After a brief interval the craft of Philip Augustus was succeeded by the idealism of St. Louis, whose admirable character enabled him to achieve an extraordinary ascendancy over the imagination of his people. In spite of the disastrous failure of his crusading expeditions, the aggrandisement of the crown continued, especially under Philip the Fair; but the failure of direct heirs after the successive reigns of his three sons placed Philip of Valois on the throne, according to the Salic law of succession, in 1328.
On the pretext of claiming the succession for himself, Edward III began the great French war, which lasted, interrupted by only one regular pacification, for a hundred and twenty years. The brilliant personal qualities of Edward and the Black Prince, the great resources of England and the quality of the soldiery account for the British successes. After the peace of Bretigny, these triumphs were reversed, and the English lost their possessions; but when Charles VI ascended the throne disaster followed. France was rent by the rival factions of Burgundy and Orleans.
The troubled reigns of Richard II and Henry IV prevented England from taking advantage of these dissensions; but Henry V renewed the war, winning the battle of Agincourt in his first campaign and securing the Treaty of Troyes on his second invasion. After his death came that most marvellous revolution wrought by Joan of Arc, and the expulsion of the English from the country.
In France the effect of the war was to strengthen the crown as against the nobility, a process developed by the subtlety of Louis XI. Out of the long contest, in which the diplomatic skill of the king was pitted against the fiery ambitions of Charles of Burgundy, Louis extracted for himself sundry Burgundian provinces. The supremacy of the crown was secured in 1491, when his son, Charles VIII, acquired Brittany by marrying the Duchess Anne.
The essential distinction of ranks in France was found in the possession of land. Besides the national lands, there were lands reserved to the crown, which, under the name of benefices, were bestowed upon personal followers of the king, held more or less on military tenure; and the king's vassals in their turn acquired vassals for themselves by a similar process of sub-infeudation.
On the other hand, freeholders inclined, for the sake of protection, to 'commend themselves,' as the phrase was, to their stronger neighbours, and so to assume the relation of vassal to liege lord. The essential principle was a mutual contract of support and fidelity, confirmed by the ceremonies of homage, fealty and investiture; which conferred upon the lord the right of various reliefs, fines and rights capable of conversion into money payments.
Gentility, now hereditary, was derived from the tenure of land; the idea of it was emphasised by the adoption of surnames and armorial hearings. A close aristocracy was created, somewhat modified by the right claimed by the king of creating nobles. Below the gentle class were freemen, and the remainder of the population were serfs, or villeins. It was not impossible for villeins to purchase freedom.
Such legislation as there appears to have been was effected by the king, supported by a royal council, or a more general assembly of the barons. It was only by degrees that the royal ordinances came to be current in the fiefs of the greater vassals. It was Philip the Fair who introduced the general assembly of the three estates. This assembly very soon claimed the right of granting and refusing money as well as of bringing forward grievances. The kings of France, however, sought to avoid convocation of the states-general by obtaining grants from provincial assemblies of the three estates.
THE old system of jurisdiction by elected officers was superseded by feudal jurisdiction, having three degrees of power and acting according to recognized local customs, varied by the right to ordeal by combat. The crown began to encroach on these feudal jurisdictions by the establishment of royal courts of appeal; but there also subsisted a supreme court of peers, to whom were added the king's household officers. The peers ceased by degrees to attend this court, while the crown multiplied the councillors of inferior rank, and this body became known as the Parliament of Paris--in effect an assembly of lawyers.
The decline of the feudal system was due mainly to the increasing power of the crown on the one hand and of the lower ranks on the other, more especially from the extension of the privileges of towns. But the feudal principle itself was weakened by the tendency to commute military service for money, enabling the crown to employ paid troops.
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