundians in alliance). Charles is known mockingly as the king of Bourges, where he maintains his court.

There is political impasse and desultory warfare until a dramatic development in 1429. For six months the English have been besieging Orléans, an important town on the Loire commanding the route south towards Bourges. In April a French force arrives to raise the siege. It is unusual in that it is led by a young peasant girl, Joan of arc.

Inspired by Joan, the French drive the English north from Orléans. The raising of the siege proves the turning point in the long war. Joan leads Charles VII to Reims, where his consecration in 1429 brings him for the first time the undivided allegiance of the French people. Even the death of Joan at English hands, in 1431, does nothing to stem the new surge of national enthusiasm and success.

The duke of Burgundy, Philip the Good, acknowledges the trend when he makes peace with Charles VII in 1435 at Arras. This treaty ends the civil war. In 1437 the king enters Paris, now once again the capital. The French kingdom is almost back to normal.

After this satisfactory resolution of the civil war against the Burgundians, Charles VII's reign sees an almost equally complete resolution of the much longer conflict with England.

The two large areas of France still in English hands are Aquitaine (reduced to Guienne but never entirely recovered for the French king) and Normandy (recovered in 1204, lost again to Henry V in 1419). Charles brings them both securely into the kingdom, and does so very largely thanks to his Reforms of France's antiquated approach to warfare. His professional army and his artillery win him Normandy after a victory at Formigny in 1450, and Aquitaine after an engagement at Castillon three years later.

The monarchy restored: AD 1437-1461

Charles VII's reign, beginning so unpromisingly in 1422, takes a remarkable turn for the better after his return to Paris in 1437. In his remaining quarter of a century he greatly enhances the power of the French monarchy.

He improves the kingdom's revenue. Taxes, increasingly fixed now by decree of the king's council, begin to be accepted as a permanent levy. Previously they were special payments granted by the Estates general to meet a particular crisis in the royal finances. One result of this change is that the Estates general meet less frequently, and thus gradually lose their power.

On the ecclesiastical front the freedom of the French king is much improved by an assembly of French clergy at Bourges in 1438. They declare a policy, immediately adopted by the king as a 'Pragmatic sanction', which restricts the power of the pope to raise money or to make ecclesiastical appointments within French territory.

The Pragmatic sanction of Bourges is an important step in the development of Gallicanism, the political creed which asserts the indpendence of the French church (though in reality exchanging papal control for royal interference).

In military matters Charles VII takes two important initiatives. He establishes France's first permanent professional army, with cavalry drawn from the nobility and infantry from the rest of the population. And he invests heavily in the new weapon which is only now beginning to come into its own on the battlefield - Artillery.

Charles's guns play a part in the victories which recover from the English first Normandy and then Aquitaine. The battles of Formigny in 1450 and Castillon in 1453 are the last two major engagements of the Hundred Years' War, though the long conflict drags on formally for another two decades.

Even in commerce there is a strong advance, with much improvement in French trade - as seen in the extraordinary career of a merchant of Bourges, Jacques Coeur.

By the end of the reign, in 1461, the French king directly controls nearly all the vast area once held by his vassals. The only territories enjoying effective independence are Burgundy, Flanders and Brittany. Much of Burgundy and Flanders is lost in subsequent reigns, but Brittany is brought into the fold in 1491 when an heiress to the dukedom marries Charles VII's grandson, Charles VIII. All in all France's great martyr, Joan of arc, would be well pleased with the turn of events in the decades after her death.

Louis XI: AD 1461-1483

The trend towards an autocratic monarchy is continued by Louis XI, son of Charles VII, though at times during his reign it seems as though he will lose control to rebellious nobles or to his great rival and enemy, Charles the bold of Burgundy.

Louis fails diplomatically in relation to Burgundy, doing nothing to ensure that the Burgundian heiress, daughter of Charles the bold, marries his own son, the French dauphin. Instead she marries a Habsburg, and most of the extensive territories of Burgundy are lost to France.

But diplomacy pays off, at a price, when Louis brings the Hundred Years' War to its final conclusion in 1475. He persuades the English king, Edward IV, to take his invading army straight home with financial compensation for lost opportunities.

Louis takes active steps to improve his kingdom's trade and commerce, as when he begins a great tradition of Lyons fairs by granting the city the privilege in 1463 to hold four such events annually. In the following year he establishes an official Postal system for government business. He bequeaths a strong and prosperous France to his son, Charles VIII. But the young king has romantic ideas which endanger French interests.

Charles VIII and the Italian campaign: AD 1494-1495

Charles VIII is thirteen when he inherits the crown of France in 1483. He is twenty-four when he marches south, in 1494, to involve the kingdom in a series of disastrous Italian campaigns which will drain its resources to no good purpose over the next five decades.

Charles is misled by a romantic notion (encouraged by the duke of Milan, who needs support in Italy) that he can march to claim the Throne of naples, to which he has a right through the Angevin line. He even dreams of a further stage of glory. He imagines himself sailing from Naples to drive the Turks from Constantinople or Jerusalem. He will be crowned a new eastern emperor.

Charles VIII crosses the Alps in September 1494 with a massive army of 30,000 men. They pass peacefully through the territory of Milan and no doubt expect to do the same through Florence's Tuscan lands. France's quarrel is only with Naples.

But Florence has been recently identified as an ally of Naples. Sensing a crisis, the young Piero de' Medici imitates his father's famous act of personal diplomacy (his Visit in 1479 to the king of Naples). Without informing the signoria, the official government of Florence, Piero makes his way to the camp of the French king.

In this encounter between two inexperienced young rulers, both in their early twenties, the Frenchman has the better of the bargain. Charles VIII emphasizes that all he wants is an assurance of Florence's good will, but adds that a convincing token of this would be the delivery into French hands of several key castles together with the ports of Pisa and Livorno. The records suggest that the French are astonished when Piero agrees.

So, when they hear of it, are the signoria in Florence. They protest that Piero has no authority to cede these Florentine possesssions, but it is too late. The French enter Florence and occupy Pisa (glad to be rid of the Florentine yoke) before moving on south.

Charles VIII and his army reach Rome on the last day of 1494. Pope Alexander vi, powerless to resist them, takes shelter in the Castel Sant' Angelo. On February 22, still unopposed, the French enter Naples. Two months later, on May 12, Charles is crowned king in his new city.

But in his inexperience he has left his line of withdrawal undefended. During March the pope and the other main Italian powers (except Florence) form the League of Venice against the intruder. As Charles withdraws north he is confronted at Fornovo, in July, by an army of the League (also sometimes known as the Holy League). The battle is confused and indecisive. Charles and his army escape to safety in France.

Charles has left French garrisons in Naples, but they soon lose the kingdom again to the Aragonese. Nevertheless Charles is preparing a new expedition to Naples when he dies, as the result of an accident at Amboise, in 1498.

This Neapolitan adventure, fruitless though it is, gives the kings of France a taste for campaigning in Italy. They briefly recover part of the kingdom of Naples in 1501-3. But their ambitions focus increasingly on northern Italy - which becomes in the early 16th century an almost permanent international battleground.

16th century

The Italian bran tub: AD 1499-1512

During the first three decades of the 16th century Italy is the scene of almost ceaseless warfare between local contenders (particularly Venice and the papacy) and foreign claimants (France and Spain), with occasional interventions from north of the Alps by Habsburgs and by armies from the Swiss cantons.

The Italian adventures of the French king Charles viii are continued by Louis XII, his cousin and successor. To the long-standing French claim to Naples, Louis adds a new demand - he believes himself to be duke of Milan, by descent from his Visconti grandmother.

French armies seize Milan for Louis XII in 1499, and the French occupy part of the kingdom of Naples in 1501. The Spanish soon recover full control of Naples (by 1504), but the presence of the French in Milan causes an ambitious new pope, Julius ii, to intervene in the unstable affairs of northern Italy. He marches north and captures Bologna in 1506.

Julius believes Venice and the French to be the two main threats to the papal states of central Italy. With ruthless diplomatic skill he organizes two different alignments of the principal players, to deal with each of his enemies in turn.

The pope forms first the league of Cambrai, in 1508, in which he persuades France, Spain and the Austrian Habsburgs to join him against Venice. The Venetians are defeated at Agnadello in 1509, after which Julius and the Habsburgs appropriate much of Venice's mainland territory.

With this achieved, the pope moves on to his second objective. He organizes the Holy League of 1511. Again there is a single enemy, but this time it is France. Venice, recently humbled, is enrolled with Spain and the Habsburgs on the papal side; and there is useful support from the Swiss, now considered Europe's most formidable fighters. Even Henry viii of England joins in, at a distance.

In 1512 a joint army of papal, Spanish and Venetian forces weakens the French in a battle near Ravenna, after which the Swiss are able to sweep through Lombardy and drive the intruders from Milan.

At this stage Venice and France are the clear losers. But this has only been round one. In the next bout, the contest becomes much more clearly a clash between Spain and france - and in particular a personal rivalry between two young kings. Francis inherits the throne of France in 1515. Charles, a Habsburg, becomes king of Spain in the following year on the death of Ferdinand II.

Francis I and Marignano: AD 1515-1519

A new mood of youth and enthusiasm enters France with the accession in 1515 of the 20-year-old Francis I. The centre of a glamorous young group of courtiers, he is a cousin of the previous king, Louis xii, and is married to Louis' daughter.

In a spirit of adventure, Francis takes up his father-in-law's ailing and expensive cause in northern Italy. In the summer of 1515 he rides south to recover Milan from the forces of the Holy league. In a two-day battle at Marignano in September, the French defeat the ranks of Swiss infantry - mercenaries, fighting in the pope's cause, whose Pikes and halberds have previously seemed invincible.

French artilllery plays its part in the victory at Marignano, but the French cavalry also cuts a dash - with the young king prominent in person. In a mood of medieval chivalry, Francis is knighted on the battlefield by a famous French warrior, Pierre de Bayard, the brave victor in many past encounters and known in his own lifetime as the chevalier sans peur et sans reproche ('knight without fear or reproach').

The rapid capture of Milan, in the first year of his reign, makes Francis the most glamorous monarch in Europe. Leo X, the Medici pope who was funding the defeated Swiss mercenaries, entertains the victor of Marignano in lavish style at his papal court in Bologna.

Francis, liking what he sees of the Italian Renaissance (the pope offers him a madonna by Raphael), determines to enjoy these splendours. He invites Italian artists to France, including even the aged Leonardo da vinci. By the spring of 1517 Italy's most versatile genius has moved to Amboise, where a rocky fortress has recently been adapted as a royal residence.

Leonardo lives the last two years of his life with the title 'first painter and engineer and architect' of the French king. But in the year of Leonardo's death, 1519, there is a serious challenge to the status now enjoyed by Francis as the premier monarch of Europe. Charles, the even younger head of the Habsburg dynasty, emerges as a rival.

Charles versus Francis: AD 1519

Charles succeeds in 1516 to the throne of Spain and in 1519 - on the death of his grandfather Maximilian I - to all the Habsburg territories including Burgundy. The result is that he rules much of the land to the immediate south and north of France. There is every chance that Charles (now aged nineteen) will also be elected to his grandfather's crown as German king and Holy Roman emperor - an office which has been held by the Habsburgs since 1438.

If that happens, north Italy and Germany will also owe allegiance to this powerful young ruler. Alarmed at the prospect of France being encircled, the French king, Francis, decides to contest the Imperial election.

There is perhaps little chance of a French king being elected to rule an empire which in its origin included France but which has not done so for centuries. But Charles is taking no risks. He clinches the election by dispensing vast sums in bribes (borrowing the money from the Fuggers, to their great advantage and his lasting inconvenience). He is elected in June 1519 and crowned as German king at Aachen in 1520.

This is the first encounter in a rivalry between Charles and Francis which comes to dominate the politics of western Europe. It involves a large measure of personal animosity.

Charles versus Francis: AD 1520-1529

Francis, preparing to make war on his rival after Charles's election as emperor, attempts first to secure an important ally on his western flank - England's Henry viii, the third in this trio of autocratic young rulers born within a few years of each other. If Francis is to march safely against Charles, he cannot in his absence risk Henry pressing his family's ancient claim to the throne of France, or even extending the territory round England's last remaining French possession, the pale of Calais.

Francis therefore invites Henry in 1520 to the spectacularly lavish meeting which becomes known as the Field of Cloth of Gold.

The conviviality of the Field of Cloth of Gold fails to deliver an English alliance (Henry immediately moves on to a less sumptuous but more fruitful meeting with Charles V in Kent, where each agrees to make no pact with Francis for at least two years). In 1521 Francis moves against Spanish land in the Pyrenees, beginning years of intermittent warfare.

In 1522 an imperial army drives the French out of Milan. Three years later Francis marches into Italy to reclaim his territory, with disastrous consequences. The French are heavily defeated at Pavia, in 1525, and Francis himself is taken prisoner. Soon he is in a fortress in Madrid, negotiating with Charles under duress.

After six months Francis secures his release from Madrid by giving up his claims to Flanders, Artois and Tournai in the Netherlands, to Milan, Genoa and Naples in Italy, and to the duchy of Burgundy. But he has little intention of keeping his word. Within two months of his return to France, in 1526, he has put in place a pact, the League of Cognac, allying himself with Venice and a new pope, Clement VII.

This time it is the pope who soon finds himself a prisoner. An imperial army, campaigning in Italy and containing large numbers of unpaid German mercenaries, marches in 1527 on the holy city of Rome.

Rome is sacked, looted and ravaged with the violence customary on such occasions. Rich citizens are seized for ransom; there are stories of nuns offered for sale on the streets. The pope manages to reach the security of the Castel Sant'Angelo where he shelters, a prisoner in all but name, until the imperial army is at last withdrawn from the city.

These violent events prompt the treaty of Cambrai, signed in 1529 and known as the 'ladies' peace' because its terms are negotiated between Francis's mother and one of Charles's aunts. It confirms the concessions made by Francis in Madrid, except that now Charles renounces his claim to the original Duchy of burgundy (only a small part of his Burgundian inheritance).

Charles versus Francis: AD 1529-1547

While coping with French hostility, Charles has other major concerns not shared by his rival - aggression from the Turks (on the empire's eastern frontier, and in the Mediterranean), and the Protestant unrest which is creating turmoil in Germany.

In 1529 (the year of the treaty between Charles and Francis) the Turks besiege Vienna and the pirate Barbarossa, working in alliance with the Turkish sultan, secures himself a base in Algiers. In 1530 Charles finds time to have himself formally crowned emperor by the pope in Bologna. Then he hurries north to negotiate with the Protestants at Augsburg. In 1531 Protestant princes form the League of Schmalkalden in opposition to Charles.

In these circumstances there is every reason for the two leading European monarchs, both Roman Catholic, to stand together. But Francis cannot accept the defeat implicit in the treaty of Barbarossa. He now shocks contemporary opinion by negotiating with Protestants and even Muslims for an alliance against the Habsburg empire.

Francis goes to war twice more against Charles, in 1536-8 and 1542-4. The fate of Nice in 1543 suggests very well the bitter and improbable results of this royal rivalry. The Muslim ally of Francis in the siege of Nice (in the duchy of Savoy, which is part of the empire) is Barbarossa. The famous pirate, now a Turkish admiral, carries off 2500 Christians into captivity.

The legacy of Francis I: AD 1547

Although the loser in the long struggle with Charles V, Francis I leaves his mark on France in many ways. As in England and Spain at the same period, royal authority is strengthened during his reign with an increasingly centralized administration. And the royal splendour is reflected in art and architecture. Francis is the monarch, more than any other, who brings the Renaissance to France.

Leonardo da Vinci is the greatest artist attracted to the court of Francis I, but he is only one of many. And these artists adorn buildings which are now Palaces, rather than royal castles or hunting lodges.

The centre of French court life is Fontainebleau, a royal hunting lodge almost entirely rebuilt by Francis I from 1527. Here he brings the Italian artists Rosso Fiorentino (in 1530) and Primaticcio (in 1532), who together establish a French style of Mannerist painting known as the school of Fontainebleau. They are joined in 1540 by the goldsmith and sculptor Benvenuto Cellini, whose famous golden salt cellar is made at Fontainebleau.

Francis has earlier rebuilt Chambord, from 1519 - in name a castle on the Loire, in style a palace. In 1546 he begins to transform Paris's old royal castle, the Louvre, into yet another palace. France is later the home of Absolute monarchy. In Francis I it has a foretaste of the theme.

Placards Waldenses and chambre ardente: AD 1534-47

In the last few years of the reign of Francis I the persecution of Protestants within Catholic France grows more pronounced. The religious clash first becomes a prominent issue in France with the so-called 'affair of the placards' in 1534, when radical Protestants indulge in an unwise and intemperate gesture.

During the night of October 17 the streets of Paris and other towns are secretly plastered with posters mocking the sacrament of the mass. One is even found the next morning on the door of the bedroom in which Francis I is sleeping at Amboise.

Over the next few months there is an energetic rounding up of Protestants. Twenty-three are burnt at the stake before politics dampens religious fervour. Francis needs the friendship of German Lutheran princes.

In the 1540s there is a return to religious severity. It is prompted partly by the publication in 1541 of Calvin's French version of his Latin Institutes, in which he sums up his Protestant theology. His book is burnt in 1544, and the martyrdom of Protestants resumes - though not as yet in dramatic numbers. In 1555 Jean Crespin records their suffering in his Book of Martyrs, the equivalent of Foxe's influential volume in England.

The greatest outrage of the 1540s, the massacre of the Waldenses, cannot be blamed directly on Francis or on government policy. Local officials in Provence deliberately mislead the king in order to justify the persecution. The Waldenses, a medieval sect attracted by the ideals of reform, adopt a creed close to that of Calvin. In 1545 their villages are burnt and some 3000 men, women and children are massacred.

Religious policy becomes more rigid during the reign of Francis's son, Henry II. A special court (the chambre ardente, 'burning chamber') is set up in Paris in 1547 for the trying of heretics. The French Reformation is about to acquire its uniquely intense and political character.

Reformation in France: AD 1559-1572

France is affected by the Reformation in a manner and to an extent different from any other country. The reason is that the community is split from top to bottom on the issue; and the sides are so evenly balanced that a civil war based largely on religion lasts for four decades.

During the first half of the 16th century the reformed faith spreads among the ordinary people of France, encouraged by missionary priests trained in Geneva. The Protestants, who become known in France as Huguenots, are confident enough to organize in 1559 a national synod in Paris.

By this time there are powerful aristocrats in the Protestant camp, among them even members of the great Bourbon dynasty - a branch of the royal family, by distant descent from Louis IX. Their enemies are the Guise family, passionately committed to the Catholic cause. France's wars of religion in the 16th century are also a struggle between these rival camps.

