European Royalty: The French Bourbons

The Bourbons and the Bonapartes have dominated the history the of the modern French nation. Several dynastic families, however, have provided their lines to long list of French kings. It is the Bourbons that generally come to mind when one thinks of the French monarchy and it is the Bourbons in large measure who founded the modern French nation, expeling the English and gaining control over a powerful airistocracy to create a centalized national government cenrtered on Paris.


Bourbon, the name of a family of French origin, members of which became rulers of several European countries. The family derived its name from the castle and lordship of Bourbon, a town known in ancient times as Aquae Borvonis. It was the capital of the former province of Bourbonnais (q.v.); it is now the village of Bourbon l'Archambault (pop. about 3000), located in the department of Allier in central France, about 15 miles west of Moulins. The history of the Bourbon family has dominated the history of France since the 13th century. There were also Italian and Spanish branches of the family. Along with the Hapsburgs and the Riomanovs, the Bourbons are one of the principal and longest ruling royal families of Europe. The first Bourbon king was Henry IV. His son, Louis XIII, played a major role in converting France's weak monarchy into an absolute monarchy--reaching its peak in the rule of Louis XIV.

European International Relations

Europe was at a crossroads in the the 17th and 18th century. It was at this time that the foundation of the modern world was laid. There were three great powers, England, France, and Spain. Germany and Italy were not yet united. Spanish power was ebbing. Of the three, however, England was the least powerful with the smaller economy and population. It was England through, however, that was to become the dominate world power. Although France was a more powerful state, it was decisions by the Bourbons (primaruly Louis XIV and XV) to engage in costly European Wars and illconceived economic policies that allowed the English to achieve world power. In the end the difference between the two countries was the England had a lmited monarchy forcing the king, however inperfectly, to give attention to the welfare of his subjects. The French Bourbons, however, saw thenselves as the embodiment of the French nation. Louis XIV was famous for his statement, "I am the state." Their reign and policies reflected this. One major error made by the Bourbons was the lack of attention to overseas colonies. The French and British vied for control of North America, but this was always regarded by the Bourbons as a secondary matter. How different would modern history be if the French had won the struggle for North America. A small allocation of the effort expended in continental wars which gained France little, could well have made this possible.

Early Bourbons

The first known member of the Bourbon family, named Aimar or Adhemar, lived in the 9th century. A 13th-century descendant of Aimar, Beatrix, married Robert, the sixth son of King Louis IX of France, in 1272; on this marriage was based the claim of Henry of Navarre, 16th-century lineal descendant of Beatrix and Robert, to the French throne. Before the birth of Henry an elder line of the Bourbon family had already ended with the death of Charles de Montpensier, Duc de Bourbon, also descended from Beatrix and Robert.

Henry IV (1589-1610)

The first member of the House of Bourbon to achieve royal rank was a son of Antoine de Bourbon, Due de Vendome, and Jeanne d'Albret, heiress to the throne of Navarre. This son became King Henry III of Navarre (1572). Henry was almost killed on his wedding day in the Saint Bartholomew's Day Massacre (1572). The killing began in Paris and several thousand Protestants who had come to the capital for Henry's wedding were killed. Thousands more Protestanrs were killed in other towns and cities. With the death of the last Valois king of France, King Henry III (1589), Henry of Navarre became the first of a long line of Bourbon kings of France as Henry IV. Claiming the throne and Paris, however, proved difficult because of his Protestant faith. The War of the Three Henries (1585-89) was a struggle for the French crown. The Catholic League organized resistance to protestant Henry. Henry fought a long military campaign and in the end had to convert to Catholocism. He is seen as one of the most important and highly honored of the Bourbon kings. Henry IV had five legitimate children, one of whom died without male heirs. The other four were his successor, King Louis XIII (q.v.), and three daughters, Elizabeth, Christina, and Henrietta Maria, through whose marriages the House of Bourbon was linked to the royal families of Spain, Savoy, and England.

