Want to learn more about the famous French royals who shaped the country’s history? Then this post will give you 17 of the most prominent French monarchs!
Throughout the centuries, France has been home to an ancestry of remarkable monarchs who left an indelible mark on its history.
From the early medieval period to the height of the Renaissance, these French royals shaped the nation’s destiny and the course of politics, society, and culture.
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These monarchs not only influenced France but Europe and the world too. So much so that these royal figures have become synonymous with French history, and their legacy fills the pages of history textbooks worldwide.
Curious to know who they are? Let’s take a walk through history and learn more about these 17 most famous French royals.
Most Famous French Royals
Whether they were visionary rulers who established and expanded the French state or queens who fostered the flourishing of arts and sciences, these 17 most famous French royals helped shape France and its history as we know it today.
From Philip II to Napoleon III, these monarchs embody the essence of the French monarchy with their contributions to the nation’s rich tapestry of history.
Their legacies range from military conquests and political reforms to artistic patronage and religious developments. If one had power and ambition, another had compassion. If one had military prowess, then the other had public sympathy or even hate.
1. Philip II (1165 – 1223)
Philip II of France, or Philip Augustus was the King of France from 1180 to 1223 and is considered one of the most influential monarchs in French history.
In fact, he was the first of the French monarchs to name himself “King of France,” since they were known as King of the Franks before.
Philip II expanded the French territory and strengthened royal authority through strategic marriages and military conquests, setting the stage for the emergence of France as a significant European power.
One of his notable conflicts was the Battle of Bouvines in 1214, in which he defeated a coalition that had formed against him consisting of Otto IV, King John of England, and Count William I of Holland, among others.
He was also the first Capetian king to build a French navy actively.
2. Saint Louis IX (1214 – 1270)
Louis IX, also known as Louis the Saint or Saint Louis, was born in 1214. Reigning as the King of France from 1226 till his death in 1270, Louis IX left an enduring legacy by implementing numerous reforms, promoting fairness in the legal system, and seeking to alleviate social inequality.
He banned trials by ordeal and created a royal justice system where petitioners could appeal judgments directly to the king.
Louis IX’s reign also helped to foster economic and political stability within his kingdom, which garnered this period the nickname of the Golden Age of the Middle Ages.
Canonized in 1297, Saint Louis IX was the only canonized King of France and a revered figure, embodying the ideals of devotion, justice, and benevolent rule.
He was part of a long lineage of the House of Capet royal family of France.
One of the many achievements he is still known for today is that he purchased Christian relics including the Crown of Thorns and a piece of the True Cross and built a chapel, Sainte-Chapelle in Île de la Cité, Paris to house them.
These were later moved to Notre Dame Cathedral but due to the fire on 15 April 2019, they were moved to the Louvre Museum for safekeeping! They’re, however, not on display.
3. Philip IV (1268 – 1314)
Philip IV or Philip the Fair, was King of France from 1285 to 1314. He also held the titles King of Navarre by his marriage to Joan I of Navarre and Count of Champagne.
He was nicknamed the Iron King for being autocratic yet was distant about unpopular policies.
His administrative and financial reforms turned France from a feudal country to a centralized administrative one with the establishment of the King’s Council, Parlement, etc.
He wanted to strengthen the monarchy, and the resulting actions mounted deficits on the French.
Philip also clashed with the Catholic church and papacy on numerous occasions over gaining their wealth and assets while meting out harsh orders against them like the suppression and eventual arrest of the Knights Templar. He also expelled Jews from France in 1306.
4. John I of France (1316 – 1316)
John I, also known as John the Posthumous reigned as the King of France and Navarre for just five days in 1316.
He was the posthumous son and successor of Louis X, who was born on 15th November and died on 20th November of the same year.
As the posthumous son of King Louis X, his ascension to the throne was contested. His brief and tragic reign was marked by uncertainty and power struggles within the French monarchy.
He was the youngest King of France, the only one to have borne that title from birth, and the only one to hold it for his entire life, however short it was.
King of France from 1364 until his death in 1380, Charles V The Wise, was one of the most influential French monarchs who made significant contributions to the stability and prosperity of France during a challenging period.
He successfully navigated the turmoil of the Hundred Years’ War, reclaiming several territories from the English and strengthening the French military.
He implemented administrative and fiscal reforms, like establishing real wages for the army hence promoting efficient governance and economic growth.
His conflicts with the papacy caused the Papal Schism of 1378, which continued nearly four decades after.
The first Duchess on this list among the other kings and queens of France is Anne of Brittany, who gained multiple titles and regions through her father, Francis II’s inheritance.
