Contrasting deeply with the middle ages before them, the 300 years from 1400-1700 in England and France were a time of development and change. These years saw the end of the Renaissance, the outcome of the Reformation, and the beginning of the Age of Reason. England, because of its placement on an island, maintained its isolationist policies, at least in regard to other countries in Europe (with the exception of France). However, England scouted out distant parts of the world during this time, and established colonies in the America – colonies they would lose in the 1700’s and 1800’s, due to the revolutions caused by the Age of Reason. France, on the other hand, meddled in the affairs of other European nations, including, but not limited to: England, Germany, Italy, and Spain. France also had colonies overseas in North America. By taking an in depth look at this time period in each country (France, England), similarities and differences become more apparent.
During the early 1400’s, France suffered defeats by England on their own land. Things looked grim until Joan of Arc reignited the people’s spirits, eventually leading to the final French victory in 1453. Over the Hundred Years War, France’s monarchs lost their authority. When Louis XI became king in 1461, he reinstated absolute reign, and took advantage of it. Louis XII, king in the beginning of the 1500’s, continued to increase the power of the king. In fact, this trend continued through the 1700’s, up to the French Revolution. However, throughout this period, many kings did very little, allowing their ministers to rule through them. Interestingly, due to these ministers, France became strong. For example, the Duke of Sully, who served Henry IV, promoted agriculture and public works like highways and canals. He even reduced the taille (the chief tax of the common people.) While the intentions of these ministers may have been good, too often the French kings perverted this gain to their own ends.
Throughout the 1500’s, the Reformation spread through Europe. In 1540, France began to persecute French Christians, called Huguenots, but the Christians continued to increase in number. For thirty years in the late1500’s, civil war raged between the Catholics and Huguenots in France. This resulted in the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre of 1572, where thousands of Huguenots were killed. Finally, in 1589, Henry III died and Henry IV (of a different line), who was the leader of the Huguenots, became king. When Roman Catholics did not allow him to come into Paris, he “became” a Catholic for the purpose of peace. He then signed the Edict of Nantes, which granted limited freedom to the Huguenots. In addition, during the first half of the1500’s, France invaded Northern Italy to capture territory.
During the 17th century, Absolutism, or the absolute reign of kings, continued to grow in France. From 1635-1648, France took part in the end of the Thirty Years War – the war between Protestants and Catholics in Europe. Despite this label, France’s part was largely political. However, Louis XIII’s minister, Cardinal Richelieu, won many battles for the Protestant side, giving hope to the German and French Protestants. After Louis XIII died, Louis XIV reigned from 1643-1715. Louis XIV practiced extreme absolutism, even proclaiming his famous line, “I am the state.” When his prime minister died in 1661, he declared himself his own prime minister. When Louis canceled the Edict of Nantes in 1685, he persecuted the Huguenots severely. Because of the work of the ministers before Louis XIV, France had prospered economically. King Louis XIV squandered much of this wealth on everything from wars to the building of the palace of Versailles. He wanted to rule Europe, but super-alliances between other countries stopped him from achieving that goal.
As stated earlier, England and France engaged each other in the Hundred Years War up until 1453. England won many battles, but in the end, France came out victorious. Interestingly, during the time of the Hundred Years War, English poetry and literature made great advances. Such authors such as Chaucer and Langland emerged during this time. In true medieval fashion, after losing the war with France, England turned to civil war to decide who would rule their own country. In the War of the Roses, from 1455-1480’s, two royal families fought for the crown. In 1485, Henry VII emerged as king. He helped unite England again for some time. Henry VIII, who became king in 1509, changed the path of English history in a dramatic way. He wanted a divorce, and within the Catholic system, could not acquire it. After a great deal of wheeling and dealing, he had Parliament declare him supreme head of the Church of England in 1534. This separation from the Catholic Church triggered the Reformation in England. Also, England and Wales were finally joined under Henry VIII.
