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Louis XI

( Originally Published Early 1900's )



Louis XI first appears in history, at the age of six-teen, as the leader of a rebellion against his father, Charles VII of France. The rebellion was not, how-ever, one of his own making. The Dukes of Alençon, Bourbon, and other nobles had projected one of their periodical uprisings against the monarchy, and they had pitched upon the Dauphin as a nominal leader, simply for the use of his name.

The youth who thus lent himself to the designs of his father's enemies was a boy of no ordinary character. The historian Michelet thus speaks of him : "His leading trait was impatience. He longed to live and to act. He had quickness' and intellect enough to make one tremble; no heart, neither friendship, nor sense of kindred, no touch of humanity, no conscience to restrain him. The only feature he had in common with his time was bigotry; which, however, far from holding him back, always came pat to put an end to his scruples.

Strange to say, with all his driveling and petty scrupulosity of devotion, the instinct of novelty was quick within him, the desire to upstir and change everything. The restlessness of the modern spirit was already his, inspiring his fearful ardor to go on, to be ever going on, trampling all under his feet, walking, if need be, over the bones of his father." Such was Louis in his boyhood, and such he remained through life.

Louis XI was born at Paris in 1423, his father being, as already stated, Charles VII, his mother a daughter of the Duke of Burgundy, a parentage which made him a cousin of his great political opponent Charles the Bold. When a mere lad he began to take part in State affairs, and at the early age of fourteen had been charged by his father to reduce to order the Marches of Brittany and Poitou.

The rebellion in which he had now become involved was of short duration. The King, who was holding Easter at Poitiers when he heard the news, hastily collected an army and in one short campaign dispersed the rebellious nobles. Alençon and the rest, including the Dauphin, humbly sued for peace. Some of the principal offenders were stripped of their possessions; Louis was sent into Dauphiny to prevent him from making further trouble. He was only to be kept quiet by being secured a little Kingdom as an earnest of his future inheritance.

But even in this remote province the restless Louis continued still to scheme and to intrigue, besides rendering himself obnoxious to the people by his oppression and tyranny. In all the political transactions of these times, great or small, we continually meet with the Dauphin's name. All the King's enemies seemed naturally to become the Dauphin's friends; and he himself was frequently suspected of conspiracy against his father, but in no case were there sufficient proofs to warrant his arrest. Thus passed sixteen years of his life.

In May, 1456, however, a conspiracy formed by the Duke of Alençon was discovered, in which the Dauphin was clearly implicated. Alençon was arrested; the Dauphin fled to Burgundy. Here he was received with kindness by the Duke, Philip the Good, who gave him precedence everywhere and treated him almost as King. Philip placed himself, his subjects and his means at the disposal of his nephew all except that which Louis most desired, an army to enable him to return to France and place his father in ward.

Louis repaid this kindness by stirring up to revolt the discontented cities of Flanders, which were subject to Burgundy, and causing trouble between the Duke of Burgundy and his son, Count of Charolais, afterward Charles the Bold. In his place of retreat, Genappe, he devoted his energies to two objects driving his father to despair and undermining the house which entertained him. In this way he passed his time until 1461, in which year his father died and Louis became King of France.

The condition of France at the time of the accession of Louis XI to the throne was deplorable, indeed. All things were in confusion. The country was split up into a number of provinces, the Governors of which, though appointed by the King, were practically independent. The people were wretchedly poor, and yet were subjected by their rulers to oppressive taxation. In striking contrast with the general poverty even of the nobles was the condition of the Church, which had become possessed of nearly all the most fertile domains, and had innumerable richly endowed monasteries, abbeys and other like establishments. France was besides encompassed by foreign enemies, chief among whom were the English and Burgundians. Of the two, the former were the most feared, for the French still retained a lively recollection of Crecy, Poitiers and Agincourt.

Louis XI was crowned at Rheims in 1461, by the Duke of Burgundy, amid a scene of great splendor. Burgundians and Frenchmen vied with each other in the magnificence of their costumes; the only humble and devout person in the entire palace was the King himself. From the day of his coronation Louis had three objects in view to crush the nobles, to humble the house of Burgundy and annex the province to France, and to keep out the English.

The most imminent of the dangers which threatened the new reign was the doubtful friendship of Burgundy. From Calais, which at this time was English, the Duke of Burgundy could bring in ten days' time an English army to Paris. To secure himself in this quarter, Louis bribed the Duke's counsellors and took especial pains to keep the good will of his cousin the Count of Charolais.