Louis XIII (1601-1643)

Louis XIII was the eldest son of Henry IV and Marie de Médicis. He was born at Fontainebleau in 1601. Loiis was raised under the harsh regime of his governess, Madame de Montglat, and from 1609. of his governor, the Marquis de Souvré. Louis reportedly desposed his father's illegitimate children with whom he shared the royal nursery. One of those brothers, Gaston Duke d'Orleans later attempted to gain the crown. Their father was murdered in 1619 and his mother became regent. Louis was a shy youth and became attached in Charles d'Albert, the royal falconer who he was to make Duke de Luynes. Louis' mother acting as regent forced the boy to mary Anne of Austria--the daughter of Philip III of Spain. France's great nobles objected. Louis who was only 14 was required to consumatethe mairage, an experience which reportedly affected him throughout his life. Louis ended the regency in 1617 when he rebelled against his mother and her Italian favorite who , with the aid of d'Albert he had killed. He had his mother imprisoned. Even so she led consiracies against her son. Louis made Richelieu his chief minister, but regarded him at first as his mother's protégé. They suceeded in checking Habsburg power in Europe and gaining control over the nobillity. Although he came to regard his Habsburg wife as unloyal, the two after years withut children produced the future Louis XIV in 1638.

Louis XIV (1643-1715)

The successor to Louis XIII was his aclaimed son, Louis XIV (1643-1715). The famed Sun King whose ruled marked the apogee of royal absolutism in France and in fact Europe. Louis dominated European afffairs during the late 17th and early 20th century. Louis was born in St. Germain-en-Laye in 1638. He was at the time called le Dieudonné, the gift of God, because his parent's mairrage had for so many years beeb barren. Many Frenchmen had dispaired of a heir. Few French kings had such illustrious ancestors, the much lved Henry IV on his father's side and Phillip II, the somber, pious master of the Soanish Armada. The consciousness of his ancestors and the fact that he became king at such an early age that he could hardly recall a time when he had not been king.

Figure 2.--Louis XIV's younger brother, Philippe, was reportedly kept in dresses longer than usual to reduce his potential threat to Louis. Philippe founded the Orleans line of the Bourbon family.

Two Bourbon Lines

Direct descendants of Louis XIII continued to rule France as the elder line of the House of Bourbon. The Orleans line was, however, to play an important role in French history.

Orleans Line

Conditions in France deteriorated for the common people during the reign of Louis XV. This led during the reign of Louis XVI the outbreak of the French Revolution. Louis XVI was forced to abdicate and was eventually execulted with the guillotine. A brother of Louis XIV, Philip, Duke of Orleans, was the founder of the collateral branch of Bourbons known as the House of Orleans. A grandson of Louis XIV, Philip, Duke of Anjou, became King Philip V of Spain, the founder of the Spanish House of Bourbon.

Senior Line

Both the son and eldest grandson of Louis XIV died before that monarch's reign ended; he was succeeded by his great-grandson, Louis XV.

Louis XV (1715-74)

Louis XVI was born in 1710 at Versailles, the famed palace of Louis XIV. Like his great grandfather, he became king at an very young age. He began his reign as "Louis the well beloved", but when he died he was unmourned. Serious failures in his upbringing and character prevented him from ruling effectively. He became king in 1715 when he was only 5 years old. He was France's longest serving monarchs. His ineffectual rule contributed to the decline of royal authority that led to the outbreak of the Revolution in 1789. Louis was born at Versailles in 1710, the son of the Duke of Burgandy, who died only 2 years later in 1712. Because of the death of his parents and only surviving brother in 1712, he became King at the age of 5 years on the death of Louis XIV (Sept. 1, 1715). Until he attained his legal majority in 1723, France was governed by a regent, Philippe II, duc d'Orleans. I have no information at this time on Louis' childhood or how he was dressed as a boy. Louis' tutor Cardinal Fleury was to become his head of government. Neither Louis' education nor his character prepared Louis for the task of ruling France, This was critical at Louis XIV had centered French Givernment in the person of the king. A weak king meant a weak goverrnment. Louis was handsome and an imposing figure. He was also intelligent. This potential was spoiled by an inadequate education that taight him that he was the center of his country's life, but failed to inspire in him any real concern for the welfare of his subjects. Court life at Versailles served to emphasize his personal importance and cut him off from contact with his subjects. Boored by court life, Louis let his personal pleasure govern his life. The young king even after reaching his majority continued to rule through intermediaries. In 1744, he proclaimed that he would rule without a chief minister, but was too indolent and lacking in self-confidence to coordinate the activities of his secretaries of state and give firm direction on national policy. While his government degenerated into factions of scheming ministers and courtiers, Louis amused himself at court with a succession of mistresses, several of whom exercised considerable political influence. Louis was not completely passive; in 1748 he set up a system of secret diplomacy to advance France's interests, but neglected to inform his official ministers about it, throwing foreign policy into confusion. Later, he concluded an alliance with Austria in 1756, and the two went to war with Great Britain and Prussia in the fateful Seven Years' War (1756-63), one of the most disatrous in French history. Louis' committments to the Austrians prevented him from concentrating on the colonial struggle with Britain and as a result, by 1763, France had lost to Britain almost all her colonial possessions in North America and India. Later, the failure of his secret diplomacy resulted in the near elimination of French influence in central Europe. In the later years of his reign, reforms was carried out that did greatly improve the judicial system, but apart from this, Louis XV's long reign was a decline in the crown's moral and political authority, and had seen great reverses in foreign and military affairs. The King died in 1774, generally hated by his subjects. Profligate spending during his reign in part added to the declining economic plight of the middle and working classes. It also led to the near bankruptsy of the treasury. Louis XV also outlived his son, and was succeeded by his oldest grandson, Louis XVI.

