Christianity seems to have been introduced into Gaul in the 2nd cent. by missionaries from Asia Minor. The Christian community at Lyons suffered persecution in 177. A Gallic episcopate was established between c.250 and 313; a synod of the W. Church at Arles in 314 included fourteen Gallic bishops and the next century saw the definitive organization of the Gallo-Roman Church. Though the occupation of S. Gaul by Arian Visigoths does not seem to have disrupted the lives of the Catholic bishops, the conversion of the Frankish king Clovis to Catholicism and his conquest of Gaul opened the way for a close relationship between the Church and the secular rulers. Under Pepin III, who secured the throne definitively in 751, his son Charlemagne, and his successors, there was legislation touching all aspects of Church life. The Frankish Church was notable for its regularization of the liturgy, the development of ecclesiastical chant, and an influential revision of the Vulgate text of the Bible. The close relationship of the Frankish rulers and the Papacy was expressed dramatically in the coronation of Charlemagne as Emperor in 800. The co-operation of Church and State continued after Hugh Capet in 987 succeeded the last Carolingian ruler in France. The Investiture Contest saw no open clash with the Papacy over the king's claim to confer on bishops the ring and crozier; two reforming Popes, Urban II and Callistus II, were Frenchmen; and France was the homeland of the Crusades and of Cluniac and Cistercian monasticism. After the spread of the Albigensians in S. France, the Albigensian Crusades (1209–29) enabled the monarchy to assimilate Languedoc into the Frankish kingdom.
Under Philip IV (reigned 1285–1314) Papal power and prestige was damaged by the imprisonment of Boniface VIII by Philip's agents in 1303. The election of Clement V in 1305 was followed by the moving of the Papal court to Avignon, within French territory. So far from being a French captivity of the Papacy, however, France was raided for benefices in the expansion of Papal ‘provisions’. Gallicanism took form as Church Councils tried to deprive the Pope of his control over benefices and taxation as a means to end the Great Schism of 1378.
The Concordat of Bologna (1516), by conceding to the French Crown the right to nominate to major benefices, disposed her monarchs to seek accommodation rather than a break with Rome. It also dictated the (unsuccessful) strategy of J. Calvin and T. Beza, which aimed to capture the support of the Crown so that the whole Gallican Church could be transformed on Protestant principles. Until the adoption of the RC faith by Henry IV in 1593 the Huguenots hoped this might be achieved. They gained limited protection under the Edict of Nantes (1598), but this was eroded and finally removed by its Revocation (1685). Their numbers declined and RC Christianity was invigorated by post-Tridentine piety. Louis XIV (reigned 1643–1715) affirmed the power of the Crown not only against the Protestants but also against the Papacy, inducing the clergy to publish the Gallican Articles in 1682. He also struck out against the Jansenists, destroying their spiritual centre at Port-Royal and encouraging the designs of the Jesuits. Though religious practice was almost universal except in the towns, intellectually the Church could make only a halting reply to criticism (e.g. from Voltaire and J. J. Rousseau), and it was the target of anticlericalism on account of its wealth. In the Revolution of 1789, Church property was sold, tithe abolished, and the taking of monastic vows ended. The Civil Constitution of the Clergy (1790) set up the Constitutional Church. The Concordat of 1801 (q.v.) ‘restored the altars’, increased the prestige of the Papacy, and weakened the Gallican spirit of the French clergy. From then Ultramontanism became a force, moving towards its triumph at the First Vatican Council (1870). In the 19th cent. Calvinism revived somewhat, though weakened by a split between orthodox, moderates, and liberals in 1872.