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April 28, 2023

Why were so many French kings named ‘Louis’?

Why were so many French kings named ‘Louis’?

Find out where 'Louis' came from and why there were so many kings who bore that name.




            Louis is a pretty popular name among French monarchs. From the 9th century to present 17 kings have borne the named ‘Louis,’ [sorry Louis XVII, you don’t count as you were never crowned or ruled]; 19 if you include Louis-Philippe and Louis-Napoleon. In contrast there have been 10 kings named Charles, six Philippe [7 if you include Louis-Philippe] and four Henri with other kings having even less prominent names. Given that so many of France’s kings were named ‘Louis’ this raises the question: why was Louis such a popular name?

            Before the name ‘Louis’ even existed Francia had many kings who shared a similar name. The first king to unite the Franks was named Hlodowig in his native language. However, the common language of the elite in Gaul at that time was Gallo-Roman. After conquering Gaul, Hlodowig was Latinized to ‘Clovis.’ Francia had four kings named Clovis with many others in the royal family taking the name. Over time the Franks conquered new territories even as their language changed. Thus, ‘Clovis’ or its root Hlōdowig spread across regions and developed into new names. Within what we call France ‘Clovis’ became ‘Louis’ when the Franks dropped the hard, short ‘c’ at the beginning of the word and the soft ‘s’ at the end. In Iberia ‘Clovis’ became ‘Luis.’ In Italian it became ‘Luigi’ while in German it became ‘Ludwig.’ Frankish conquests meant that kings in France, Spain, Portugal, Germany and Italy bore a name derived from the first Frankish ruler. Meanwhile, intermarriage with the Hungarians meant that they had two kings named Lajos (lie-oss).

The first Clovis was a monumentally important figure in French history. He united the Franks and led their conversion to Catholicism, ensuring that the name would pass on to his descendants. The last Clovis IV ruled in the late 7th century, after which the name transforms from the Frankish word into the Old French ‘Louis.’
            The first Louis actually predates France. Louis I, known as ‘The Pious,’ was the son of Charlemagne and inheritor of the Frankish Empire. Louis I is not remembered well in history. He tried and failed to keep the empire together even as his rebellious sons split it into thirds. Despite his failures ‘Louis’ was too important a name in Frankish history to simply abandon. His grandson Louis II briefly ruled before passing the throne to his sons, Louis III and Carloman II. Louis III won renown for defeating a Viking host at the Battle of Saucourt-en-Vimeu, which became the basis for the German epic poem Ludwigslied, or ‘Louis’ story.’ Shortly thereafter Louis III was riding his horse and chasing after a girl when he hit his head on a lintel and died, becoming the first of two kings to do so. Still, his military prowess enhanced the name’s prestige.

            Louis IV ruled as a relatively weak and unpopular king near the end of the Carolingian dynasty. His reign was spent fighting his subjects for power and he was widely-ridiculed for being raised in exile in England. When he did return as king he did not even speak Old French. Hugh the Great made him king so he could rule as a figurehead, though Louis IV did not acquiesce to that role so easily.

Louis V ruled for a year as the last Carolingian monarch of West Francia. His early death meant the end of that dynasty and the rise of the Capetians.

            Louis IV and Louis V brought the name down into the mud and it took over 100 years for another king to be named Louis. Louis VI became king at a low point in the French monarchy’s power. His military prowess and intelligent politicking made him a strong king, thus reviving the name. The next two Louis(es) were relatively effective kings who also achieved notable military victories.

            Louis IX put his name on the map. Louis IX defeated an invasion by Henry III of England at the Battle of Taillebourg. He expanded his territories to include Maine, Aquitaine and Provence. He oversaw numerous economic and political reforms. Most famously Louis IX made a deal with the Emperor in Constantinople. In exchange for military support, the Emperor gave him the Crown of Thorns, that most holy of relics which was placed on Jesus’ head during the crucifixion. Louis IX received the relic and built Saint-Chappelle to house it, one of the most beautiful chapels ever constructed. It is for this reason that Louis IX became the only French king to be canonized as a saint. Given that Louis IX was adored as one of France’s greatest leaders and a Catholic saint it is no surprise that the name ‘Louis’ remained popular. Multiple kings bore the name ‘Louis’ after him, with varying levels of success and popularity.

In 1643 Louis XIV became king at the age of four. Under his reign France became the dominant military, economic, political and cultural power in Europe. He fought numerous wars and was mostly successful. He sponsored the arts and building programs until France was esteemed as one of the greatest countries for European culture. He sponsored monumental building projects including the Palace of Versailles, which became the model palace for monarchs across Europe. He ruled as an absolute monarch, having succeeded in bringing the aristocracy to heel. Louis XIV became known as ‘The Sun King,’ having associated his reign with the Greek god Apollo. He became the archetype for what every king aspired to be: an absolute authority figure whose nobility would fight each other just for the opportunity to help him dress in the morning.

Louis XIV’s legendary 72-year reign, the longest of any monarch in world history, meant that practically every king after him had to be named Louis. His great-grandson and heir became Louis XV while his son became Louis XVI only to have his head chopped off during the Revolution. In 1804 Napoleon Bonaparte crowned himself Emperor, becoming the first monarch of France in 196 years not to be named ‘Louis.’ After Napoleon’s defeat and exile the powers of Europe negotiated with French leaders to bring back a Bourbon, who took the name Louis XVIII. The reason why France went from XVI to XVIII was because the Bourbons claimed that Louis XVI’s son had been the rightful king Louis XVII, though he died as a prisoner of the Revolution. As such, Louis XVI’s brother Louis adopted the number XVIII despite the fact that his nephew had never formally ruled.

When Louis XVIII died his brother Charles X became king. You might be surprised that a non-Louis ascended to the throne but that was not the plan. Their mutual father, Louis the Dauphin, named his male children, Louis, Xavier, Louis, Louis and Charles. The first Louis died young, as did Xavier, leaving the second Louis to become Louis XVI. Louis XVI was supposed to pass on the throne to his son who would become Louis XVII and no doubt name any potential sons ‘Louis.’ The child Louis died young during the Revolution, leaving the fourth son of Louis the Dauphin, also called ‘Louis’ to assume the throne. Given that Charles was not expected to inherit the throne you might think there was no danger of a non-Louis becoming king but the Revolution upset those plans.

Charles X did not last long, as his heavy-handed rule turned the people against him. When he was overthrown Louis-Philippe of the House of Orléans became king. The very last monarch of France was named Louis-Napoleon, though he is more commonly known as Napoleon III upon taking power.

The name ‘Louis’ has had an important place in French history. When Hlodowig united the Franks and conquered Gaul around the year 500 he came to be known by the Gallo-Roman version of that name, ‘Clovis.’ This great king and his descendants passed on the name to future rulers. As the Franks conquered or intermarried into ruling dynasties across Europe the name changed, becoming ‘Louis’ in Old French.

The first five kings named Louis had ineffective or short reigns, which decreased its popularity. ‘Louis’ came back into prominence thanks to Louis VI who revived Capetian fortunes. The name became incredibly popular following the reign of Saint Louis IX, one of Europe’s great medieval kings. After a series of lackluster to decent Louis(es), Louis XIV took it to all new heights. The legendary reign of the Sun King meant that every royal firstborn son and many second, third and even fourth sons had to be named Louis. Remarkably the first King of the Franks who ruled in the early 6th century and the last monarch who fell from power in 1870 both carried the same name, though linguistic divergences meant they had a different version of it.