An eminent British historian weaves a vivid tapestry of France’s past.
Capping a prolific writing and broadcasting career, Norwich (Four Princes: Henry VIII, Francis I, Charles V, Suleiman the Magnificent and the Obsession that Forged Modern Europe, 2016, etc.) deftly distills the history of France from the Gauls to de Gaulle. He gallops through the first 1,500 years of his story, peopled, he writes, with few “particularly colourful characters” though many devastating conflicts, particularly the Hundred Years’ War, protracted by the reign of a “hopelessly insane” king, Charles VI. The author dispatches in a mere three pages the intrepid advent and fiery end of Joan of Arc. Finally, arriving at 1515, Norwich finds a character “to make the heart beat faster”: the remarkable Francis I, who, Norwich exclaims, “hit France like a rocket.” He counts Francis I, a lover of books, the arts, and, not least, women, and Louis XIV, the Sun King, who reigned from 1643 to 1715, as France’s “two most dazzling rulers,” indelibly stamping the nation’s culture and identity. Before, after, and between them, however, were greedy, inept, ill-advised, and clumsy rulers whose escapades, travails, marriages—and many, many mistresses—Norwich chronicles with verve and wit. After Francis I, the nation roiled with religious wars between Catholics and Huguenots, which ended, after nearly half a century, in 1598 with the Edict of Nantes. It was not the end of France’s involvement in wars, however. There was the Thirty Years’ War, “the deadliest and most brutal upheaval the continent had ever seen,” beginning in 1618; the Seven Years’ War, lasting from 1756 to 1763; the Revolution and commune at the end of the 18th century; Napoleon’s extraordinary military campaigns; and two world wars. The author ascribes his love of France to childhood travels there with his mother, Lady Diana Cooper, and living in France when his father, Duff Cooper, was ambassador in the 1940s. This book, he writes, is “a sort of thank-offering to France.”
An engaging political history and affectionate homage.