The branch of the Capet family who ruled France from 1328 to 1589, the Valois, descended from 1285 when Philip III gave the county of Valois to his brother Charles. Charles’s son succeeded to the throne of France when the direct male line of the Capets failed in 1328.
The succession was challenged by the English king Edward III, who claimed a closer link to the Crown via his mother, the sister of the last king. This was one direct cause of the Hundred Years’ War.
There were three branches of Valois kings. The first was the direct line, reigning 1328–1498. The second was the Orleans branch, which reigned in the person of just one monarch, Louis XII. This branch dates to 1392 when the younger son of Charles V, noted poet Louis, was given the Duchy of Orleans. His descendant, Louis XII (1498–1515), succeeded in 1498.
The third branch, the House of Angoulême, which reigned from 1515 to 1589, also descended from Duke Charles of Orleans. When the male line of this family ended, it went to another branch of the royal family, the Bourbon dynasty, under Salic Law, which limited the royal succession to a paternal male relative.
The first king of the Valois family, Philip VI (1328–50), was unfortunate as he faced the great defeat of Crecy followed by the Black Death that took approximately one-third of France’s population. The second king, John the Good (1350–64), was captured at the Battle of Poitiers (1356) and spent the rest of his time as a prisoner of the English. This was a low point for France, as much of the country was occupied and facing civil unrest.
The later kings of the first branch proved more capable. Charles V (1364–80), often called the wisest of the Valois, was able to win back most of the English conquest but died young. His successor, Charles VI (1380–1422), succeeded as a child, gave promise of ability, but succumbed to insanity in 1392.
Thereafter, the French realm slid back into anarchy and eventual English invasion by Henry V, whose victory at Agincourt and intrigue by the House of Burgundy eventually led to a treaty in 1420 that made the English king, as the husband of Catherine of France, the heir. Perhaps half of France fell under English control.
The next king, Charles VII (1422–61), was not a great king but was called “the well-served” because of his advisers and aides. A series of events led to the eventual expulsion of the English from France during Charles VII’s reign. First, Joan of Arc inspired the French in her quest to rid her country of England.
Then Charles’s relatives persuaded him to establish the first standing army so as to reduce dependence on unreliable nobles. Additionally, the financier Jacques Coeur established a tax system to support the army. Together, these factors empowered the French to shake off English rule altogether.
Louis XI (1461–83), who along with Charles V, is considered the ablest of the Valois kings, faced a threat from Burgundy, which was an offshoot of the royal line of France. The duchy and county of Burgundy (Franche-Comté) together with much of the Netherlands were under the control of this family. Other nobles joined Charles to flout Louis XI’s authority.
Louis established a new civilian administration and gradually reduced the huge territories of the nobles. He was assisted by the defeat and death of his greatest rival, Charles of Burgundy, in 1477 so that with the exception of Brittany, the major fiefs of France had been annexed by his death. The marriage of his son Charles VIII (1483–98), who married the heiress of Brittany in 1498, completed the policy of consolidation.
On Charles’s death in 1498, the direct line ended, and Louis XII succeeded. He retained Brittany by marrying the widow of Charles VIII. He also continued the Italian Wars started by his predecessor. On his death in 1515, he was succeeded by his cousin and son-in-law Francis I.
A true Renaissance prince, Francis I spent the bulk of his reign struggling against the hegemony of the Habsburg dynasty as exemplified by charles v and I of Germany and Spain. His successor, Henry II, continued his policies. The French abandoned Italy at the end of his reign but gained the Lorraine territories of Metz, Toul, and Verdun.
The last kings of the Valois (Francis II, 1559–60; Charles IX, 1560–74; and Henry III, 1574–89) had their reigns overshadowed by the Wars of Religion between devout Catholics on the one hand and the Protestant Huguenots on the other. When the last of the kings was murdered by a religious fanatic motivated by revenge, the line ended after a tumultuous 261 years of rule.