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April 1, 2023

What happened to France’s other capitals?

What happened to France’s other capitals?

An episode covering the history of all the capitals of France; it wasn't just Paris!


            Paris has been the most populous and powerful city in France since the medieval period. Other major cities like Marseille, Lyon and Bordeaux have not even come close to Paris’ population, wealth and influence. It’s no surprise that the City of Lights is the capital of France. However, in France’s long history other cities have taken that role.

            In the modern period it’s very clear which cities are the capital as they hold the permanent seat of government. Before that, the capital was usually wherever the king most commonly held court. When Hugh Capet became king in 987 he ruled France from his powerbase in the north. Capet’s territory was relatively small compared to his rivals in the Duchy of Normandy and the counties of Blois and Vermandois. Paris was both centrally-located and by far his largest city so it was practically his only choice. Over the centuries French kings expanded their holdings and power. Yet, Paris remained their stronghold, one which grew in importance with its population.

            The first time that Paris’ status as the capital came into contestation was during the Hundred Years’ War. This series of conflicts between the 14th and 15th centuries began when the English monarchy claimed the French throne. When the French nobility refused to acknowledge Edward III as the rightful king the English invaded. After the conflict had been going on for roughly 80 years King Henry V met a larger French force at Azincourt. Muddy terrain slowed the French advance allowing for English archers to easily pick them off. The battle was a slaughter and one of the worst military defeats in French history. As Henry V conquered the north the Duke of Burgundy seized Paris, which he turned over to the English. With Paris in enemy hands the Valois relocated to Troyes, southeast of Paris, which became the de facto capital. On 21 May 1420 the English and French signed the Treaty of Troyes. The treaty recognized Henry V as the rightful king of France and his descendants as heirs to the throne. With France largely under his control, Henry V sailed back to England.

In 1422 Henry V died, leaving behind an infant son. That same year the weak and mentally ill King of France, Charles VI, died, at which point his 19 year-old son Charles VII became scion of the House of Valois. Charles VII refused to recognize the Treaty of Troyes and claimed the throne for himself. He established a government in Bourges which became his capital until he could retake Paris. Bourges was a decently-sized city located in the center of France, which made coordination between lords across the south easier. Furthermore, English power was mostly confined north of the Loire River. Bourges was close enough that forces could assemble there and launch attacks into English-held territory and far away enough that if the English invaded Valois territory the French would have time to prepare. While Bourges made sense from a military standpoint it was no Paris, and Charles VII’s enemies derisively referred to him as ‘The King of Bourges.’ Thus, France had two competing capitals with the English holding Paris while the Valois held Bourges.

            The war took a dramatic turn in 1429 when a peasant girl named Jeanne d’Arc joined the Siege of Orléans. The maiden who claimed that God sent her to deliver France from the English was walking through the streets of the city just 9 days after arriving. The Valois loyalists got a huge morale boost from having a living saint on their side and marched on Paris. On 3 September they assaulted the northern city. However, the high walls and moat held off the Valois force, who suffered heavy casualties. Jeanne took a crossbow bolt to the thigh and Charles VII led a retreat. The English held the city and on 16 December 1431 the English king Henry VI was crowned King of France at Notre Dame de Paris.

            The Valois moved from victory to victory militarily and politically. In 1435 the Duke of Burgundy agreed to recognized Charles VII as the legitimate king. Without their Burgundian allies the English rapidly lost their territories and abandoned Paris in 1436. Within two decades the Valois expelled the English from the Continent except for a sliver of territory around Calais.

After the war Paris remained the most populous city in France and it faced no immediate threats. The royal chancellery returned to the city which officially resumed its position as the capital of the kingdom. While Paris was nominally the capital, its kings avoided the city for roughly 80 years. Paris had suffered serious depopulation and destruction of property, and the victorious Valois preferred to spend their time in the beautiful countryside of the Loire valley, moving from chateau to chateau. I can’t blame them, as I would probably take that option if I had the chance.

In 1525 King François I was fighting in northern Italy when he was captured by

Hapsburg forces at the disastrous Battle of Pavia. The Spanish took their hostage to Madrid where he toured the opulent capital of Charles V, King of Spain and Holy Roman Emperor. When François I was released he decided that his kingdom should have a grand and beautiful capital as well. In 1528 he began the reconstruction of the Louvre from a medieval fortress to a proper Renaissance palace. Once completed the Louvre became the permanent seat of the monarchy and court. Paris remained the capital for the next century and a half despite suffering a number of violent and dramatic episodes, particularly during the French Wars of Religion. Despite massacres across the city and in front of the Louvre itself, and a siege, Paris’ sheer size assured its preeminence.

On the night of 9 February 1651 a large crowd stormed the Louvre Palace. The people were angry at increased taxes and monarchical overreach at the expense of the Paris Parliament and decided to have a word with their 12-year-old king Louis XIV. Louis XIV was lying in the royal bedchamber pretending to be asleep as Parisians filtered in. Thinking the boy-king was dreaming about fighting Protestants the crowd left. This event deeply marked the young king who feared angry mobs for the rest of his life.

