A Brief History
December 2nd is a key date in French history. On this day in 1804, at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, Napoleon Bonaparte crowned himself Emperor of the French, the first French Emperor in a thousand years. The next year, on December 2, 1805, French troops under Napoleon Bonaparte defeated a joint Russo-Austrian force at the Battle of Austerlitz during the Napoleonic Wars. Less than fifty years later, on December 2, 1851, French President Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte overthrew the Second Republic. Then, on December 2, 1852, Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte became Emperor of the French as Napoleon III. The article presents a timeline of these and other key events in French history, including the wider francophone world.
On September 28, 1066, a warrior leader known as William the Bastard invaded England from Normandy in what is now France. You probably know him better as William the Conqueror, a much catchier name. William the Bastard was the illegitimate son of the Duke of Normandy.
On October 14, 1066, the Normans under William the Conqueror defeated the English at the Battle of Hastings. This date is one that you might find on a high school or college history test or perhaps on the television trivia show Jeopardy.
On June 19, 1269, the King of France, Louis IX, ordered that any Jew found in any public place not wearing the obligatory yellow badge would be fined 10 livres of silver.
Fans of the film Braveheart may recall the heir to England’s throne, future king Edward II, having eyes for men rather than his French wife, Isabella the She-wolf. One of these men, Hugh Despenser, 1st Lord Despenser (c. 1286 – November 24, 1326), became a victim of that vengeful woman in one of history’s all-time most brutal executions, because as they say, well, sort of, “Hell hath no fury like a she-wolf scorned”!
On August 2, 1343, Olivier Clisson, a French nobleman from Brittany, was convicted of treason in Paris and beheaded. He had been fighting the British in the Hundred Years War, and when his success tapered off, he was criticized and accused of treason, perhaps to deflect blame from French losses.
On October 29, 1390, Paris, France got its first taste of professional witch hunting when the first of two witchcraft trials began in the French capital. Religious persecution of witches was nothing new, with records of arraignments by ecclesiastical authorities going back to 1275, but now the secular authorities, i.e. the state authorities, were involved.
On June 4, 1411, King Charles IV of France granted a monopoly to the people of Roquefort-sur-Soulzon for the ripening of Roquefort cheese. Today, what we call “bleu cheese” is basically Roquefort cheese that is not from Roquefort, as only the cheese from that original location is allowed to bear that name.
On July 7, 1456, Joan of Arc (Jeanne d’Arc) was acquitted of heresy. Unfortunately, the acquittal came 25 years after she was convicted of heresy and burned at the stake.
On January 21, 1535, in the aftermath of “The Affair of the Placards,” French Protestants were burned at the stake in front of the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris.
On June 20, 1559, King Henry II of France engaged in a jousting tournament when his opponent’s lance pierced the face guard of Henry’s helmet, sending splinters into his face, eye, and brain.
On July 25, 1593, Henry IV, King of France, converted from Calvanist Protestant back to the Catholicism of his birth. Henry had been raised Protestant, even though he was baptized Catholic. His conversion back to Catholic came in the midst of the Wars of Religion, battles between Catholic and Protestant Europeans.
On August 18, 1634, Urbain Grandier was convicted of sorcery and burned alive in France.
On May 7, 1664, King Louis XIV of France began construction on the Palace of Versailles, one of the most iconic structures in the world and the symbol of the throne of France.
On August 4, 1693, the monk Dom Peringnon is traditionally believed to have invented Champagne. This is not the case, but many people still believe he did, despite plenty of evidence to the contrary. Many historical “facts” believed by the general public are simply not accurate.
On September 1, 1715, King Louis XIV of France died after having ruled for 72 years, the longest reign of a king or queen of any major European country. Many Frenchmen were born and died during his time on the throne and never knew any other monarch.
On November 29, 1729, the Native American Natchez people who had been living peacefully with their French colonist neighbors in the area of what is now Natchez, Mississippi rose up and attacked the French, killing 138 men, 56 children and 35 women at the French Fort Rosalie.
