Transitions and Tribulations: The City of Lyon and the Capetians, c.1271-c.1292

By Nathan Meades


Late medieval France was a polity in profound transition, which witnessed significant growth in the territorial and ideological reach of the French crown, especially under Philip IV (1285-1314).[i] These processes of royal extension intensely implicated towns and cities, thereby producing important reformulations of the urban ‘policy’ of the Capetian kings.[ii]

Figure One: Gold petit royal of Philip IV (1290).[iii]


The city of Lyon’s complex interactions with royal authority provide a productive lens through which to explore the principles, mechanics, and meanings of geopolitical and administrative ‘transition’ in late medieval France.[iv] Although nominally part of the Holy Roman Empire, Lyon’s exact status was ambiguous, and therefore of consistent interest to the Capetian crown, prompting sustained royal impositions, culminating in its acquisition in April 1312.[v]

This paper focuses on the legal mechanism of the royal safeguard (garda/salvagarda/garde), grants of protection which were employed to extend royal authority over Lyon, thereby acting as a key transition from existing attitudes and approaches.[vi] This fascinating but understudied instrument was frequently deployed from the reign of Philip III (1270-1285), ostensibly to protect those under its remit from violence, injuries, and oppressions.[vii] Letters of safeguard brought individuals and communities not otherwise within the royal purview under the crown’s protection, along with the significant rights this entailed.[viii] It functioned as a means for extending the writ of royal power, especially useful in strategic, borderland locations like Lyon, where it facilitated what Justine Firnhaber-Baker aptly calls the ‘piecemeal judicial colonization of people and places normally outside direct royal supervision’.[ix] Stresses have frequently been placed on the safeguard in an ecclesiastical context, but it was also an important if underexplored part of the fabric of royal-urban relations, as Sébastien Drolet has recently demonstrated.[x]

Lyon was twice taken under the royal safeguard, whilst local potentate Amédée V, count of Savoy (1285-1323), followed suit in May 1286 with a seigneurial safeguard, an apt reminder that royal power was not the sole contender for influence nor was Lyon’s integration into the French kingdom a zero-sum game.[xi] My focus, however, is on the grants of royal safeguard, which constituted pivotal moments of transition in Lyon’s political trajectory.

Figure Two: Coronation of Philip III (1271).[xii]


The first instance of the royal safeguard came in May 1271, when, following an appeal from Lyon’s citizens, Philip III received them in his ‘protection and special custody or safeguard’.[xiii] This was arguably the French crown’s first major intervention in Lyon. By appealing to Philip, declaring that they were within the crown’s judicial orbit (ressortum), and affixing a newly acquired communal seal, the citizens made a decisive statement about their autonomous civic identity as a collective body politic (universitas), symbolically aligned to royalty through the fleur-de-lys on their seal.[xiv] The rationales for, and logistics concerning, the safeguard were detailed in their appeal; Philip’s response, by contrast, is laconic and reactive.[xv]

No details are forthcoming on whether a ‘guardian’ (gardiator) was appointed to enforce the safeguard, but a document from 1272 mentions a royal judge, vicar, and sergeants operating within the city.[xvi] Whilst this represented a pivotal juncture in Lyon, a significant volte-face saw the subsequent removal of these officers and quashing of Lyon’s communal ambitions by the highest royal court (Parlement) in 1273, negating the entire validity of the citizens’s appeal.[xvii] This was prompted by a renewed alliance between the king and new archbishop of Lyon, Pierre de Tarentaise (1272-1273), later Pope Innocent V (1276).[xviii] The events of 1271 therefore acted as the catalyst for intensifying royal interest and a flurry of substantial gains, whilst simultaneously instituting a period of serious highs and lows for Lyon’s civic body.

The safeguard reared its head again in May 1292, and the document recording this grant occupied prime position as the first under the royal rubric of Étienne de Villeneuve’s municipal cartulary (documentary compilation), first completed in 1336.[xix] This represents a major shift in both language and rhetoric. The justification of the safeguard is fleshed out with reference to the kingly imperative ‘to defend our subjects and the inhabitants of our kingdom (incolas regni nostri) from oppressions and to nurture them in peace and tranquillity’, necessitating the king to receive Lyon’s citizens ‘under our special safeguard and protection’.[xx]

Figure Three: Grant of safeguard (1292).[xxi]


The key innovation here is the reference to the citizens of Lyon being ‘of our kingdom’ (de regno nostro), and, hence, incolas regni nostri.[xxii] This was far more than a merely discursive shift, as, to all intents and purposes, Philip IV presents Lyon’s attachment to the crown as a fait accompli. This transition to seeing Lyon as indisputably part of the kingdom underscored all subsequent discourse around its positioning and history, representing the point of departure for future royal (often spurious) claims.[xxiii] Moreover, whilst the text is silent on this point, by the end of September a gardiator, Pons de Montlaur, was active in the city, charged with implementing the safeguard as boots on the ground, physically embodying royal authority and providing a tangible link mediating between town and crown, albeit a contested one.[xxiv]

The safeguards of 1271 and 1292 did not definitively settle the question of Lyon’s geopolitical status but they were axial shifts, points of intensification and acceleration which furthered and fuelled Capetian involvement in Lyon. Thinking hard about these utilisations of the safeguard underscores the complexity, mutability, and significance of Lyon’s transition into the realm, alongside providing an illustrative case of broader trends. As Fredric Cheyette argues, the safeguard ‘provides a gauge by which we can measure and define the growth of royal government in France’, raising important questions about the nature of Capetian kingship and the interface between ‘centre’ and ‘periphery’ during a period of substantial institutional and administrative transition.[xxv]


Nathan Meades is a PhD student at St. Andrews University working on the urban history of late medieval France. For those interested in learning more about medieval Lyon and the royal safeguards, you may get in touch with Nathan via his email, nm263@st-andrews.ac.uk , and his research portal at St Andrews.