In 1559, the year of the Protestant synod in Paris, Henry II dies (he is killed jousting in a tournament). For the next three decades the throne of France is occupied in succession by three of his sons. But the first two are in their teens when they inherit. The real power lies with the Guise family and with Henry's widow, Catherine de Médicis.

At first, in 1559, the Guises have the upper hand. The young king, Francis II, is married to Mary queen of scots - whose mother is a Guise. But Francis dies in 1560. With the accession of her second son, Charles IX, Catherine de Médicis becomes regent.

While sporadic warfare continues in France between Catholic and Protestant forces, Catherine's main concern is to retain a balance of power which will keep her family on the throne. To this end she arranges a marriage between her daughter, Margaret, and Henry of Navarre - the leading member of the Bourbon family. The wedding takes place in 1572. It is followed within a week by the atrocities of St Bartholomew's day.

From a massacre to a mass: AD 1572-1594

Many of France's Huguenot nobility are in Paris in August 1572 for the wedding of the princess Margaret and Henry of Navarre. Four days after the ceremony there is an assassination attempt on a leading Protestant, Admiral Coligny. It is probably planned by the regent, Catherine de médicis, together with the Guise family. But the admiral is only wounded.

The bungled plot prompts Catherine to over-react. She orders a massacre of all the Huguenots in Paris. The killing begins before dawn on August 24, St Bartholomew's day. Shops are pillaged, families butchered. By the evening of August 25 the government calls a halt, but the mob is now out of control.

Other towns follow suit. Estimates of the dead vary, with a likely total of between 10,000 and 15,000 Huguenots killed. The bridegroom, Henry of Navarre, is spared - but he has to declare himself a Catholic.

It is more than three years before Henry escapes from the French court, resumes his Protestant faith and leads the Huguenot cause against a Catholic league headed by the Guise family. By now the stakes have been considerably raised. Catherine's second son, Charles IX, dies in 1574. Her third son succeeds him, as Henry III. He is childless, and in 1584 his only remaining brother dies. The Protestant Henry of Navarre is now heir presumptive to the French throne.

The last few years of the Valois dynasty are the stuff of melodrama. Henry III breaks his alliance with the Catholic faction in 1588 and has the two leading members of the Guise family assassinated. He then joins forces with Henry of Navarre. But the king is himself assassinated in 1589. On his deathbed he names his Protestant and very distant cousin as his successor - thus bringing the Bourbon dynasty to the throne of France.

It takes Henry of Navarre, now Henry IV, several years to conquer his kingdom. Paris, rigorously Catholic and strongly defended, is his main obstacle. It only yields to him, in 1594, after he has once again declared himself a Catholic - and this time for good.

It may well be that Henry IV never says the famous remark attributed to him on this topic (Paris vaut bien une messe, Paris is well worth a mass), but the sentiment is true to history. France's long religious wars are resolved by the simple expedient of making light of religion.

The compromise leaves Henry morally obliged to introduce religious toleration. His Edict of Nantes, signed in 1598, gives the Huguenots full civil rights, freedom of worship (within certain restrictions) and various agreed places which they can fortify for their protection. These concessions are violently resented by the Catholic majority. They will be steadily chipped away at, until the Edict of Nantes is finally Revoked in 1685.

Henry IV: AD 1589-1610

After winning his kingdom in nine years of continuous war, Henry IV brings France twelve years of very productive peace. The state's finances are put on a sound footing, industry and commerce are encouraged (an ambitious scheme for a network of inland waterways includes the beginning of the Briare canal) and the army is strengthened.

In his foreign policy Henry takes the same conciliatory approach as with the bitterly opposed religious factions in France. His aim is to achieve peace on France's borders. To this end he helps to negotiate in 1609 the Twelve Years' Truce between Spain and the United Provinces.

Contrary to this principle, Henry decides to intervene in 1610 in a dispute over the inheritance of the duchy of Jülich, close to the sensitive border between the United Provinces and the Spanish Netherlands. The Habsburg emperor Rudolf II is about to seize the duchy, and Henry IV is about to march against him, when Henry is assassinated in a Paris street by François Ravaillac (a Catholic whose precise motives are unclear).

Henry is one of France's most popular kings. Four years after his death a bronze statue of him on horseback is erected on the Pont Neuf - Paris's most famous bridge, completed during Henry's reign in 1604 (and now the oldest in the city, in spite of its name).

Louis XIII

Marie de Médicis: AD 1610-1617

When Henry IV dies, in 1610, he has had six children by his second wife, Marie de Médicis, in the previous nine years. This level of productivity is remarkable in that Henry is famous also for the number of his mistresses (causing him to become known as le vert galant, the "evergreen gallant").

Henry's infidelities have strained his relationship with Marie (married for the advantages which a Medici dowry will bring to the French exchequer), and it is only on the day before his assassination that she finally manages to be crowned queen. The coincidence provokes rumours as to her possible involvement in the crime. But as the crowned queen she successfully asserts her claim to be regent for her son, the 9-year-old Louis XIII.

Marie immediately reverses the anti-Habsburg policy prevailing at the end of Henry's reign. She admits the Spanish ambassador to her council and arranges for two of her children to marry the infanta and infante, the two elder children of Philip III of Spain; Louis XIII is betrothed to Anne, and his sister Elizabeth to the future Philip IV.

Marie's regency is extravagant and incompetent. It ends in violence when Louis XIII, at the age of seventeen, arranges for the assassination of his mother's favourite, the marquis d'Ancre, and takes power into his own hands. In the long run Marie's main contribution is her employment of a very talented administrator - Richelieu.

Richelieu and Louis XIII: AD 1624-1642

Armand du Plessis, created cardinal in 1622 and duc de Richelieu in 1631, begins his public career as the 21-year-old bishop of the small diocese of Luçon. He comes to the attention of Marie de Médicis when he is one of the representatives of the clergy in the estates general of 1614 (summoned by her for the purpose of raising funds). He becomes one of her secretaries of state in 1616.

When Marie is exiled from Paris in 1617 by her son, Richelieu goes with her. But there is a reconciliation between mother and son in 1622. By 1624 Richelieu is on Louis XIII's council of state. Later in that same year he is declared to be the "principal minister".

Over the next eighteen years the two men, minister and king, devote themselves to raising the status of France. On his appointment, Richelieu declares to his king that he will undertake four important tasks. They are, in his own sequence: to destroy the Huguenots; to weaken the power of the nobles; to bring the French people to obedience; and to raise the name of the king to its rightful place among foreign nations.

When Richelieu makes these resolutions, in 1624, the Huguenots have recently been up in arms against the crown over an issue of church property. As a result their fortresses, allowed them by the Edict of nantes, have been reduced to just two - La Rochelle and Montauban.

Huguenot assistance to an English raid in 1627 gives Richelieu the pretext he needs. He besieges the stronghold of La Rochelle. The Huguenots hold out for a year, but finally yield in October 1628. In the resulting peace of Alès, in 1629, all the political privileges granted them in the Edict of nantes are removed, together with their last two strongholds. But they are left with their freedom to worship as Calvinists.

Richelieu's next aims (reducing the power of the nobles and increasing the obedience of the populace) are resolved, almost as one package, by making more effective France's steady progress towards Absolutism - or unbridled centralized rule by the monarch.

Strong centralized rule was attempted by Francis i, was improved upon by Henry iv, and is now - thanks to Richelieu - successfully achieved by Louis XIII. The estates general summoned in 1614 by Marie de Médicis proves to be the last for almost two centuries (until the fateful assembly of 1789). The administration now put in place is run by bureaucrats from the centre, not by nobles dispersed around the country. To have influence now one needs to be at court, under the eye of the king and his minister.

Richelieu taxes the country hard, prompting several peasant uprisings. He needs the money for his last purpose, promoting the international dignity of the French king. This aim embroils him in the Thirty Years' War.

France in the Thirty Years War: from AD 1635

The threat to France's international stature comes, as it has done since the days of Charles v and francis i, from the joint Habsburg dynasties of Spain and Austria. From 1629, when the Austrian emperor seems to have the upper hand in Germany's war, Richelieu is busy diplomatically - in particular urging intervention by Gustavus ii of Sweden.

When Gustavus does invade, and in 1632 reaches as far south as Munich, Richelieu takes advantage of the general turmoil to slip a French army into Lorraine. But by 1635 Gustavus is dead, the Austrian emperor is about to make peace with his German subjects, and Spain is actively campaigning against the United Provinces on France's northern border.

Richelieu decides that it is time for overt action. In 1635 he makes an alliance with the United Provinces and Sweden and declares war on Spain and the Austrian empire.

The war is still going on when Richelieu dies in 1642, to be followed by Louis XIII in 1643. Had they lived until the peace of Westphalia in 1648, they would have known that Richelieu had made major strides in his aim of boosting the French king's prestige. The treaty gives France territorial rights in Lorraine and Alsace (both left a little vague), and it reflects a subtle change in Europe's balance of power. By the end of the century the nation which everyone else fears will be no longer Spain or the Austrian empire, but France.


Anne of Austria and Mazarin: AD 1643-1651

Louis XIII's wife, whom he treats with cold disdain during twenty-eight years of marriage, is the Spanish princess Anne, daughter of Philip III. She is known as Anne of Austria (Austria being broadly used for any of the Habsburg dynasties). Late in her marriage she conceives and bears a son, the future Louis XIV.

The child is only four when Louis XIII dies in 1643. Anne is appointed regent and immediately selects as her principal minister a brilliant protégé of Cardinal Richelieu. He is the Italian Giulio Mazzarini (known as Jules Mazarin to the French), a diplomat and cardinal who has become closely involved in the French government - originally as a papal delegate to Paris.

Anne and Mazarin are immediately confronted by demands from princes and nobles whose privileges have been reduced by Richelieu during the previous reign and who now want them restored. What a French cardinal has been able to take away with the full support of an adult king, it will prove very much harder for a foreign cardinal to withhold during a regency.

The central theme of Mazarin's government becomes the need to maintain order against the demands of a fractious nobility. But for the moment France is at war (Since 1635) with the Habsburg dynasties of Spain and Austria. There are practical tasks to keep the nobles busy.

The war begun by Richelieu is continued with great success by Mazarin, thanks largely to a young prince and a nobleman, the prince de Condé and and the vicomte de Turenne, who prove to be brilliant generals. Condé wins a sensational victory over a Spanish army in 1643 at Rocroi, on France's border with the Spanish Netherlands. In the next five years he and Turenne together harry the imperial armies throughout southern Germany.

1648 brings peace (with Austria, though not yet with Spain) and peace brings trouble at home. The discontent of the grandees, and their resentment of Mazarin in person, erupts into rebellion and civil war - in the sequence of events known as the Fronde.

The Fronde: AD 1648-1653

The Fronde is the name given to the many interconnecting disturbances affecting France for five years from 1648. The word means "sling", and the target at which brickbats are metaphorically slung is the principal minister, Mazarin. The grievances of the rebels are complex, ranging from loss of privileges by the nobility, through loss of rights by the traditional institutions of Paris such as the parlement, to a more widespread sense of grievance over too much tax ruthlessly extracted to pay for the recent war.

But the underlying theme is a rejection of the absolute and centralized rule achieved by Richelieu on behalf of Louis XIII.

In this respect the Fronde has something in common with another great struggle against royal power being carried on across the English channel. The Frondeurs in Paris are excited by the success of parliament in the English civil war (though the execution of the English king in 1649 is seen as a step decidedly too far).

The English war succeeds in asserting the rights of parliament, and in particular the commons. By contrast the Fronde fails completely to recover the lost priviliges of the nobility. Instead it leads to even greater absolutism in the reign of Louis XIV. But at times it seems a close-run thing.

Mazarin Condé and Turenne: AD 1648-1653

During the five years of the Fronde there are three periods of active civil war interspersed with two of uneasy calm. The relative positions of Mazarin, Condé and turenne at each stage indicate how volatile the situation is.

During the first brief period of war (January to March 1649) the parlement in Paris are the rebels. The queen regent and Mazarin flee with the young king. Condé besieges Paris on their behalf. Turenne sides with the rebels, offering his services to Spain to lead an army from the Rhine against France.

Mazarin is in control again after the capitulation of Paris in March 1649. But Condé, saviour of the situation, behaves with increasing arrogance - prompting Mazarin to arrest him and other princes in January 1650.

The supporters of the imprisoned princes resort to arms, beginning another thirteen months of civil war. Turenne, now acting in Condé's interest, again serves with a Spanish army. By February 1651 all Mazarin's enemies are united against him. He escapes to Cologne. For much of the next six months Condé dominates Anne, the queen regent. But his brief spell in power is brought to an end by the calendar. In September 1651 Louis XIV comes officially of age, at thirteen. The regency is over.

With the support of the young king, Anne is now stronger than Condé - who flees from Paris to organize a new rebellion with Spanish help. Mazarin returns to France. This time Turenne sides with the court against Condé, his old companion in arms. The two meet in July 1652 in the battle of the Faubourg St Antoine, fought in the streets just outside the walls of Paris. It is a resounding victory for Turenne.

By the following spring all is calm. The Fronde has ended. Mazarin can continue to lay the foundations for an absolutist reign which the rebels have signally failed to prevent. He does so with tact and skill. A few of the prominent leaders are exiled. There are no executions.

A measure of Mazarin's success is a remarkable scene twenty years later. Both Turenne and Condé have been traitors at some point during the Fronde, fighting at the head of Spanish armies. Yet they remain welcome, in a subordinate role, in royal France.

When Louis XIV goes to war against the United provinces in 1672, he rides north in person at the head of a magnificent army. Beside him, as his lieutenants, are the two greatest French generals of the era, Turenne and Condé, now aged sixty-one and fifty-one respectively. They have been visibly brought to heel.

Louis XIV

L'Etat c'est moi: AD 1661-1715

When Mazarin dies, in 1661, he leaves a kingdom at peace, externally as well as internally. The long war with Spain, conducted since 1635, has ended in 1659 with the treaty of the Pyrenees. France makes useful gains on both her borders with Spain, taking land from Flanders and Luxembourg in the Spanish netherlands and along the Pyrenees in the south.

Under the treaty Louis XIV also marries the Spanish infanta Maria Theresa (Marie Thérèse to the French). She brings a useful dowry of 500,000 crowns, but she renounces her rights to the Spanish crown. (The renunciation is overlooked two generations later, when an unexpected result of this marriage is a Bourbon prince on the throne of Spain.)

Mazarin also leaves to Louis XIV his very talented deputy Colbert, much as Mazarin himself was bequeathed to Louis XIII by Richelieu. Colbert is entrusted with reform of the French economy, which he carries out with great efficiency over the next twenty-two years. But his relationship with the king differs from that of his predecessors. Richelieu and mazarin acted with almost complete authority as principal minister, in a form of government which became known as the ministériat.

After Mazarin's death Louis will have no more of that. He becomes his own principal minister, directly controlling every aspect of state policy. Colbert and other colleagues in government are merely the king's loyal servants.

It is probable that Louis never said L'État c'est moi ("the State is myself"), traditionally quoted as part of an address in 1655 to the Paris parlement (the powers of which he subsequently restricts). But even if apocryphal, the statement reflects Louis' concept of his kingly role.

Moreover the state which he personifies is one which he strives ceaselessly to make more powerful and more spectacular. His ambitions are seen in the palace which he creates at Versailles from 1664, and in the series of aggressive military campaigns with which he attempts to enlarge France's borders. His great projects leave the kingdom bankrupt at the end of a long reign. But in the scale of their ambition they are magnificent.

A party at Vaux-le Vicomte: AD 1661

In August 1661, five months after the death of Mazarin, Louis XIV is the guest of honour at a festivity presented by Nicolas Fouquet - the minister entrusted by Mazarin with the finance department. The event takes place at the superb palace of Vaux-le-Vicomte, near Melun, built by Fouquet over the previous five years as his personal residence.

With Le Vau as the architect, Le Brun designing the interiors and Le Nôtre in charge of the spectacular gardens, Vaux-le-Vicomte is one of the great French baroque palaces. The king does not like what he sees. Or rather he likes it very much indeed - but not in the hands of one of his subjects.

Much as Hampton court harmed Wolsey in the eyes of Henry VIII, Vaux-le-Vicomte seals the fate of Fouquet. The palace itself, with the lavishness of the entertainment, convinces the king that so much wealth can only be ill-gotten. Fouquet is arrested in September and is tried for embezzlement. Colbert plays a perfidious role in the proceedings, suppressing all documents favourable to Fouquet's case and thus safeguarding his own new role as finance minister.

Fouquet is sentenced to life imprisonment, while Louis goes one stage better than Vaux-le-Vicomte on his own account. In 1664 Fouquet's architect, Le Vau, is commissioned to rebuild the royal lodge at Versailles. Le Brun will do the interiors, and Le Nôtre the gardens.

Versailles: AD 1664-1715

In his palace at Versailles, constructed between 1664 and 1710, Louis XIV creates an architectural symbol of absolute rule. The vast symmetrical building (sufficiently complete by 1682 to become the permanent home of the French court) has at its centre a superb piece of theatre - the great Galerie des Glaces (Hall of Mirrors), designed in 1678 by Jules Hardouin-Mansart (the royal architect after the death of Le Vau in 1670).

Here, where Louis sits in state to receive important visitors, the mirrored walls reflect back and forth the splendour of the occasion. On the ceiling above, as if in the heavens, paintings by Le Brun remind the viewer of glorious moments in the king's life.

Some 3000 courtiers live at Versailles, jostling for the king's attention and favours. Status, ever liable to change, is made starkly visible in the details of court ritual. Every part of the king's day is a performance - getting up (the lever), eating (the couvert), going to bed (the coucher). To be allowed to watch him on any such occasion is a privilege, to sit on a stool in his presence a high honour, to be promoted to a chair almost unbearably exciting.

The regulations for those not in his presence constantly emphasize his divine status. It is compulsory to bend the knee to a table laid for the king's meal - and even to the royal chamber pot on its way to be emptied.

Outside the building the great vistas of Le Nôtre's gardens develop the same theme. Seen from the palace each perspective recedes towards infinity, while the gardens become more natural with increasing distance; seen from outside every path leads back towards the king at the formal centre.

These vistas sparkle with light and water, as the many hundreds of fountains designed by Le Nôtre play over sculptured groups praising the king by various allegorial means. And finally - one of their most important purposes - the gardens make the perfect setting for the spectacular fêtes de Versailles, celebrating the greatness of France and of Louis in pageant form.