On February 22, 1744, the British Royal Navy began an engagement with Spanish and French naval ships in a sea battle off the coast of Toulon, France in the Mediterranean Sea, a battle that was a defeat for the British and one of the most humiliating fiascos in Royal Navy history, The Battle of Toulon.
On August 4, 1761, the first veterinary school of medicine was founded by Claude Bourgelat in Lyon, France
On August 15, 1769, Napoleon Bonaparte was born. He would later go on to be known for many things but not his tights! Much has been written about Napoleon, but somehow this piece of clothing was always deemed too insignificant for historians to mention.
On May 16, 1770, the 14 year old Maria Antonia Josepha Johanna of the House Habsburg-Lorrainne married Louis-Auguste, Dauphin (heir to the throne) of France, House of Bourbon. During her short (23 years) life to follow, Queen Marie Antoinette, as she became when Louis became King Louis XVI of France, came to symbolize the callous indifference to the plight of peasants.
On December 27, 1771, French engineer, Henri Pitot, died at the age of 76.
On September 3, 1783, the treaty that ended the American Revolutionary War was signed in Paris, France, thus becoming known as the Treaty of Paris. Paris is often referred to as The City of Light, and many other cities have notable nicknames as well.
On June 4, 1784, Élisabeth Thible became the first woman to fly in an untethered hot air balloon, soaring for a 4 kilometer trip that took 45 minutes and reached perhaps 5000 feet above the ground, making her the world’s first female aviatrix.
On October 5, 1789, the women of Paris marched to Versailles to confront King Louis XVI about his refusal to abolish feudalism, to demand bread, and to force the King and his court to move to Paris.
On April 25, 1792, a major step in the history of execution devices was made when a “highwayman” (robber) became the first victim of the Guillotine.
On August 30, 1792, Napoleon Bonaparte was appointed a captain in the French Army, a major stepping stone on the path that eventually resulted in his becoming Emperor of the French.
On September 11, 1792, in the midst of the confusion of the French Revolution, the crown jewels, which included the fabulous Hope Diamond (“Le Bleu de France”), were stolen.
On January 21, 1793, King Louis XVI of France was convicted of treason and taken to the guillotine where he was promptly beheaded, just one of the many instances of famous beheadings in a long history of human violence, both intentional and accidental, both by the state as an execution or by criminal action, and even by our animal “friends.”
On November 10, 1793, the government of revolutionary France rejected traditional religion (mostly Catholic in France) and inserted a Cult of Reason as the national “religion.” The French revolutionaries had rejected any form of deity for a secular, scientific explanation of the universe and all in it.
On June 26, 1794, the army of the First Republic of France (the result of the French Revolution) made the first use of balloons in combat at the Battle of Fleurus against the forces of the First Coalition.
On July 27, 1794, Maximilien Robespierre, a leader of the French Revolution was arrested, later to be denounced and executed by a Revolutionary Tribunal.
On January 23, 1795, one of the most unusual battles in history took place when a force of French cavalry galloped across the frozen Zuiderzee to capture 14 Dutch ships and seize 850 guns (cannon).
On March 9, 1796, Napoleon Bonaparte, said to have more books written about him than any mortal man, married the love of his life, Joséphine de Beauharnais.
On August 2, 1798, during the French Revolutionary Wars, the French fleet supporting then General Napoleon Bonaparte’s invasion of Egypt was defeated soundly by the British at the Battle of the Nile.
On March 7, 1799, French General Napoleon Bonaparte successfully captured the city of Jaffa in Palestine, then part of the Ottoman Empire.
On July 15, 1799, French soldiers in Egypt discovered The Rosetta Stone, which is inscribed with three versions of a decree issued at Memphis, Egypt in 196 BC during the Ptolemaic dynasty on behalf of King Ptolemy V Epiphanes.
On December 24, 1800, The “Plot of the rue Saint-Nicaise”, also known as the “Machine Infernale Plot, ” failed to kill Napoleon Bonaparte, then the First Consul of France, the de facto dictator of the French Republic.