Figure 3.--This is Louis-Joseph, the eldest son of Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette. Both Louis-Joseph and his brother Louis Charles are usually depicted in open ruffled collared skeleton suits. I am not sure who the artist is, but given the age of Louis Joseph, it was probably painted about 1784.

Louis XVI (1774-(93)

Louis XVI was born in 1754 at Versailles. He was the last King of France (1774-93) in the line of the Bourbon monarchs preceding the Revolution of 1789--the last Bourbon king to govern France as an absolute ruler. He became heir to his grandfather's throne upon his father's death in 1765. While he was the third spn, he was the only surviving son with his father, the Dauphin died. Unlike his father, Louis was neither intelligent or handsome. HBC at this time has little information on his childhood, but some information on how he was dressed as a boy. Louis became a devout and chaste young man who disapproved of the licentious court and his father's lack of fidelity to his mother. His grandfather in turn found Louis dull, inelegant, and in a nutshell simply gross. His education was indifferently handled. He married the Austrian archduchess Marie Antoinette in 1770. They had four children including two boys. But mairrage to the vivacious, somewhat frivolous Austrian princess did nothing go alter Louis' phlegmatic character. Louis succeeded to the throne on May 10, 1774 after his grandfather's, Louis XV, death. Facing bankruptcy of the royal treasury, Louis was obliged in May, 1789, to summon the Estates General, a body that could approve new taxes but which had not met for over a hundred years. A few months later the people of Paris eople stormed the royal prison, the Bastille launching the Revolution. He pretended to assent to ruling as a constitutional monarch. But his education and life experience made it impossible to really accept this. He secretly sought assistance from the royalist armies gathering in Germany. After a failed attempt to escape the capital and join the reactionary forces in 1791 his true intentions were revealed. Louis was charged with treason. Condemned to death, he was guillotined in Paris on Jan 21, 1793. His courage on June 20, 1792 when the palace was invaded by a mob, and his dignified bearing during his trial and execution did something to restore, but not reestablish, his reputation. As his eldest son Louis-Joseph died before the Revolution, his second son Louis Charles was referred to as Louis XVII, but never crowned.

Louis-Charles (Louis XVII)

Louis-Charles was born in 1785 at Versailles. He died in 1795 at Paris. He was the titular King of France from 1793. Second son of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, he became dauphin (heir to the throne) on the death of his older brother, Louis-Joseph, in June 1789, shortly after the outbreak of the Revolution. Imprisoned with the rest of the royal family in Paris, the French nobles in exile proclaimed him King with the execution of the father on Jan 21, 1793. On July 3, 1793, he was taken from his mother and put under the surveillance of a cobbler. Marie Antoinette was executed on Oct. 16, 1793, and in Jan. 1794, Louis was again imprisoned. The harsh conditions of his confinement quickly undermined his health and he died in June, his death a severe blow to the constitutional monarchists who has once again become a powerful political force. The secrecy surrounding his last months gave rise to many rumours that he had been murdered or had escaped. During the next few decades, more than 30 people claimed to be Louis XVII.

