When Occupied Vichy’s Admiral Darlan was assassinated by a young French zealot in Algiers in December 1942, Winston Churchill observed to the House of Commons—in exasperation moderated with great sympathy—that the “Good Lord in his infinite wisdom did not choose to make Frenchmen in the image of the English.” Some, on both sides of the Channel, may shout “Bravo!” or “Hear Hear!” but the fact is incontrovertible. With even less likelihood of challenge, the same could be said of the two nations. Geography, as much as history, though hand in hand, is what creates a nation. Over the centuries, while England lay protected from the invader (often, indeed, from outside influence) by the Channel, the North Sea and the Atlantic, France had nothing to guard her from the “barbarian at the gates.” As Guderian and Rommel proved in May 1940, not even her great but sleepy rivers like the Meuse, the Oise, the Somme and the Marne could prevent an invader from sweeping across the boundless flat plains of northern France to threaten her capital city, Paris—any more than the Vistula and the Niemen could preserve Poland, with a geography that was so similar. (And see what a deal history dealt to the Poles!) West of the Rhine, all through her history, France had no topographical boundaries on which she could rely.
Thus much of her first two millennia encompasses an eternal hunt for security, on the one hand through strengthening herself at home; on the other, by aggressively pursuing expansionism abroad—often under the slogan of la gloire. In the pursuit of security, opposing instincts of the libertarian versus the authoritarian would repeatedly vie against each other.
In the beginning, France consisted of little more than an embattled island in the middle of the River Seine, surrounded by bristling palisades, in what is now Paris’s Île de la Cité. The Romans founded
“Lutetia,” as they called it, at a time when, as readers of Asterix know, Gaul was divided into three parts under Julius Caesar. (The word “Lutetia,” romantic as it sounds, in fact derived from the Latin for “mud”
—appropriately enough, as its long-suffering denizens would discover over many successive centuries.)
Fortunately, Emperor Julian (ad 358) found Lutetia, with its vineyards, figs and gentle climate, so thoroughly agreeable that he refused a summons to lead legions to the Middle East. Surprisingly, he even found the Seine “pleasant to drink, for it is very pure and agreeable to the eye.” Already in Roman times Lutetia became prosperous and alluring enough for it to be worth assault, and burning, by marauders from across the Rhine. About the same time as Nero watched Rome burn, the whole of the wooden settlements on the left bank were razed by fire. The city contracted, the Parisians withdrawing, once again, into the highly defensible fastness of the Île de la Cité. One of the first of many Germanic invasions was seen off by Emperor Julian, after the Alamanni had come to within only twenty-five leagues away—roughly the same spot as their grey-clad kinsmen reached under the Kaiser in 1914. The prayers of Sainte Geneviève, patron saint of Paris, reputedly caused Attila the Hun to swing away from the city in 451, and over the ages intercessions to her were to be made to save Paris from latter-day Huns—with varying degrees of success.
Rome gave Paris her first revolutionary martyr, Saint Denis, decapitated at what became the “Mons Martyrum”—or Montmartre. The fields around his place of execution were said to have “displayed a wonderful fertility.” Ever after, the Roman tradition would run like a vital chord all through French history, summoned up and referred back to at crucial moments. In his godlike splendour, the “Roi Soleil” tapped into it, content to see himself portrayed as Hercules on the Porte Saint-Martin. The Great Revolution and its heirs reinvented such artefacts as consuls and senators, tribunes and togas. Napoleon I had himself crowned Emperor, then emulated Trajan’s Column to vaunt his victories over his foes at Austerlitz in the Place Vendôme; Napoleon III, also assuming the title of Emperor, reverently clad the statue of his great uncle atop it in a toga, and when things were going badly for him in 1869, went to seek inspiration at the Roman ruins of Lutetia.
Equally, the Seine was, and is, and always will be, Paris. From earliest days the navigable river and the north-south axis that intersected it at the Île de la Cité formed one of Europe’s most important crossroads. The island itself constituted a natural fortress, all but unassailable. In marked contrast to the estuarial, shallow and narrow Thames, the Seine’s waters were not too swift and were capable of carrying heavy loads, ideal for commerce in wine, wheat and timber. It enabled Paris to dominate trade in the north as Lyons on the Rhône did in the centre, and Bordeaux on the Garonne and Nantes on the Loire in the west—thus making Paris a natural commercial capital early in the Middle Ages; never to lose this primacy. Resting on the river like a great ship, Paris appropriately adopted the motto of Fluctuat Nec Mergitur (“She Floats But Does Not Sink”), retaining it as city burst far beyond its island bounds.