On April 26, 1802, Napoleon Bonaparte signed a general amnesty for those members of the émigrés of the French Revolution, those royalists and others opposed to the French Revolution that had fled France.
On May 5, 1802, two of Napoleon‘s generals entered into a pistol duel to the death over perceived insults between them.
On May 19, 1802, Napoleon Bonaparte founded the Legion of Honor, the highest award France can bestow upon their heroes.
On May 28, 1802, 400 former slaves revolting against the reinstatement of slavery by the French under Napoleon Bonaparte in the Caribbean department of Guadalupe blew themselves up rather than surrender to the French.
On November 18, 1803, Haitians won their independence, not with the Devil’s assistance, but with their victory at The Battle of Vertières, the last major battle of the Haitian Revolution.
On March 21, 1804, the Code Napoleon became the law of France, and went on to influence legal reforms in many other countries.
On December 2, 1804, Napoleon Bonaparte shocked the world by crowning himself Emperor of the French, taking the crown from the Pope and plopping it on his own head. Another 48 years later, his namesake, Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte was crowned Emperor of France and given the title Napoleon III.
On October 8, 1806, British forces fighting the French at Boulogne used Congreve Rockets, the same type of rockets mentioned in the National Anthem of the United States (“…and the rockets red glare…”).
On October 30, 1806, 5300 Prussian soldiers defending the city of Stettin surrendered to only 800 French soldiers commanded by General Lassalle, falling for the ruse that the French force was much larger.
On July 20, 1807, the government of Napoleon Bonaparte granted a patent to Nicephore Niepce for a device he called the Pyreolophore, the first internal combustion engine (ICE). Demonstrated by powering a small boat up a river, this was the beginning of a long and star crossed relationship between humans and ICE‘s. Powering cars, generators, airplanes, farm equipment, pumps, compressors, boats, lawn mowers and just about anything you can think of that needs power of some sort, the loud, smoke belching engines have been a constant companion of mankind for over 200 years now, slow to catch on, but taking over the bulk of our portable power needs once they got started. Today, every effort to vilify and find replacements for ICE’s is the order of the day. Global warming (climate change), air pollution, and diminishing natural resources (oil) are ganging up on our old friend, causing many to believe its days are numbered.
On July 5, 1809, the forces of the French Empire (and her allies) fought the forces of the Austrian Empire (and her allies) at Wagram, Austria, an enormous battle that cost both sides a combined 80,000 casualties and was fought between over 300,000 soldiers fielding over 1000 pieces of artillery, making it perhaps the largest battle in European history up to its time and also the bloodiest military engagement of the entire Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars thus far.
On January 10, 1810, Napoleon Bonaparte, Emperor of France, divorced Josephine, Empress of France, the only woman Napoleon really loved.
On October 23, 1812, the mad General Malet seized control of the police of Paris and attempted a coup d’état against Napoleon‘s Empire.
From August 29-30, 1813, The Battle of Kulm was fought near the town Kulm (Chlumec) and the village Přestanov in northern Bohemia, during the War of the Sixth Coalition, part of the Napoleonic Wars.
On April 12, 1814, the Duke of Wellington danced a dance remarkably similar to the Carlton dance when he heard that Napoleon had abdicated.
On June 18, 1815, the combined forces of the Duke of Wellington and Gebhard von Blucher defeated the French army at the battle of Waterloo. The battle is remembered by history not as a victory of the British and Prussians, but as a defeat for Napoleon Bonaparte, his final major defeat.
On July 15, 1815, Emperor Napoleon I of France surrendered to the British aboard the HMS Bellerophon.
On May 5, 1821, Napoleon Bonaparte, erstwhile Emperor of France, died on the lonely island of St. Helena, whispering his last word, Josephine.
On April 20, 1828, French explorer René Caillié became the first European to return alive from a visit to the ancient African city of Timbuktu.
On August 19, 1839, the government of France announced that the “Daguerreotype process,” an invention of Louis Daguerre as an early form of photography, would be available for free to the entire world.