Louis XIV and theatre: AD 1651-1715

While Louis himself is the star of France's grandest and longest-running piece of theatre, he is also keenly interested in performance of a more conventional sort.

He is lucky in being able to call on France's three greatest dramatists, all working during his reign, Corneille, Racine and Molière. But the type of theatre which most appeals to him is ballet. At the age of twelve, in 1651, he dances five comic roles in a court ballet (a Bacchante, a man of ice, a Titan, a Muse and a divine). Two years later he appears as Apollo, wearing a glorious sun costume - an early contribution to the cult of himself as the Sun King, which he fosters throughout his reign.

The dancers in court ballets are the courtiers themselves, and a large part of the pleasure comes from watching one's friends prance about in spectacular costumes. The English diarist John Evelyn sees Louis XIV dancing in Paris in 1651; he marvels not so much at the dancing as at so many sumptuously attired aristocrats.

But Louis XIV himself is genuinely interested in dancing, and in 1661 he decides that his colleagues are not up to scratch. He brings together the best Parisian dancing masters to form the Académie Royale de Danse, where his friends' skills may be honed. It is so successful that he follows it in 1669 with a similar Académie Royale de Musique.

These two institutions are merged to form the Paris Opéra (still in existence today). From 1672 professional dancers are trained. The institution settles down into what is recognizably a ballet company.

The first director, Pierre Beauchamp, choreographs many ballet sequences with music by Lully and others - and he devises his own system for recording the steps. (He is often credited with inventing the five classic positions for the feet, but more probably he is merely the first to record them.)

Royal factories and other ventures: from AD 1662

Confronted by the challenge of the king's building plans, and determined that every detail shall proclaim the majesty of his master, Colbert sets up a royal factory to provide the furniture and soft furnishings which will be needed.

He does this by buying in 1662 the Paris workshops of the Gobelin family, in the Faubourg St Marcel. They are renamed the Manufacture Royale des Meubles de la Couronne (Royal Factory of Crown Furniture). In the following year Charles le brun, now official painter to the king, is made director of the new establishment.

Craftsmen are gathered from far and wide, raw materials are brought in. The intention is that everything required by the king, and luxury goods purchased by others in France, shall be made to very high standards here or in similar establishments within the kingdom - and that a surplus of such items will be available for sale abroad.

This is in keeping with mercantilism, the economic orthodoxy of the 17th and 18th centuries. The mercantile theory states that countries grow rich by importing little and exporting much, thus storing up a healthy balance of payments in the form of the gold which other nations pay for the exported goods.

For this same purpose Colbert introduces standards for goods manufactured in France (penalties include the pillory for shoddy work); he improves internal transport, with major undertakings such as the Canal du midi; he builds up the merchant fleet so that precious French funds are not spent on the carrying trade; he establishes colonial enterprises (the East india and West India companies, both founded in 1664) to ensure a supply of raw materials; and he erects tariff barriers against imports.

Many of these measures are effective, though tariffs tend to provoke the same in retaliation. But any lasting benefit from Colbert's efforts is undermined by Louis XIV's military adventures.

Enlarging the frontiers: AD 1667-1684

From the moment of taking power into his own hands, in 1661, Louis XIV bases his policy in all fields on one over-riding aim - to increase the power and glory of France. In foreign affairs this primarily means extending the kingdom's frontiers.

Louis sees his first chance when his father-in-law, Philip III of Spain, dies in 1665. Disregarding the fact that his Spanish wife has renounced her claim to the Spanish kingdom, Louis finds spurious legal reasons to argue that parts of the Spanish Netherlands should devolve to her. The resulting conflict, caused by French troops marching into Spanish territory in 1667, is known therefore as the War of Devolution.

France's two great warriors, Turenne and Condé, are once again to the fore. Turenne seizes part of the Spanish Netherlands in 1667. Early in 1668 Condé takes only two weeks to occupy the whole of Franche-Comté. The peace of Aix-la-Chapelle in 1668 restores much of the lost territory to Spain but nevertheless leaves France with considerable gains in Flanders. Louis' great military engineer, Sebastien de Vauban, immediately moves in to protect the new acquisitions with state-of-the-art fortification.

This is a pattern which is regularly repeated. In 1672 Louis launches a campaign against the United Provinces of the Netherlands, which leads to a Succession of wars ending only in the treaties of Nijmegen in 1678-9.

The terms agreed at Nijmegen again bring Louis territory on his borders at the expense of Spain (this time Franche-Comté is finally ceded to France, having been returned to Spain in 1668).

During the 1680s Louis uses a more nibbling form of policy, in which he claims to be effecting "reunion" between France and territories once owing feudal allegiance to the French king. On this basis he gradually strengthens the rather vague rights granted to France in 1648 in Alsace and lorraine. He seizes Strasbourg in 1681 and Luxembourg in 1684. By the treaty of Regensburg, in 1684, both are ceded to France.

The aggressive tone of France's policy is reflected in other less dramatic ways. Louis tries to insist on his ambassadors taking precedence over all others in foreign courts; French ships are ordered to abandon the conventional custom of saluting British ships in British waters; there is a battle in the streets of Rome after a dispute over precedence between the French ambassador's escort and the papal guard.

Internally the same insistence upon the king's pre-eminence leads to repression of any who disagree with Louis' preferred version of Christianity.

Huguenots and Jansenists: AD 1661-1713

Louis XIV's determination to have his own way makes him incapable of tolerating religious dissension. An immediate target is the Huguenots, over whom he triumphs (to France's considerable loss). A more complex problem is that of Jansenism, a dissenting sect within Catholicism; this issue remains unresolved at the king's death.

The Huguenots have thrived economically since 1629, when the Peace of alès left them with only their freedom of conscience. Their success makes the Catholic clergy even more eager to suppress them. In 1661 Louis willingly grants the church's request to send commissioners into Huguenot territories to report on any infringement of the edicts defining their liberties.

For twenty years a legal war is waged against the Huguenots, with pretexts found to close their schools and hospitals. When this fails to effect their conversion, more drastic methods are adopted in the 1680s. In the policy known as dragonnades, troops of dragoons are billetted in Huguenot villages with orders to cause as much mayhem as they like in the houses of their heretical hosts.

The violence leads to mass conversions, enabling Louis to claim that there are now so few Huguenots in France that the Edict of nantes is no longer needed. He revokes it in 1685, in the edict of Fontainebleau. Protestantism, a powerful feature of French life since the Reformation, is now illegal in the kingdom.

Events prove Louis dramatically wrong in his assessment. Some 400,000 French citizens, including many of the country's best craftsmen and tradesmen, emigrate rather than deny their Huguenot beliefs. Their arrival proves of great value in the places where they choose to settle - in particular England, Holland, Prussia and the American colonies.

Louis' disagreement with the Jansenists is more tenuous but no less obsessive. They are followers of a theologian from the Netherlands, Cornelius Jansen, whose studies of St Augustine lead him into doctrinal clashes with the Jesuits. The differences of opionion might have remained purely ecclesiastical. But the situation in France - with its absolutist monarch - adds a political dimension.

The Jansenists in France seem a threat in Louis' eyes because of their insistence on the rights of the individual conscience and their refusal to be browbeaten. Their convent school of Port-Royal in Paris is a fashionable centre of intellectual excellence (Pascal is closely associated with it, and Racine is a pupil). Louis XIV becomes determined to suppress it.

The king's measures against the Jansenists of Port-Royal span much of his reign, ending with the closing of the convent in 1709 and the destruction of its buildings in 1711. Even so Jansenism remains a strong force in France throughout much of the 18th century.

Vauban and fortification: AD 1654-1706

France's expansionist policies during the late 17th century benefit greatly from the military genius of Sebastien de Vauban, who spends more than half a century in active service in Louis XIV's campaigns. His special interest is in fortification (though he is also the inventor of the socket Bayonet). In siege warfare he is as skilled in the arts of defence as of attack.

During his long career Vauban either builds or redesigns some 160 fortresses. But his most significant contribution is the tactic which he develops for approaching and breaching an enemy's stronghold.

Vauban's method, first put into practice during the Dutch wars at the 1673 siege of Maastricht, becomes known as the 'approach by parallel line'. It consists essentially of the infantry and artillery leapfrogging to the base of a fortress wall.

The range of a siege cannon at this time is about 600 yards. Vauban arranges his guns at this distance from the weakest flank of a fortress and then digs a trench behind the guns as a base for the infantry. From here musketeers can protect the artillery from attack by enemy sorties, and can at the same time cover sappers digging trenches which lead towards the fort. They dig in a zigzag line, as a protection from raking cannon-fire along a trench's length.

When the zigzag has moved forward about 200 yards, another trench is dug parallel to the fortress wall. Both infantry and artillery move up into this new position, and the process is repeated. The second move forward brings the sappers within range of musket fire from the ramparts. They extend their trench now under a protective roof, pushed forward on wheels (a device known as a gabion, in the ancient tradition of the Roman Tortoise).

When the third parallel position is successfully established, the siege artillery is near enough for a direct bombardment on the walls. In most cases this is soon sufficient to force a breach in the defences.

Maastricht, subjected to these tactics in 1673, falls to the French army in thirteen days. In subsequent engagements Vauban's method of parallel lines proves reliable and easily adapted to each particular fortification and its surrounding terrain. It becomes the custom in the French army to classify enemy fortresses in terms of the number of days for which they are expected to hold out against an assault of this kind.

The majority of sieges during the 18th century are conducted by European armies along the lines pioneered by Vauban. His example also gives engineers, for the first time, an important status in any modern army.

Alliances against France: AD 1686-1697

The military adventures of Louis XIV prompt other European powers to form alliances against expansionist France. The first is the League of Augsburg, put together in 1686 by the Austrian emperor Leopold I. He brings into it his Habsburg cousins in Spain and various states of the Holy roman empire. This league has no specific purpose (other than to give Leopold a sense of security during his proposed campaign against the Turks), and it takes no action against France. Its successor, the Grand Alliance of 1689, is in a different category.

The Grand Alliance is prompted by opportunistic moves on Louis' part. In the second half of 1688 he sends two armies across the Rhine.

One French army goes to Cologne to support Louis' favoured candidate for the archbishopric, which has fallen vacant. The other marches into the Palatinate, where the death of the elector Palatine has given Louis a tenuous French claim (through his brother's marriage to the elector's sister).

This provokes the first coherent and widespread European response to French aggression. During 1689 an alliance is formed which eventually includes the Austrian empire, Holland, England, Brandenburg, Hanover, Saxony, Bavaria, Savoy and Spain. The eventual leader of the alliance is William iii, ruler of both England and Holland. But at the start his attention is elsewhere. He is busy fighting Louis' ally, the Stuart king James II, in Ireland.

After an inconclusive war, Louis has to make considerable concessions in the peace of Rijswijk in 1697. But by now he is conserving his strength for the struggle over a much more important European issue. Who will inherit the Spanish empire on the death of the childless and sickly Habsburg king of Spain?

That conflict, with so much at stake, erupts in 1700. The king of Spain leaves everything to a Bourbon grandson of Louis XIV. Louis, breaking previous agreements, will now consider no compromise in the distribution of this windfall. He insists that his grandson remain in line of succession for the French throne, and warns that the rich trade with Spanish America will be reserved for France.

During 1701 the leading members of the Grand Alliance join forces again for a renewal of war against France. The resulting War of the spanish succession is a long one, to 1713, and it ends with the compromise which could perhaps have avoided it in the first place; the Bourbons receive Spain and Spanish America, the Austrian Habsburgs win the Spanish possessions in the Netherlands and Italy.

So Louis XIV lives to see his second grandson on the throne of Spain, as Philip V. But he also sees the death of his elder son, in 1711, and of his eldest grandson in the following year. He is succeeded, in 1715, by his 5-year-old great-grandson, as Louis XV.

18th century

The legacy of Louis XIV: AD 1715

When Louis XIV dies in 1715, at the end of a 72-year-reign (fifty-four of them with himself firmly at the helm), the effect of his policy of national grandeur appears to be disaster.

The nation's finances are in such a dire state, after twenty-five years of almost continuous warfare, that Louis' descendants remain weakened by financial constraints throughout the 18th century. Industry and commerce are in disarray. The population is declining. In years of bad harvest there is famine. The king himself, by the end, is profoundly unpopular.

Yet the reign of Louis XIV gives France a special status in European culture. His method of absolute rule, and his palace at Versailles, provide the examples to which lesser European monarchs aspire in the coming century. The French style in furniture and interior decoration is everywhere the fashion. French authors are in the vanguard of European literature. The French dynasty is on the Spanish throne.

And the French empire, though starting late compared to other Atlantic powers, now rapidly becomes the leading rival to Britain. In broad terms this all adds up to a splendid achievement. Louis XIV is widely viewed in popular estimation as Europe's greatest monarch since Charlemagne. The Sun king's publicity has prevailed.

Mississippi Bubble: AD 1720

In 1716 the French royal finances are heavily in deficit after the expensive wars of Louis xiv. The regent, the duke of Orléans, is persuaded by a Scotsman, John Law, to undertake an experiment in banking. Law has published in 1705 a treatise entitled Money and trade considered, with a proposal for supplying the nation with money.

Law's theory is that a national bank issuing notes as currency will have the effect of stimulating the economy, while also lowering the public debt. He is allowed to set up the Banque Générale in 1716 for this purpose. In 1717 he launches a separate venture, the Louisiana Company, to develop the French territories in the Mississippi valley.

At first both enterprises thrive, and Law acquires ever greater responsibilities and commercial power. All the French chartered trading companies, to the East Indies and China, to Africa and the West Indies, are brought under his control, as also is the national mint and the collection of taxes. As more and more people rush to invest in this octopus of an enterprise, Law has the power and the freedom to issue shares and bank notes at will to keep his creature alive and well.

The result, by 1719, is rapid inflation and speculative hysteria. The price of Law's shares rise 36-fold, from 500 to 18000 livres. At the end of 1720 the bubble bursts. Law flees from France, dying in penury nine years later in Venice.

The experience of 1720 leaves the French with a lasting distrust of national banks with the power to issue paper money. Not until Napoleon needs funds for his war effort, in 1800, is the Banque de France finally established - long after the same step is taken in other European countries.

While Law's shares are still rising, in the early months of 1720, the same phenomenon is occurring across the Channel in England - where the shares of the South sea company have an equally irresistible allure to speculative investors.

French and British on land: AD 1744-1745

After the War of the spanish succession the French and the British often act in a somewhat uneasy alliance. The main reason is that both nations have political leaders, Cardinal Fleury and Robert Walpole, who see peace as a necessary aspect of national prosperity. But Walpole resigns in 1742 and Fleury dies in 1743.

There is nothing now to restrain the long-standing enmity between these two Atlantic nations, each with a developing empire overseas. In March 1744 the French declare war on Britain and make plans for an invasion across the Channel in the company of the Jacobite pretender Charles Edward Stuart.

Bad weather damages the French fleet and causes the plan for an invasion in 1744 to be abandoned. In the following summer the French divert their energies to an attack on the Austrian Netherlands. Maurice Saxe, commanding a French army which includes an Irish brigade, wins a victory at Fontenoy in May 1745 over a combined force of British, Hanoverian, Austrian and Dutch troops under the duke of Cumberland, son of the British king.

Saxe continues his successful campaign, conquering the whole of the Austrian Netherlands by the end of 1746. For much of this time he has no opposition from the British army. The regiments and the duke of Cumberland are recalled in October 1745 to meet a new threat in Scotland.

French and British at sea: AD 1745-1748

French successes in northern Europe under Marshal saxe, in 1745-6, prove in the long run less significant than Britain's stranglehold on French trade by sea. Once war is officially declared, in 1744, the British navy harasses French merchant fleets en route for the West Indies or India. Closer to home the harbours of France are blockaded, preventing the transport of commodities up and down the coast (by far the easiest route in the age before decent Roads).

By 1748, after four years of low-keyed naval warfare, France is ready for peace. Significantly the only important territories which have changed hands are overseas.

In 1745 militiamen from British north America have seized from France the harbour of Louisbourg, at the entry to the Gulf of St Lawrence (of strategic importance in relation to French Canada). In India, in 1746, the French have occupied British Madras.

Both are returned in 1748 in the treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle - restoring the status quo, but also postponing an inevitable colonial conflict between what are now Europe's leading powers. Frederick the Great says of France and Britain: 'they see themselves as the leaders of two rival factions to which all kings and princes must attach themselves'. Within less than a decade the kings and princes will again have to take sides, in the Seven Years' War.

Seven Years War: AD 1756-1763

At the start of the Seven Years' War the balance between the empires of France and Britain looks much as it has been since the late 17th century. By the end of it, in 1763, the situation is transformed. The change is less great in India. Even so, British rule in Bengal, established informally from 1757, represents an unprecedented level of European involvement in the subcontinent - and a level unmatched by France.

If the difference in India appears as yet slight, these years change out of all recognition the colonial situation in America. British victory over the French, clinched in the capture of Quebec in 1759, is followed by dramatic French concessions in the Paris peace treaty of 1763.

France cedes to Britain all the territory which it has previously claimed between the Mississippi and the Ohio rivers, together with the original territories of New France along the St Lawrence. This brings to an end the French empire in continental America (only New Orleans and its district remain in French hands under the treaty). The British become unmistakably the dominant power in the northern half of the continent, in one of the major turning points of history.

The lands more notionally claimed by the French between the Mississippi and the Rockies are ceded to Spain. (They are later acquired by the USA, in 1803, in the Louisiana purchase.)

The ancien régime: AD 1715-1789

In 1774 the king of France dies. Louis XV has been on the throne for nearly sixty years, since succeeding his great-grandfather Louis XIV at the age of five in 1715. During most of that time the royal finances have been in a perilous state. Severely depleted by Louis XIV's schemes for the greater glory of the French monarchy, they have been further drained by the major wars of the century (Spanish succession, Austrian succession, Seven Years' War).

The French monarchy is ill-equipped to put into effect any necessary reforms. The king technically has absolute power, but neither Louis XV nor his grandson Louis XVI (who succeeds him in 1774) proves capable of transforming that supposed power into effective action.

French society in the 18th century later acquires the title ancien régime, because it combines ancient privileges for the aristocracy with a complete lack of any modern accountability in government.

Lack of accountability is epitomized in the notorious lettres de cachet. These documents, issued by the king, can consign someone to a state prison for an indefinite period without even giving a reason. Such behaviour prompted Magna carta six centuries previously in Britain. Yet this royal privilege (not in fact used or abused as much as rumour at the time suggests) does nothing to help the king restrict the privileges of his nobility.