A dynasty of Frankish rulers, mostly yobbish louts whose name appropriately derived from the Latin word for “ferocious,” now pushed in from the east and devastated the Gaul lands as they went. Once established in France, having moved to Paris from the temporary capital of Rheims they came to be known as the Merovingians.* Over two-and-a-half dark centuries they wrangled and split among themselves, beginning with the first Merovingian king, Clovis, who killed off most of his family; “after each murder,” writes Maurice Druon, with some acidity: “Clovis built a church.” They were not gentle, or nice people, these Frankish forebears of the modern-day Parisian—especially the women, who were strong, dominating, often ferocious, and who lived to great ages. There was Queen Fredegonda (545–97), described as glowing “like the eye of a nocturnal carnivore,” who had women burned alive on flimsy allegations of being responsible for the deaths of her children, and for whose fierce pleasures her lover, King Chilperic, had his first two wives murdered within the same week. Even after Fredegonda’s death, her bitter rival, Brunhilda (543–613), now a venerable septuagenarian, was brutally put to death. Tortured for three days, her last descendants slain before her eyes, chroniclers have it that she was then hoisted onto a camel (possibly a somewhat rare spectacle in contemporary France) and paraded in front of her deriding army. Finally she was “tied, by one arm, one leg and her white hair, to the tail of an unbroken horse,” allegedly along what is now the Rue des Petits-Champs, stronghold of bankers in the 2nd arrondissement.
During the ascendancy of these formidable early Frenchwomen, precursors of Reine Margot and Madame Defarge, convents were burned to the ground with their inmates inside, leaders assassinated in conjugal beds, children abducted and murdered, hands severed, eyes gouged, lovers defenestrated, and cunning poisons developed in the name of statecraft. Byzantium had nothing more deplorable to show than the Merovingians. But at least, under Clovis, the notion of Paris as a capital city first became accepted, from which—in the brief three last years of his grisly life—Clovis administered a kingdom even larger than modern France. His descendant, Dagobert, died of dysentery, aged only thirty-six, but his interment at Saint-Denis established the principle for the burial of subsequent kings of France. In a curiously progressive fashion, none of the Merovingian rulers was ever crowned, they were all elected.
The throne of France would have fallen into Muslim hands if, a hundred years later, the usurping strong-man and bastard, Charles Martel, had not halted the Saracens at Poitiers. As it was, the closing years of the century saw the last of the Merovingians and the arrival of Charlemagne, a rather less attractive character than his portraits and subsequent canonisation would suggest. He was more German than French (and looked it), and an absentee ruler who did little for France, or Paris; it has mystified many that a statue was erected to him in front of Notre-Dame. It was more for his greatness than his goodness: crowned Holy Roman Emperor on Christmas day in the year 800, Charlemagne fought forty-seven campaigns in as many years; he married four times (he divorced his first wife, and then three died—to be replaced by four concubines). He forbade his daughters to marry, preferring them to live at home and populate the court with bastards. Charlemagne’s Carolingian dynasty would last another 200 years. His empire extended from the Pyrenees to the Elbe—but he ran it all from Aix-la-Chapelle (Aachen), rather than Paris.
The great empire was short-lived. Under Charlemagne’s son, the first of eighteen named Louis (nicknamed “the Pious”), it was dismembered into seven parts. As the Carolingians wrangled, and all Europe sank into a kind of lethargy, in the ninth century a new and unknown warrior race emerged to the north—Norsemen, surging out of Scandinavia to invade the British Isles and Russia as far as Kiev, and even reaching Constantinople. In 843, Nantes was sacked, the bishop killed on the steps of his altar. Only two years later, 120 long-boats, terrifyingly decorated and with thirty pairs of oars, attacked Paris unexpectedly from up-stream. Once again the population fled; the Norsemen departed, carrying off tons of booty—including the magnificent bronze roof of Saint-Germain-le-Doré. They appeared everywhere, like some terrible plague of locusts, even sailing up the Rhône to pillage Valence, and striking at Pisa in Italy. Defenceless Paris was sacked—and more churches lost their roofs—another five times over the next twenty years. How these dauntless seaborne marauders were able to strike, with such impunity and effect, so far inland remains something of a mystery. Meanwhile the useless Charles the Bald occupied himself by putting out the eyes of his son, suspected of plotting against him.
