French history

(seen through the eyes of a stampcollector)

Royal France

then through to

Revolutionary France

and finally

Republic of France



One of the earliest signs of human habitation in France, are the cave paintings at Lascaux, a cave complex in south western France. The paintings depict an “auroch”, which is an (extinct since 1627) large type of cattle, originally prevalent in Europe. The paintings are estimated to be more than 16000 years old.


The first Frenchman that we hear of is “Vercingetorix”, who was the leader of the Gallic tribes, which rebelled against the Romans in 53 BC. It was when Caesar had returned to Rome, after the summer campaign season. Caesar returned and engaged the Gauls into heavy fighting, but in the end Vercingetorix had to surrender. He was taken prisoner and moved to Rome, where he was beheaded in 46 BC.


In about 300 A.D the Franks, a Germanic tribe crossed the Rhine and entered France. During the next 200 years, the united Frankish tribes conquered the whole of France, except Languedoc. Their King Clovis, was baptized in the Roman Catholic religion and started the Merovingian dynasty, which was later followed by the Carolingian dynasty. The latter created a very powerful empire, which pinnacled during Charlemagne (768-814).


When Clovis died, he had divided his realm between his 4 sons, but much feuding between the brothers, sons and grandsons resulted, mainly because of Queen Fredegunda and Brunhilda. In 587 the Treaty of Andelot took place between Guntram and Brunhilda, whereby Guntram was to adopt Childebert II, the son of Brunhilda. The Frankish realm was united again in 613, by Clother II.


This powerful empire later split up in three parts: Germany, France and Lorraine. Germany and France have been fighting each other several times since then, while Lorraine became French again in 1766.


In 987 AD, the great Nobles of France elected Hugh Capet as King of France. He founded the Capetian dynasty of which various branches, such as Valois and Bourbon, continued to reign until the French Revolution.


Another commemorative cover was issued in 1987.


The first French Pope was Pope Sylvestre II, who was elected in 999. His original name was Gerbert (938-1003)and he was a son of shepherd parents and born in Auvergne. He had been noticed for his intelligence and selected to study in Auvergne and later in Spain and Reims.


There have been 16 French Popes and seven of them were during the Avignon Papacy. It was in 1317 that Pope John XXII bought Valreas for the Papacy of Avignon.


The battle of Bouvine, fought on June 27, 1214, was an important medieval battle, where by King Philip August, another Capetian King, defeated Otto IV of Germany and the Count of Flanders.


After the battle was fought, Philip August ordered the Count of Flanders, who was captured, to be imprisoned in a cart and rolled through Paris to be shown off to the population.

During Philip August, the main thoroughfares in Paris were paved; a central market was established (Les Halles), the construction of the Notre Dame Cathedral was continued and Charter was given to the University of Paris (Sorbonne).



Several years later, King Louis IX, (1226-1270) went on a crusade to the Holy Land and was later canonized by the Pope and became King St Louis.


Another famous Capetian King was Philip IV (1268-1314). He was called “the Fair”, because of his handsome features. As a King, he was determined to strengthen the Monarchy at all cost. As he left unpopular decisions to his ministers, he was called a “useless cow” by his contemporaries. The Bishop of Pamiers said of him:” He is neither man nor beast. This is a statue”.


In 1328, Philip VI of the House of Valois became King. His successor was John the Good, (1319-1364), who was named “The Good”, because he preferred to enjoy the good life that his wealth brought. Later he became more involved in the administration. In the battle of Poitiers (1356) against Edward, the Black Prince, John was defeated and taken as a captive back to England. His ransom was set at 3 000 000 crowns. Leaving his son Louis of Anjou in Calais as a hostage, John was allowed to return to France. While he tried to raise the money, his son escaped from the English. This breach of trust, made angry King John surrender himself again, claiming his inability to raise the money, as a reason. He died in London in 1364 and his body was returned to France.


