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Over the past 1,265 years, the French people have had 79 rulers. That’s an average time in power for these kings, emperors, and presidents of just 16 years – crazy considering that their chain of leadership spans 14 centuries. Even still, only the most hardcore history buffs should attempt to learn all those names, dates, and notable events. To make life easier, here is our shortlist of the ten most important figures to remember.
Also known as Charles the Great and the Father of Europe, this medieval emperor ruled much of the west of the continent from 768 until his death. In 771, he became king of the Franks, a Germanic tribe of modern-day Belgium, France, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, and Germany. His mission was to unite all Germanic people in one kingdom and under Christianity. Having been made the Holy Roman emperor by Pope Leo III in 800, he fostered the Carolingian Renaissance, a European cultural and intellectual revival.
This 10th-century monarch was the first of the King of the Franks from the House of Capet, a dynasty that at its broadest extent has provided 36 French rulers and dozens more across Europe. He was also a seventh-generation descendant of Charlemagne. Capet inherited a large amount of land in Île-de-France from his father, which helped assure his election to the throne. He made Paris the center of power and, for this reason, most historians regard him as the founder of modern France.
France’s only canonized king, Saint Louis, was the country’s monarch from the age of 12 until his death, although his mother, Blanche of Castille, ruled through his adolescence. He was a reformer and developed French royal justice, banning trials by ordeal, limiting private wars, and introducing the presumption of innocence to criminal proceedings. On the other hand, inspired by Catholic devotion, he punished blasphemy, gambling, interest-bearing loans, and prostitution and expanded the scope of the Inquisition.
This patron of the arts brought about the French Renaissance, enticing artists from Italy to work on the Château de Chambord. Amongst those who came were Leonardo da Vinci, accompanied by the Mona Lisa. Other important cultural changes of his reign were the rise of absolute monarchy, the spread of humanism and Protestantism, and the exploration of the New World. For his role in the development of standardized French, he is known as Le Père et Restaurateur des Lettres.
Good King Henry was initially an unpopular monarch. Baptized a Catholic but raised a Protestant, he fought on the side of the latter during the French Wars of Religion. For four years on the throne he kept his faith but afterward saw no option but to convert in order to ensure peace. A tolerant, pragmatic politician, he guaranteed religious liberties with the Edict of Nantes in 1598, ending for a time the interfaith war. He was assassinated by fanatical Catholic François Ravaillac on the Rue de la Ferronnerie in Les Halles.
Louis the Great or the Sun King enjoyed the longest reign of any European monarch in history at 72 years and 110 days. During this time of absolutism on the continent, he continued his predecessors’ work of creating a centralized state governed from the capital, eliminating the remains of feudalism and compelling the nobility to relocate to the Palace of Versailles. A lover of warfare in all forms, France’s arguably most powerful ruler abolished the Edict of Nantes which had protected religious minorities for over a century, causing them to flee or convert in droves.
Louis XVI tried to reform France in line with Enlightenment ideals but the nobility successfully opposed him and changes he managed to institute, like the deregulation of the grain market, negatively impacted the middle and lower classes. Following the storming of the Bastille, the king and his wife Marie Antoinette became tyrannical symbols of the Ancien Régime. Tried and found guilty of high treason, he was guillotined on January 21st, 1793, under the name Citizen Louis Capet, a reference to his ancestor Hugh Capet. The only French ruler ever to be executed, his death ended 1,000 years of continuous monarchical rule.
Napoleon Bonaparte came to prominence during the French Revolution and Revolutionary Wars as a formidable military and political leader. He engineered a coup in November 1799 and became the First Consul of the Republic. Emboldened, he increased his status to the first Emperor of the French in 1804. Over the next ten years, he dominated European and global affairs, waging and winning wars across his expanding empire, which collapsed in 1815. As celebrated as he is controversial, his campaigns are studied to this day.
As President of the French Second Republic, Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte was the first elected by popular vote. Following his 1851 coup, he became the country’s second emperor on December 2nd, 1852, the 48th anniversary of his uncle’s coronation. At first brutal, his regime ultimately adopted the title of the Liberal Empire. Best known for his extensive reconstruction of Paris carried out by Baron Haussmann, he also modernized the banking system, expanded rail infrastructure, encouraged the building of the Suez Canal, pioneered modern agriculture, increased European trade, introduced labor reforms, and developed public and women’s education.
The French statesman of the 20th century, de Gaulle was the leader of Free France from 1940 to 1944, the head of the Provisional Government of the French Republic from 1944 to 1946, and the 18th President of France in the Fifth Republic he founded in 1958. In his address of June 18th, 1940, he implored the French population to continue their fight against Nazi Germany and thereafter was the undisputed leader of the Resistance. Frustrated by party politics following the war, he retired in 1946 only to be brought back to resolve the Algerian War. His policies as president fortified France’s independence and status in the world.