Traditionally the aristocracy and clergy in France are exempt from most forms of taxation. Government efforts to end this injustice, and to spread the burden more fairly, founder repeatedly on well orchestrated campaigns of aristocratic resistance - mainly through the parlement in Paris. Two reforming finance ministers, Turgot in 1776 and Calonne in 1787, are dismissed as a result of opposition in parliament to their measures.

These unseemly manoeuvres to preserve feudal privileges are taking place in the most sophisticated of Europe's kingdoms. The ideas of the Enlightenment have their roots in France. The philosophes have long criticized the abuses associated with the clergy and the nobility.

Yet the royal attempts at reform cut little ice with the opponents of privilege. The court of Louis XVI and his Austrian queen Marie Antoinette is widely regarded as frivolous and corrupt.

This impression is reinforced in 1785 when news breaks of a court scandal, involving the theft by deception and forgery of a valuable diamond necklace. The queen appears to be implicated (wrongly as it turns out). A cardinal who has acted as an intermediary is arrested as he prepares to conduct a service at Versailles. The noblewoman responsible for the crime is flogged and branded. Tongues wag.

In this atmosphere, if the struggle between the privileged classes and the king escalates into a real crisis, neither side is likely to win much sympathy from the French public.

Unwisely and unwittingly the king's enemies provoke just such a crisis. The royal exchequer is on the verge of bankruptcy, partly owing to the expense of supporting the American rebels against the British monarch. The Paris parlement now asserts that taxation is only valid if voted by the Estates general - a body not summoned since 1614. Most reluctantly, but with little choice, the king's ministers announce in July 1788 that the Estates general will assemble in Versailles on 1 May 1789.


The estates general and the third estate: AD 1789

The composition of the proposed Estates general is a controversial topic during the autumn of 1788. The Paris parlement argues that the arrangement should be as on the previous occasion, in 1614, when each estate had an equal number of deputies and each of the three groups met and voted separately.

This proposal represents a firm plea for the status quo, since the first two estates (clergy and nobility) can together outvote the third estate (the rest of the nation) on every issue. Yet the third estate is precisely the part of the community which is seething with resentment at the privileges enjoyed by the other two under the ancien régime.

The most powerful pamphlet of the campaign is Qu'est-ce que le Tiers État? (What is the Third Estate?), by Emmanuel Joseph Sieyès. Published in January 1789, its opening words put the situation very clearly: 'What is the Third Estate? Everything. What has it been until now? Nothing. What does it ask to be? Something.'

The government resists the demands of the Paris parlement and elections are declared for approximately 300 deputies for each of the first two estates and some 600 representing the third. In several provincial assemblies it has long been the custom for the third estate to have double representation, so the proposal is not in itself surprising.

The electorate includes a large proportion of the male citizens over the age of twenty-five, since everyone appearing on a tax register - as the owner of even the smallest patch of land, or as an industrial worker or craftsman - is allowed to vote.

Thus the deputies convening for the opening ceremony at Versailles on 4 May 1789 are justifiably perceived as representative of the nation. And the majority of the nation, forming the third estate, have high hopes of them. But first the deputies of the third estate have an important political point to make.

Oath of the Tennis Court: 20 June 1789

In the opening ceremony the king announces that the estates must themselves decide whether to meet separately, as in the past, or in a joint assembly. The nobles and the clergy vote for separation. To avoid their numerical advantage being wasted by this arrangement, the deputies of the third estate engage in a blocking tactic. They resolve to take no action until the clergy and nobles join them. Deadlock ensues, until it is broken in a dramatic gesture.

On June 17 the third estate declare themselves to be an independent elected body. They choose for themselves a resonant name, the National Assembly.

For good measure, and knowing what prevails with any government, they exhort the people of France to continue paying taxes only as long as their assembly is sitting.

The king's response is to summon a meeting of all three estates in his presence. For this event the largest hall, where the third estate has been meeting, needs modification. Workmen are sent in and the deputies, arriving on June 20, find the door closed against them. In high dudgeon they repair to a nearby Tennis court, where with only one abstention they take a famous oath - to maintain their assembly until a new constitution has been established for the realm. This act of defiance comes to be regarded later as the start of the French Revolution.

In the joint session, on June 23, Louis XVI orders the three estates to continue their deliberations separately on the following day. But when the deputies of the third estate refuse to leave the hall (unless 'at the point of the bayonet'), the king shrinks from force.

The deputies remain in their places. The day is won. Louis orders the clergy and the nobility to join with the third estate in forming an assembly charged with a specific task - to provide France with a written constitution. The unauthorized National Assembly becomes the official National Constituent Assembly.

Fall of the Bastille: 14 July 1789

In Paris the recent months have been a time of great political excitement, in the lengthy and complicated process of choosing local representatives of the third estate for the estates general. But these events have coincided with economic deprivation, resulting from a bad harvest in 1788 and a severe winter.

The result is that an unruly and volatile city observes with intense excitement the drama acted out a few miles away at Versailles. The news of the victory of the third estate is received ecstatically. But it is soon followed by rumours, not entirely false, that the king is inclining again to reactionary advisers and that there is a threatening build up of troops near the capital.

The result is an insurrection, encouraged in its early stages on July 12 by local politicians but soon getting entirely out of hand. For two days mobs surge through the streets, smashing and looting. Their most meaningful targets are the only two sites in Paris held by royal troops. The first is the barracks of Les Invalides, where a large arsenal of muskets is seized early in the morning of July 14.

More significant as a symbol is the other focal point for the crowd's fury - the Bastille, constructed as a royal fortress in the 14th century. The high forbidding walls seem like a symbol of royal tyranny. But the building's feeble end exposes it as only a hollow threat to liberty.

Seeing the size and mood of the crowd around his building on July 14, the commander of the Bastille surrenders rapidly in return for safe conduct of his men - though such a promise is hard to fulfil in these circumstances. Several of the garrison die grisly deaths in the neighbouring streets.

The prisoners liberated from the Bastille number just seven, none of them victims of royal injustice. But drab reality cannot tarnish a useful symbol. The fall of this ancient fortress soon stands in popular memory for the overthrow of the ancien régime itself. And the event has consequences of lasting significance.

Order is eventually restored in Paris by a newly elected mayor and commune (or city council) with the help of a volunteer militia. Known as the National Guard, and commanded by Lafayette, the militia wear the tricolour cockade which later becomes the basis of the French national flag. The king himself bravely comes to Paris later in July, to be given the keys of the city. He even puts the tricolour in his hat, and returns to Versailles through enthusiastic crowds.

The example of Paris is rapidly followed in other cities. The institutions of royal authority are dismantled and are replaced by elected communes and by civic guards. The fall of the Bastille, in itself a minor event, is thus a major turning point. The king's officials are to be replaced by the people's.

Declaration of Rights: August 1789

In Versailles the Constituent Assembly sets about its business with commendable speed, given urgency by news of peasant violence and destruction of property in many parts of France.

This sudden and unexpected rural uprising is the result of panic sweeping many parts of the country. The excitement of the news from Versailles is followed by rumours that aristocrats are conspiring to suppress the National Assembly and that foreign troops have been called in. Peasants attack and burn the castles and manor houses of their feudal lords and then often flee into the woods in what becomes known as the Great Fear.

A similar sense of panic grips the noble deputies at Versailles, who compete with each other in volunteering to give up their ancient privileges. A brief debate on August 4 is sufficient to pass a resolution abolishing all traces of feudalism; legislation following on August 11 specifies the illegality of any form of serfdom, the ending of monopolies and tax exemptions, the opening of the professions to all classes, equality before the law, the free provision of justice, and the abolition of tithes payable to the clergy (who are subsequently required to take the clergy's oath to the constitution).

These practical measures are followed, on August 27, by a ringing statement of principle which owes much to America's Declaration of independence two decades earlier.

The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen begins by stating that 'all men are born free and equal in rights'. Jefferson, in idealistic vein when drafting the American document, defines the main human rights as 'life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness'. His French successors also make liberty their first choice. But they follow it with the right to private property.

The distinction points up an important theme of the developing French Revolution. It is the achievement of the third estate. But that estate is a broad constituency ranging from the rich bourgeoisie to craftsmen and traders in the towns and smallholders in the countryside.

All these classes, in revolutionary mood, covet the riches previously reserved for nobility and church (a decree of 2 November 1789 declares that all church property belongs to the nation and will be sold). Some are better placed to get and keep a share of this wealth than others. Enmity between the various groups is a continuing theme through the revolutionary years and into the Napoleonic era. Indeed all subsequent class warfare, including even capitalism versus communism, can be seen as a continuing battle between rival wings of the third estate.

Meanwhile a group of small entrepreneurs is the first to flex its muscles. The market women of Paris lead a march to Versailles to put their views, in forcible fashion, to the king himself.

The capture of the king: 6 October 1789

The immediate intention of the Paris mob, marching the fourteen miles to Versailles on October 5, is to protest about the price of bread. They force their way into a sitting of the Assembly to demand a lower price, and they are allowed to send a deputation into the palace to see the king. They then camp outside during a rainy night.

In the morning they find their way into the palace through an unguarded door. They reach the queen's apartments, killing two guards on the way to ransacking Marie-Antoinette's bedroom (she escapes just before their arrival).

The crowd, by now filling the palace courtyard, is not calmed until the king appears on a balcony and promises to accompany them to Paris. At noon on October 6 he and his family leave Versailles and travel slowly towards the capital, surrounded by the throng and arriving only after dark. He takes up his residence in the Tuileries. The National Assembly, following him, establishes itself in the adjacent riding school.

Paris, in radical and tumultuous mood, has thus captured both king and assembly - within just three months of the fall of the Bastille. The revolution finds its home, and moves into a new phase.

Clubs and characters: from AD 1789

One of the striking features of the French Revolution is the part played by political clubs. In France, home of the Enlightenment and the most intellectual of European nations, it is predictable that the great issues of the years following 1789 will be passionately debated.

More surprising is the degree of political power exercised by these informal debating societies - and the number of leading characters of the revolution who emerge from this passionate and often dangerous environment.

The most significant of the clubs is established in Paris shortly after the Assembly moves there in the autumn of 1789. It meets in a Jacobin convent in the Rue St Honoré and so becomes known as the Jacobin club. (Jacobin is a French name for the Dominicans, because their first convent in Paris was near the church of St Jacques.)

The term Jacobin eventually becomes associated with the most radical of policies owing to the club's dominance during the Terror of 1793, when its leading figures are Robespierre and Saint-Just. But in the early years of the revolution the Jacobin club includes a wide range of opinion. And its large membership throughout France makes it the debating chamber of the nation.

The club's aims, drawn up in February 1790, hint at what will later become its rigidly doctrinaire nature; they are 'to enlighten the people and to protect them from error'. The number of people arguing about the nature of error grows rapidly. By July 1790 the club in Paris has 1200 members and meets four evenings a week until 11 pm. In the rest of the country, by this summer, there are 152 affiliated Jacobin clubs. With policy documents issued regularly from the centre, this network represents a formidable political force.

At this same period another powerful club is formed in Paris, and one with more aggressive principles than the Jacobins.

The club of the Cordeliers, in existence by May 1790, also takes its name from the monastery where it first meets - that of the Franciscans, known in France as Cordeliers. Its stated function is 'to denounce to the tribunal of public opinion abuses of the various powers and all infractions of the rights of man'. (In 1793 the club promotes Liberté! Egalité! Fraternité! as the motto of the revolution, urging patriots to paint these words in large letters on the walls of their houses.)

Among the club's founding members are Danton and Marat. By the spring of 1791 their ability to appeal to the tribunal of public opinion, at least among the poorer classes in Paris, is made plain when the king and his family plan to leave the city for Easter.

Varennes and the Champ de Mars: June - July 1791

The royal family, trying to depart in carriages to spend Easter at their palace in St Cloud, are physically prevented from leaving the Tuileries by members of the National Guard, backed up by a noisy street demonstration inspired by the club of the Cordeliers. The incident makes the king's lack of freedom painfully apparent. It prompts the rash attempt at escape which leads, almost inexorably, to his death.

On the night of 20 June 1791 Louis XVI, Marie Antoinette and their two children (a 12-year-old princess and the 6-year-old dauphin, known to history as Louis xvii) succeed in leaving the Tuileries in disguise with false passports. Their coach takes the road east, heading for the border with Germany.

The idea is to escape from France and to enlist the support of royalist allies (perhaps even the emperor of Austria, Leopold II, who is Marie Antoinette's brother) who might somehow restore Louis to his kingdom. But along the way the family is recognized. Pursuing forces overtake the carriage at Varennes. The flight has lasted twenty-four hours.

The king is brought back to Paris, even more evidently a captive than before - and one now with possibly treasonable intentions. The hotheads in the club of the Cordeliers see their chance. On July 17 they organize a mass demonstration on the Champ de Mars (Paris's main open space for public events and festivities) in support of a petition to the National Assembly.

The petition demands the abdication and trial of the king. This is a step beyond what has yet been widely proposed, for the main revolutionary intention thus far has been to establish a constitutional monarchy. The scene, as often in such demonstrations, gets out of hand. Stones are thrown. The National Guards respond with rounds of fire. Some demonstrators are killed; others are trampled in the resulting panic, with about fifty deaths in all.

The event is dramatic enough to take its place in popular history as the 'massacre of the Champ de Mars'. It is the small beginning in a crescendo of violence over the next two years - on the battlefield against foreign armies, and in the streets of French cities.

French declaration of war: 20 April 1792

After his ignominious return from Varennes, Louis XVI has little option but to accept the detailed constitution devised, after two years of painstaking committee work, by members of the Constituent Assembly. It provides for its own replacement by a new assembly, to be known as the Legislative Assembly. The Constituent Assembly adds the self-denying proviso that the new assembly must consist entirely of new members.

The inexperienced deputies of the Legislative Assembly meet for the first time on 1 October 1791. Their institution exists for less than a year before coming to an abrupt end. But during that time the first clearly defined revolutionary factions begin to emerge.

The main issue between them is whether France should go to war against other nations to export the revolution at its present stage of development, or should concentrate on pushing the revolution in a more extreme direction within the nation.

The war party become known as the Girondins, because many of their leading members are deputies from the Gironde. Their own links are with the bourgeoisie - the merchants and professionals who have benifited from new opportunities thus far in the political upheaval, and who see self-interest in a period of consolidation and calm (which the shared purpose of war tends to bring to a nation).

The opposing party is the left wing of the Jacobins, headed by Robespierre. Inspired rather more by the ideals of political change, and with support among less wealthy sections of society, they are determined to concentrate on furthering the revolution at home.

The war party has a natural ally in the king. He is still head of state. Only he can declare war, and any clear outcome may prove to his benefit. If France wins a war, the credit may seem partly his. If she loses, the victor is certain to be a royalist nation which will have no wish to encourage revolution.

Other European nations are alarmed by the events in France. There are foreign armies in readiness beyond the Rhine. Among them are forces headed by French émigrés, who have already judged flight from France to be the safest course of action. The most significant opposing power is Austria, so the declaration of war - which the Girondins persuade Louis XVI to declare on 20 April 1792 - is addressed to the Austrian emperor.

This action launches the French revolutionary wars, and inaugurates a period of more than twenty years in which France is in armed conflict against European neighbours.

Summer frenzy: AD 1792

The summer months of 1792 bring a heady blend of excitement, alarm and escalating violence - most of it orchestrated by the rival revolutionary groups jockeying for power in Paris.

The sense of excitement is evident in the writing of the Marseillaise, just five days after France's declaration of war. On April 25 news of the war reaches Strasbourg. The mayor of the city, entertaining some of the officers due to depart for the front, deplores France's lack of a national anthem. One of the officers, Rouget de Lisle, accepts the challenge. That evening he writes the verses beginning Allons, enfants de la patrie!.

His song wins immediate popularity (the tune is possibly also his). It is known at first as the Battle Hymn of the Army of the Rhine. By June it is a favourite with the battalions of the National guard in southern France, particularly with the units from Marseilles. They sing it lustily when they parade in Paris in July, and so the Parisians give it its lasting name - the Marseillaise.

On the date when the Marseillaise is written, April 25, history provides one of its more chilling coincidences. On that same day a highwayman is executed in a Paris square in the first public demonstration of a machine designed to comply with revolutionary principles - the guillotine.

The Marseilles contingent arrives in the capital city on July 30 in time to take part in Paris's next major outbreak of political violence. The war party, that of the Girondins, has lost some of its influence owing to early French reverses against the Austrians. Meanwhile the radical wing of the revolution has extended its power base by skilful infiltration of the committees of the Paris commune. A particularly prominent new voice in the affairs of the commune is that of Danton.

The predictable outcome of an increasingly excitable mood, inflamed by a committee of insurrection set up by the commune, is an attack on the residence of the royal family in the Tuileries.

The attack comes on August 10. The royal family retreat for safety to the Assembly, while the mob slaughter the king's Swiss guards (ordered by Louis XVI to hold their fire) and ransack the royal apartments.

In a room in the Assembly the king and queen await the next developments. They prove disastrous. On this same day the king's rule is 'suspended'. On the 11th it is decreed that the Assembly will be replaced by a newly elected Convention. The radical Paris commune is given the responsibility for tracking down those guilty of crimes against the state; citizens are encouraged to come forward and denounce the guilty. On the 13th the king is delivered into the hands of the commune.

The king is imprisoned in the Temple. But his fate remains undecided until the election of the new Convention, scheduled for early September. Meanwhile the approach of the election prompts the next step in Paris's relentless escalation of bloodshed.

It suits the extremist Jacobins, whose support among the public is little more than slight, to hold the elections in an atmosphere of terror calculated to deter opposition. A committee of the commune, supported by the poisonous pen of Marat ('Rise and let the blood of traitors flow, it is the only way to save the fatherland'), orchestrates the brutal events which become known as the September massacres.

Over a period of four days, from September 2, thugs enter the Paris prisons and drag the inmates out to summary execution. Most of the victims are priests and aristocrats, though many common criminals die as well. There is already a mood of public alarm, with foreign armies now on French soil, so it is easy for the commune to argue that the victims were dangerous royalist conspirators. About 1400 die in Paris. There are attempts, not very successful, to spread the massacre to provincial centres.

In the next few days electors pick their way past piles of corpses to the polling stations, where the Jacobins insist on a public ballot. The left wing is better represented in the resulting Convention than might otherwise have been expected.

National Convention: AD 1792-1793

The Parisian deputies in the new Convention are mainly Jacobins (Robespierre and Danton are elected as the first two deputies for the city), but the largest party is still the Girondins. They sit on one side of the assembly; opposite them are the Jacobins, sitting on a raised platform which becomes known as the Mountain (giving them the name Montagnards, or mountaineers).

