The French monarchy was unique, at least in Western Europe. For over 800 years, it consisted entirely of direct, male-line descendants of one man. This was Hugh Capet, who was elected king after the last Carolingian 1 king died young and childless. 2 Even though they’re all related, the kings (never queens) through 1830 are generally listed as part of three Houses.
The first House, starting with Hugh, is known as the Capetians. They almost all fulfilled the first two duties of kings: living reasonably long and having sons to succeed them. There were fourteen, ruling for almost three hundred and fifty years, and the first twelve of them were direct father to son inheritance. Then things went south: the last three Capetian kings were brothers who all died young and sonless. 3 The brothers ruled for a total of twelve years.
There was no real tradition for what to do next, but the French, with their customary respect for the fair sex, decided that as a matter of law not only could a woman not rule, she could not transmit the right to rule. So they found the closest male relative to the late kings, a first cousin called Phillip of Valois, who began a new House (still all direct male-line descendants of Hugh Capet. 4 ) The thirteen Valois kings ruled for over two hundred and fifty more years. They almost lost France to the British before Joan of Arc helped win it back for them, and they weren’t quite as regular as the Capets, having to play the up-the-family-tree-and-back-down-again game a couple of times, but they were all direct male line descendants of Phillip of Valois. Then dynastic disaster struck: the last three were brothers, all of whom died young and sonless. 5
So, once again back up the family tree, looking for someone with male-line descendants. It was harder this time, going all the way back to Louis IX 6, who had died three hundred years earlier. This was a bit sticky, as not only was Henry of Navarre a mere 493rd cousin of the previous king, but also a Protestant. He converted willingly 7, though he was eventually murdered by a Catholic fanatic 8. Henry was the first of the seven kings of the House of Bourbon, who would rule until the Revolution exactly two hundred years later, and also a bit afterward. The Bourbon succession was mostly father to son, except where some lived so long it was father to grandson or even great-grandson. That is, until the last three Bourbon kings, who were brothers. This was a bit different:
- The oldest one had a son and heir, but he and his son were both killed during the revolution.
- The second has no children.
- The third had a son and heir, but when he abdicated, the son did too.
There was one last king, of the House of Orléans, and we’ve left out the two Emperors of the House of Napoleon, but those are stories for another day.
- House of Charlemagne
- The Carolingians were interesting too: Charlemagne was a great leader, military and political, who unified what’s now France, Germany, Northern Italy, and the Benelux countries into a single realm, and whose respect for education and culture laid the foundation for what could have been the Renaissance six centuries early, if his descendants hadn’t pissed it all away by being, every last one of them, a complete waste of space.
- One had a posthumous son who lived for five days.
- Oddly, even though there were lots of King Louis’s, Charles’s, and Phillip’s, never even one more King Hugh.
- One had an illegitimate son.
- Also known as Saint Louis, canonized for his good works such as expanding the Inquisition and burning Talmuds.
- Saying, famously, if perhaps apocryphally, “Paris is worth a Mass.”
- Who claimed that Henry had kept his fingers crossed and refused to say “No backsies.”