A dynasty of human frailty

  • Themes: France, History, Middle Ages

The Capetian dynasty of Medieval France is presented in a new light through the captivating stories of its rogue’s gallery of killers, weaklings, fools, tyrants, fanatics and lechers.

Blanche of Castile (1188-1252), Queen Consort of France and her son King Louis IX of France (1214-1270)
Blanche of Castile (1188-1252), Queen Consort of France and her son King Louis IX of France (1214-1270). Credit: incamerastock / Alamy Stock Photo

Justine Firnhaber-Baker, House of Lilies: The Dynasty that made Medieval France, Allen Lane, £30

When medieval chroniclers wrote their histories of Christendom’s royal families, these often-monastic authors frequently did so with the intention of edifying their readers with heroes and role models. Then in later centuries writers swept along by the chivalric romance of medieval knightly culture tended to present courtly fantasies filled with noble princesses, wise kings and valiant young warriors, often yearning for an unobtainable amour. Firnhaber-Baker’s House of Lilies, however, has nothing whatsoever to do with either tradition. No role models or heroes here: this history of the Capetian monarchy provides a rogues’ gallery of killers, weaklings, fools, tyrants, fanatics and lechers. It is not that she has nothing positive to say about them, at times she does, but she certainly brings them down to earth with a bump.

House of Lilies traces the history of France’s ruling Capetian dynasty from its origins through to its last representatives in the 14th century. The first Capetian ruler, Hugh Capet, became king by election in 987. Rather amusingly, at least in hindsight, the decision to appoint Hugh took place at a council in which his prime supporter gave a lengthy speech stressing that hereditary succession should not be the principle by which the Frankish monarchy should select its rulers. He then proffered Hugh as an ideal choice. In doing so, he laid the foundations for a dynasty that would rule France father-to-son for the next three-and-a-half centuries. The irony was not apparent at the time.

Subsequently, we follow the fortunes of the Capetian monarchs, ruler-by-ruler, chapter-by-chapter. This begins with the rather unremarkable early Capetians, who spent nearly all their time fighting small wars against neighbouring counts and dukes, exercising little authority outside their slither of territory around Paris. They may have retained their title as ‘King of the Franks’, but this didn’t mean that they automatically had any real power over France as a whole (and the concept of France at this time was still at a very early stage in its development).

The Capetians’ prospects perked up a bit during the 12th century with Louis VI (1108-37) and VII (1137-80), not because they gained much new territory or economic heft, but because they managed to wreath themselves with a powerful, divinely ordained mystique while drawing clearer boundary lines between themselves and their various noble neighbours. The Capetians’ fortunes, however, showed a decided uptick under Louis VII’s son Philip II (1180-1223), whose economic reforms and substantial military conquests (seized from the omni-derided John of England) had the effect of increasing royal incomes almost by a factor of six, thereby achieving a commanding position for the dynasty.

Economics, war, crusading, and outbreaks of antisemitism punctuate this account of the Capetians’ often not-so-illustrious reigns, but the focus of the book is generally the ins and outs of the Capetian family itself, including moments of love, hate, greed, piety, fleeting flashes of kindness and compassion, and a lot of sex. At times the book feels a bit like a medieval form of reality TV, filled with breakups, name-calling, longstanding grudges, and drama. I do not offer this observation as a criticism of the book, quite the reverse; the inner machinations of the Capetian family, as the kingdom’s ruling dynasty, rippled out to impact both the kingdom of France and Christendom as a whole.

These chapters are also full of remarkable stories. The most striking example of this is Philip II’s incredibly unsuccessful marriage to Ingeborg of Denmark. It runs – in brief – as follows. Initially, Philip was keen on the match. He met her. They got married. However, the day after the wedding night, Philip walked away from the marriage loudly demanding a divorce. Being in a fully sanctioned and consummated marriage, the Church refused the divorce. Philip’s aversion, however, remained so strong that even years later he could not stand being under the same roof as her. What on earth happened to create such a visceral aversion? Unfortunately, the sources cannot tell us, but at a human level it is all very intriguing.

Following Philip’s career and Ingeborg’s tragic life, spent mostly locked away and out of sight, the book ploughs on into the career of his son Louis VIII (1223-26), who occupied himself fighting heretics, adoring his wife, and invading England. His widow Blanche of Castile then became effective ruler for many years, while their son and heir, Louis IX (1226-70), was a child. Dominating court life and family politics, she was a true matriarch who exerted a profound influence on her children’s future reigns.

After acquiring the reins of power, Louis went on to become a deeply pious ruler with a profound commitment to crusading. Like most Capetian monarchs, who set out on crusading campaigns to the Holy Land and North Africa, his ventures weren’t especially successful on the battlefield, but the acute sense of guilt he felt from his many failures warrants close attention. It acted as fuel for a major series of fiscal, administrative and judicial reforms instituted across the kingdom of France, which served to create a substantially more complex bureaucracy. His goal was the moral and spiritual enhancement of the populace; the outcome was a far more powerful and centralised kingdom.

The final chapters then move into the lives of Louis IX’s sons and grandsons especially the decidedly unpleasant Philip the Fair (1285-1314) – don’t be influenced by the name, pretty does not necessarily mean nice. His suspicious nature and persistent struggles with the papacy characterised much of his reign including his trial and suppression of the Knights Templars. Firnhaber-Baker presents this episode as a straightforward attempt to seize the Templars’ money, coupled with Philip’s evident desire to enhance his own power (I completely agree).

The Capetian line then, kind-of, sort-of, ended when none of Philip’s three sons and successors managed to produce a viable heir, or at least no-one who survived for long. This was certainly not a clean break as the next king, Philip VI of Valois, was still part of the family, even if his family name ‘Valois’ did change its collective identity. Philip VI’s accession has therefore been taken as the traditional endpoint, closing the chapter on the Capetian dynasty.

Throughout the book, Firnhaber-Baker does a sterling job of drawing out the careers and peccadillos of the Capetian ruling house, but she is especially effective when exploring the lives of the many queens, princesses, and noblewomen who shaped the events of this era. Scarcely more virtuous than their conspicuously flawed menfolk, their actions profoundly shaped the evolution of the family, and therefore the country. Traditionally, medieval historians have often celebrated powerful medieval women by discussing how they overcame the many barriers imposed by a deeply patriarchal society, yet this book made me wonder if we need to adjust our frame of reference. Generation after generation, Capetian women were so influential and played such an active role (and were clearly expected to) that it made me wonder if we should reconsider some of our fundamental assumptions about contemporary attitudes towards female agency at this time.

Taken as a whole, there is a great deal to praise in Firnhaber-Baker’s House of Lilies.  I initially expected to read this book over the course of a week-long holiday; as it turned out I read it in 24 hours, so difficult was it to put down. Engagingly written, very carefully researched, filled with fascinating stories, and populated with deeply odd personalities, this is a persuasive and illuminating study. I did wonder about the title, though: House of Lilies. A rather romanticised name for a book that so captures human frailty.


Nicholas Morton