She played a crucial role in negotiating and safeguarding the rights and privileges of her duchy.
Anne married twice, first to King Charles VIII and later to King Louis XII, thanks to the agreement that stated that she would always keep Brittany, which meant that she had to marry a new King after the passing of her first husband, Charles VIII.
She became Queen Consort of France on both occasions, making her the only woman to have held this title twice. From 1491 to 1498 and later from 1499 till her death, respectively.
In addition to France, she was also Queen of Naples and Duchess of Milan. Anne also championed art and culture, patronizing renowned artists and scholars and including them in her circle of court poets.
7. Francis I (1494 – 1547)
The only son of Count Charles of Angoulême and Louise of Savoy, and great-grandson of King Charles V of France, François I or Francis I, succeeded his father-in-law, Louis XII, to the throne.
Circumstances (the death of Charles VIII and Louis XII, both with no heir) made him the heir presumptive to the throne in 1498, along with inheriting the title of Duke of Valois when he was barely four years old.
François I married Claude, daughter of Anne of Brittany, so when he was King from 1515 till his death in 1547, she was his Queen consort.
He was a notable patron of the arts, promoting French Renaissance and attracting renowned artists such as Leonardo da Vinci to his court. And thanks to him, France now owns the world’s most famous painting, The Mona Lisa.
8. Catherine de’ Medici (1519 – 1589)
This Florentine noblewoman born into the wealthy Medici family is considered one of the most famous Queens of France. I’m talking about Catherine de’ Medici.
For those wondering, she became Queen from 1547 to 1559 by marriage to King Henry II, son of Francis I.
She was an influential figure in French history as Queen Mother during the reigns of her three sons: Francis II, Charles IX, and Henry III. Eventually, this period (the reign of all his sons) became to be known as “the age of Catherine de’ Medici”.
She played a significant role in French politics, state affairs, and diplomacy while navigating tumultuous times, including the Wars of Religion, and seeking to maintain monarchal stability.
Although controversial, Catherine de’ Medici left a lasting impact on French history making her not only one of the most famous French monarchs but also one of the most famous French women.
In fact, she was called “the most important woman in Europe” in the 16th century.
9. Henry IV (1553 – 1610)
Remembered as one of the most beloved and influential monarchs of France, Henry IV, fondly known as Henry the Great was the King of Navarre from 1572 and King of France from 1589 until he was assassinated in 1610.
Having been raised in the Protestant faith by his mother, he followed it till four years into his reign, making him the only Protestant French King. He eventually converted to Catholicism to bring back peace in his kingdom.
Henry IV played a crucial role in ending the Wars of Religion by issuing the Edict of Nantes in 1598, granting religious freedom to Protestants, and promoting tolerance.
He was also a pragmatic ruler who implemented economic reforms, fostered agricultural growth, encouraged education, and attempted to eliminate corruption, earning him the epithet “Good King Henry.”
Shortly before his ninth birthday, Louis XIII’s father, Henry IV, was assassinated, making him ascend the throne of France and Navarre at a young age.
His mother, Marie de’ Medici acted as regent until he became a major, after which he sent her to exile for mismanaging the kingdom.
Louis XIII relied heavily on the guidance of his chief minister, Cardinal Richelieu, implementing policies that strengthened royal authority and centralized power.
Together, they established the Académie française (a council responsible for everything related to the French language) and pursued an assertive foreign policy, engaging in the Thirty Years’ War to protect French interests.
While not as renowned as his father or successor, Louis XIII’s reign laid the groundwork for the powerful and influential monarchy seen in his son, Louis XIV’s era.
Son of Louis XIII, Louis XIV the Great or the Sun King, ruled over France from 1643 till his death in 1715, lasting 72.3 years, making it the longest reign of any European nation in recorded history.
He engaged in numerous military campaigns, expanding French territories and making France a dominant European power.
Louis XIV’s reign was characterized by his pursuit of absolute monarchy, centralizing power in his own hands.
In addition to establishing the Palace of Versailles, he also moved the seat of government and his court there, symbolizing his authority and grandeur while making the Palace the de facto capital of France.
To date, he is considered one of the most famous French Royals.
Louis-Auguste, or Louis XVI reigned as the last King of France from 1774 until the abolition of the monarchy in 1792.
His reign was marked by challenges and crises including high inflation and poverty among citizens while the royals spent so much money on themselves.
This ultimately led to the French Revolution when the Bastille was stormed on 14th July 1789. (Today, this day is celebrated as France’s National Day or Bastille Day as known by English-speaking countries).