As in the time of Attila, Paris shrank back into the original twenty-five acres of the Île de la Cité. In 885, with Charlemagne’s legacy disintegrating and the throne of France to all intents vacant, there came the first siege of Paris. Setting forth from England, a force of Norsemen captured Rouen and headed on up the Seine. Fourteen hundred boats, said to have “covered two leagues of the river” and bearing a formidable force of some 30,000 hirsute warriors, reached Paris. To have woken up and seen this terrifying array on the Seine must have been shattering for the Parisians. These Norsemen constituted a besieging force comparable only to the Prussians who were to invest the city almost exactly a thousand years later.
Led by a heroic Comte de Paris, Eudes, son of Robert the Strong, Paris refused to surrender—the first time that any city had resisted the terrible Norsemen. Eudes was to prove himself France’s homme fort, but the siege lasted ten grim months. Natural forces even allied themselves with the attackers; on 6 February a flood swept away the Petit Pont, enabling the Norsemen to capture one of the châtelet fortresses. Next famine broke out. In despair, Eudes slipped out of the city and galloped to Germany to demand assistance from the Emperor, Charles the Fat. Charles set out unwillingly, but the size of his ponderous army moving down from Montmartre caused the fatigued Norsemen to hesitate. Dubious negotiations were entered into, in which the Parisians bribed the Norsemen with 700 livres of silver and a free passage of the Seine, both ways—encouraging them to carry the war upstream to Burgundy, and leave Paris in peace. It was a deal which, subjecting the unhappy Burgundians to the worst winter they had ever known, would lead to centuries of instinctive mistrust and hatred between the principality of Burgundy and France, culminating during the Hundred Years War in an alliance with the English.
As a result of his brave defiance towards the Norsemen, two years later Count Eudes found himself elected as king by the nobles in preference to a German princeling: just to pile chaos on chaos, for a while there were in fact two Kings of France of East and West—but in Paris
it was Eudes who mattered. In 911, he bought off the Norsemen by giving them the duchy of Normandy. From then on their eyes were encouraged to turn northwards, with cheerful projects of conquering Saxon England.
Now a great-nephew of Eudes, Hugues Capet, saw off the Germanic Emperor Otto II on the slopes of Montmartre (close to where Saint Denis was separated from his head). In 987, in the city of Senlis, he was elected king by assembled French barons, and a month later Capet was crowned in Rheims Cathedral, thereby establishing a fresh precedent, like Dagobert’s interment at Saint-Denis. He ruled for only nine years (987–96), but for the first time Paris had a French, not Frankish, king and a new French dynasty. Forced to give up title to Lorraine and concede the already historic fortress of Verdun to the Germans, however, the domain of France inherited by Hugues Capet looked like a tiny kernel surrounded by a mass of hostile pulp comprising Burgundy, Flanders, Normandy, Aquitaine and Lorraine. As the energetic Norsemen, now Normans, swarmed across the English Channel and began to reorganise the sleepy and backward Saxon England they had conquered, Capetian France remained poor, its vassals powerful, its rulers in thrall to the Church and inhibited by the lack of a common language. But by 1328, when the Capetian dynasty had run its course, the kingdom of France had become the most united and potent in western Europe.*
There are no portraits of Hugues Capet (although the surname came as a sobriquet because of the abbeys whose “cappa” he wore). He died young of smallpox, but he had arranged a dynastic marriage for his eldest son, Robert, and assured his succession as rex designatus. The only text attributed to him was his coronation oath:
I, who am about to become king of the Franks, by divine favour, on this day of my coronation, in the presence of God and the saints, . . . promise to distribute justice to the people who are in my care, according to their rights.
It was to be repeated by all his successors down to the revolution. Although he seems to have been a timid and anomalous character, herein lies Hugues Capet’s claim to fame; from him would be descended nearly forty kings who would succeed each other over a period of more than 800 years.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from La Belle France by Alistair Horne. Copyright © 2005 by Alistair Horne. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.