By analogy the centre of the hall becomes known as the Plain. Here sit the large majority of deputies, unaffiliated but highly susceptible to the terrorist tactics of the Mountain.

On the most urgent business before the assembly - the defence and the future government of the nation - everyone is agreed. Welcome news on the first count gets the Convention off to a confident start. The deputies gather on September 21. On the previous day the French revolutionary army has won its its first decisive victory, halting the combined forces of Austria and Prussia at Valmy and thus removing the immediate danger to Paris.

On the other issue the deputies feel equally sure of themselves. On their first day of deliberation they 'decree unanimously that royalty is abolished in France'.

By this decree the French republic is established. In the new republican calendar (devised over the next few months), the very next day, September 22, becomes the first day of Vendémiaire (the 'grape harvest' month) of Year 1 of the new era. The future looks bright.

The next issue confronting the Convention will not be so easily solved - what to do with the king, now referred to in the new republic as plain Louis Capet or Citizen Capet. There is much debate as to the legal grounds on which he might be tried. His case is weakened by the discovery on November 20, in an iron chest in the Tuileries, of documents apparently implicating him in treasonable correspondence with royalist enemies of France.

On December 11 Louis is charged with crimes which include complicity in 'plots against the nation'. He denies all the charges but is given little chance to defend himself. In his absence the deputies debate for days not about his guilt (which hardly anyone dares to dispute) but about the appropriate punishment. Eventually, out of 721 deputies, 361 vote for death without delay or referendum - a majority of just one. In view of the closeness of this result, a further vote is taken on the question of delay. There is again a majority for immediate action.

On 21 January 1793 Louis XVI is guillotined - a successor to Charles i in Europe's long constitutional debate.

Murderous factions: AD 1793-1794

With the stage cleared by the death of the king, France lapses into a vivid and extreme example of political in-fighting - a process often described as lethal and in this case literally so.

With the guillotine waiting in the Place de la Révolution (the present-day Place de la Concorde), and with the concept of Terror already introduced in the September massacres of 1792, political failure in revolutionary Paris no longer entails the loss just of seat or salary. It means a tumbril dragged through the streets and a very public end. The stakes are high.

The first contest is between the only two clear-cut parties in the Convention, the Girondins and the Jacobins. They draw their support respectively from the country and from Paris, which gives the Jacobins a local advantage. It is used to ruthless effect when the Jacobins and the Paris commune persuade national guardsmen and large numbers of armed citizens to surround the Convention on 2 June 1793. The deputies are prevented from leaving until they pass a resolution for the arrest of twenty-nine leading Girondins.

In the event the Girondins are allowed their freedom for some months, while a debate is carried out as to how to deal with them. This debate exposes the next fatal rift among the leading deputies.

Danton, who exercises considerable power through his dominance of the Convention's committee of public safety, is interested only in achieving a stronger government than the Girondins were capable of providing. He sees the revolution as now secure, with no need for further victimisation. He and his allies, operating as a group distinct from the Jacobins, become known as the Indulgents.

By contrast the Jacobins, led by Robespierre, are determined to secure their own radical version of the revolution by eliminating all opposition. They have the Girondins in their sights. Their case is strengthened when Charlotte Corday, avenging the Girondins, assassinates Marat, the most poisonous voice of the radical left.

Marat, an impossible colleague, becomes a useful martyr. His death, on 13 July 1793, makes it easy to justify harsh measures against the leading Girondins. More than thirty of them are guillotined in October 1793.

By this time Robespierre is firmly in control of the committee of public safety, which has become the ruthlessly efficient executive wing of the Convention. The committee gradually acquires all the centralized and unaccountable powers of a police state, and uses them with the arbitrary cruelty which has become known as the Terror.

The Terror and Thermidor: AD 1793-1794

During the winter of 1793 the number of victims of the guillotine in France's cities rises dramatically. The October total (including the Girondin leaders) is 180, followed by 500 in November, 3380 in December and 3500 in January. These are the national figures, of which those for Paris form a surprisingly low proportion - 59, 61, 66 and 61 for the given months.

During the peak of the Terror, Danton continues to argue against this severity. His argument is inevitably a criticism of Robespierre and his closest ally, Saint-Just. At the end of March the committee takes the risk of ordering the arrest of Danton and his faction.

It is a dangerous move because Danton is one of the revolution's most powerful orators and he nearly sways the Convention. But Robespierre and Saint-Just carry the day with some fabricated evidence. In April the Dantonistes go to the guillotine.

Robespierre's power is now absolute, or seems so, but within two months that very perception proves his undoing. He seems remote; he rarely attends the Convention; there are mutterings about dictatorship. In July (or Thermidor as it now is known) a majority in the Convention suddenly turn against him and order his arrest, together with Saint-Just and other close allies.

In late July 1794 the tumbrils carry the Robespierre faction to the guillotine, as many as 105 of them over three days. With their departure the judicial blood lust of the Terror at last dies down, though in the coming months Jacobins are massacred in many parts of the country in revenge for the events of 1792-4.

Politically the events of Thermidor result in power returning from the committee of public safety to the full Convention. The moderates (or Thermidorians, as they become known from their victory in this month's confrontation) now have the practical everyday problems of economics and war to contend with.

Bread and civil war: to AD 1794

When Robespierre is carried through the streets on the way to his death, he is jeered by the crowd with cries of À bas le maximum! (down with the maximum). This reaction reveals that for all the infighting of recent months, the everyday realities of life remain the most important factor in politics.

The maximum is a fixed price which the Jacobins have put on bread and certain other basic commodities in an attempt to solve extreme shortages in the cities. Like many such centralized measures, it fails to solve the problem and only shifts more squarely onto government shoulders the blame for the underlying shortage.

The national economy also lurches ever deeper into crisis. Since 1789 the Assembly has issued paper currency (assignats) to boost the economy and to enable citizens to buy the property of the church, appropriated in that year by the state. To cope with escalating expenses and, from 1792, the cost of war, the government prints more and more assignats. The inevitable result is rapid inflation. In January 1793 the assignat is worth 60% of its face value. By July it has halved again.

Meanwhile the seizure of Church property has itself brought immense problems in its wake.

The Civil Constitution of the Clergy, passed by the Assembly in July 1790, turns the French church into a department of the French government and requires priests to take an appropriate oath. This profoundly offends many, particularly after pope Pius VI condemns the arrangement in March 1791. Priests who refuse to swear the oath find themselves without a salary. But often, in country districts, they have the support of passionately loyal parishioners bewildered and resentful on their behalf.

Similarly the massive programme of Conscription, made necessary by the foreign wars, causes much resentment in many areas - as does the centralized tyranny of Jacobin rule.

The result of these various discontents is pockets of armed insurrection during 1793, with royalist interests eager to foment unrest wherever it occurs. The important cities of Lyons and Marseilles are in rebel hands during the summer and early autumn of that year, requiring sieges to bring them back under control.

Even more serious is a large-scale civil war which breaks out in the Vendée (the Atlantic region between the Loire and the Gironde). In this poor rural area there is much peasant support for non-juring priests and great resentment at the extensive Conscription imposed in 1793. Moreover the Atlantic coast exposes the region to émigré influence from England.

In March 1793 unrest in the Vendée explodes into full-scale insurrection. A peasant army, some 30,000 strong and enjoying the support of the local aristocracy, captures several towns before crossing the Loire with the intention of marching on Paris. Government forces eventually defeat and dispel the rebels in a series of bloody encounters towards the end of the year.

Further unrest in the region erupts in July 1795 when a French émigré army lands from British ships in Quiberon Bay. On this occasion, a year after the fall of Robespierre and his faction, the insurgents are rapidly defeated by a government army - a rare success for the Convention in Paris as it struggles to maintain order.

The Convention after Robespierre: AD 1794-1795

An initial sense of euphoria at the ending of the Terror, in July 1794, is rapidly followed by the continuation of the revolution's underlying problems. The maximum is abolished in December 1794, leading to an even more severe shortage of food. Inflation continues to accelerate; by July 1795 the assignat is worth less than 5% of its face value.

On the political front, violent recriminations throughout the country against the extremist Jacobins give encouragement to the royalists and increase the dangers of a coup. The main concern of the moderates or Thermidorians, now in control of the Convention, is to balance the factions and avoid a lurch to either extreme.

The central thrust of their policy is to devise a new constitution which safeguards the perceived benefits of the revolution (guaranteeing certain individual liberties, for example, and assuring the new owners of church and émigré lands that their tenure is secure) and at the same time protects society against the unsettling populist pressures of the past two years (Political clubs, for example, are banned).

The resulting Constitution of the Year iii (i.e. 1794-5) proposes an executive of Five directors - not directly elected, but chosen by the members of two elected legislative chambers.

The new constitution is a clear step back from the brink of full democracy. It replaces universal male suffrage with a tax-paying qualification for electors and a property-owning threshold for candidates. This, together with the announcement that two thirds of the seats in the new assembly are to be reserved for members of the existing Convention, causes much agitation in political circles in the districts of Paris. The mood of unrest is used by royalist agents to foment an armed insurrection against the Convention.

The result, in Vendémiaire of year IV (October 1795), is the last popular uprising of the revolution. It brings to the fore a young artillery officer - Napoleon.


The guns of Vendémiare: 5 October 1795

Napoleon's part in the saving of the Convention, and of its plans for the new regime of five directors, is a simple one. On being appointed one of the commanders to defend the seat of government in the Tuileries (with a force which looks like being outnumbered six to one by the rebels), he asks one simple question: 'Where is the artillery?' He has appreciated that in the straight streets around the Tuileries the issue may be decided by a few cannon rather than thousands of muskets.

Forty guns are known to be in a camp six miles away. Joachim Murat (a brilliant cavalry officer, and later Napoleon's brother-in-law) is despatched to fetch them.

A rebel force is already on its way to seize these valuable weapons but Murat, galloping at the head of a squadron of 200 troopers, reaches the camp first. His men drag the cannon to Paris.

Fortunately for the members of the Convention, waiting nervously in the Tuileries, the rebels decide on a direct frontal attack rather than anything more subtle. During the afternoon of 13 Vendémiaire (October 5) columns of armed men, marching to drums, arrive in the Rue St Honoré and turn into the streets leading to the Tuileries. They are exchanging musket fire with the Convention's troops when the first volleys of grapeshot from Napoleon's cannon tear into their ranks.

The encounter is repeated two or three times during the afternoon, but eventually the rebels scatter. The day belongs unequivocally to the Convention, enabling plans for the new Directory to continue on schedule.

Much credit, very possibly exaggerated, is given to the 26-year-old Napoleon for this narrow escape from disaster. In the early months of the Directory he is rapidly promoted until, in March 1796, he becomes commander-in-chief of the French army in Italy. His success in this role brings him such a reputation in France that by 1799 he is himself in a position to replace the Directory.

The Directory: AD 1795-1799

The four years of the Directory, with occasional changes of personnel among the five Directors, see the moderates or Thermidorians (in effect the bourgeoisie) trying to hold the ring between the real opposing forces of the revolutionary conflict - the royalists, agitating for a constitutional monarchy, and the Jacobins, aiming for a radical democracy.

Continuing food shortages and inflation lend support at first to the Jacobin cause, until the radical journalist Babeuf alarms the middle classes with his calls for the overthrow of the Directory, a return to revolutionary principles and the sharing of all property.

Babeuf is arrested in May 1796 and is guillotined a year later, but public alarm at the reappearance of radicalism causes the pendulum to swing the other way. In the elections of 1797 the royalists do surprisingly well, even securing a place among the five Directors for one of their number. Non-juring priests and aristocratic émigrés begin returning from abroad.

In response three of the Directors call in the army to stage a coup d'état on 18 Fructidor of year V (4 September 1797). Napoleon obligingly sends one of his roughest generals from Italy to mastermind the operation, which removes two Directors (the new royalist member and one other considered unreliable).

With two new members, this second Directory lasts two more years. It conducts its affairs in an increasingly dictatorial manner, with violent persecution of its royalist opponents.

At the same time the Jacobin wing of the political spectrum begins to regain power. Radical clubs reappear. The mood of journalism becomes once again inflammatory. The ideals of Robespierre and Babeuf recover an element of glamour. It seems as if the swing of the pendulum, from extreme to extreme, must be an unending process - unless it can be stopped by another and more drastic coup d'état.

18 Brumaire year VIII: 9 November 1799

One of the great survivors of the years of revolutionary turmoil, Emmanuel Joseph Sieyès (author of the pamphlet about the Third estate in 1789), is appointed a Director in May 1799. He has already concluded that France's political chaos requires military intervention. He has been discreetly sounding out individual generals who might assist him in yet another coup d'état.

One obvious general for the purpose is Napoleon. But he is a more forceful character than Sieyès has in mind as an ally, and anyway he is unavailable. As far as anyone in Paris knows, he is weeks of travel away in distant Egypt. Then, on October 16, the man himself arrives in the city.

Napoleon at first conceals his hand, pretending merely to enjoy the social delights of Paris. But within a couple of weeks he is actively engaged in planning a coup.

A false rumour about an imminent Jacobin plot against the Directory is the first step. This is used, on 18 Brumaire, to persuade the senior of the nation's two councils (the Ancients) to appoint Napoleon commander of all the troops in Paris. The Ancients are also induced to vote that they and the junior chamber (the Council of the Five Hundred) shall move for safety to Saint-Cloud, where they will convene on the following day.

The conspirators meanwhile place under house arrest those Directors who are not in the plot, falsely announcing that they have resigned.

On the next day the Ancients and the Five Hundred, assembling at Saint-Cloud, find themselves surrounded by 6000 troops. Tense debate continues in both assemblies until Napoleon impatiently bursts in upon them. His illegal intrusion causes uproar, from which he emerges visibly shaken. Further deception is needed. The troops are told that there are assassins among the deputies who have attempted to murder Napoleon. They empty the two halls by force. The deputies flee for their lives.

Later that night a quorum from both the Ancients and the Five Hundred is rounded up. The terrified and exhausted deputies are persuaded - at about 2 a.m. - to pass a motion formally ending the Directory and swearing an oath of loyalty to a new provisional consulate of three men.

This provisional trio of consuls consists of two of the previous five directors, Sieyès and Roger Ducos (both of them party to the plot), and one newcomer - Napoleon Bonaparte. Over the next month an appointed committee wrangles ceaselessly about the terms of a new constitution for the proposed consulate. Sieyès and Ducos, browbeaten by Napoleon, drop out of the running.

On December 12 a constitutional document drafted by Napoleon is finally accepted. It provides for an executive first consul who will be supported by advisory second and third consuls and 'checked' by no less than four assemblies with differing functions.

It is a calculated recipe for inertia and muddle at all levels but the very highest, where the first consul will - in effect though not in theory - have virtually unlimited power. It is no surprise that the first consul is to be Napoleon, with a Jacobin and a royalist selected as second and third consuls to appease both factions by a continuation of this well established balancing act.

The proposed package is put to the nation in a referendum (in February 1800) asking for a simple Yes or No. With a franchise limited by property qualifications, and without a secret ballot, the result nationally is 3,011,007 voting Yes (meaning for Napoleon) and only 1562 registering No.

After ten years of upheaval and terror the French are ready to accept dictatorial rule by a man who is decisive and undoctrinaire, professionally equipped to direct France's wars against her many enemies, sympathetic to the principles of the revolution (as his early career has proved) and yet inclined to safeguard people's resulting windfalls. Napoleon and the times are well suited to each other.

First Consul: AD 1800-1804

The plebiscite of 1800 gives Napoleon the mandate to play a role for which he is well suited both in character and in terms of his 18th-century education - that of the Enlightened despot.

He now has the power, like a monarch, to select the members of the council of state over which he presides. As in a king's Privy council, these councillors specialize in different departments of state. They give their advice. But on any important issue it is the first consul who makes the executive decision.

With these powers, Napoleon sets about a thorough reform of France's administrative systems. Despotism and enlightenment are carefully balanced. Censorship of the press is introduced, but so are measures to improve secondary and university education. Police powers are strengthened and judges are now appointed (previously they were elected), yet the judges are given an important new independence in the form of security of tenure.

Similarly the pragmatic first consul, himself indifferent to religion, is well aware that much of rural France deeply resents the French republic's attack on Catholicism. Napoleon sets about mending this fence.

The estrangement from Rome has recently been absolute. Pope Pius vi, humiliated by the French, is a prisoner in France when he dies in August 1799. Napoleon now makes overtures to his successor, Pius VII.

In a Concordat agreed in July 1801, the pope accepts that Napoleon will appoint French bishops (an argument between church and state which goes all the way back to the Investiture controversy in the Middle Ages) and that church lands seized during the revolution will not be restored. In return Napoleon agrees to pay the salaries of the clergy and to recognize Catholicism as the religion of the majority of the French people.

Napoleon has a trick up his sleeve to make the Concordat acceptable to French republicans. He unilaterally adds the so-called 'organic articles', requiring government permission for any papal action or pronouncement on French soil. The pope is outraged by this deception. But the Concordat serves its purpose in appeasing religious sensibilities within France.

The most famous and lasting of Napoleon's reforms during the consulate is his code of civil law. Since 1790 there have been several attempts to codify French law - chaotic in its ancien régime form and made more so by a flood of revolutionary legislation.

In 1800 Napoleon appoints a committee of lawyers to work on the preparation of a code. He himself takes a keen interest, attending more than half the meetings in which their proposals are discussed. Statutes are enacted piecemeal from as early as 1801. By 1804 they are ready to be embodied in a single Code Civil, which in 1807 is renamed the Code Napoléon.

The change of name reflects Napoleon's ever-growing stature in France. In 1802 the people are asked 'Shall Napoleon Bonaparte be consul for life?' As in 1800, the vast majority say Yes. For good measure it is agreed that he can designate his successor. This vote of confidence follows his achievement of peace with France's two main enemies, first Austria and then Britain.

The peace of Amiens: AD 1802-1803

Peace is eagerly greeted by Europeans starved of the pleasures of travel - particularly the British, cooped up in their island for years, who now flock across the Channel to enjoy once again the pleasures of Paris. But this is to prove only a breathing space. Nothing has been resolved in the long rivalry between Britain and France, and each government soon finds much to complain about in the behaviour of the other during the interlude of peace.

Napoleon annoys the British by failing to allow the spirit of harmony into the market place. His refusal to agree a commercial treaty means that British merchants are penalized by high tariffs in French and allied ports. They conclude that peace seems no more profitable than war.

Meanwhile Napoleon alarms the British government by his expansionist behaviour in regions not covered by the treaty - for example in his annexation of Piedmont in 1802, to bridge the gap between France and the Cisalpine republic.