Thirteen years later on 7 May 1664 construction began on an opulent palace 21 kilometers southwest of Paris. Eighteen years after that, on the 6 May 1682, Louis XIV officially moved his court from the Louvre to the finished Palace of Versailles, which became the new capital of France. The Palace served as a fantasy world for the aristocracy, one in which they were continually awed by the grandiosity of the king, entertained constantly and always watched by royal agents. Daily delights and courtly frivolities occupied the nobility even as Louis XIV’s spies watched them. All these distractions kept the nobility from effectively challenging monarchical power and Louis XIV ruled as an absolute monarch. Another benefit of the Palace was that it was its own self-contained community, far from the masses of common people who Louis XIV feared and despised.

For 107 years Versailles served as the dream-world capital. Then, in 1788, after squandering so much wealth on the palace and costly wars, France woke up. The country had an enormous debt, one which King Louis XVI couldn’t solve through his own power. Louis XVI had no choice but to call up the Estates-General, a governing body that the monarchs had managed to rule without since 1614.

On 5 May 1789 representatives of the three estates, the clergy, the nobility and the common people, assembled at Versailles. By this time Enlightenment ideas of democracy and liberty were widespread among the educated commoners who believed that they should have more say in government. Leaders of the Third Estate balked at Louis XVI’s attempt to use them as a rubber stamp to raise funds. They reorganized into the National Assembly which they declared the sovereign governing body of France. News of the events at Versailles spread across the country and the French people realized that the monarchy was not as stable or as powerful as they might have believed.

On 5 October women across Paris queued for bread only to discover that what little there was carried exorbitantly high prices. Poor harvests threatened the Parisians with starvation. Outraged, the women of Paris marched on Versailles. There the women demanded food, a more democratic government and that the king relocate to Paris where he would be among his people and under their power. With no other option, Louis XVI agreed. On 6 October 1789 the monarchy and government moved to Paris.

Paris remained the seat of government for the next 89 years. The various Revolutionary governments, the First Empire, the Restoration, the return of Napoleon and the First Empire, the return of the Restoration, the July Monarchy, the Second Republic and the Second Empire all held Paris as the capital. This was only natural as the population of Paris in 1800 was over 500,000. Meanwhile Lyon, the second city of the kingdom, barely had over 100,000 inhabitants, while Marseille had less than 100,000. During the 19th century Paris’ population exploded until by the end of the Second Empire it had just under 2 million people.

In 1870 Napoleon III and the government of France made a significant error when they declared war on Prussia. The Prussians and their German allies delivered a shocking defeat to what had been the great land power of Europe. On 2 September a Prussian army captured the Emperor. When news reached Paris two days later republican Léon Gambetta declared the fall of the Second Empire and the beginning of the Third Republic. A crowd cheered the declaration but the people of Paris could only remain jubilant for so long as Prussian forces besieged the city two weeks later. Most members of the national government managed to escape and relocated to Bordeaux where they could manage the war from safety. The southwestern port city was the de facto capital for four months when the war ended.

Paris held out until 28 January 1871 at which point it surrendered. The fall of Paris meant the end of the war and the government returned to the demoralized capital where they were not well-received. The government failed to rescue the city which had suffered grievously. Moreover, Paris was a modern industrial city filled with radical republicans, socialists and anarchists, making it very much unlike the rest of France which was largely rural and conservative. As if to rub salt in the wound, on 8 February monarchists won a 2/3rds majority in the National Assembly. Many Parisians were disgusted by their government, which they viewed as unrepresentative of their views.

Members of the national government recognized that the people of Paris were discontented and wanted to stave off a revolution by seizing the cannons around the city. On 18 March fights broke out and soon the National Guard and the people of Paris were brawling with the French Army. The National Guard made the bold move of storming City Hall in an attempt to capture the national government, however most of its members were then in the Office of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. When the national government recognized that the people of Paris were trying to arrest them they fled to Versailles. In their wake, leaders in Paris declared the city its own independent commune. The national government claimed Paris as its capital but with the city under rebel control France effectively had two capitals within a day’s walk of each other.

The national government was not going to just give up what it believed was its rightful capital and on 21 May invaded the city. Within seven days Paris capitulated and shortly thereafter resumed its place as the political heart of France.

Paris remained the capital for another 43 years at which point the First World War began. In late August 1914 German troops crossed the border and entered northern France. French Army Commander-in-Chief, Joseph Joffre, informed the civilian government that he could not guarantee Paris’ safety. Even if the Allies managed to keep the Germans from taking Paris it was possible that if the enemy came in range they could still launch artillery shells into the city. In response, on 3 September 1914 the government relocated to Bordeaux in a move that politicians assured Parisians was temporary. As winter set in it was clear that the front lines were far enough away that Paris was secure and on 11 December the government returned to its traditional home.

