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Facts about French history


In ancient times France was part of the Celtic territory known as Gaul. 'France' means 'country of the Franks', a Germanic people who conquered the area during the 5th century. It became a separate country in the 9th century. Charles the Bald was the first king of France.

A dispute over English ownership in France led to the 100 Year War 1337-1453. Later in that conflict, Joan of Arc  led many successful battles - she was later burnt at the stake for being a witch. Gilles de Rais (basis for the fictional character Bluebeard) served with Joan but was later hung in 1440 for murdering children. (His wife escaped his tyranny by retreating to her family's castle, the ruins of which are on the hill 100m behind our house in Pouzauges).

The losses of the century of war were enormous as well as war there was the plague (Black Death). It is estimated that the population of almost 20 million was reduced by at least 40%.

French monarchs often surrounded themselves with ministers and armies. One of the most famous ministers was Cardinal Richelieu, best known outside France as the villain in The Three Musketeers. Early in the 17th century, he was the chief minister of France, increasing the monarch’s power and breaking the strength of the nobles.  

During the reign of Louis XIV (1643-1715), France led many successful battles. He was a well liked monarch and a great supporter of the arts - he was known as the Sun King. (Interesting fact, even though he was popular, he was a little smelly only having 3 baths during his life!). He was responsible for the Versailles palace as it is now and the Hotel des Invalides (soldiers' hospital).

A deteriorating economy and resentment of the nobility caused the storming of the Bastille which started the French Revolution (1789-94, celebrated on Bastille Day) leading to the heads of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette being cut off, as with tens of thousands of others during the Revolution. Eventually the head of one of the main men responsible for the guillotine executions, Robespierre, was also cut off.

Although the revolutionaries advocated republican and egalitarian principles of government, France reverted to forms of absolute rule or constitutional monarchy over the next century including the restoration of Louis XVIII and Napoleonic Empires.

Napoleon Bonaparte, Corsican by birth, trained in the French army and success gained him a reputation, enabling him to get close to the political leaders of late-revolutionary France. Such was Napoleon’s prestige that he was able to seize power and transform the country into an Empire early in the 19th century with himself at its head. He was initially successful in European wars, but was later beaten and forced into exile.

Briefly for 2 days after his father abdicated in 1814, Napoleon II was named Emporer before also being forced to abdicate. In the mid 1800's, Napoleon Bonaparte's nephew, Napoleon III ruled France. His empire was responsible for a major period of industrialisation for the French economy and the renovation of Paris to the city as it is known today (boulevards etc).

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