In 1553, Queen Mary reestablished Catholicism as the state religion. However, Queen Elizabeth quickly changed it back to Protestantism (The Church of England) in 1558. During Elizabeth’s 45 year reign, England saw great times. These were the years of Shakespeare, the great English playwright. Also, Sir Francis Drake defeated the Spanish Armada in 1588. When Elizabeth died in 1603, James VI, from Scotland, ruled over England and Scotland in a “personal union” – he reigned over both countries as separate kingdoms. During this time, colonization of North America began; Jamestown was named after King James. King Charles (James’ son) signed the Petition of Right, which limited the king’s power. However, he did not intend on keeping it, and to avoid being punished, he did not call Parliament together from 1629-1640. When they refused to give him funding in 1640, his angry response triggered the civil war that started in 1642. For over 10 years, the English fought to find a suitable form of government. After beheading Charles in 1644, they became a commonwealth. In 1653, they became a dictatorship under a popular leader, Oliver Cromwell. This dictatorship, called a protectorate, failed to produce satisfaction for the people, and after Cromwell died, in 1660, they reinstated the monarchy under King Charles II. In 1685, James II, a catholic, became king, and because he had no sons, the people put up with him. Once he had an heir, they encouraged the Dutch king, William of Orange, to take over England. As a result, William did so in what was called the Glorious Revolution because no fighting was involved. William and Mary became the joint rulers of England in 1689. During their reign, they joined alliances aimed at suppressing France in the late 1600’s. In 1707, England, Scotland, and Wales were joined in the act of union to form Great Britain (also called the United Kingdom.)
Interestingly, France and England, who were bound up in war against each other at the beginning of this 300-year period, seem to have gone in separate directions after the Hundred Years War. France followed the path of absolutism, giving her kings (or rather her kings giving themselves) more power than could possibly be good for them. So much was demanded of the French people that when the French revolution did come years later, the conflict was bloody and hatred ran deep. The English, on the other hand, never hesitated for long when something did not go their way. The War of the Roses, the insurrection led my Oliver Cromwell, and the Glorious Revolution show this point. In fact, England achieved democracy before France. Although still a monarchy, England had the House of Parliament, and ever since the mid-1600’s, no king dared to stand off with it. France only increased the absolute power of the king throughout this time period.
North America, discovered in 1492 by Columbus, enticed the countries of Western Europe with its promise of free territory. Both England and France held colonies in North America. However, France did not limit themselves to previously unclaimed lands. France attempted to gain land in Germany and Italy during this time. France’s power, growing quickly since the end of the Hundred Years War, peaked at the time of Napoleon. After this initially successful conquest of Europe, France went into decline. They had been run in a dishonorable way for hundreds of years, and finally they reaped the results. England on the other hand, explored and formed colonies on every part of the world, especially in Africa and Asia. The British Empire was a large, economically prosperous world power until they were compelled to return their colonies to the native peoples of those countries.
Another aspect of these countries’ history in this time period is religion. Fairly early on, Henry VIII formed the Church of England, which was much more protestant that Catholic. In England, there was rarely persecution because of religion. A few kings and queens changed the state religion back to Catholicism for short periods of time, but in general, the kingdom remained Protestant. Also, in Scotland, men like John Huss reformed the church. Needless to say, changes in the church in Scotland affected the Church of England. On the other hand, France remained largely Catholic. Not until 1598 when the Edict was signed were the French Protestants granted freedom. Before this, the government killed thousands of Huguenots. Even after Nantes, kings like Louis XIV still persecuted them. It would seem that France did not think they needed to abide by Biblical principles during this period of history. Even their “wars of religion” were quite political, and the leaders rarely really cared about religion.
France and England took different paths after 1453. England traveled down the road to political and religious freedom, whereas France persecuted its Christians and deified its kings, particularly during the "Reign of Terror" at the end of the French revolution. The kings of England, who might have liked to enjoy absolute reign like the French kings were nevertheless limited in their power by the people. France controlled its citizens like slaves until late in the 1700’s. This is not to say that England did everything right; however, England in general made better choices. In fact, in the 20th century, France had to be saved twice by Britain and British allies. France’s decline was wrapped up in her history for hundreds of years.