Britain gives France more specific cause for complaint by not fulfilling the terms of the treaty of Amiens. It has been agreed that she will withdraw from Malta. Her failure to do so would be justified in modern eyes by the expressed views of the Maltese. Horrified at the prospect of the return of the Knights of St John, the local assembly passes a resolution inviting George III to become their sovereign on condition that he maintains the Roman Catholic faith in the island.

However, the wishes of local inhabitants carry little weight in diplomatic negotiations in the early 19th century. And Britain, remaining in possession of the island, is undoubtedly in violation of the treaty.

Napoleon complains but avoids pressing the issue to the brink of hostilities. It is likely that his long-term intentions towards Britain are not peaceful, but he is not yet ready for a renewal of war. He needs time, in particular, to build up his fleet. The same logic makes Britain prefer an early renewal of the conflict. For no very good reason, other than long-term self-interest, the British government declares war on France in May 1803.

Emperor: AD 1804

The return of war is followed by renewed royalist plots, openly encouraged by Britain. One such plot leads to an incident which does considerable damage to Napoleon's international reputation - but also prompts him to take the next step up his personal career ladder.

The French police acquire information (incorrect as it turns out) that one of the leading conspirators in the plot is the young duke of Enghien, a member of the junior branch of the French royal family. He has fought in recent years with émigrés armies and is now living a few miles beyond the French border, across the Rhine at Ettenheim.

Napoleon gives orders for him to be seized. In March 1804 French mounted police make a night raid from Strasbourg to kidnap the duke. He is brought to the castle of Vincennes near Paris, where he is tried by a hastily convened court martial and is shot.

In the aftermath of this event there is the near certainty of further royalist conspiracies. One way to draw their sting may be for France to have once again its own crowned head. Thus there emerges the suggestion that Napoleon should trump the opposition by becoming not king of France but emperor, founding a hereditary Napoleonic dynasty. In May 1804 the senate is persuaded to pass a resolution proposing this major amendment to the constitution.

For a third time a plebiscite is held to confirm another of Napoleon's changing roles at the head of state. Again the result, announced on 6 November 1804, is overwhelming (3,572,329 saying Yes and only 2569 registering No). It is fortunate, though predictable, that the result is so clear - because preparations are already almost complete for the great event of the coronation in Notre Dame.

It takes place on December 2. The pope, Pius VII, has been persuaded to come from Rome to conduct the ceremony - evoking deliberate memories of Charlemagne, the last great emperor to rule France (though if Napoleon sees himself as also becoming Holy Roman emperor, that ambition is scotched by Francis ii's abolition of the ancient but defunct empire).

The pope is allowed to anoint Napoleon, in the sacred and mysterious ceremony with roots in French history as far back as Clovis. But when it comes to the more worldly symbol of the crown, Napoleon prefers to take it from the altar himself and place it on his own head. He then places another crown on the head of the empress, his wife Josephine, who understandably - in these most unusual circumstances - bursts into tears.

This highly theatrical event is accompanied by the equally flamboyant creation of a new aristocracy. Princely titles are invented for Napoleon's close relations. By 1808 there is even a new imperial nobility.

These events shock French republicans and many elsewhere who have until now been inspired by Napoleon's achievements. The most famous response is that of Beethoven, working at this time on his third symphony (now known as the Eroica). He has originally given it the name Bonaparte, but he erases the title on hearing that his hero is now calling himself emperor.

Seen from a distance these Napoleonic antics are intrinsically comic (and they provide rich opportunities for Britain's scurrilous cartoonists). But they are made deadly serious by the military genius of the central character. Within four years of his coronation Napoleon is ruler of almost the whole of western Europe.

Husband and father: AD 1810-1811

As the first emperor in a hereditary dynasty, it is profoundly irksome to Napoleon that he and Josephine have no child - leaving him only with the choice of a brother as his heir. There are now three emperors in Europe. If Napoleon is to divorce Josephine, it seems to him appropriate that his new bride should come from the narrow class to which he has successfully aspired. He has his eye on Anna, the 15-year-old sister of tsar Alexander I.

The matter is given a new urgency in September 1809, when Napoleon is living in the palace of Schönbrunn after his defeat of Austria. His Polish mistress Marie Walewska tells him she is pregnant.

With proof now that the lack of a child is not his fault, Napoleon moves fast. In November, back in Paris, he tells Josephine that he is going to have their marriage annulled. He has already sent an ambassador to ask the Russian emperor for his sister's hand. When a diplomatic refusal is returned (the family consider her too young for marriage), Napoleon immediately delivers a virtual ultimatum to the Austrian embassy in Paris, demanding the hand of the emperor's 19-year-old daughter Marie Louise.

The Austrian emperor, Francis I, considers this to be a prudent step. In the circumstances so does Metternich, his newly appointed minister for foreign affairs. Marie Louise is persuaded to do her duty.

Within a minimum space of time she has done so doubly. The marriage takes place in Paris in April 1810; in March 1811 Marie Louise gives birth to a son. As if to create a link with the recently extinct Holy roman empire, Napoleon gives the child a resounding title - the king of Rome. By a fortunate coincidence the ancient city itself has recently become available.

Pius VII, the pope who agreed the Concordat with Napoleon in 1801 and conducted his Coronation service in 1804, has recently offended the conqueror by refusing to apply the Continental system in what remains of the papal states. Napoleon's troops enter Rome in 1808. In 1809 he declares that the city and all its territories are annexed to France.

Within a minimum space of time she has done so doubly. The marriage takes place in Paris in April 1810; in March 1811 Marie Louise gives birth to a son. As if to create a link with the recently extinct Holy roman empire, Napoleon gives the child a resounding title - the king of Rome.

Austria, defeated in battle and allied to France by an imperial marriage, is ill-placed now to play any major role in Europe's opposition to the conqueror. But a more diplomatic approach to the affairs of the continent happens also to be the natural style of Metternich.

The pope responds by excommunicating the invading forces together with the emperor himself. Napoleon in turn arrests the pontiff, who remains under guard in France until 1814 (the second pope in succession to be a Holy roman empire).

It seems that Europe now belongs to Napoleon and he can do with it as he pleases. But over-confidence tempts him into the most disastrous undertaking of his brilliant career.

The Russian campaign: AD 1812

With Austria an ally by conquest and marriage, Prussia crushed into submission, and nearly the whole of western Europe as his empire, Napoleon perhaps understandably feels justified in taking a strong line with Russia.

In spite of the congenial mood of Tilsit in 1807, and an attempt by Napoleon to revive it in another grand meeting at Erfurt in 1808, Alexander I fails to give any practical support to his ally in the 1809 campaign against Austria. There are various reasons. The Continental System is doing harm to Russia's Baltic trade. The introduction of French republican principles in the grand duchy of Warsaw alarms St Petersburg. And the terms agreed by the tsar at Tilsit have been unpopular in Russia from the start.

With war between the two empires increasingly probable, Napoleon moves first in what he intends to be a massive and rapid strike. From February 1812 armies begin to march from many different regions to converge on the river Neman (the border famous already for the raft at Tilsit).

The assembled force is vastly impressive, with 500,000 infantry, 100,000 cavalry and 80,000 in the baggage trains. About 200,000 of these troops are the French Grand Army. There are other contingents from all over Napoleon's world, including even some rather half-hearted regiments from Prussia and Austria. The crossing of the Neman into Russia begins on June 24.

The confronting Russian armies are heavily outnumbered, so they withdraw - dragging the French ever deeper into an environment where it is hard to find food for such large numbers of men and horses. There are occasional engagements, but the first major battle takes place on September 7 at Borodino - at a distance, by then, of only seventy miles from Moscow.

The result is a narrow victory for Napoleon over a Russian army commanded by the veteran Kutuzov. The Russians withdraw once again, leaving Moscow open to Napoleon. A week later he enters the city, only to find much of it burning - set on fire by the Russians.

Napoleon waits in Moscow for a month, vainly hoping that envoys will arrive to make terms. Nobody comes. He sends ambassadors to the Russian camp to suggest negotation. A sign of weakness. Winter is approaching. On October 18 Napoleon gives the order to withdraw.

The retreat of the Grand Army from Moscow in 1812 has become one of the classic images of an invading force suffering disaster and devastation. Harried by regular Russian troops, by guerrillas and by hostile villagers, amid falling snow and plunging temperatures, often finding the bridges ahead of them destroyed, the columns and squadrons of Napoleon's greatest army seem to face an impossible task in getting home. Most fail to do so.

It is calculated that of more than 600,000 who entered Russia that summer, only about 112,000 come out again. The effect on Napoleon's ability to raise another army of this calibre is devastating, but not as great as the damage to his reputation. All over Europe that winter, as the news spreads, people chafing under French domination begin to imagine a different future.

Napoleon, desperate to arrive in Paris before the bad news, hands the command over to Murat and hurries on ahead. He reaches the city on December 18 and sets about recovering the situation. The astonishing fact, typical of the man and his energy, is the extent to which he is able to do so - at any rate for another eighteen months.

But he now has an implacable enemy in his erstwhile friend from Tilsit. Russian armies are the constant element in the mounting assault upon France in 1813-14. They are reinforced by the return to the cause of first Paris.

When the allies enter Tilsit with pomp and ceremony on 31 March 1814, tsar Alexander I rides in the cavalcade with the king of Prussia, Frederick William III. In the Champs Elysées they dismount to take the salute. Both men, together with Francis I of Austria, are now well placed to supervise the return of Europe to a reactionary and pre-revolutionary status quo. They do so through their leading roles in the congress of Vienna and in the Holy Alliance.

Shifting alliances: AD 1813

The three years from the disaster in Russia in 1812 to Waterloo in 1815 demonstrate vividly Napoleon's resilience in fighting back from an apparently hopeless position. During the winter of 1812 he imposes on a weary France a new level of conscription, bringing in a broader range of older men and reducing the age limit for the youngest recruits. At the same time strenuous efforts are made to rebuild the French arsenal.

When Napoleon moves east across the Rhine in April 1813 for a new season of campaigning, just four months after his return to Paris, he is once again in command of an army of more than 250,000 men, dragging with it nearly 500 cannon.

Meanwhile his alliance of the previous year against Russia is breaking up. Public demonstrations in Germany against the French persuade the king of Prussia, Frederick William, to change sides. He declares war on Napoleon in March 1813.

Austria is more cautious. Marie louise, the Austrian emperor's daughter, is now empress of France. And Austria instinctively distrusts any course of action which may restore the well-being of Prussia. Nevertheless in the coming showdown it seems unwise to face likely defeat as an ally of Napoleon. After signing a treaty with Russia and Prussia, Austria declares war on France in August. Bavaria, the mainstay of the Confederation of the Rhine, follows suit in October.

During the early part of the 1813 campaign Napoleon achieves several partial successes in battles in Saxony, on Prussia's southern borders. But by the autumn, with the ranks of the allies steadily increasing, he finds himself dangerously outnumbered. In eastern Saxony, in October, his army of 185,000 is confronted by about 320,000 troops put in the field by Russia, Prussia, Austria and Sweden. In one of the stranger twists of this complex period, the Swedish army is commanded by Bernadotte, one of Napoleon's own marshals and linked with the Bonaparte family by marriage.

The crucial encounter between France and the allies begins near Leipzig on October 16 and lasts for three days.

The Battle of Leipzig, involving all the major powers of continental Europe and seen, in retrospect, as a turning point in the downfall of Napoleon, acquires later another resounding name - the Battle of the Nations. It ends in disaster for the French. Only about 70,000 men arrive home, crossing the Rhine in early November. For the second year running the French emperor has thrown away an army in his eastern adventures.

He has also let slip the chance of a peace which would perhaps leave France with some gain from two decades of war.

At times during 1813 it seems that the allies might accept a settlement which allows France her 'natural frontier' of the Rhine. It may be that this was never a serious offer on the allied side (Britain in particular is profoundly opposed to Belgium being in French hands), but in any case Napoleon cannot accept the loss of all his hard-won Gains in germany and Italy.

It is a deeply ingrained part of his character to fight on regardless of the circumstances. But as he does so, during the winter of 1813-4, the allied position hardens. France must shrink back to the borders of 1792. Meanwhile enemy forces, for the first time since 1792, are poised to enter French territory. The wheel has come full circle.

The noose tightens: AD 1813-1814

Wellington's army is the first to cross the border into France. Pushing north in the final campaign of the Peninsular war, he is on French territory in October 1813.

In January 1814 allied armies, under the command of the Prussian and Austrian field marshals Blücher and Schwarzenberg, cross the Rhine. For two months Napoleon somehow finds the energy to wage a vigorous and complex campaign against their advancing forces, but he is unable to prevent them reaching and entering Paris on March 31. Talleyrand, Napoleon's long-serving foreign minister and the most slippery of the many faithless characters in these turbulent times, is on hand to welcome the Russian tsar and the king of Prussia into the city.

On April 2 Talleyrand persuades the few available members of the senate to declare that Napoleon is deposed. Four days later they invite Louis XVIII to return from exile and, on condition that he accepts the terms of a constitutional monarchy, to mount the throne of his guillotined brother Louis xvi. (Louis xvii has died as a child, supposedly of scrofula, in a French revolutionary prison.)

Napoleon, meanwhile, is at Fontainebleau, where he still has 60,000 troops. Even in these circumstances, with Paris lost, his instinct is to fight on. But his marshals tell him that the army will not obey him. He has no choice but to abdicate, in the Treaty of Fontainebleau..

The allies settle their affairs with Napoleon in April in the treaty of Fontainebleau and with the new king of France, Louis XVIII, in May in the treaty of Paris. The terms in each case are surprisingly lenient, considering that the expansionist campaigns of the French republic and Napoleon have brought Europe two decades of war and hundreds of thousands of deaths.

Napoleon is given the island of Elba as his own estate, is allowed to retain the title of emperor and is given an annual pension of two million francs (to be paid by Louis XVIII). No indemnity is required from France as a nation, and she is even allowed to retain many of the works of art brought from elsewhere in Europe during the years of plunder.

France is confined to her borders of 1792, losing the territories won by the citizen armies of the republic, but even here there are exceptions (Avignon, the anachronistic outpost of the papacy, now becomes French).

On 29 April Napoleon crosses in a British warship from the south of France to Elba, where with typical resilience he is soon enjoying himself in creating a miniature state. He reforms the local agriculture, organizes artistic events and behaves like an enlightened despot in a doll's house. Meanwhile his enemies convene in the Congress of vienna, from September 1814, to tie up the loose ends of the continent which he has reshaped. But the little lord of Elba is still capable of surprising them.

The return from Elba: AD 1815

Napoleon soon becomes bored with Elba. Moreover his existence there looks like becoming impossible, since Louis XVIII shows no signs of paying the agreed annual subsidy of two million francs. The money is essential if Napoleon is to continue to pay his guards, without whom his life is certainly in danger. To make him even more restless, the reports from his secret agents suggest that the French people are far from happy with the return of the Bourbons, foisted upon them by the machinations of Talleyrand and the conquering foreign powers.

The result is an exceptionally audacious plan - and one which succeeds beyond all likelihood.

Napoleon waits until the British naval brig, stationed to watch Elba's coastal waters, is briefly called elsewhere. On 26 February 1815 he embarks his followers in a fleet of small vessels. They make the passage unobserved and on February 28 reach the coast of France. Just over 1000 men, with forty horses and two cannon, land near Antibes. Napoleon tells them that they will reach Paris before his son's birthday (March 20) without firing a shot.

A six-day march along icy mountain roads brings the little party to Grenoble. On the way they are challenged by a detachment of the French army. With extraordinary panache Napoleon walks alone towards the French muskets, identifies himself and asks the men to join him. They do so.

The same thing happens in Grenoble. The party which marches north from the city is 9000 strong and now has thirty cannon. The pattern of welcome continues, as the news of the emperor's approach runs ahead of him. As promised, he reaches Paris and an ecstatic crowd on his son's birthday, March 20. And nobody has been killed on the way.

Napoleon instals himself in the Tuileries (from which Louis XVIII has fled the previous evening) and starts to assemble a government. This is a harder task than the welcome of the populace would suggest. The middle classes are chary of any further upheaval. And retaliation is threatened swiftly from abroad, owing to the fact that Napoleon's enemies are all in one place, Vienna.

News of Napoleon's landing in France reaches Metternich in Vienna early in the morning on March 7. The allies' response to the crisis is immediately the agenda of the congress. Before noon joint action is agreed. Couriers are despatched to mobilize the armies.

By May great forces are assembling round France's borders. Blücher is at Liège with 120,000 Prussians. Wellington is at Brussels with some 95,000 British, Dutch, Belgian and German troops. 150,000 Russians and 210,000 Austrians are approaching the Rhine through Germany. Napoleon, using his favourite tactic of dividing his enemies, decides to strike northwards against Wellington and Blücher before the Russians and Austrians can join them.

Waterloo: AD 1815

With about 124,000 men Napoleon advances towards Brussels, hoping to take a position between Wellington's and Blücher's armies - with the intention of containing or driving off one of them while defeating the other. The way north is blocked by Wellington at Quatre Bras. On June 16 Napoleon leaves marshal Ney to assault this position while he tackles Blücher a few miles to the east, at Ligny. The engagement at Quatre Bras is indecisive. But Napoleon wins convincingly at Ligny, causing the Prussians to retreat in disarray.

During June 17 Wellington withdraws to a more secure position on a ridge near the village of Waterloo It is here, on the following day, that the crucial battle occurs.

When the engagement begins at Waterloo, on June 18, Wellington is in a defensive position with about 68,000 troops and 156 guns; Napoleon has 72,000 men and 246 guns. An extremely hard-fought battle looks almost certain to go Napoleon's way until the arrival in the afternoon of Blücher and the Prussians, regrouped after their flight of two days previously. They tip the balance. By the early evening the French are in full retreat, and Napoleon is on his way back to Paris.

He arrives in the city on June 21 and abdicates the next day. Louis XVIII returns to Paris on July 8 for his second restoration.

France's victorious enemies, irritated by the expensive diversion of this summer, are now in less generous mood. The treaty of Paris, signed in November 1815, is markedly less lenient than the terms offered in 1814 on the First bourbon restoration. It removes some territory on France's eastern frontier, subjects the controversial eastern provinces to a period of occupation by allied troops and imposes an indemnity of 700 million francs.

Meanwhile the abdicating emperor, declared an outlaw by the congress in Vienna in March and so technically liable to execution if captured, is in La Rochelle negotiating his future.