His son Charles V (1338-1380), became King in 1364 and was called “The Wise”. His reign marked a high point for France during the 100 years’ War, as his armies recovered much of the territory that was ceded to England at the Treaty of Brétigny (when his father was prisoner of the English). He had engaged the services of a Noble by the name of Bertrand du Guesclin, who fought many battles and also had learned to fight guerilla war. Of great importance to perceptions of Charles V (The Wise) was his great library with over 1200 volumes.


Charles d’Orleans was Charles of Valois, Duke of Orleans (1394-1465) and brother of King Charles V. He is remembered as an accomplished poet, owing to the more than 500 poems he produced. He was captured by the English at the battle of Agincourt (1415) and spent 25 years in captivity, where he wrote most of these poems.


Louis XI (1423-1483), also known as "the Prudent" or "the Spider", was one of the most successful Kings of France, in terms of uniting the country. Here we see him meeting Charles the Bold at Peronne in 1468, to make a treaty.


For the purpose of this story, it is important to know that Louis XI (1461-1483) created a private postal service on horseback over certain routes, where the Royal courier could change his tired horse for a fresh one.

Francis 1st (1515-1547) extended the routes and regulated the service. But it was Henry IV (1589-1610), the first King of the House of Bourbon, who really was the Father of the French Postal Services. In 1603, he demanded of the Controleur-General des Postes, that he created a corps of couriers that could transport private mail of the public. In 1598 he granted the Huguenots religious freedom by the Edict of Nantes.


Philibert de l'Orme was a great French architect, who lived from 1515- 1570. He constructed the "Tuileries", but his master piece was the "Château d'Anet", which is shown on this cover.



Hugo de Groot (1583-1645) was a Dutch jurist, who specialised in International Law. He was very bright and when he was 15 and brought into an audience with King Henry IV, he impressed the court that much, that the King declared:"Behold the miracle of Holland". In 1618, de Groot was locked up in Loevestein Castle in Holland,from where he escaped in a book chest and fled to Paris. There he was granted a royal pension by King Louis XIII


Philip the Good, also known as Philip III, Duke of Burgundy (1396-1467). Although he was not King of France, he meddled in French politics and alliances with England, to enlarge his Dukedom. He is known in history for his patronage of Flemish artists, such as Jan van Eyck and the capture and handing over to the English of Joan of Arc.


Pierre Terrail, seigneur de Bayard (1473-1524), was a French soldier, generally known as Chevalier de Bayard. He has been known throughout the centuries since his death as “the Knight without fear and without reproach”. He served in many battles for Louis XII.


Cardinal Duc de Richelieu (1585-1642) was a French clergyman, noble and statesman. He became a Cardinal in 1622 and King Louis XIII’s Chief Minister in 1624. By restraining the power of the Nobility, he transferred France into a strong centralized State.


Louis XIV (1638-1715), also known as the Sun King, because it was thought that just as the planets revolve around the sun, so too should France and the Court revolve around the King. His reign spanned 72 years, the longest documented of any European Monarch. On his deathbed, he said:” I am going away, but the State will always remain.”


Henry de la Tour d’ Auvergne, Viscomte de Turrenne (1611-1675), achieved military fame and became a Marshal of France. He was one of six Marshals, who have been made “Marshal General of France”. He died during the battle of Salzbach on July 27, 1675.


Duc de la Rochefoucauld (1613-1680) was noted French author of memoirs and an accomplished 17th century nobleman. On one of the covers, we see the gate Saint Antoine of Paris, where he was shot through the head, while being involved in La Fronde.

La Fronde was a civil war in France, that lasted from 1648-1653. Fronde means “sling”, with which the Paris mobs broke the windows with stones of the supporters of Cardinal Mazarin.



It was at the treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle (Aachen in German) in 1668, that France could keep her conquests in Flanders, but had to return the province of Franche-Comté to Spain.


Nicholas Boileau-Despreaux (1636-1711), was a French poet and literary critic. He translated latin scripts and upheld classical standards in both French and English literature.


The Gobelins were a family of dyers, who established themselves in Paris, in the middle of the 15 century. In 1662, the works were purchased on behalf of King Louis XIV, by Jean Baptiste Colbert and turned into a general upholstery factory, chiefly for Royal use.