The Reign of Terror and First Republic

Following the execution of the King on 21 January 1793 there followed a reign of terror with many political trials. By the end of 1793 there were 4,595 political prisoners held in Paris. As the Revolution progressed, lopping off the heads of aristocrats, empowering the ordinary toiling people, breaking up estates among the peasants and threatening the established order in neighbouring monarchies, the wealthier and more powerful among the middle classes also began to take fright. They had gained what they wanted from the revolution--political power. The middle class now became frightened of the people in the streets as the aristocracy was. The middle class conspired against the revolution, and after less than 6 years of revolution, counter revolution triumphed in 1795 with the execution of Robespierre. By 1799, only one decade after the fall of the Bastille, it was all over, and Napoleon was in power. France began to have better times as their armies, under the command of Napoleon Bonaparte, won victory after victory.

The Bonapartes

Napoleon Bonepart was born on the island of Corsica on Aug 15, 1769. On March 9, 1796 he married Josephene de Beauharnas. Napoleon became 1st Consul in 1800 and then Emperor in 1804. The French armies continued a conquest of Europe while Napoleon's power became more and more secure. While hardly an adherent of the principles of the French Revolution, Naoleon and his Grand Army spread the democratic and nationalistic principles of the Revolution throughout Europe.

Louis XVIII (1814-24)

After the defeat of Napoleon I in 1814, a brother of Louis XVI was restored to the French throne as Louis XVIII. Louis was born at Versailles in 1755, the son of the Dauphin Louis, a grandson of Louis XV and a younger brother of Louis XVI. He was baptised Louis Stanislas Xavier and given the title of Count de Provence. I have no information on his childhood or how he was dressed as a boy, but growing up in Versailles he must have been dresses very elegantly. He mairred Marie Joséphine, daughter of the King of Savoy, in 1771. The mairrage was childless. The Count had literary and political interests and was more liberal than his older brother or his younger brother the Count d'Artois--the future Charles X. He attempted to work with the Revolution and enjoyed some popularity. As the Revolution became more radical he finally emigrated in June 1791. After Louis XVI's execution in 1793, he was proclaimed Regent for Louis XVII who was held captive in Paris. When Louus XVII died, the émigrés proclaimed the Count Louis XVII. After several he settled in London where he endured the Napoleonic era. Louis XVIII was reinstated as King. He accepted his role as constitutional monarch and pursued a moderate policy attempting to end past recriminations, end foreign military occupation, and restore the international prestige of the monarchy. He sought as he wrote to Decazes "to nationalize royalty and royalize the nation." Louis was sickly and as his health deteriorated he took less interest in politics. He died in September 1824. Louis' younger and reactionary brother, Charles became king.

Charles X (1824-1830)

At the death of Louis XVIII, a younger brother, Charles X, acceded and was the last Bourbon king of France. He set about re-establishing the old regime. But you cannot kill ideas and a whole generation had experienced the power of ideas that grip the mind of the masses. France was becoming a capitalist country and the new capitalist class was busy developing its own gravediggers in the form of a working class for its growing number of factories and mills. The people, including the new capitalists, had had enough of the old regime, however. They and especially the peoople of Paris knew how to get rid of kings. A popular 1830 Parisian insurection deposed Charles and his reactionary regime. A popular assembly elected a new liberal king, Louis Phillipe, the former Duke of Orleans.


The descendants of Charles X became pretenders to the throne in the view of the adherents of the House of Bourbon, known as Legitimists. The eldest son of Charles X, Louis, Duc d'Angouleme (1755-1844), was called Louis XIX by the Legitimists, although he had renounced his right to rule. Subsequently Louis' nephew, Henri, Cornte de Chambord, was proclaimed King Henry V by the Legitimists. At his death (1883) the elder line of Bourbons became extinct; the head of the House of Orleans was accepted by the Legitimists as the successor to Bourbon claims.

Louis Philippe (1830-1848)

At the time of the French Revolution, under the name Citizen Egalite Equality), he had joined the citizens' militia, the National Guard, under Lafayette (who had fought in the American Revolution). The regime of the "citizen king" however became increasingly reactionary and corrupt, until it was ousted in the torrent revolutionary activity that burst forth in 1848. In February, the Parisians threw out Louis Phillipe; Louis Phillipe fled to England; it was the end of the Bourbon monarchy.