Political turmoil

The Restoration: AD 1815-1830

With Napoleon safely removed from the scene, in distant St Helena, the Bourbon king Louis XVIII - Restored to the throne now for the second time - attempts to establish the constitutional monarchy which has been the condition of his dynasty's return.

The pattern is intended to echo the parliamentary system established in Britain, with one chamber made up of peers and another of elected deputies. As with the Cavalier parliament after the English restoration in 1660, the first elections result in an ultra-royalist majority. Vengeance for the recent sufferings of the landed classes is high on the agenda.

The king, personally inclined to moderation, contrives to steer a middle course for a few years after 1816, when new elections return a more centrist parliament. But his task is made more difficult after the assassination, in 1820, of his nephew the duc de Berry.

The event prompts an immediate swing to the right, accentuated because the young man's father - the future Charles X - is already the leader of the ultra-royalist faction in the country. The 1820s see a continuous drift towards reactionary policies, including the unscrupulous revision of the franchise to favour the rich. The process accelerates after Charles X succeeds his brother in 1824.

At the very start of his reign Charles X makes a dramatic statement of his intended policy. He has himself crowned in the cathedral at Reims. The Holy ampulla, believed to have been brought from heaven by the Holy Ghost, has been smashed by a republican in 1793. But Charles is relieved to discover that faithful royalists have rescued the few drops of the sacred liquid needed for his anointment. The ceremony can be carried out with full medieval pomp.

Appropriate political measures follow. Power is returned to the clergy. The Jesuits reappear. Large sums of money are allotted to recompense the aristocracy for lost lands.

Hostility mounts and is even expressed in parliament. Charles responds by selecting increasingly right-wing ministers. Eventually in desperation, on 26 July 1830, he dissolves the elected chamber, severely restricts the freedom of the press, and announces a new electorate limited to 25,000 grandees.

This is too much for the Parisians, always conscious of their revolutionary traditions. Barricades appear once again in the streets. Angry crowds brandish the Tricolour, symbol of the revolution but replaced since 1815 by the Bourbon flag. The mood is captured in romantic form in Delacroix's inspirational painting of this same year, Liberty Guiding the People.

After three days of street-fighting (July 27-29), the people win. Charles X, king of pomp and ceremony, flees from the city. In his place there arrives a distant Bourbon cousin, Louis Philippe, the duc d'Orléans. He cuts a very different figure.

When he presents himself on July 31 at the Hôtel de Ville, Louis Philippe is wrapped in a Tricolour. In an extraordinary echo of distant events, he is greeted on the steps by Lafayette - a leading player in a similarly dramatic scene in Paris forty-one years earlier, in 1789. On 9 August 1830 Louis Philippe is formally proclaimed 'king of the French ... by the will of the people'. He becomes known, with good reason, as the Citizen King.

The July Monarchy: AD 1830-1848

The Citizen King finds it hard to govern a nation in which the number of disaffected factions has increased with each change of regime. The extreme left wing, deriving from the Jacobins, has recently found new support in the increasingly industrialized cities. Meanwhile more moderate republicans, also with their roots in the revolution of 1789, hope for a system akin to that of the Directory.

The imperial years have also left a Bonapartist faction, dreaming of a new empire linked with Napoleon's family. Even the royalists, having achieved their main purpose with the Bourbon restoration, are now split into two incompatible groups.

The royalists faithful to the main Bourbon dynasty, describing themselves as the Legitimists, believe that Charles X's grandson (son of the assassinated Duc de berry) should be king as Henry V, with Louis Philippe merely regent. The other royalist faction, backing Louis Philippe, are known as the Orleanists.

Louis Philippe lacks a clear democratic mandate (the franchise in his reign extends only to some 200,000 wealthy citizens), yet he has little of his own to offer - except the first glimpse of a trend which becomes familiar only in the late 20th century. As the bourgeois monarch, he can be seen walking in the streets carrying his own umbrella. Fascinated at first, Parisians soon find this uninspiring.

The result is a reign both unsettled and violent. There are several attempts on Louis Philippe's life (eighteen people are killed and many wounded in 1836, when assassins contrive an 'infernal machine' which can fire twenty-five guns simultaneously at a royal procession). And there are frequent republican uprisings - in Lyons in 1831, in Paris in 1832, in both cities again in 1834.

The predictable response is a clampdown on political liberty. This provides some calmer years at a time of prosperity in the early 1840s. But from 1846 political dissatisfaction coincides with economic setback, with the wheat and potato crops failing in much of Europe.

In 1847 a campaign for constitutional reform is conducted in a series of high-profile banquets. Feeling threatened by this campaign, the government bans a banquet due to be held on 22 February 1848 in Paris. The result is a large demonstration and the reappearance of barricades in the streets (with a new element, the red flag of socialism, now seen in working-class districts).

The usual pattern of escalation occurs. On February 23 troops fire on the demonstrators. The following day Louis Philippe abdicates and withdraws to England. He intends his grandson to succeed him. But the Paris crowd, converging on the Hôtel de Ville, proclaims instead France's second republic.

The Second Republic: AD 1848-1852

In its first few days the provisional government of the new republic passes several radical measures. It proclaims the right of everyone to work, proposes state-run national workshops to ensure full employment, limits the length of the working week, and introduces universal male suffrage over the age of twenty-one - increasing the electorate at a stroke from 200,000 to some nine million.

Within weeks the national workshops are deemed impractical and are abandoned, being replaced with schemes such as the extension of military conscription. The result is an insurrection in the working-class districts of Paris, in June 1848. It is ruthlessly suppressed by the republican government.

In the light of these events, and of the rash of revolutions elsewhere in Europe this summer, the electorate inclines to an authoritarian figure when the moment is reached, in December 1848, for the choice of the republic's first president. The winner is Louis Napoleon, nephew of the emperor. He receives more than five million votes, nearly four times the score of his nearest rival.

This is a moment for which Louis Napoleon has been working tirelessly, often to tragi-comic effect. At dawn one day in 1836 he has presented himself in Napoleonic uniform to an artillery regiment in Strasbourg, inviting them to join him in restoring his uncle's empire. When they fail to do so, he is inevitably arrested.

On that first occasion the French king, Louis Philippe, thinks it wise to underplay this feeble act of insurrection. Louis Napoleon is quietly deported to the United States. But the would-be emperor is not so easily discouraged. In 1840 he lands near Boulogne with fifty followers and invites the garrison to help him recover his rightful empire. Again he is arrested, but this time he is tried and imprisoned for life. In 1846 he escapes, disguised as a labourer, and makes his way to London.

The election of a president in 1848 at last offers him a legitimate route to power. Even with his somewhat preposterous track record, Louis Napoleon sweeps to victory on the popular vote. Such is the magic of the family name.

The presidency is for a fixed term of four years. Louis Napoleon skilfully builds up support around the country, but he fails to persuade the national assembly to vote a change of law enabling him to continue in office after 1852.

He resolves this dilemma with a brilliantly organized coup d'état. During the night of 1 December 1851 troops enter the assembly in Paris while large numbers of Louis Napoleon's political enemies around the country are arrested. He then uses the Napoleonic device of a Plebiscite to seek the nation's approval for a new constitution.

Louis Napoleon is helped by the fact that the assembly, inclining again to royalist sympathies, has in 1850 disenfranchised some three million of France's poorest voters. He restores universal male suffrage in time for the Plebiscite on December 20, in which he asks for dictatorial powers as president for a span of ten years. Seven and a half million voters approve of his plans, with less than a tenth of that number registering dissent.

A year later he again follows his uncle's example, enquiring whether the French people would like him to be their emperor. Once more an overwhelming majority say yes. Louis Napoleon takes the title Napoleon III, being supposedly the third ruler in his line. France's Second Empire begins.

The Second Empire at home: AD 1852-1870

The constitution established by Napoleon III, with the mandate of the plebiscites of 1851 and 1852, enables him to rule with virtually unrestricted personal authority. The members of the upper chamber are appointed. The lower house is elected for six years but sits for only three months in the year; its debates are published in censored form, and the press is under similar restrictions.

After years of weak rule and public disorder, France at first welcomes firm government. The economic cycle is on the upturn. Industrialization is proceeding apace. The network of railways is greatly extended, radiating out from Paris. Financial services are developed. Reduction of tariffs leads to a marked increase in levels of trade.

These signs of prosperity and national energy are reflected in a glittering court life very different form the drab example set by the Citizen king. In 1853 the emperor marries a beautiful Spanish countess, Eugénie de Montijo. The empress becomes the central figure in the glamorous festivities which are the public face of the Second Empire.

Nevertheless by the end of the decade there is mounting dissatisfaction at the moribund political scene masked by this glitter. Napoleon III responds to the challenge with sound political sense. Rulers have traditionally clamped down at the first sign of unrest, but he takes the opposite course. He defuses the situation by becoming more liberal.

An amnesty announced in August 1859 allows the return of many political exiles. In 1860 the elected assembly is given greater powers and the restraints on the press are somewhat eased. The new atmosphere encourages political dissent (in the election of 1863 there are two million opposition votes, and republican candidates do well in the larger cities), yet the emperor does not reverse the direction of his policy.

Further relaxations are decreed in 1867. By the 1869 election the opposition vote has increased to three million. Again the emperor is undeterred. The public's message prompts him to restore genuine parliamentary government.

The leader of the liberal group in the lower chamber, Émile Ollivier, is invited to form a ministry. He and his colleagues devise with the emperor a constitution which is put to the people in 1870 in yet another Napoleonic plebiscite. Once again it passes handsomely, with more than seven million voters expressing their approval.

An imperial dictatorship has been transformed, almost seamlessly, into a constitutional monarchy. The new arrangement is hailed as the 'liberal empire'. But it is destined to have only two months of life. Napoleon III's relative failure in foreign policy has undoubtedly made him more inclined to grant concessions at home. But a final and costly disaster, at the hands of Prussia, proves the last straw.

The Second Empire abroad: AD 1852-1870

Fascinated by every detail of his illustrious uncle's career, Napoleon III is eager to play a similarly impressive role on the international stage. His first major undertaking achieves all he might wish. By standing up to Russia in 1852 on the issue of the Holy Places in Palestine, he pleases Roman Catholic opinion in France. In the resulting Crimean war, France is on the winning side. And the holding of the peace talks in Paris in 1856 gives the new empire a visibly central role in European affairs.

But this is the last of Napoleon III's foreign policies to turn out exactly as he would wish.

In 1859 he undertakes an adventure in north Italy, the arena which saw many of Napoleon i's greatest successes. His intention is to repeat the earlier Napoleonic achievement of sweeping the Austrians from Italy. To some extent he succeeds in his aim. After a narrow victory at Magenta in June he enters Milan as a liberator (and by agreement brings Savoy and nice back within French borders). But his sudden treaty with Austria, after the horrors of Solferino, leaves almost everyone dissatisfied.

During much of the 1860s France's main foreign involvement is in Mexico, where the ill-conceived attempt to set up an empire under French patronage ends in utter disaster in 1867.

But Napoleon's downfall comes at the hands of Prussia, the nation so profoundly humiliated by his uncle In 1807.

In 1866 the emperor is wrong-footed by the rapid victory of Prussia over Austria in the Seven Weeks' War. This leaves France with an unexpectedly powerful and uncompromising neighbour on her eastern frontier. War between the two is now perhaps inevitable - though when it does occur, in 1870, the immediate cause is a succession of diplomatic bungles and deceptions.

Franco-Prussian War: AD 1870-71

Ever since Prussia's rapid success in the Seven Weeks' War of 1866, and the resulting consolidation of Prussian territory on the Rhine, there has been alarm and resentment in France at the growth of this ambitious neighbour. It is dramatically increased in 1870 when news leaks on July 3 that a prince of the Prussian Hohenzollern family has been offered, and has accepted, the vacant throne of Spain.

Having fought so often in the past against being surrounded to south and east by the Habsburg dynasty, there is public outcry in France at the prospect of the same trick now being pulled off by the Hohenzollern. In an escalating crisis, the Prussian king William I withdraws his relation's candidacy on July 12.

The matter might have rested there, but for a diplomatic blunder on the French side. The French ambassador, in an audience with William I at Ems on July 13, demands an assurance (amounting to a slur on the king's good faith) that the candidacy will never be renewed. William refuses to give this assurance. He then sends a telegram to Bismarck describing, in neutral terms, the audience and its outcome.

Bismarck, irritated at the collapse of his Spanish policy, shortens the telegram before publication in such a way as to imply that the Prussian king has treated the French ambassador with disdain. Public opinion in France, already inflamed, now explodes. The French government declares war on Prussia on July 19.

France suffers as rapidly and as conclusively at Prussia's hands as Austria did four years previously. Again the significant period of warfare lasts less than seven weeks. In early encounters near Metz the French almost hold their own against the Prussians, but by August 31 a large French army is surrounded near Sedan.

During September 1 the French cavalry, charging desperately to break out of the encirclement, suffer heavy casualties from the Prussian artillery. On the following day the French surrender. After losses in the battle of 38,000 men (killed, wounded or missing), another 83,000 now lay down their arms and become prisoners of the Germans. Among them is the French emperor himself, Napoleon III.

The events at Sedan bring to an end one empire, in France, and hasten the creation of another, in Germany. But they do not immediately end the war.

When the news of Sedan reaches Paris, a government of national defence is rapidly formed. Its first action, on September 4, is to depose Napoleon III and declare a republic. But there is nothing now to stop the German army on its march towards Paris. The siege begins on September 19. The only chance of relieving the city is to raise new armies in the provinces. And here aeronautics play their first significant role in warfare.

On October 7 a Balloon rises from Paris (historic city of the Balloon). It floats above the Germany army and lands far beyond their lines. It carries Léon Gambetta, minister of the interior in the new republican government. Two days later he reaches Tours and begins to orchestrate a campaign of guerrilla warfare which severely disrupts the smooth Prussian military operation.

But it can only delay the eventual capitulation. Early in 1871, on January 23, delegates from Paris pass through the German lines to Versailles to agree an armistice. They find the Prussians in an excited mood. Just five days previously, in Louis XIV's famous hall of mirrors in the palace of Versailles, the Prussian king has been proclaimed emperor of a united Germany.

Third Republic

The Paris Commune: AD 1871

The Paris delegates to Versailles win peace at a humiliating cost. France is to cede Alsace and much of Lorraine to Germany, to pay a massive indemnity of 5000 million francs, and to support a German army of occupation until the money is provided. Moreover Bismarck insists on immediate elections to provide a national assembly with the authority to sign a treaty.

Elections are held on February 8 and the assembly meets at Bordeaux on February 13. On March 1 the German terms are formally accepted. On that same day the Prussian army marches in a victory parade through the streets of Paris. The crowd watches in sullen silence. Trouble is in store.

There are many causes of Parisian resentment other than the parade itself. The government's capitulation has made meaningless the suffering endured in the four-month siege. Even worse, the composition of the recently elected assembly suggests that the new republic, acclaimed only six months previously, is already in danger. Republican delegates are in a minority, easily outnumbered by royalists (elected in rural areas) whose political aim is the return of the Bourbon dynasty. Ominously, the assembly decides to sit in Versailles rather than Paris.

In these circumstances Parisians rediscover the heady mood of the first French revolution. As then, radical unrest finds strength in alliance with the National guard.

On March 18 the government tries to disarm the Paris National guard. The result is an insurrection. Two generals are captured and shot by the insurgents. The government forces withdraw from the city. By March 26 municipal elections have provided a central committee which calls itself the Commune of Paris.

The committee is a radical body in the now well established revolutionary tradition (some of the delegates are also members of the International). It passes a few left-wing measures - in particular the immediate cancellation of past debts to landlords. But the circumstances leave little time for politics. Paris is again under siege, this time from French forces.

On May 21 government troops re-enter Paris through an undefended suburb. A week of bloody street fighting ensues, with the communards defending a succession of barricades, until a final battle is fought and lost in the Père Lachaise cemetery. But the deaths in this week of violence are nothing to the revenge which follows the fall of the commune. Thousands are dragged into the streets and killed by soldiers of the national army. The Figaro emphasizes the need to 'purge Paris' of an evil which stretches back through 1848 to 1793.

The third French republic has a violent birth and it proves extremely unstable, with thirty governments in the first twenty years. But it lasts.

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War in the west: AD 1914

At first the thrust of the German armies through Belgium and south into France seems to fulfil the Schlieffen plan. 'Victory by Christmas' does indeed seem possible (though the German high command is not alone in making this promise to its citizens - all the other combatants are professing equal optimism).

The Belgian army puts up a heroic resistance but is unable to prevent the Germans from taking Liège on August 16, Brusssels on the 20th and Namur on the 23rd. Meanwhile a small British Expeditionary Force, rushed across the Channel in mid-August to Boulogne, reaches Mons.

Confronted at Mons on August 23 by a much larger German army, the British Expeditionary Force fights a successful rearguard action and retreats south again to escape encirclement.

Meanwhile the initial French effort has been wasted in a drive east through Lorraine. By August 22 this is halted by the Germans, bringing France massive numbers of dead and wounded (in the region of 300,000, a foretaste of the ghastly statistics which will characterize this war). After this disaster the French redirect their efforts northwards to counter the threat from Belgium.

The German intention has been to sweep to the west of Paris and thus encircle the city. Opposition in Belgium and northern France has been sufficient to confine the German thrust to the east of the capital. Nevertheless by September 3, a month after their invasion and well within their schedule, German armies cross the river Marne. To safeguard against the likely fall of Paris, the French government moves south to Bordeaux.

The Germans are within 30 miles of the capital when a mainly French force finally halts and then rolls back their relentless advance. During four days of fighting (Sept. 5-8, the battle of the Marne) the German army is pushed north of the river.

This reversal means the collapse of the Schlieffen plan in the west, depending as it did on a rapid conquest of France. Meanwhile it has proved equally defective in the east, where the Russians make early advances.

These advances prompt the German high command, in late August, to transfer four divisions from Belgium to the eastern front. So the army which is forced back over the Marne is smaller than intended. It is also much more vulnerable than it should be. The German supply lines have not been able to keep up with the army's rapid move south.

With the tide turning, the German forces hurry back to the river Aisne to regroup. They then move west in a second attempt to outflank the Allied armies. (By this time Britain, France and Russia are known as the Allied Powers, after signing a treaty in London on September 5 in which each guarantees not to make a separate peace treaty with the Schlieffen plan.)

The Allies also move west, to frustrate the German flanking movement. Thus begins the competitive advance which becomes known as the 'race to the sea', during which the most hard-fought encounters are in October and November around Ypres. The point at which the two armies reach the sea becomes the northwest end of a 400-mile line of demarcation.

