A History of France

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Release Date: 
October 2, 2018
Atlantic Monthly Press
Reviewed by: 

The popular British historian John Julius Norwich’s last book (he died at age 88 on June 1, 2018), A History of France, is a treasure of historical narrative, witty observations, and trenchant analysis. It is a small book for such a large subject but Norwich manages to mention most if not all of the important events in French history from 58 BCE to 1945.

The son of Churchill’s wartime Cabinet member Duff Cooper and Lady Diana Cooper, Norwich authored popular histories of Sicily, Venice, the Mediterranean, and Byzantium, among other books. His history of France, he makes clear, was a labor of love. In the book’s Epilogue, he writes of his gratitude for all that France has given to the world, especially its language, art, music, architecture, and culture.

France’s great military and political leader Charles De Gaulle began his memoirs by writing: “All my life I have had a certain idea of France.” The same could be said of Norwich.

He recalled visiting it as a child in September 1936: “the excitement of the Channel crossing; the regiment of porters, smelling asphyxiatingly of garlic in their blue-green blousons; the raucous sound . . . of spoken French . . .; the immense fields of Normandy. . . ; the Gare du Nord at twilight, the policemen with their kepis and their little snow-white batons; and my first sight of the Eiffel Tower.”

When his father became Britain’s ambassador to France in 1944, Norwich spent holidays in France. After the war, Norwich lived in Strasbourg and later near Chantilly. “By this time,” he writes, “France had become my permanent home, the only one I had; and I grew to love it more and more.”

His narrative begins with France (Gaul) under Roman rule. When Rome fell to barbarian invasions, the Franks under the Merovingian dynasty extended their rule over most of what became modern France.

Successive Frankish kings defended and expanded the empire: Charles Martel defeated Muslim aggressors at the Battle of Tours; his grandson Charlemagne “raised the kingdom of the Franks . . . to a single political unit of vast extent, unparalleled since the days of imperial Rome.”

Norwich vividly describes the Norman Conquest, the Crusades, the creation and evolution of the Holy Roman Empire, the wars of religion, the struggles between England and France, the many historic battles such as Sluys, Crecy, Poitiers, and Agincourt, and political intrigue among the various monarchs of Europe, including the Popes.

For Norwich, history is largely biography, and he is at his best when he writes about the great French and European historical figures that shaped and affected the development of France and Europe. The list is endless: Joan of Arc, Louis IX (Saint Louis), Emperor Philip Augustus, Pope Gregory VIII, Henry VI, Pope Alexander VI (of the notorious Borgias), Pope Leo X (of the Medici family), Francis I (“in France he was the Renaissance”), Catherine De Medici, Marie De Medici, and so many more.

Norwich describes the great French statesman Cardinal Richelieu as a “magnificent presence,” “immediately impressive,” a minister who “radiated confidence.” As chief minister to King Louis XIII, Richelieu navigated France through the Thirty Years War, acting in the State’s, rather than the Church’s, interest. “For [Richelieu], Norwich writes, “the security of the state was paramount.”

Louis XIV reigned in France for 72 years. He was, writes Norwich, an “absolute despot.” The Sun King radiated light, but not warmth. “The most prevalent emotion [at Versailles],” Norwich notes, “was fear: fear of the king himself, fear of his absolute power, fear of the single thoughtless word or gesture that might destroy one’s career or even one’s life.”

He was the most powerful monarch in Europe, but his ambitions produced repeated alliances of smaller powers and led to costly wars. John Churchill, the Duke of Marlborough, gained fame for leading allied armies to victory over Louis’ forces at Blenheim, Oudenarde, and Malplaquet in the early 18th century.

Louis XIV nearly bankrupted France, but Norwich still credits him with fostering the most brilliant civilization the world has ever known. It was the age of great playwrights, philosophers, diarists, artists, architects, and gardeners. Reflecting on both Francis I and Louis XIV, Norwich suggests that the “effulgence of a great monarch may somehow fertilize and irradiate the genius of his subjects.”

Later in the 18th century, France participated in a series of wars “which were to give England mastery of the seas and Prussia control of Germany.” The first of these was the War of the Austrian Succession, which lasted from 1740 to 1748. Norwich believes it was the first global war in history.

That was followed by another global conflict—the Seven Years War, which, noted Andre Maurois, “cost France her empire and created England’s.” France got partial revenge by helping the Americans gain their independence from England, but soon thereafter fell victim to the French Revolution and Napoleon.

Norwich notes that his chapters on the Revolution and Napoleon’s rule borrow heavily from Christopher Hibbert’s The Days of the French Revolution, which he praises as “by far the most useful [book] on the subject.”

He recounts the fall of the Bastille, the attacks against the Church, the struggles for power among the revolutionists, the execution of the French king and queen, the Terror, the rise of the Directory and Consulate, and the dictatorship and imperial rule of Bonaparte.

France and most of Europe were at war almost continuously from 1789 until 1815, when Napoleon met his final defeat at the hands of the Duke of Wellington and his allies at Waterloo. The Congress of Vienna restored the European balance of power thanks to the skill and prudence of Britain’s Castlereagh, Austria’s Metternich, and Charles Maurice de Talleyrand, the shrewd, cunning and ruthless French statesman.

Norwich praises King Louis-Philippe who ascended to the French throne after the abdication of Charles X in 1830. Louis-Philippe disdained foreign adventures, survived numerous assasination attempts and weathered revolutionary stirrings.

He was, writes Norwich, “a king who deserved from his country far more than he ever received.” He gave France a constitutional monarchy and “some of the happiest years in their history.” Norwich believes that he has been unjustly neglected by history.

Later in the 19th century, France’s Napoleon III was outmaneuvered by Prussia’s Bismarck, resulting in a disastrous defeat in the Franco-Prussian War, the unification of Germany, and the emergence of a rising power that threatened to upset the European balance of power established at the Congress of Vienna.

Norwich concludes this magnificent book with concise narratives of the First World War and Second World War, where France lost a generation of men in a pyrrhic victory in the slaughter on the Western front then 20 years later suffered an ignominious defeat and inglorious occupation at the hands of Nazi Germany.

In the end, Norwich’s idea of France is both historical and personal. “The essence of France,” he explains, “is . . . in the very air we breathe.” French art, music, cuisine, language and culture are everywhere. The impact of French history on the world has been profound. We are fortunate that John Julius Norwich lived long enough to write this wonderful book.