The Boy-king of France

Philippe II's coronation

Philippe II's coronation

On November 1, 1179, fourteen year-old Philippe Capet was crowned and anointed at Rheims as King of the Franks. By the time of Philippe’s death nearly 44 years later, he had greatly enlarged and transformed his dominion, and he was the first French monarch to style himself as the “King of France.” His extraordinarily successful reign also led to his epithet, Philippe Augustus.

How does an adolescent boy become king while his father still lives?

At this time, it was not unusual for kings to crown their successors as “junior kings” during their lifetime in an effort to ensure a smooth transition of power. Fierce competition between rival heirs could easily lead to civil war. Crowning the chosen heir was seen as the surest way to avoid the dangers of an uncertain succession.

Philippe was the only son of King Louis VII; his mother was Louis’ third wife, Adela of Champagne. The long awaited and much desired heir had been born when his father was at the advanced age of 45. However, Louis enjoyed relatively good health, and since he only had one son and heir, he probably saw little need to crown his young son. He resisted his son’s coronation for several years, finally announcing plans to crown Philippe as junior king on August 15, 1179, during the Feast of Assumption.

A Norman chronicler of the time, Robert de Torigny, reports that there were prophecies and signs of impending disasters in the year of 1179 which were not heeded by the royal family.

First, before the planned August coronation, young Philippe became lost in the woods when he gave chase to a wild boar during a hunt and was separated from his companions. After two days alone in the forest without food and surrounded by the predators and perils of the dark wood, Philippe was rescued. The young prince subsequently became gravely ill, and his death seemed imminent. The coronation was postponed.

The aging king fell into despair at the prospect of losing his beloved only son, who had been given the nickname, “God-given” upon his birth. During a night of prayer for the life of his son, Louis had a vision of the murdered Thomas Becket, and he made a pilgrimage to Canterbury, despite the opposition of his advisors. King Henry II of England personally escorted Louis to the shrine as an honored guest. After two additional days of prayer and supplication, Louis received word that his son was recovering.

The journey to England had been too much for the 60 year-old Louis, and historians believe that he suffered a stroke on his way back to Paris, which left him paralyzed and unable to speak. Philippe’s coronation was rescheduled for the Feast of All Saints, November 1.

The Coronation

Philippe was crowned at Rheims by his uncle, Archbishop William Whitehands, who was Queen Adela’s brother, a papal legate, and the most powerful churchman in France. The adolescent boy was proclaimed the junior King of France because his father was still alive at that time, although King Louis was so ill that he was unable to attend his son’s coronation. Queen Adela remained at Louis’ bedside and also missed the ceremony.

The coronation was magnificent and was attended by many of the magnates and prelates of the French realm. Philippe of Alsace, Count of Flanders, held the sword at the ceremony. As the coronation procession moved towards Reims Cathedral, it was met with a vocal outpouring of love for the young monarch and joyful shouts of “Vive le roi!” (“Long live the king!”)

The exalted guest list included King Henry II of England and his three eldest surviving sons: Young Henry, Richard, and Geoffrey. Despite the many differences and disagreements between Louis and Henry, the coronation of a new French king was such an important event that they could not miss it. The Plantagenet brothers brought many lavish gifts for young Philippe and also acknowledged his overlordship for their French lands.


Painting of Philippe II of France 1165-1223 (by Louis-Felix Amiel, 1802-1864)
Philippe II of France 1165-1223 (by Louis-Felix Amiel, 1802-1864)


Despite his youth, Philippe firmly took the reins of power, even issuing charters in his own name.

Nevertheless, his strong-willed and intelligent mother, Adela, attempted to dominate state affairs. Queen Adela’s other brothers (Archbishop Whitehands, Henri I the Liberal, Count of Champagne; Theobald V, Count of Blois; Chartres, the seneschal of France; and Stephen, Count of Sancerre) attempted to influence Philippe as well.

But Philippe proved to be more cunning than his maternal uncles. He took the royal seal from his dying father in order to prevent anyone from seizing it for themselves. When Adela began to fortify her own lands, her son seized them, and she was compelled to seek protection from Theobald, Count of Blois. For some time, Philippe turned from his mother and his maternal relatives to Philippe of Alsace, who played a prominent role in the new reign for a short time.

The King of France

Young Philippe quickly showed that he was nobody’s pawn and would rule his kingdom independent of his mother’s powerful family. When Louis passed away on September 18, 1180, Philippe finally became the sole ruler of France and officially ascended to the French throne.

Eventually, he reconciled with his mother, who acted as regent in 1190 while Philippe was away on the Third Crusade. During this time, Philippe began to call himself, “the King of France” an appellation that would become the standard designation for all of his successors.

In 1214, following a twelve year war with King John, Philippe would dismantle the Angevin Empire, forever changing the relationship between France and England.

His epithet, Philippe Augustus, is a fitting legacy for the man who took the relatively insignificant Kingdom of the Franks and fashioned it into the formidable and flourishing country of France.

Source:  Bradbury, Jim. Philip Augustus: King of France, 1180-1223. London, Longman, 1998.

All images are in the public domain.

Text © 2017 Olivia Longueville 

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