On June 25, 1843, Marie Anne Lenormand, France’s most famous fortune teller and cartomancer (card reader), died.
On December 2, 1852, Napoleon Bonaparte’s nephew and namesake, Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte, was crowned Emperor and given the title Napoleon III.
On October 25, 1854, The United Kingdom, The Ottoman Empire, and the French Empire fought against Russia in the Battle of Balaclava, which included the famous (and disastrous) “Charge of the Light Brigade”.
On January 5, 1895, French Army officer Alfred Dreyfus was falsely convicted of treason and sentenced to live in prison at the dreaded Devil’s Island prison in French Guiana. Closed since 1953, the name Devil’s Island stands as the epitome of notorious miserable prisons, virtually synonymous with “hellhole.”
On September 23, 1913, future fighter pilot combat hero Eugène Adrien Roland Georges Garros of France made an aviation historic first by becoming the first pilot to fly all the way across the Mediterranean Sea, flying from St. Raphael, France, to Bizerte, Tunisia.
On October 15, 1917, the famous exotic dancer and courtesan Mata Hari was executed by firing squad in France after having been found guilty of espionage.
On August 6, 1926, Gertrude Ederle became the first woman to swim across the English Channel, swimming from France to England. An American with German parents, Ederle had already won a Gold Medal and 2 Bronze Medals in the 1924 Olympics when she dared the cold, rough waters of the Channel.
On May 8, 1927, 2 weeks before Charles Lindbergh and his Spirit of St. Louis flew into history, two Frenchmen made the first attempt at a Paris to New York (or New York to Paris) flight and disappeared somewhere over the Atlantic.
On August 27, 1928, countries that were bitter enemies in World War I signed the Kellogg-Briand Pact in Paris to renounce war as a means to resolve disputes and conflicts between nations. Within a year’s time, a total of 62 countries had signed.
On January 17, 1941, French colonial naval forces engaged the naval forces of Siam (Thailand after 1948) during the Franco-Thai War, a smaller war within the larger conflagration that was World War II.
On July 17, 1944, US P-38 fighter bombers dropped napalm bombs on a German Army fuel depot near St. Lo in Normandy, France, one of the earliest uses of napalm.
On July 5, 1946, the bikini swimsuit went on sale after being debuted at the Molitor Pool of Paris, France.
On June 7, 1962, a right wing French Nationalist terror group, the Organisation Armée Secrète, usually referred to as the OAS, set fire to and burned the library at the University of Algiers in Algeria, destroying half a million books.
On August 22, 1962, the French ultra-nationalist terror group known as the OAS (Organisation armée secrete, which means “Secret Army Organization”) made a famous attempt on the life of Charles de Gaulle, president of France.
On August 21, 1982, elements of the 860 man French contingent of the Multinational Force in Lebanon (MNF) arrived in Beirut
On August 14, 1994, Ilich Ramirez Sanchez, Venezuelan terrorist and one of the most wanted men in the world, was finally arrested by authorities in the Sudan and turned over to French law enforcement.
On September 14, 2012, in a major invasion of privacy, the French magazine Closer published topless photographs of Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge. This incident led to a major outcry as “Kate” was vacationing at a private residence, and many felt the paparazzi had once again overstepped the boundaries of the socially and morally acceptable.
On January 7, 2015, a day celebrated by millions of Eastern Orthodox Christians (Greek Catholic, Russian Orthodox, Ukrainian Catholic, etc) as Christmas Day, France was stunned by a vicious terrorist attack on the Charlie Hebdo satirical newspaper offices that left 12 people dead and another 11 wounded.
On April 15, 2019, we have the sad duty to inform our readers that one of the great historical cathedrals in the world, Notre Dame in Paris, France, has been burning for the past few hours and is virtually destroyed.
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For more information, please see…
Davidson, Marshall B. France: A History. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2017.
Davis, William Stearns. A History of France from the Earliest Times to the Treaty of Versailles. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2014.