Philip relied on skillful civil servants, such as Guillaume de Nogaret and Enguerrand de Marigny, to govern the kingdom rather than on his nobles. Philip and his advisors were instrumental in the transformation of France from a feudal country to a centralized state. Philip, who sought an uncontested monarchy, compelled his vassals by wars and restricted feudal usages. His ambitions made him highly influential in European affairs. His goal was to place his relatives on foreign thrones. Princes from his house ruled in Naples and Hungary. He tried and failed to make another relative the Holy Roman Emperor. He began the long advance of France eastward by taking control of scattered fiefs.
The most notable conflicts of Philip's reign include a dispute with Edward I of England, who was also his vassal due to the English king owning lands in southwestern France, and a war with the County of Flanders, another vassal, which gained temporary autonomy following Philip’s defeat at the Battle of the Golden Spurs (1302). In 1306, Philip the Fair expelled the Jews from France and, in 1307, he annihilated the order of the Knights Templar. Philip was in debt to both groups and saw them as a "state within the state". To further strengthen the monarchy, he tried to control the French clergy and entered into conflict with Pope Boniface VIII. This conflict led to the transfer of the papal court to the enclave of Avignon in 1309.
His final year saw a scandal amongst the royal family, known as the Tour de Nesle affair, during which the three daughters-in-law of Philip were accused of adultery. His three sons were successively kings of France, Louis X, Philip V, and Charles IV. Their deaths without surviving sons of their own would compromise the future of the French royal house, which until then seemed secure, precipitating a succession crisis that would eventually lead to the Hundred Years' War (1337–1453).
A member of the House of Capet, Philip was born in the medieval fortress of Fontainebleau (Seine-et-Marne) to the future Philip III, the Bold, and his first wife, Isabella of Aragon. He was the second of four sons born to the couple. His father was the heir apparent of France at that time, being the eldest son of King Louis IX (better known as St. Louis).
In August 1270, when Philip was two years old, his grandfather died while on Crusade, his father became king, and his elder brother Louis became heir apparent. Only five months later, in January 1271, Philip's mother died after falling from a horse; she was pregnant with her fifth child at the time and had not yet been crowned queen beside her husband. A few months later, one of Philip's younger brothers, Robert, also died. Philip's father was finally crowned king at Rhiems on 15 August 1271. Six days later, he married again; Philip's step-mother was Marie, daughter of the duke of Brabant.