Key Events in French History

Marie Antoinette Being Taken to Her Execution on 16 October 1793, 1794. Artist: Hamilton, William (1751-1801)
Marie Antoinette Being Taken to Her Execution on 16 October 1793, 1794. Found in the collection of Musée de la Révolution française, Vizille. Heritage Images / Getty Images

There is no single starting date for "French" history. Some textbooks start with prehistory, others with the Roman conquest, others still with Clovis, Charlemagne or Hugh Capet (all mentioned below). To ensure the broadest coverage, let's begin with the Celtic population of France in the Iron Age.

Celtic Groups Start Arriving c. 800 BCE

Reconstruction of a Celtic iron-age barn.
Reconstruction of a Celtic iron-age barn on stilts to deter rats, from the Archaeodrome de Bourgogne, Burgundy, France.

Print Collector / Getty Images

The Celts, an Iron Age group, began to immigrate into the region of modern France in great numbers from c. 800 BCE, and over the next few centuries dominated the area. The Romans believed that "Gaul," which included France, had over sixty separate Celtic groups.

Conquest of Gaul by Julius Caesar 58–50 BCE

Vercingetorix surrendering to Julius Caesar, after the battle Alesia
The Gallic chief Vercingetorix (72-46 BC) surrendering to the Roman chief Julius Caesar (100-44 BC) after the battle of Alesia in 52 BC. Painting by Henri Motte (1846-1922) 1886. Crozatier Museum, Le Puy en Velay, France.

Corbis / Getty Images

Gaul was an ancient region which included France and parts of Belgium, West Germany, and Italy. Having seized control of the Italian regions and a southern coastal strip in France, in 58 BCE, the Roman republic sent Julius Caesar (100–44 BCE) to conquer the region and bring it under control, partly to stop Gallic raiders and German incursions. Between 58–50 BCE Caesar fought the Gallic tribes which united against him under Vercingetorix (82–46 BCE), who was beaten at the siege of Alésia. Assimilation into the Empire followed, and by the mid-first century CE, Gallic aristocrats could sit in the Roman Senate.

Germans Settle in Gaul c. 406 CE

Franks, dress and costume
A.D. 400-600, Franks.

Albert Kretschmer / Wikimedia Commons

In the early part of the fifth-century groups of Germanic peoples crossed the Rhine and moved west into Gaul, where they were settled by the Romans as self-governing groups. The Franks settled in the north, the Burgundians in the southeast and the Visigoths in the southwest (although mainly in Spain). The extent to which the settlers Romanized or adopted Roman political/military structures is open to debate, but Rome soon lost control.

Clovis Unites the Franks 481–511

King Clovis I and Queen Clotilde of the Franks, late 5th - early 6th century (1882-1884).Artist: Frederic Lix
King Clovis I and Queen Clotilde of the Franks.

Print Collector / Getty Images

The Franks moved into Gaul during the later Roman Empire. Clovis I (died 511 CE) inherited the kingship of the Salian Franks in the late fifth century, a kingdom based in northeast France and Belgium. By his death this kingdom had spread south and west over much of France, incorporating the rest of the Franks. His dynasty, the Merovingians, would rule the region for the next two centuries. Clovis selected Paris as his capital and is sometimes regarded as the founder of France.

Battle of Tours/Poitiers 732

Battle of Poitiers, France, 732 (1837). Artist: Charles Auguste Guillaume Steuben
Battle of Poitiers, France, 732 (1837). Artist: Charles Auguste Guillaume Steuben.

Print Collector / Getty Images

Fought somewhere, now precisely unknown, between Tours and Poitiers, an army of Franks and Burgundians under Charles Martel (688–741) defeated the forces of the Umayyad Caliphate. Historians are much less certain now than they used to be that this battle alone stopped the military expansion of Islam into the region as a whole, but the result secured Frankish control of the area and Charles’ leadership of the Franks.

Charlemagne Succeeds to the Throne 751

Charlemagne Crowned by Pope Leo III, December 25th, 800
Charlemagne Crowned by Pope Leo III. SuperStock / Getty Images

As the Merovingians declined, a line of nobility called Carolingians took their place. Charlemagne (742–814), whose name literally means "Charles the Great," succeeded to the throne of a portion of the Frankish lands in 751. Two decades later he was sole ruler, and by 800 he was crowned Emperor of the Romans by the Pope on Christmas Day. Important to the history of both France and Germany, Charles is often labeled as Charles I in lists of French monarchs.

