Published on January 2nd, 2021 | by Ryan Hess


The Fall of the Capetian Dynasty: The Unknown Royal Family that Changed Modern France. Part I: Phillip IV

A quick scan of an American history book may leave the casual observer with the idea that French history began in 1781. But prior to the much-discussed events of the French Revolution, there were lesser-known events which would have dramatic and long-lasting effects on the French people and on the nation that would one day be called France. While some of these events such as the battle of Agincourt or the exploits of nearly a century of crusaders and warrior knights do get significant coverage from writers, filmmakers, and artists, there is a particular period which, despite its importance to the creation and indeed the fabric of France itself, is often overlooked. The Capetian dynasty is today unknown to anyone but the most ardent lovers of French history. Yet this family and particularly one of their most famous sons changed French history culturally, politically, and militarily.

The founder, first king of the dynasty and indeed, first king of a unified France, was Hugh Capet (c. 939 – 996). Subsequent generations of Capetian kings would make indelible marks on the country. Among them are Louis IX le Saint, and Louis IX le Leon.[1] However, the fall of the house of Capet would not only pitch France into over a century of warfare, but also lay the groundwork for overbearing royal power, diminished religious authority and the eventual rise of the estates general. And lest you think that all French kings were named Louis, the zenith of Capetian Power occurred under the rule of Phillip IV le bel. However, though he represents the most powerful of his line and is usually viewed as an effective king, his actions and those of his heirs also instigated the end of the reign of Capet.

Phillip IV le bel… Handsome, Right?
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Among the myriad of projects and acts undertaken by Phillip IV, perhaps none would have echoes into the future like his conflicts with the Papacy. The two sovereigns first locked horns over taxes. Phillip, short of funds for a war, began taxing the French clergy. Though this practice was uncontroversial in the past, Pope Boniface VIII wanted to exert his papal authority over his temporal peers and thus disagreed. In 1296, he issued the bill Clericis laicos, prohibiting lay rulers from exacting church revenues or property without authorisation from Rome [2]. Predictably, Phillip responded in kind by stopping the trade upon which Boniface relied for income. And thus began a multi-decade contest of male ego.

As part of his war with Boniface, Phillip had to ensure loyalty from both the nobility and the people but, most importantly, from the clergy. As the conflict would inevitably force French priests and bishops to decide with whom their loyalty lay, Phillip devised a plan which would ensure the religious felt pressure to remain on team Capet. In order to do this, he created and called, for the first time, the assembly that would eventually be called the Estates General. “The first national assembly of representatives of the three estates met at Notre-Dame in Paris on April 10, 1302, to discuss the conflict between Philip IV and Pope Boniface VIII. The assembly stood firmly by the king.”[3] Phillip need not have worried given that the power of the House of Capet in France was undeniable and, for the most part, the French clergy who had been benefiting greatly from Royal generosity, saw no need to turn against their King, even for the Pope himself.

The Estates-General…”How do we beat the pope?” “He’s dead already” “…why should that matter.”    Photo Credit: https://www.britannica.com/topic/Estates-General
This is not the Estates-General From 1302. there is a painting of that by Jean Alaux called “The assembly of the Estates-General, April 10, 1302” which is at Versailles.

What followed was nearly two decades of tit-for-tat drama that included the arrest of a bishop, economic manipulation, several instances that led Christendom to the precipice of war, and the eventual kidnapping of the Pope himself. Though Phillip’s intent was to put Boniface on trial for “crimes,” he died in 1303. For most, that would spell the end of the fight but Phillip’s ego had been challenged and the death of his enemy did nothing to mollify the French King. He carried on his vendetta against the dead pope’s memory for another 10 years, even going so far as to put Boniface’s remains on Trial[4].

Boniface VIII… the face you make when you realize you’re losing to a guy named “le bel.” Photo Credit: https://catholicism.org/boniface-viii-and-the-heresy-of-statism.html

The Church duly elected a new Pope, Clement V. However, the election was controlled entirely by Phillip and a cadre of powerful French clerics and any autonomy the papacy once had was destroyed with Clement’s ascension to the throne of Peter. Per Phillip’s directive, the papacy was moved to Avignon, a city surrounded by French territory. This marked the beginning of what would become known as the “Avignon Papacy” during which time 7 popes would fall directly under the influence of French Kings.[5] By the end of his struggle with Boniface, Phillip has established the Capetian Dynasty as being the foremost arbiter of both temporal and spiritual life, not only in France, but in much of Europe.

Papal residence in Avignon.
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With no legitimate or sufficiently strong checks to his power, Phillip found himself in a position of nearly absolute power. To cover his debts, he first oppressed the Jews of France but then turned his ire to the Knights Templar. In a move fit for a Hollywood screenplay, agents of the crown were sent throughout the kingdom to hunt down, and arrest or kill anyone associated with the Templars. By destroying the knights, he not only eliminated a powerful faction that would have likely remained loyal to the Papacy but he also gained access to the substantial Templar wealth. He also absolved himself of any pressure that has been previously put on him to go on a crusade and instead chose to focus both his now far larger coffers and military force on his traditional enemies in Europe, England.

Had Phillip survived, he may have been able to lead France to further glory and power. Instead, he died in 1314 at the age of 46 only to be replaced by his far less effective son, Louis X. Though his reign represents the pinnacle of Capet power, Phillip had constructed an edifice that would collapse under his weak successors. Thanks to him, France was isolated on the continent, lacked the backing of a strong spiritual ally, had a weakening economy and was entirely beholden to the power of the crown. In less than one generation, the institutions put in place by Phillip would cause the doom of the House of Capet. A collapse which, while disastrous at the time, would have ripples into the modern day.  

[1] “Hugh Capet – New World Encyclopedia,” accessed November 18, 2020, https://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Hugh_Capet.

[2] Medievalists.net, “Medieval Geopolitics: The Conflict between Pope Boniface VIII and King Philip IV of France,” Medievalists.Net (blog), April 11, 2019, https://www.medievalists.net/2019/04/conflict-pope-boniface-viii-king-philip-iv-france/.

[3] “Estates-General | Definition, Meeting, & History,” Encyclopedia Britannica, accessed November 27, 2020, https://www.britannica.com/topic/Estates-General.

[4] Greg Daugherty, “In 1303 the French King Sent Goons to Attack and Kidnap the Pope,” HISTORY, accessed November 27, 2020, https://www.history.com/news/french-king-kidnapping-pope-philip-iv-boniface-vii.

[5] Eamon Duffy, Saints & Sinners: A History of the Popes, 3rd ed (New Haven, Conn. London: Yale University Press, 2006).

About the Author


is a Major and a Foreign Area Officer in the United States Air Force. He graduated from the US Air Force Academy in 2010 and holds masters degrees from Oklahoma University and National Defence University. Born in Denver, Colorado he currently resides in New Mexico with his wife and newborn son.

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