Before Hugh Capet, we first see the rule of the Merovingians. Clovis I conquered all of Gaul, becoming the first King of the Franks. Under the persuasion of his Catholic wife, Clovis converted from Frankish paganism to Catholicism, being baptised in 508.
The Carolingians came to power in 752 when Pope Zachary authorised the deposition of Childeric III. The most famous Carolingian was Charlemagne.
The Carolingians continued the Merovingian practice of dividing the empire amongst heirs, leading to division. This led to the development of the Kingdom of the Franks/the Kingdom of France in the west and the Holy Roman Empire in the east.
Election of Hugh Capet
Hugh Capet was chosen over Charles de Lorraine as King of the Franks, ending the rule of the Carolingians.
16th and 17th century historians justified Capet’s election by saying Hugh Capet was a “natural Frenchman” who had the “Air of France,” while claiming that Charles de Lorraine was a foreigner:
There remained of the Carolingian race only Charles, Duke of Lorraine. This Prince was absent [and thus foreign], of little virtue, and very bad in the minds of the French; Hugh Capet, on the contrary, was in the heart of the Kingdom [meaning he was French], Mighty and esteemful…
It could be said that this poor Prince [Charles de Lorraine] had deposed himself by making himself a foreigner, and that this state could not suffer a chief who was a vassal of another king.
This is revisionist history, but it is an important detail nonetheless. It shows the mindset of the French and how they viewed the laws of succession to the Crown — that only a Frenchman could be king.
The Fundamental Laws
The Fundamental Laws did not develop in a vacuum. The rules thereof developed over time, largely between the 12th and 14th centuries. However, it was not until the 16th century that jurists began to conceive of “fundamental laws.”
[*Denotes rules which are considered components of the Salic law.]
1. Hereditary Succession
Prior to the Capetians, the monarchy was largely elective. But Hugh Capet changed things when he had his son, Robert II, crowned during his lifetime. Louis VI would be the first to accede to throne without first being a junior king, but the process of having junior kings generally continued until Philip II, the first to be titled King of France, decided not to crown his son.
The throne passes by primogeniture. This principle was strengthened by Robert II when he had his eldest son Henri I crowned rather than his younger son Robert.
The throne was limited to men in 1316 when Philip V was chosen over Joan, who became Queen of Navarre. This principle would become known as Salic law after the rediscovery of the Lex Salica in the early 15th century.
4. Male Collaterality*
The throne can only pass in the male line. This was used by Philip VI to counter the claim of Edward III of England, son of Queen Isabella (the She-Wolf of France). It was decided that a woman could not pass on a claim she did not have (One cannot pass on a claim one does not have). This principle became equated with the Salic law.
5. Continuity of the Crown
As soon as the king dies, the next in line is automatically king, regardless of any coronation.
“The king is dead, long live the king!”
This began in 1270 when Philip III dated the start of his reign right after the death of his father rather than his coronation. This was strengthened in the early 15th century when Charles VI declared that his successor would become king immediately upon his death.
6. Inalienability (Unavailability) of the Crown
The crown is not the property of the king. The king cannot appoint his successor, abdicate, or renounce the throne. This rule came into being to negate the Treaty of Troyes, which would have removed Charles VII from the succession and given the throne to Henry VI of England.
Naturally, the French had to fight the rest of the Hundred Years’ War to cement this rule and maintain the kingdom’s independence from Plantagenet rule. Despite the English defeat, they would continue to claim the French throne until 1801.
7. The King Must be a Frenchman*
There is not a general date for this rule. It appears in the 16th century after the Hundred Years’ War and was confirmed as a pre-existing rule by the Judgment of Le Maistre of 1593, which states that giving the crown to a foreigner was “contrary to the Salic law and the other fundamental times of the state.”
The requirement of a French king is attested in many places.
What need be to speak of the Most Christian House of France, which by its noble constitution is incapable of being subject to a foreign family…
Jurist Pierre de Belloy:
Now it is quite certain that, without a Salic law, the Crown would have been exploited by an infinite number of non-French Princes [Princes non François], by the marriages of my daughters, daughters of France, who are married in a foreign nation, often in England, Spain, in Germany, in Lorraine, in other provinces of Europe…
For the government of which we all scourge by the testimony of the oldest stories of this kingdom, that our Fathers had nothing ever in greater horror, than to be dominated by other than by a Prince of their nation, hated to death the Lordship, which they have at all times, called foreign tyranny.
Arnulf opposed the Nobility of France, who never wished to recognise a Foreign Prince for their king; even if he is the blood of France.
Arrêt le Maistre of 1593:
…and that it is necessary to employ the authority which has been committed to him to prevent that, under pretext of religion, [the crown] be transferred in foreign hands against the laws of the kingdom…
…said court declares all treaties made and to be made hereafter for the establishment of a foreign prince and princess of null effect and value, as done to the prejudice of the Salic law and other fundamental laws of the state.
For the 800 years of the Capetian Dynasty, all the Kings of France have been French, and every foreigner has been rejected.
We discuss these issues in more detail here.
The king must be Catholic. This was confirmed or established by the aforementioned Judgment of Le Maistre of 1593. After announcing his intention to convert to Catholicism, the Parlement of Paris issued the judgment to confirm Henri IV’s right to be king and denying the throne to other claimants because of their foreign nature.
Analysis & Conclusion
As we said, the Fundamental Laws were not created in a vacuum, but came to exist over time as the result of historical events.
The Salic law was justified as keeping the kingdom out of “foreign hands,” and the requirement that the king be French was confirmed to be a component of the Salic law by the Judgment of le Maistre of 1593.
The rules of Male Collaterality and Inalienability of the Crown were used to keep foreigners off the French throne. This means that four of the eight rules were used or justified as keeping the kingdom out of foreign hands.
Prior to the ruling of Arrêt le Maistre, the Estates General rejected the claim of Infanta Isabella, not because she was a woman, but because she was a foreigner:
…our laws and customs prevent us from calling forward as king any prince not of our nation.1.
Thus, it is clear that the Fundamental Laws require that the king be a Frenchman.
- David Buisseret. Henry IV: King of France. P. 43