Creation of West Francia 843

Treaty of Verdun on August 10, 843, published in 1881
Treaty of Verdun on August 10, 843. Woodcut engraving after a painting by Carl Wilhelm Schurig (German painter, 1818 – 1874), published in 1881. ZU_09 / Getty Images

After a period of civil war, Charlemagne’s three grandsons agreed to a division of the Empire in the Treaty of Verdun in 843. Part of this settlement was the creation of West Francia (Francia Occidentalis) under Charles II ("Charles the Bald," 823–877), a kingdom in the west of the Carolingian lands which covered much of the western part of modern France. Parts of eastern France came under the control of Emperor Lothar I (795–855) in Francia Media.

Hugh Capet becomes King 987

The Coronation of Hugh Capet in 988
The Coronation of Hugues Capet (941-996), 988. Miniature from a manuscript of the 13th or 14th century. B.N., Paris, France.

Corbis / Getty Images

After a period of heavy fragmentation within the regions of modern France, the Capet family were rewarded with the title “Duke of the Franks.” In 987, the first duke's son Hugh Capet (939–996) ousted his rival Charles of Lorraine and declared himself King of West Francia. It was this kingdom, notionally large but with a small power base, which would grow, slowly incorporating the neighboring areas, into the powerful kingdom of France during the Middle Ages. 

Reign of Philip II 1180–1223

Detail of Siege of Saint-Jean d'Acre or Battle of Arsuf by Merry-Joseph Blondel
Third Crusade : Siege of Saint-Jean d'Acre (Saint Jean d'Acre) or Battle of Arsuf, 'The city of Ptolemais (Acre) given to Philip Augustus (Philippe Auguste) and Richard the Lionheart, 13 July 1191'. Detail depicting King Philip Augustus of France. Painting by Merry Joseph Blondel (1781-1853), 1840. Castle Museum, Versailles, France.

Corbis / Getty Images

When the English crown inherited the Angevin lands, forming what has been called the “Angevin Empire” (although there was no emperor), they held more land in “France” than the French crown. Philip II (1165–1223) changed this, winning back some of the English crown’s continental lands in an expansion of both France’s power and domain. Philip II (also called Philip Augustus) also changed the regal name, from King of the Franks to King of France.

The Albigensian Crusade 1209–1229

The fortified city of Carcassonne
Carcassone was a Cathar stronghold which fell to the crusaders during the Albigensian Crusade. Buena Vista Images / Getty Images

During the twelfth century, a non-canonical branch of Christianity called the Cathars took hold in the south of France. They were deemed heretics by the main church, and Pope Innocent III (1160–1216) urged both the King of France and the Count of Toulouse to take action. After a papal legate investigating the Cathars was murdered in 1208, with the Count implicated, Innocent ordered a crusade against the region. Northern French nobles fought those of Toulouse and Provence, causing great destruction and damaging the Cather church greatly.

The 100 Years War 1337–1453

Illustration of English and Welsh archers using cross bows against attacking French army during Hundred Years War
English and Welsh archers using cross bows against attacking French army. Dorling Kindersley / Getty Images

A dispute over English holdings in France led to Edward III of England (1312–1377) claiming the French throne; a century of related warfare followed. The French low point occurred when Henry V of England (1386–1422) won a string of victories, conquered great chunks of the country and had himself recognized as heir to the French throne. However, a rally under the French claimant eventually led to the English being thrown out of the continent, with only Calais left of their holdings.

Reign of Louis XI 1461–1483

Portrait of Louis XI, King of France

Corbis / Getty Images

Louis XI (1423–1483) expanded the borders of France, re-imposing control over Boulonnais, Picardy, and Burgundy, inheriting control of Maine and Provence and taking power in France-Comté and Artois. Politically, he broke the control of his rival princes and began centralizing the French state, helping transform it from a medieval institution to a modern one.

Habsburg-Valois Wars in Italy 1494–1559

The Battle of Marciano in Val di Chiana, 1570-1571. Found in the collection of the Palazzo Vecchio, Florence.
The Battle of Marciano in Val di Chiana, 1570-1571. Artist: Vasari, Giorgio (1511-1574).

Heritage Images / Getty Images

With royal control of France now largely secure, the Valois monarchy looked to Europe, engaging in a war with the rival Habsburg dynasty—the de facto royal house of the Holy Roman Empire—which took place in Italy, initially over French claims to the throne of Naples. Fought with mercenaries and providing an outlet for the nobles of France, the wars were concluded with the Treaty of Cateau-Cambrésis.