In 1778, France with the support of its ally Spain, entered the American Independence war on the U.S.side and Jean Paul Jones led a French sponsored naval unit.

Although he originally died in Paris, he was ultimately reinterred at the United States Naval Academy, a fitting homecoming for “The Father of the United States Navy”.



Charles Gravier, comte de Vergennes (1717-1787) was the French diplomat, who informed the "Commissioners of the 13 Collonies" that France acknowledged the United States and was willing to form an alliance with that new State.


The treaty of Paris in 1783 formally ended the American Independence War, which had started in 1775, when the former British colonies rebelled against British rule. Here are shown the Frenchmen Rochambeau, Lafayette and le Grasse, who had strived to secure America’s freedom.


The majority of the population of France was made up of commoners, who resented the privileges enjoyed by the nobles and clergy. In addition, the growth of new ideas during the 18th century’s Enlightment, resulted in thinkers such as Voltaire and Rousseau beginning to question the principles of the old regime and absolutism.


In 1789 the crisis came to a head. On July 14, a Parisian mob revolted and stormed the Bastille prison, which was the symbol of political oppression. The French revolution had begun. On August 26,1789, the Revolutionaries issued the "Declaration of the Rights of Man", which embodied the principles of Liberté, Egalité and Fraternité and was meant to end the class system.


In 1768 something happened that had great consequences for France. The city state of Genoa ceded Corsica to France to settle a debt. Corsica was the birthplace of Napoleon Bonaparte, who was born in Ajaccio, into minor nobility. Napoleon’s parents traveled to court in France and like many other Corsican Nobles, sent their son to school there.


In 1792, the invading Prussian and Austrian armies were opposed by a French Revolutionary army, consisting of old soldiers and raw volunteers. The French artillery however, was extremely accurate and after the ”Cannonade of Valmy” the Prussian and Austrian armies broke off the engagement and retired. This battle ensured the survival of the French Revolution.


During Napoleon's expedition to Egypt in 1799, the "Rosetta stone" was found.This stone tablet has a text in 3 different languages: Hieroglyphic, Demotic and classical Greek. This enabled Jean Champollion to decipher Egyptian Hieroglyphics.


The "Court des Comptes" was a sort of treasury department, resurrected by Napoleon in 1807 and Barbé Marbois was appointed as the first president. This was the senator who had negotiated the sale of Louisiana to the U.S.A. in 1803.


The French revolutionary ideals had spread to Italy, which, after Napoleon had been defeated, had been placed under Austrian rule by the Congress of Vienna. It was Joseph Mazzini (1805-1872), born in Piedmont, who engaged in revolutionary activities against these foreign rulers


After the Napoleon period, the Academy of Medicine was founded in 1821. Baron Antoine Portal (1742-1832) a French doctor and medical historian, was the founding Father of this "Académie Nationale de Médicine", created by order of King Louis XVIII.


Alexandre Dumas (1802-1870) was a French writer, best known for his numerous historical novels of high adventure, which have made him one of the most widely read French writers in the world. His works included "The Three Musketeers", "The Count of Monte Christo" and "The Black Tulip".


Barbey d'Aurevilly (1808-1889) was a French novelist and short story writer, who specialised in mystery tales, that explored hidden motivations. His stories hinted at evil, without ever crossing the line into the supernatural.


Emile Zola (1840-1902) was an influential writer,

who risked his career when his "J'accuse" was published on the front page of the Paris Daily. His article accused the highest level of the French Army of obstruction of justice and antisemitism by having wrongly convicted a Jewish artillery captain, Alfred Dreyfus.


Louis-Adolphe Thiers (1797-1877) was a French politician and historian. He was prime minister under King Louis-Philippe of France. Following the overthrow of the 2nd Empire, he again came to prominence as the French leader, who surpressed the revolutionary Paris Commune of 1871.


WW1 ended on November 11, 1918 and France was among the winning nations, but at a terrible cost. Of the 7.5 million people mobilised, 1,385 000 were killed and 4,266 000 were wounded.Total casulties 5.6 million or 75%.