The Second Republic (1848-51)

The short-lived Second Republic lasted grom the fall of Louis Felippe in 1848 to the seizxure of power by Nappoleon III in a 1851 coup d'etat. The Revolution of 1848 was still a bourgeois-democratic revolution, but carried to a higher stage and influenced by the Communist League of Marx and Engels. Revolutionary sentiments and aims spread across Europe. In March, revolutionary uprisings erupted in Germany. In June, the workers of Paris rose up. Engels called this "the first great battle for power between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie". 100,000 soldiers confronted 30,000-40,000 workers behind street barricades. For three glorious days the armed people held the army at bay. When the workers' districts fell, the heroic insurgents were massacred, the survivors hanged or transported. Marx and Engels, through their paper in Germany, the Neue Rheinische Zeitung, vigorously supported the Parisian workers. "If 40,000 Parisian workers", wrote Engels, "could achieve such tremendous things against forces four times their number, what will the whole mass of Paris workers accomplish by concerted and co-ordinated action!"

The example of the Parisian workers inspired other mass revolutionary uprisings that year in Poland, Italy and Bohemia, all countries suffering under the rule of foreign monarchs. Late in the year there was a second revolutionary uprising in Germany. These were not localised events. Revolutionary armies were formed and campaigns waged. Engels joined the revolutionary army in Germany, and exposed the fatal timidity and poor tactics of the revolutionary leaders. In Hungary, revolutionary war raged and continued on into much of 1849 before being finally defeated by the sheer power of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. In Germany, during 1849, there were more uprisings, this time against the counter-revolution. Again, the soldiers in many areas sided with the people, and pitched battles were fought between revolutionary and counter-revolutionary armies.

The Second Empire: Napoleon III

Meanwhile, the nephew of Napoleon, a wily demagogue, had returned to France from exile shortly after the February revolution of 1848 and got himself elected to the new Constituent Assembly. Posing as the protector of popular liberties and national prosperity, he was elected President and in 1851 he dissolved the Constitution and a year later proclaimed himself Emperor as Napoleon III.

Third Republic

The Third Republic was set up after the Franco-Prussian war disaster in 1870, the fall of the second Bonaparte empire, and the suppression of the great Paris Commune. As the German armies approached Paris in 1870, a Government of National Defence was immediately formed in Paris, the Third Republic proclaimed, and the might of Prussia defied. For four months Paris held out against German siege, but January 1871, when Paris neared the end of its food supply and provincial military operations appeared hopeless, the French Government capitulated. Bismarck imposed harsh peace terms. Two months later, the French Government moved to disarm the workers. In Paris, the workers, supported by the men of the National Guard (the same body that "Citizen Egalite" had joined in 1789), rose up under the banner of the Red Flag, and proclaimed a Commune. Similar Communes were established at Lyon, Toulouse, Marseilles, Saint-Etienne, Le Creusot and Narbonne, but were short lived. Paris was isolated. After a heroic struggle the city fell to the counter-revolutionary government forces in May 1871, and a week-long massacre of Communards ensued. But as Marx commented: "The principles of the Commune were eternal and could not be crushed; they would assert themselves again until the working classes were emancipated."

The great statesman Thiers had been minister under Louis Phillipe before Napolean Bonaparte the younger made himself Emperor on the back of the 1848 Revolution. Thiers really wanted a return to a Liberal Monarchy like the Kingdom of France under Louis Phillipe (1830-1848) and retaining the tri-color flag. He had no intentions of going back to the old Bourbon Fleur de Lys flag on the blue ground which many French associated with reactionary forces. The Count de Paris refused to become king with the tri-colour flag, so President McMahon dropped the whole question. France was to be a republic. The 3rd Republic soldiered on through the catestrophy of World War I until going down to total defeat and national humiliation at the hands of Hitler's Germany in 1940. France as we know it today was only saved by British tenacity, Russian esistance, and American industrial might.


Jager, Eric. (A tue Tale of Crime and Detection in Medieval Paris (2014), 336p.


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Created: June 6, 1998
Last updated: 2:25 AM 3/3/2014