French Wars of Religion 1562–1598

Massacre of the Huguenots on St Bartholomews Day, August 23-24, 1572, engraving, France, 16th century
Massacre of the Huguenots on St Bartholomews Day, August 23-24, 1572, engraving, France, 16th century. De Agostini Picture Library / Getty Images

A political struggle between noble houses exacerbated a growing sense of hostility between the French Protestants, called Huguenots, and Catholics. When men acting on the orders of the Duke of Guise massacred a Huguenot congregation in 1562, civil war erupted. Several wars were fought in quick succession, the fifth triggered by massacres of Huguenots in Paris and other towns on the eve of Saint Bartholomew's Day. The wars ended after the Edict of Nantes granted religious toleration to the Huguenots.

Government of Richelieu 1624–1642

Triple Portrait of Cardinal de Richelieu
Triple Portrait of Cardinal de Richelieu.

Philippe de Champaigne / Wikimedia Commons

Armand-Jean du Plessis (1585–1642), known as Cardinal Richelieu, is perhaps best known outside France as one of the "bad guys" in adaptations of The Three Musketeers. In real life he acted as chief minister of France, fighting and succeeding to increase the monarch’s power and break the military strength of the Huguenots and nobles. Although he didn’t innovate much, he proved himself a man of great ability.

Mazarin and the Fronde 1648–1652

Jules Mazarin
Jules Mazarin.

Corbis / Getty Images

When Louis XIV (1638–1715) succeeded to the throne in 1643 he was a minor, and the kingdom was governed by both a regent and a new Chief Minister: Cardinal Jules Mazarin (1602–1661). Opposition to the power that Mazarin wielded led to two rebellions: the Fronde of the Parliament and the Fronde of the Princes. Both were defeated and royal control strengthened. When Mazarin died in 1661, Louis XIV took over full control of the kingdom.

Adult Reign of Louis XIV 1661–1715

Louis XIV at the Taking of Besançon', 1674.
Louis XIV at the Taking of Besançon', 1674. Meulen, Adam Frans, van der (1632-1690). Found in the collection of the State Hermitage, St. Petersburg.

Heritage Images / Getty Images

Louis XIV was the apogee of French absolute monarchy, a vastly powerful king who, after a regency while he was a minor, ruled personally for 54 years. He re-ordered France around himself and his court, winning wars abroad and stimulating French culture to such an extent that the nobilities of other countries copied France. He has been criticized for allowing other powers in Europe to grow in strength and eclipse France, but he has also been called the high point of French monarchy. He was nicknamed "The Sun King" for the vitality and glory of his reign.

The French Revolution 1789–1802

Marie Antoinette Being Taken to Her Execution on 16 October 1793, 1794. Artist: Hamilton, William (1751-1801)
Marie Antoinette Being Taken to Her Execution on 16 October 1793, 1794. Found in the collection of Musée de la Révolution française, Vizille. Heritage Images / Getty Images

A financial crisis prompted King Louis XVI to call an Estates General to pass new tax laws. Instead, the Estates General declared itself a National Assembly, suspended tax and seized French sovereignty. As France’s political and economic structures were reshaped, pressures from inside and outside France saw first the declaration of a republic and then government by Terror. A Directory of five men plus elected bodies took charge in 1795, before a coup brought Napoleon Bonaparte (1769–1821) to power.

Napoleonic Wars 1802–1815

Napoleon Bonaparte
Napoleon. Hulton Archive / Getty Images

Napoleon took advantage of the opportunities offered by both the French Revolution and its revolutionary wars to rise to the top, seizing power in a coup, before declaring himself Emperor of France in 1804. The next decade saw a continuation of the warfare which had allowed Napoleon to rise, and at the start Napoleon was largely successful, expanding the borders and influence of France. However, after the invasion of Russia failed in 1812 France was pushed back, before Napoleon was defeated finally at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815. The monarchy was then restored.

