Louis XVI: Capet or Bourbon?
In the introduction to my latest release, I give a brief rundown of the dynastic houses of France. Anyone who reads historically based literature pertaining to Europe is probably familiar with several French royal houses. The branches of Angoulême, Anjou, Artois, Burgundy, Orléans, Valois, etc. are prevalent throughout the Middle Ages, and when Marie Antoinette arrived at Versailles in 1770, the crown had been firmly in the possession of Bourbons for nearly 200 years. Her husband, Louis XVI, was the fifth king descended from this line, but upon his deposition, he became an ordinary citizen dubbed Louis Capet. Who were these Capets, and what impact did they have on France?
In ancient times, most of the area to the north and west of the Roman Empire was known as Gaul. Many a brave Roman had attempted to conquer the wild occupants of these lands, but it was Julius Caesar who was credited with the formidable accomplishment of subduing the barbarians and bringing order to their uncivilized way of life. Unfortunately, they were resentful of this presumption and recaptured their territories some 500 years later. At this time the largest portion of the natives had come to be known as Franks, the Salian branch of which was led by Childeric I son of Merovech, the namesake of the first dynastic house of France, the Merovingians. Sometime after retaking their homeland from the Romans and defending it against the Visigoths, Childeric sired Clovis I, who eventually united all of the Frankish tribes as one people.
The next dynasty to rise to prominence was that of the Carolingians. The most recognizable name among them is Charlemagne, who turned the land into a thriving center of culture and religion. He not only inherited the position of King but was also appointed Roman Emperor by the papacy. He spent a good portion of his reign defending his birthright, but despite his efforts to keep the land as a whole, upon his death it was quarreled over, divided, and subdivided amongst his descendants, until it reached a similar state of separation as before the unification achieved by Clovis.
For over a century and a half this segregation persisted until Hugh Capet came along and made himself a force to be reckoned with. Born in Paris, he was from a powerful family descended from King Robert I with substantial landholdings in West Francia. Hugh spent the early years of his adulthood establishing a reputation for fairness and allying himself with the Holy Roman Empire. Well regarded by his peers for the “goodness of his soul,” he was eventually elected to the seat of King of the Franks, uniting the splintered factions and making the position a hereditary one, though only attainable by the senior male heirs as the Salic Law, as well as that of primogeniture, was implemented at the same time.
Hugh centered his power base around his birthplace and duchy, Paris, restoring it as the capital and running the kingdom from there. He is held by most historians as the father of modern France, the founder of the Capetian Dynasty, and the common ancestor for many royal houses throughout Europe. The direct Capetian heirs ruled France until 1328 when a crisis of succession ensued, and the House of Valois, a cadet branch, came into ascendancy. From this point on, all of the successors to the throne, no matter which branch of the family they came from, were descended from the House of Capet.
But being from the same bloodline did little to curb the rivals’ desire to wear the crown or diminish their treacherous impulses to attain it. The House of Valois was plagued by internecine strife and commingling of tainted bloodlines for the whole of its tenure, even surrendering the crown to England on a couple of occasions and sparking the Hundred Years’ War. Eventually, Charles VII took charge and won the crown back for France and the Valois, who ruled until 1589. The last Valois, Henri III, was assassinated by a fanatic and was succeeded by Henri IV, the first Bourbon King and the ancestor of Louis XVI, who would be known as Louis Capet after being deposed, which brings us full circle.
Although it was said that Louis disliked the new surname, he lived up to its reputation of grandness and showed great strength during his final tribulations. Many of his actions, or inaction, while he wore the crown would indicate that he was an indecisive and weak ruler, but in his personal life he showed remarkable resolve, his honorable conduct winning him a fair measure of respect and admiration from his detractors. This was how I chose to portray him in INSATIABLE: A MACABRE HISTORY OF FRANCE ~ L’AMOUR: MARIE ANTOINETTE, and he has become one of my favorite characters to date.
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*This post was originally run at Kim Rendfeld~ Outtakes of a Historical Novelist.
** From www.gingermyrick.com