21 years later, WW2 began. The Germans rolled in through Belgium and around the Maginot defences in 1940 and forced the B.E.F. and French troops to evacuate at Dunkerque, leaving all their equipment behind.


France surrendered and a terrible time began during the German occupation. Many joined the resistance and here we see Jacques Renouvin, organiser of the resistance in southern France, who was arrested and tortured in 1943 and who died in Mathausen concentration camp on Januari 24, 1944.


In the Buffon highschool, as in many highschools,students and teachers refused to resign themselves to the defeat. Five students of the school: Jean Marie Arthus (15 years), Jacques Baudry (18 years), Peter Benedict (15 years), Pierre Crelot (17 years) and Lucien Legros (16 years), called on their peers by distributing leaflets, that the war was not over and that there was a need to combat the occupiers.

In 1941, the group moved to the armed struggle and committed 2 attacks against German officers. They were betrayed and arrested in June 1942 and shot by the Germans in the Bois de Bologne on February 8, 1943.



Here we see the monument erected to the memory of the 200 000 people, that were deported from France, during that time.


With this monument at the French concentration camp "Struthof", France remembered "Those, who gave their lives for the love of Freedom".


In 1943, General de Gaulle issued a special medal for the resistance fighters.

The medal was enscribed June 18, 1940, which was the date that the General called on the French people to continue the struggle.



Outside France, things went better for the country. General Koenig, who had fled to England at the Dunkerque evacuation, led the first Free French Brigade and managed to hold off Rommel's Afrika Korps at Bir Hakeim in 1942.


Marie Pierre Koenig (1898-1970) joined the French army at an early age and was decorated during WW1. He saw action against the Germans in Narvik in 1940 and later escaped to England via Dunkirque. In London, he joined General de Gaulle and was promoted to Colonel.


Jean de Lattre de Tassigny(1889-1952) was a French military hero of WW2. After the defeat in June 1940, he remained on duty and commanded Vichy French forces in Tunesia in 1941. He began organising anti-German forces, was arrested and escaped to Algiers, where he took command of the Free French forces, that took part in the landings of Southern France.


Marshal Jean de Lattre de Tassigny represented France at the German unconditional surrender in Berlin on May 8, 1945.


General Leclerc de Hautecloque (1902-1947) adopted the name Leclerc, when he took command of the Free French forces in French Equatorial Africa. He won his name in military history, when he led a spectacular march of the Free French from Chad to Tripoli over 1500 miles of desert and mountains and through enemy-held territory and entered Tripoli with the British 8th army.


General Diego Brosset was a commander in the 1st Free French division. He served under General Koenig in the Battle of Bir Hakeim. He succeeded General Koenig, took part in the Italian campaign and was killed in action near the Vosges mountains in Alsace.


After having fought in Africa, General Koenig returned to London and took part in the landings at Normandy. General de Gaulle appointed him "Military Governor of Paris" on August 21, 1944.


Here we see General Charles de Gaulle triumphantly entering Paris in 1944


Apart from being the Great Leader of the Free French during WW2, Charles de Gaulle was also a great statesman, who founded the 5th Republic. He suddenly died in 1970 and as he was buried, the bells of all the churches in France tolled, starting from the Notre Dame and spreading out from there.


From August to October 1944, representatives of France, China, the UK, the USSR and the USA met to discuss the United Nations Conference, which was first held on April 25, 1945. 50 Nations signed the Charter on June 26, 1945.


Unesco is an off shoot of the United Nations and is short for "United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation".


For this specialised U.N. agency, it is not enough to build classrooms in devastated countries, but it is the means to build peace in the minds of men.


The Elysée Treaty, signed 40 years ago, on January 22, 1963, by General de Gaulle and Chancelor Adenauer, sealed the reconciliation between the two nations and laid the foundations for lasting peace in Europe.


Then to conclude this chapter, we see here how the mail was transported in the past

One way was by coaches and the other by fast carriages.



In the 20th century, mail was beginning to be transported by aeroplane.

And in 1939 the mail began to be transported by night flyers.



In the next "French Postal History" we will see the actual letters that have been sent through the mail in France.



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