References: [i] Jean Dunbabin, ‘The Political World of France, c.1200-c.1336’, in France in the Later Middle Ages, 1200-1500, ed. by David Potter (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), 23-46. [ii] Charles Petit-Dutaillis, The French Communes in the Middle Ages, trans. by Joan Vickers (Amsterdam: North-Holland Publishing Company, 1978). [iii] Gold petit royal of Philip IV (1290), Bibliothèque nationale de France, Monnaie Royale II, 140. [online] Available at : https://images.bnf.fr/#/detail/950143/1 [accessed 23 August 2022]. [iv] Pierre Bonnassieux, De la réunion de Lyon à La France: étude historique d’après les documents originaux (Lyon: Vingtrinier, 1874). [v] See the contributions in Lyon 1312: Rattacher la ville au Royaume? ed. by Alexis Charansonnet, Jean-Louis Gaulin, and Xavier Hélary (Lyon-Avignon: CIHAM-Éditions, 2020). [vi] Noël Didier, La garde des églises au XIIIe siècle (Paris: Éditions Auguste Picard, 1927) and Fredric L. Cheyette, ‘The Royal Safeguard in Medieval France’, Studia Gratiana, XV (1972), 631-52. [vii] Cheyette, pp. 641-44. [viii] Didier, pp. 93-101; Cheyette, p. 652. [ix] Justine Firnhaber-Baker, Violence and the State in Languedoc 1250 – 1400 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014), p. 80. [x] Sébastien Drolet, ‘Les échanges politiques entre le Roi de France et les villes du Nord (1285-1350)’ (unpublished doctoral thesis, Université du Québec à Montréal, 2017), pp. 165-71. [xi] Acta Imperii Angliae et Franciae ab.a.1267 ad a.1313, ed. by Fritz Kern (Tübingen: Mohr, 1911), no. 55, pp. 34-35 and Claude- François Menestrier, Histoire civile et consulaire de la ville de Lyon (Lyon: de Ville, 1696), preuves, pp. 19-20. [xii] Coronation of Philip III (1271), Bibliothèque nationale de France, MS Français 2615, fol. 252. [online] Available at: https://images.bnf.fr/#/detail/911874/6 [accessed 23 August 2022]. [xiii] ‘in nostra protectione et (&) custodia speciali seu guarda’. Menestrier, preuves, p. 19. All translations are my own unless otherwise stated. [xiv] The citizens’s appeal is reproduced in Bonnassieux, p. 58, note 1 and an image of Lyon’s seal can be found at http://www.sigilla.org/sceau-type/lyon-premier-grand-sceau-39581 [accessed 03 August 2022]. [xv] Bonnassieux, p. 58; Menestrier, preuves, p. 19. [xvi] Menestrier, preuves, p. 17. On the gardiatores, Didier, pp. 252-85. [xvii] Menestrier, preuves, p. 17 and ibid. pp. xl-xli; Les Olim, ou registres des arrêts rendus par la Cour du Roi: sous les règnes de Saint Louis, de Philippe Le Hardi, de Philippe Le Bel, de Louis Le Hutin et de Philippe Le Long. Tome 1, ed. by Auguste-Arthur Beugnot (Paris: Imprimerie Royale, 1839), no. XXIV, p. 933. [xviii] Marie-Hyacinthe Laurent, Le bienheureux Innocent V (Pierre de Tarentaise) et son temps (Vatican City: Biblioteca apostolica vaticana, 1947), pp. 107-33. [xix] Cartulaire municipal de la ville de Lyon. Privilèges, franchises, libertés et autres titres de la commune, ed. by Marie-Claude Guigue (Geneva: Mégariotis Reprints, 1978), p. 27. [xx] ‘cum ex officii nostri debito subditos nostros et incolas regni nostri ab oppressionibus deffendere teneamur et eos in pace et transquilitate fovere’; ‘sub nostra speciali gardia et protectione’. Ibid. p. 27. [xxi] Grant of safeguard (1292), Bibliothèque virtuelle des manuscrits médiévaux, Archives Municipales de Lyon, AA1, fol. 11r. [online] Available at : https://bvmm.irht.cnrs.fr/mirador/index.php?manifest=https://bvmm.irht.cnrs.fr/iiif/33169/manifest [accessed 20 August 2022]. [xxii] Ibid. p. 27. [xxiii] Ibid. p. 28; Constitutiones et acta publica imperatorum et regum. Tomus IV: 1298-1313. Pars II: 1312-1313, ed. by Jakob Schwalm (Hanover: Monumenta Germaniae Historica, 1909-1911), p. 813. [xxiv]Cartulaire Municipal, p. 412. [xxv] Cheyette, p. 652; Firnhaber-Baker, pp. 80-81.



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