It happened today - July 3, 2016

Long live King Hugh. Within reason. But his dynasty sure lasted.

Hugh is Hugh Capet, the first King of the Franks from that lineage, and he succeeded the last Carolingian king, Louis V, on July 3rd 987 AD. The Carolingians are of course the line of Charlemagne, which began with Pepin the Short (reigned 751-768) son of Charles Martel who won the crucial Battle of Tours against Muslim invaders in 732 AD. And I suppose 236 years isn’t a bad run. But let’s talk Capetians.

The line that began with Hugh didn’t end until Louis XVI in 1792 (reign) or 1793 (life) or, if you like, with the reabolition of the monarchy in 1848. It went through a couple of branches, the Capetians then after 1328 the Valois until 1589 and then the Bourbons who began well with Henri IV and ended badly as you know. The remarkable thing is that all three branches of the Capets lasted longer than the Carolingians. And within it, they had a strange tendency to produce long reigns.

You’d think it was good. You shout “Long live the king” or “Vive le roi” or some such and he does. But actually I think it played an odd role in delivering bad government in France, not of course as hideous as in most of the world but arrogant, stagnant and greedy.

There were just 15 kings in the main Capet line over a period of 341 years. England had 22, and what’s more it went through about five dynasties (Wessex, Denmark, Normandy, Blois, Anjou Plantagenet). Now chaos is bad. But the ability to get rid of unfit kings, and change direction in style of governance, is very good. And England had much more of the latter including forcing John to seal Magna Carta, a document with no French equivalent.

Then you get the Valois in France, from 1328 through 1589. But just 13 of them. England has 16 in that period, from four houses: Plantagenet, Lancaster, York, and Tudor. Some good. Some bad. But a lot of variety.

Then come the Bourbons, for a dismal if often vainglorious run of 200+ years during which France faded as Europe’s leading power, squandering blood and treasure to get weaker, and stored up internal problems that ultimately exploded. Incredibly, over that period, from 1589 through the French Revolution, France only had five kings, reigning for an average of 40.6 years. England meanwhile became a different country, the UK, and had 11 kings and queens from three houses, plus two Lords Protector. Not coincidentally it had the Glorious Revolution instead of France’s bloody one.

In sum, from 987 to 1792 France had just 33 monarchs; England/the UK had 47. No, I didn’t muff the math. Edward III overlaps the Capets and Valois; Elizabeth I the Valois and Bourbons. And France had one dynasty or, at most, three. England had 10.5 (giving the Cromwells half credit).

It’s not all genetics, of course. And monarchs can depart the throne and this life by other means than illness or old age. Daggers work. But the fact is that for the better part of a millennium, France tended to have kings who reigned longer (and no queens thanks to Salic law) and dynasties that you just couldn’t dislodge, frequently unable to admit error from within and incapable of being forced to admit it from without. English parliaments decided between rival claimants to the throne; France had no parliaments capable of doing so and mighty few occasions when it might have happened if they did.

So long live the king. But not too long. You know?