Second Republic and Second Empire 1848–1852, 1852–1870

Napoleon And Bismarck
2nd September 1870: Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte of France (left) and Otto Edward Leopold von Bismarck of Prussia (right) at France's surrender in the Franco-Prussian War. Hulton Archive / Getty Images

An attempt to agitate for liberal reforms, coupled with growing dissatisfaction in the monarchy, led to an outbreak of demonstrations against the king in 1848. Faced with the choice of deploying troops or fleeing, he abdicated and fled. A republic was declared and the nephew of Bonaparte, Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte (or Napoleon III, 1848–1873), was elected president. Only four years later he was proclaimed emperor of a “Second Empire” in a further revolution. However, a humiliating loss in the Franco-Prussian war of 1870, when Napoleon was captured, shattered confidence in the regime; a Third Republic was declared in a bloodless revolution in 1870.

Paris Commune 1871

Paris Commune
The statue of Napoléon I after the demolition of the Vendome column in Paris on May 16, 1871.

Corbis / Getty Images

Parisians, angered by a Prussian siege of Paris, the terms of the peace treaty which ended the Franco-Prussian war and their treatment by the government (which tried to disarm the National Guard in Paris to stall trouble), rose in rebellion. They formed a council to lead them, called the Commune of Paris, and attempted reform. The government of France invaded the capital to restore order, prompting a short period of conflict. The Commune has been mythologized by socialists and revolutionaries ever since.

The Belle Époque 1871–1914

At the Moulin Rouge, The Dance
At the Moulin Rouge, The Dance, 1980.

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec / Wikimedia Commons

A period of rapid commercial, social and cultural development as (relative) peace and further industrial development wrought even greater changes upon society, bringing in mass consumerism. The name, which literally means "Beautiful Age," is largely a retrospective title given by the wealthier classes who benefited most from the era.

World War 1 1914–1918

Colonial African French Soldiers in a Trench
French troops stand guard along the trenches. Undated photograph, ca. 1914-1919. Bettmann Archive / Getty Images

Refusing a demand from Germany in 1914 to declare neutrality during a Russo-German conflict, France mobilized troops. Germany declared war and invaded, but was stopped short of Paris by Anglo-French forces. A great swathe of French soil was turned into a trench system as the war bogged down, and only narrow gains were made until 1918, when Germany finally gave way and capitulated. Over a million Frenchmen died and over 4 million were wounded.

World War 2 1939–1945 and Vichy France 1940–1944

German occupation of Paris, World War II, June 1940. Artist: Anon
German occupation of Paris, World War II, June 1940. The Nazi flag flying from the Arc de Triomphe.

Print Collector / Getty Images

France declared war on Nazi Germany in September 1939; in May 1940 the Germans attacked France, skirting the Maginot Line and quickly defeating the country. Occupation followed, with the northern third controlled by Germany and the south under the collaborative Vichy regime headed by Marshal Philippe Pétain (1856–1951). In 1944, after Allied landings at D-Day, France was liberated, and Germany finally defeated in 1945. A Fourth Republic was then declared.

Declaration of the Fifth Republic 1959

Charles De Gaulle Gestures During Speech
Charles De Gaulle. Bettmann Archive / Getty Images

On January 8, 1959, the Fifth Republic came into being. Charles de Gaulle (1890–1970), hero of World War II and heavy critic of the Fourth Republic, was the chief driving force behind the new constitution which gave the presidency more powers compared to the National Assembly; de Gaulle became the first president of the new era. France remains under the government of the Fifth Republic.

Riots of 1968

Police Face Students
14th May 1968: Armed police face a crowd of student demonstrators during the student riots in Paris. Reg Lancaster / Getty Images

Discontent exploded in May 1968 as the latest in a series of rallies by radical students turned violent and was broken up by the Police. Violence spread, barricades went up and a commune was declared. Other students joined the movement, as did striking workers, and soon radicals in other cities followed. The movement lost ground as leaders became afraid of causing too extreme a rebellion, and the threat of military support, coupled with some employment concessions and de Gaulle’s decision to hold an election, helped bring events to a close. Gaullists dominated the election results, but France had been shocked at how quickly events had occurred.

Sources and Further Reading

  • Schama, Simon. "Citizens." New York: Random House, 1989. 
  • Fremont-Barnes, Gregory. "The French Revolutionary Wars." Oxford UK: Osprey Publishing, 2001. 
  • Doyle, William. "The Oxford History of the French Revolution." 3rd ed. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2018.
mla apa chicago
Your Citation
Wilde, Robert. "Key Events in French History." ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, Wilde, Robert. (2020, August 27). Key Events in French History. Retrieved from Wilde, Robert. "Key Events in French History." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 29, 2023).

Watch Now: Profile of Julius Caesar