Louis XVI faced mounting financial difficulties, social unrest, and political turmoil. Despite his efforts to introduce reforms, including summoning the Estates-General in the early years of his reign, his inability to effectively address these issues also contributed to his downfall.
He married Marie Antoinette when he was only 15 years old. He was eventually accused of high treason, arrested, tried, and executed by guillotine in what is today knowns as Place de la Concorde along with his queen, albeit on different days, making him the only king of France subjected to this.
His fate symbolized the end of more than 1000 years of the French monarchy.
13. Marie Antoinette (1755 – 1793)
Among all the Queens of France, Marie Antoinette, an Archduchess of Austria, was the last Queen and probably the most controversial one.
At 14, she became the Dauphine of France after her marriage to Louis-Auguste or Louis XVI, and, at 18, she became Queen when her husband ascended the throne.
She is remembered for her lavish lifestyle, extravagant spending, and alleged detachment from the realities faced by the French people.
Marie Antoinette became a symbol of the monarchy’s excesses, subjected to intense scrutiny and criticism during economic hardships.
She was also accused of having illegitimate children and aiding French enemies, particularly those from her native country, Austria.
Despite her efforts to support the arts, she couldn’t dispel the negative perception surrounding her, and when the monarchy fell, she was also imprisoned, tried, and executed by guillotine just like her husband.
14. Louis XVIII (1755 – 1824)
Count of Provence and later King of France, Louis XVIII, also known as the Desired, reigned during the Napoleonic era from 1814 to 1824 and spent 23 years of his life in exile.
His ascension to the throne occurred after Napoleon was defeated and exiled in 1814. But Louis XVIII’s rule was briefly interrupted when Napoleon escaped exile in Elba to reclaim the throne for a mere 100 days.
He was part of a long lineage of the French royal family of the House of Bourbon and is known for his role in the Bourbon monarchy restoration.
Louis XVIII sought to reconcile the differing factions in France, promoting a moderate constitutional monarchy through the Charter of 1814.
However, his reign faced challenges from political unrest and the lingering effects of the French Revolution. He eventually became the last French monarch to die while still reigning.
15. Napoleon Bonaparte or Napoleon I (1769 – 1821)
Corsican-born Napoleon Bonaparte, regnal name Napoleon I, was a military genius and statesman who rose to prominence during the French Revolution.
He became the First Consul of France in 1799 and later declared himself Emperor in 1804, reigning until 1814.
He expanded the French Empire across Europe through military conquests, leaving an indelible mark on the map.
However, his ambitious campaigns eventually led to his downfall and exile on two occasions — by Russia and its Allies to Elba in 1814 and again by the British to Saint Helena in 1821.
Today, he is one of the most famous French rulers and one of the most famous French people of all time!
The penultimate monarch among the Kings of France, Louis Philippe I, or the Citizen King, reigned from 1830 until 1848.
He came to power during the July Revolution in 1830, which overthrew the Bourbon monarchy, having been in exile for 21 years until the Bourbon Restoration.
His reign was known as the July Monarchy, characterized by a constitutional monarchy with a parliamentary system.
He pursued colonial expansion and meted moderate policies to promote stability and economic growth.
Although he was adored by the public, he faced increasing opposition from various factions due to the worsening of the economic situation, resulting in him abdicating the throne during the French Revolution of 1848 and spending the remainder of his life in exile.
17. Napoleon III (1808 – 1873)
The Second French Republic’s establishment began when Louis Napoléon Bonaparte was elected president in 1848 after Louis Philippe I abdicated the throne.
Louis-Napoléon later declared himself Emperor and reigned as Napoleon III, the last of the monarchs of France, from 1852 until 1870.
He undertook extensive urban planning, infrastructure, and agriculture projects, transforming Paris into a modern city, and commissioned the construction of new buildings that are today known as Haussmann buildings, which you can find almost everywhere in Paris.
Two important railway stations in Paris — Gare de Lyon and Gare du Nord, a municipal hospital, and the iconic Paris Opera, Palais Garnier were commissioned by him.
He ended famine in France and made the country a strong agricultural exporter, and also helped in the creation of a Unified Italy.
Like Napoleon I, he loved going to battles and wars, but the catastrophic Franco-Prussian War led to his capture and the collapse of the Second French Empire. He later went into exile in England.
Final Thoughts on the Most Famous French Royals
I hope that through the triumphs, failures, struggles, and enduring legacies of these famous French royals, you now have a deeper understanding of the profound impact of the French monarchy on its people and the nation.
Let me know in the comments below if I’ve missed any French royalty you think had a significant impact on French history.
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