By November 1914 the line is fixed. It runs roughly along the French and Belgian border and then down the French and German border to Switzerland. The only part of this terrain which is flat and therefore hard to defend is in the northwest, among the fields of Flanders.

Here, in the winter of 1914, each side begins feverishly building Central powers. These become permanent defensive structures, more like cramped underground barracks than mere shelters from bullets and shells. They will be home to hundreds of thousands of Europe's young men for more than three years. The fanciful notion of 'victory by Christmas' is transformed into protracted and nightmarish warfare of a kind previously unknown in history.

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Expansion and appeasement: AD 1935-1939

The policy which becomes known as appeasement (the belief that compromise with Europe's fascist dictators will provide the best chance for peace) is associated particularly with the British prime minister Neville Chamberlain. But it already characterizes the foreign policy up to 1937 of his predecessor, Stanley Baldwin. And it is, to a lesser extent, the policy also of the government in France.

As the two major European powers in the League of nations, Britain and France inevitably have to play the leading role in trying to keep Hitler and Mussolini in check.

A conciliatory attitude, partly made necessary by the lack of readiness in each nation for another war, is evident as early as 1935. In this year Samuel Hoare and Pierre Laval, foreign ministers of the two countries, concoct a peace plan which would allow Italy to annexe large slices of Ethiopia (an independent state, recently invaded by Italian armies).

The plan is rejected, but its very existence encourages Mussolini to complete his conquest of Ethiopia. And this de facto state of affairs is soon accepted by an increasingly enfeebled League of nations.

Earlier in the same year there has been another affront to the League's authority. In March 1935 Hitler informs Britain and France that he is creating an air force, is launching a major programme of military and naval rearmament, and is introducing conscription.

These plans directly contravene the terms of the treaty of Versailles. But in June, to the outrage this time of France, Hoare establishes an Anglo-German Naval Agreement, tacitly accepting the naval aspect of Hitler's plans in return for a pact that German strength at sea will not exceed 35% of the combined fleets of Britain and the Commonwealth.

In March 1936 Hitler makes his first military move in defiance of existing treaties. He marches his troops into the Rhineland, a region permanently demilitarized under the terms agreed at Versailles. At the same time he declares (in what is to become a recurring pattern) that this is his last territorial claim.

The Spanish Civil War, beginning in July 1936, absorbs much of Europe's attention over the next two years (and provides Hitler's new forces with their first unofficial outing). But from 1938 the German dictator's provocative moves come at an ever increasing pace, each of them taking to the brink the good faith of the appeasers.

On March 12 he marches into Austria to reunite the ancient German reich, an event known as the Anschluss (literally 'joining on'). On the previous day he assures the world that he has no designs on Czechoslovakia.

The very next month, in April, he develops a secret plan to annexe the western part of Czechoslovakia, the Sudetenland. He is considerably helped in this ambition by the principles of Versailles, for the region has a predominantly German population. Many of these Germans are already Nazi sympathisers. It is easy to argue, against Czech interests, that the principle of self-determination gives these people the right to merge with Germany. During the summer of 1938 Hitler threatens the Czech government at the diplomatic level, while massing troops on the border.

Chamberlain flies from London to confer with Hitler, on September 15 and 22, but by September 27 it seems certain that Hitler's forces will cross the Czech border. France has a defensive treaty with Czechoslavakia. Britain would have to support France. The result would be war.

On September 27 Chamberlain broadcasts to the British people, expressing his appalled dismay at being dragged into the affairs of such a 'faraway country'. The next day he sends a telegram to Hitler, offering to fly again to Germany to discuss the peaceful transfer of the Sudetenland. Hitler postpones the invasion, planned for September 28, and invites Chamberlain, Daladier (the French premier since April) and Mussolini to an immediate meeting in Munich.

Munich and after: AD 1938-1939

The discussion in Munich between Hitler, Chamberlain, Daladier and Mussolini lasts a little over twelve hours, beginning in the middle of the day on September 29 and ending with the signing of an agreed document at 1.30 a.m. on September 30. Though the dismantling of their country is under discussion, Hitler refuses to allow any Czech representative to take part. Two Czech diplomats sit in a nearby hotel, effectively waiting to be told what has been decided.

The conclusion is all that Hitler would wish. The Sudeten areas are to be ceded to Germany during the next ten days. Thereafter plebiscites, organized by the four Munich powers and Czechoslovakia, will reveal exactly where the new border should run.

Before boarding his plane, later on September 30, Chamberlain has another meeting with Hitler in which he asks him to sign a joint declaration. This is the document which Chamberlain waves in the air for the cameras on his return to Britain, stating that he has brought back from Germany 'peace for our time... peace with honour'.

The text above Hitler's signature, on which Chamberlain bases his optimism, declares a determination to remove possible sources of difference between countries 'and thus to contribute to assure the peace of Europe'. Chamberlain's hope is that the sacrifice of the Sudetenland has preserved not only peace but the rest of Czechoslovakia.

The occupation of Sudetenland brings some 3.5 million people within Nazi Germany, 75% of them German and 25% Czech. But in the event these Czechs are no more unfortunate than their compatriots elsewhere. Three weeks after signing Chamberlain's document, Hitler orders the German army to prepare for a move into the rest of Czechoslovakia. The invasion comes in March 1939. Hitler, in Prague, declares that Bohemia, Moravia and Slovakia are now under the protection of the German Reich.

But such a brutal betrayal of the Munich agreement transforms the appeasers. When it becomes evident that Poland is the next likely victim, Britain and France are suddenly resolute.

Danzig and the Polish corridor: AD 1938-1939

It is evident from the first weeks after the Munich agreement that Hitler will make unacceptable territorial demands of Poland. The main theme of British and French foreign policy now becomes the forging of diplomatic and military alliances to prepare for any resulting conflict. The four anticipated allies, in resisting German aggression, are Britain, France, the USSR and Poland.

Hitler's demands upon Poland are two. He wants the transfer to his Reich of the free port of Danzig (admittedly an almost entirely German city, and now with a Nazi council). And he wants a German corridor through Poland to the isolated German province of East Prussia.

Both claims are pressed by Hitler with new vigour in October 1938, within days of his winning the Sudetenland from Czechoslovakia. The Polish government firmly rejects the German demands. Unlike unfortunate Czechoslovakia, this stance wins a positive response from the western powers.

In March 1939 Neville Chamberlain, speaking with the approval of both France and the USSR, gaurantees help to Poland if her independence is threatened. In April Hitler abrogates his own ten-year nonaggression treaty with Poland, signed in 1934, and secretly orders his army to prepare for a Polish invasion. In May France commits herself to military action against Germany if a conflict begins. But then, in August, Hitler produces a diplomatic bombshell.

Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact: AD 1939

In August 1939 a Franco-British military mission is in Moscow trying to persuade Stalin to commit to a treaty for the defence of Poland. Little progress is made, ostensibly because the Poles are refusing to allow Soviet troops to cross their territory to attack Germany. But there is another hidden reason which soon becomes apparent.

The Soviet Union and Communism have always been twin forces of demonic evil in Hitler's oratory, but he now proves himself happy to sup with the devil for a very real strategic advantage. It is important to his plans that he shall not be distracted by a major war on his eastern front. In August he opens negotiations with Stalin. Poland is his bait.

Stalin, invited by the western powers to join an alliance which will almost certainly involve him in a costly war against Germany for no very evident benefit, now finds himself offered a more attractive option - inactivity and a sizable increase in his territory.

It takes the Russian dictator little time to choose. The world is astonished on August 21 by the announcement from Berlin that Ribbentrop is flying to Moscow to sign a nonaggression pact with his opposite number, the Russian foreign minister Molotov. This sudden friendship of two implacable enemies would seem less inexplicable if people knew of the secret protocol which accompanies the pact.

The protocol agrees a new set of international boundaries. As modified slightly in a second visit by Ribbentrop to Moscow, in September, it acknowledges Germany's approval of the Russian annexation of the independent nations Finland, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania (should any such opportunity occur). And it establishes an agreed division of Poland between Germany and Russia.

With this much achieved, Hitler is ready to take his next step - launched, for propaganda purposes, with a Grisly little charade.


The act of war: AD 1939

During the night of August 31 a group of German soldiers, dressed as Poles, attack the German radio station in the border town of Gleiwitz. They have brought with them a German criminal, taken for the purpose from a concentration camp. They shoot him and leave his body as evidence of the night's dark deeds.

Berlin radio broadcasts to the world the news of this act of Polish aggression, together with details of the necessary German response. In the early hours of the morning of September 1 Hitler's tanks move into Poland. His planes take off towards Warsaw on the first bombing mission of a new European war.

After a final desperate day of diplomacy, attempting even at this late stage to find a peaceful solution, Chamberlain and Daladier each sends an ultimatum to Hitler. When no answer is received, both nations declare war on September 3.

The Polish army, airforce and civilian population put up a brave resistance to massive German force - increased, from September 17, by a Russian invasion from the east. Within a few weeks 60,000 Polish soldiers and 25,000 civilians die. By September 28 Warsaw has fallen. Poland is once again partitioned, with an eastern slice going to Russia (as so recently agreed in Moscow) and the lion's share to Germany.

This History is as yet incomplete.

The Phoney War: AD 1939-1940

In France and Britain the immediate aftermath of the declaration of war is a return to the defensive tactics of World War I. The French rush troops to the Maginot Line, an elaborate complex of concrete fortifications connected by underground railway lines, which has been constructed along the Franco-German border between 1929 and 1938. (It is named after André Maginot, minister of war from 1929 to 1931.)

France's border with Belgium, running northwest to the sea, is not similarly protected. So, as in World War I, a British Expeditionary Force is immediately sent across the Channel to dig in along this line.

Here the troops of both nations await attack from the conqueror of Poland. But nothing happens.

It is not that Hitler is inactive against his new enemies. He is energetically demonstrating, with the deployment of his U-boats (Unterseebooten, or submarines), that Britain can no longer rely on her famed mastery of the seas. The aircraft carrier Courageous is sunk at sea in September, the battleship Royal Oak is torpedoed at anchor in Scapa Flow in October. Hitler also has a devastating new weapon to unveil - the magnetic mine, dropped into the sea from the air to cling to a passing vessel and explode. Inevitably indiscriminate, one such mine sinks the Dutch passenger liner Simon Bolivar in November.

Nor is there a lack of conflict in Europe. Stalin, assured of a free hand with Finland by the terms of his Nonaggression pact with Hitler, sends troops across the Finnish border in November 1939 (provoking the Russo-Finnish war, also known as the Winter War, in which Finland resists her large neighbour with magnificent resolve). And in early April 1940 the French and British finally agree on their first joint offensive. They will send troops to seize the Norwegian North Sea ports, even though Norway is neutral. The strategic reason is the need to cut the supply of iron ore from Swedish mines to Germany. But they delay in putting the plan into action.

Meanwhile on the western front all is quiet.

As a result the war acquires in Britain and France a name suggesting a dangerous sense of relaxation. In Britain it is known as the Phoney War, in France le Drole de Guerre (the Joke War). By the spring of 1940 the western nations have been able to spend eight useful months building up their armaments. On April 5 Chamberlain is sufficiently confident to declare to the house of commons that one thing is now certain - Hitler has 'missed the bus'.

Four days later a German fleet of warships invades Denmark and Norway. All the important harbours of these two neutral nations are rapidly occupied. Within days British and French troops are on hand to assist the Norwegian resistance. But they have arrived too late and little is achieved.

The fall of France: AD 1940

On June 5, the day after the last departures from Dunkirk, the German army turns its attention southwards. Erwin Rommel, whose panzer division has spearheaded the rapid German thrust to the coast, is now again in the vanguard with his tanks. By June 9 the Germans have taken Rouen and crossed the Seine. On June 14 they enter Paris. The French government withdraws to Bordeaux, but the Germans press on relentlessly. By June 16 they are in the Rhone valley.

Meanwhile a similar drive southwards on the eastern front makes the famous Maginot line redundant. Moving behind it to reach the Swiss frontier, the Germans seal off the French divisions which have been attempting to hold these eastward-facing fortifications.

This impressive sequence of events tempts a newcomer into the war. In spite of their Axis agreement, Mussolini declined in September 1939 to commit Italy to war as an ally of Germany. Now, nine months later, he realizes that if he is to hope for any of the spoils of victory he had better get into the fray. Just in time, on June 10, he declares war on France and Britain. Within less than a week, on June 16, the French ask for an armistice. Mussolini has not yet managed to launch an attack on southeastern France, but he does so on June 20 - two days before France and Germany sign their armistice.

There has been much debate within France whether to seek an armistice or to accept the fall of France and fight on from north Africa.

The premier, Paul Reynaud, has long been anti-Appeasement and now argues that France must fight on as Britain's ally. But he is in the minority. On June 16 he resigns. He is followed by a figure from the past, Philippe Pétain, one of France's most distinguished and popular commanders from World War I. Pétain immediately asks for an armistice.

Before dictating terms, Hitler meets in Munich his very recent companion in arms, Mussolini, to discuss what is to be demanded. Mussolini has wildly ambitious plans. In pursuit of his dream of dominating the Mediterranean, he wants Italy to annexe all French imperial possessions in north Africa together with Corsica and the coast of France herself as far west as Nice.

But Hitler is in more practical mood. His main concern is to ensure that France does not go on fighting against him as an ally of Britain (with whom he has not yet given up hope of coming to amicable terms). So he intends only to occupy the northern two thirds of France, already in possession of his armies. He will not even commandeer the powerful French fleet and airforce, insisting merely that they remain non-combatant (much of the fleet is subsequently Destroyed by the british). Italy is to have just the tiny bit of southeastern France which her troops have managed to capture during June 20-22.

But if the terms of the armistice are calculated to minimize France's humiliation, the signing of the treaty is stage-managed with precisely the opposite intention.

This is to be the moment when Hitler avenges Germany's humiliation of the Armistice at the end of World War I, and he plans it with his usual theatrical flair. The railway carriage in which that Armistice was signed has been in a Paris museum. It is now brought to the precise place, at Rethondes, used on the previous occasion. Hitler arrives in person on June 22 to savour his triumph. He even sits in the very chair used by Foch. Then he travels to Paris to see the famous sights. The conqueror plays the tourist (it is his first visit).

The area left to France, officially neutral under Pétain but in effect a German puppet state, has a curving northern boundary from the Swiss border to the Pyrenees. Vichy is selected as the capital, and the region becomes known as Vichy France.

Yet France remains in the war in a different guise. On June 6 Reynaud has brought into his government a young brigadier general, Charles de Gaulle, as undersecretary of state for war. When the Armistice is requested, on June 16, de Gaulle crosses to Britain.

From there, on June 18, four days before the Armistice is signed, he makes a famous radio broadcast to the people of France. He urges them to continue the fight, and declares himself to be the leader of the Free French. Until the liberation of France, in September 1944, he remains in London as the symbol of French resistance (and frequently as something of a thorn in the side of his more powerful political ally, Winston Churchill).

Sections are as yet missing at this point.

Fifth republic

De Gaulle's moment: AD 1958

Charles de Gaulle, the war hero, waiting in retirement for his country's call, drives a hard bargain when the moment comes. He will resume the leadership of the nation only if he is given unrestricted powers for a period of six months and the authority to draft a new constitution for a fifth French republic. On 2 June 1958 the national assembly accepts his terms.

De Gaulle turns his attention first to the crisis which has caused his return to power. On June 4 he visits Algiers, to be received by an ecstatic crowd of settlers who greet him as their saviour. But as they listen to his speech, from the balcony of Government House, their enthusiasm becomes muted.

Far from taking the expected right-wing line, De Gaulle talks of equal rights for Europeans and Muslims. He praises the Algerian nationalists as courageous fighters, and holds out the prospect of an amnesty. 'To these men I, de Gaulle, open the door of reconciliation.'

But the immediate next step is the preparation of a new constitution and the holding of a referendum to win the approval of French citizens around the world. When the details are announced, the constitution gives a much greater executive role to the president than under the previous republic. He may even assume emergency powers in a crisis.

The referendum is ready for the voters in September 1958. In addition to seeking approval for the proposed constitution, it asks voters in overseas territories whether they want to sever all links with France or to be part of the French community (known as La Communauté). All the territories except Guinea vote to remain within La Communauté, and the constitution of the Fifth Republic is approved by a large majority of 78% of the votes cast.

The most pressing task facing the new president remains Algeria. In the short term the situation there becomes worse rather than better. But within four years it is solved, with the precisely opposite result from the settlers' hopes of de Gaulle. The expected defender of French Algeria presides over Algerian independence.

The thorny path to independence:1959-1962

In September 1959 de Gaulle offers Algerians a choice once violence in the colony has ceased. Within four years of the return of peace they are to have a free vote on three possible options for their future: full political integration with France; association with France as an independent entity; or complete secession as an independent nation.

The immediate effect of this proposal is even greater unrest in Algeria, where the settlers are outraged at any suggestion that the link with France might be severed. In January 1960 there are barricades in the streets of Algiers in an uprising which lasts ten days until the army, loyal to de Gaulle, brings it to an end.

In April 1961 a more serious revolt is led by four senior generals in the French army in Algeria. It too collapses after four days, when de Gaulle reacts with great firmness and assumes special emergency powers. But the failed uprising prompts the final escalation of terrorist violence in the colony.

Two of the generals surrender when the uprising fails. The other two, Raoul Salan and Edmond Jouhaud, go underground to continue their resistance. They form the extremist OAS (Organization de l'Armée Secrète) to engage in a campaign of terror against Muslims in Algeria and against political targets in mainland France. In September 1961 an attempt is made to assassinate de Gaulle.

With FLN terrorist activity also continuing in Algeria, the colony by now requires the permanent attention of some 500,000 troops. The only practical solution is discreetly acknowledged when the French government, in the autumn of 1961, begins secret negotiations with the provisional Algerian government in Tunis (the GPRA). In March 1962 a cease-fire is agreed at Évian-les-Bains, to be followed by a referendum on Algerian independence.

This agreement sparks off an immediate escalation of OAS terrorist activity, but in April 1962 the people of France endorse the Évian terms with a 90% vote of approval. Two weeks later the OAS leader, Raoul Salan, is captured in Algiers.

During the summer of 1962 about three quarters of the French colonists flee from Algeria to France, leaving only some 250,000 (reduced by the end of the 1960s to fewer than 100,000). The departure of the predominantly right-wing element among the settler population is reflected in the referendum held in Algeria on 1 July 1962. Nearly six million votes are cast in favour of independence, less than 17,000 against. Two days later de Gaulle formally recognizes Algeria as an independent nation. In October the new state becomes a member of the United Nations.
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