On 21 March 1918 the German High Command launched the Spring Offensive. This was a desperate gamble meant to conquer France before enough American reinforcements could land in the country and turn the tide of war. German forces made rapid advances and were even able to shell Paris from afar. This led to widespread panic and many ministers wanted to flee to Bordeaux. However, prime minister Georges Clemenceau refused to abandon the city for three main reasons. First, he did not want to demoralize the people of Paris by running away in their darkest hour. Second, he had based his reputation and government on a ‘victory-at-all-costs’ platform. Clemenceau was known by his friends and enemies as ‘The Tiger,’ due to his aggressive stance which included legally charging some of his political rivals for undermining the war effort and cracking down on workers’ protests. It would have been seen as remarkably hypocritical if he ran away at the first sign of danger.

The third reason why Clemenceau chose to keep the government in Paris was because if they ran away that would serve as a major piece of propaganda for far-left revolutionaries. From May to June of the previous year France faced widespread unrest with many soldiers on the Western Front refusing to follow orders. Meanwhile, mass protests against poor living conditions and against the war erupted in Paris. Many trade union leaders looked to the Russian Revolution as a model and openly called for the overthrow of the government and its replacement with a soviet-style workers’ collective. If Clemenceau abandoned the city in the face of German aggression he risked repeating the events of the Paris Commune, in which the local left-wing assumed leadership while the ‘cowardly’ politicians of the national government abandoned the city.

For all of these reasons Clemenceau retained his position in Paris. His decision paid off. The rapid German advances were not nearly as impressive as they seemed on paper as the exhausted military could not adequately resupply those on the front. When a million American soldiers supplemented Allied forces and launched the Hundred Days’ Offensive the German lines collapsed and the war ended that November.

Paris remained secure until 1940. During the early stages of World War 2 the German military again invaded northern France. This time the novel methods of warfare caught the Allies off-guard. In early June the government cut a hasty retreat, first to Tours where it stayed between the 10th-13th. On the 14th German forces occupied Paris, at which point the French government continued southwestward to Bordeaux. The port city only served as the capital for 2 weeks due to the rapid fall of the country. With the Germans occupying the north French officials decided to relocate to somewhere closer to the center of their country. First they moved to Clermont-Ferrand but the city lacked the infrastructure to accommodate all the incoming bureaucrats. In July 1940 the government relocated to the spa town of Vichy whose many empty hotels provided housing for the ministries. There the government would remain until its fall and it is for this reason that The French State, as it was officially called, is more commonly known as Vichy France.

Leader of The French State Philippe Pétain did not want to house the government in Vichy. Initially, Pétain wanted to work out an arrangement wherein the government could return to Paris and oversee civilian affairs across the country even while the Germans maintained their military occupation of the north. Pétain thought that the Louvre would make an ideal place for the government, given that at the war’s outset its director Jacques Jaujard had all the art and artifacts removed. With the museum’s works scattered across the country the Louvre was left as an opulent and enormous building located in the center of Paris. If not Paris, Pétain even thought of using the Palace of Versailles to house the ministries, however he was informed that this would make for bad optics. Regardless, negotiations fell through and Vichy became the capital of France.

At least, according to The French State and the Axis powers. General Charles de Gaulle refused to recognize The French State as legitimate. He led the Free French Forces, which rallied loyalists across the empire to resist the new government and the Axis powers. On 27 October 1940 the Empire Defense Council announced that Brazzaville, seat of the colonial administration of French Equatorial Africa, was the capital of Free France. This was an interesting development to say the least, and it shows how the perception of ‘France’ developed in the 19th-20th centuries. France was not just a territory in western Europe, but an empire that spanned the globe. Thus, by late 1940 France had two capitals: one at the spa town of Vichy and one in the Congo region of Africa.

In November 1942 Allied forces coordinating with insurgents took control of Algeria. When this French colony fell Free French Forces moved to its capital of Algiers. In a supreme twist of irony, de Gaulle’s organization claimed Algiers was the (temporary) capital of France after 100 years of Paris being the capital of colonial Algeria.

On 6 June 1944 the Allies launched Operation Overlord. Tens of thousands of mostly American, British and Canadian soldiers landed on the beaches of Normandy, broke through the Atlantikwall and created a beachhead from which Allied forces could land in France. Shortly thereafter, representatives of Free France established themselves at Bayeux, which would serve as the short-term capital before they could move on to the City of Lights. Between the 19th-25th of August Free French Forces, supplemented by Spanish fighters and Allied supporters, retook Paris. On the 25th General de Gaulle arrived in the city to cheering crowds. Shortly thereafter Paris resumed its position as the capital of France and has remained so ever since.        

Paris has been the traditional capital of France for over a thousand years. Given its enormous population, rich history and large economy it is no wonder that it houses the government. However, Paris has not been the only capital in the country’s long existence. Other cities that served as the capital were: Troyes, Tours, Bourges, Versailles, Bordeaux, Clermont-Ferrand, Vichy, Brazzaville, Algiers and Bayeux. In every case these other cities were only meant to be temporary capitals in wartime. The only exception to this was Versailles, which Louis XIV created as a new capital to escape from the Parisian mobs and which served as the political center of France until the Revolution.