Hugh Capet’s establishment of the Capetian dynasty changed little in the political, social, or economic structure of West Francia. The monarchy had exercised little power since the days of Charlemagne. For another two centuries, it remained weaker than the contemporary governments of the Holy Roman Empire in Germany and Norman-dominated England. Historians have suggested that the French crown’s very weakness helped preserve it—its relative insignificance made it less attractive as a target for acquisition by the magnates.
Nonetheless, the Capetian monarchy was the thread that bound together the region that would gradually become known as France. Beginning in the late 10th century, the French monarchy felt the force of several critical developments that affected western Europe generally: a resurgent Catholic Church, a growing economy, and better-organized states. As the landscape of medieval Europe changed, the Capetians worked tirelessly to master it. They were most likely guided by short- and intermediate-term political advantage rather than any deliberate policy of nation building. The unintended result was the emergence of an embryonic French nation by the late Middle Ages.
The Capetians had usurped their title in 987, and because of this usurpation their dynastic right to rule remained weak for some time. Until the 13th century, the Capetian kings tried to improve the chances for a smooth and uncontested succession. Thus, before they died, the kings had their intended successors acclaimed as king by the magnates and crowned by church officials. This process was so important that for three centuries the Capetians dated the beginning of their respective reigns not from the death of the previous king but from the moment of their coronation.
The Capetians’ dependence on other institutions, principally the church, for their authority was one major reason effective centralized government required centuries to build. Hugh Capet, who ruled from 987 to 996, accomplished little as king beyond keeping the royal title alive and out of the hands of the remaining Carolingian claimants.
He avoided military confrontation when possible; he counted more on his negotiating skills and the backing of the church to shore up his shaky position. Hugh’s immediate successors—Robert II, known as Robert the Pious (996-1031), Henry I (1031-1060), and Philip I (1060-1108)—did little better.
Indeed, some historians believe that royal authority, flimsy as it was in 987, shrank even more during the first century of Capetian rule. The magnates, who in reality governed most of the kingdom, did pay homage to the king and swore fidelity to him upon becoming his vassals. But by themselves these formalities meant little until the 12th century. Far more important were the strategic alliances that the kings made with the magnates. The magnates would typically live up to their feudal obligations to pay homage and to provide counsel and military service only when such alliances had been struck. Until the 12th century, only a few scattered territories around the Île-de-France, the region centered on Paris, made up the king’s domain—the variegated bundle of rights to exploit and administer land directly and to collect taxes. However, the king had much greater power over appointments in the French church, particularly the ability to appoint bishops. "France" © Emmanuel BUCHOT, Encarta, Wikipedia.
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