His next move was to deprive the powerful Duke of Bourbon of the government of Guienne. Here and in all the other provinces he changed the officials, removing those appointed by his father and appointing others who were subservient to his will. Next, to replenish his exhausted treasury, he began to lay hands upon the benefices of the clergy, having first secured the support of the Pope by agreeing to abolish the Pragmatic Sanction.

In his foreign enterprises he was successful on the side of Spain, from which country he took the Province of Rousillon; but on the side of England he was less fortunate, having provoked the enmity of both England and Burgundy by interference in the War of the Roses.

He continued his attack upon the clergy and nobles, invading the most cherished of the baronial privileges, the right of Chase. This last measure, crowning a long series of grievances which the nobles had against him, resulted in their forming, in 1465, an alliance among themselves, known as the League of the Public Good.

This League was joined by the Count of Charolais, who had completely taken the command of affairs in the Burgundian territories, his father, the old Duke, being too feeble to withstand him. The Dukes of Brittany, Nemours, John of Anjou and several other nobles, flocked in, and the King had scarcely any forces at his back with which to withstand them. He managed, however, to prevent coming to any decisive engagement, and finally, after a series of manoeuvers, shut himself up in Paris. The armies of the Leaguers closed in upon him; and after a siege of several weeks, Louis, finding his situation desperate, signed a treaty of peace which gave complete satisfaction to the nobles. Louis was compelled to give up Normandy to the Duke of Brittany, the friend of Count of Charolais and England, to abolish the States-General and to put in their places the rebellious nobles, and was shut up in Paris. But six weeks later the King had started to recover Normandy, setting at naught the terms of the treaty. Liége he incited to rebellion, and thus he tied the hands of Charles.

In 1467 Charles became Duke of Burgundy on the death of his father. Among the first events of his reign was the revolt of Liége. That city had been stirred up against Charles by Louis ever since he had become King, and had now revolted. While Charles the Bold was besieging Liége, Louis attempted to recover Normandy. To do this it was necessary for him to win over the Duke of Bourbon, and he concluded a treaty with him, leaving the Liégeois to their fate. The alliance with Bourbon was dearly purchased, since by its terms Louis placed nearly one-half of France under the authority of the Duke. But it enabled him to recover Normandy, and to prevent its falling into the hands of the English. He now sought to withdraw Picardy from under the influence of Burgundy. Charles was furious. He at once formed an alliance with Edward IV of England, which he cemented by marrying Margaret of York, the King's sister, and thus frustrated Louis' plans.

Soon after this alliance with the English had been formed the city of Liége again broke out in revolt, stirred up, no doubt, by Louis. Charles promptly marched to put down the rebellion. The Liégeois advanced to meet him and were defeated in a battle at Tongres. Charles now entered Liége without further opposition, executed the ringleaders of the rebellion, removed the bishop, and took away the city's privileges.

In this affair of Liége, Charles had called to his assistance 500 English men-at-arms. The presence of these soldiers disturbed greatly Louis' peace of mind. The English were again in France, however small their number; and as soon as Louis received the news, he armed the city of Paris. This was a bold thing to do, considering the doubtful attitude of Paris toward the King in his late troubles, but he conciliated the Parisians by relieving them from taxation and showing them other favors.

Louis fears were well founded, for on the 15th of October, 1467, the blow which he had expected fell. Charles invaded Normandy and soon made himself master of the greater part of it. This the King was unable to prevent, for had he moved from Paris, Charles would have thrown an English army into France. Louis tried to open negotiations with Charles, but failed; then he tried the Pope's intervention. He had won over the Pontiff by abolishing the Pragmatic Sanction, and the Pope agreed to intercede in the quarrel. The Duke was with difficulty persuaded to receive the Papal legate, and when he did receive him the only result accomplished was that Charles consented to have a personal interview with Louis at Peronne.

Louis, fearing treachery, declined to go to the place of meeting until he had received the most satisfactory assurances of his safe return. These having been given, to display his confidence in the Duke's honor, he went attended with only a few followers. The two sovereigns met like old friends and entered the town arm in arm. But Louis' confidence suffered a severe shock when he found a number of banished French nobles, deadly enemies of his, in the town. To secure his safety against these he desired that he might be lodged in the castle.

A short time before going to Peronne Louis had sent emissaries into Flanders, which belonged to Charles the Bold, to excite a rebellion there. By an unaccountable oversight he had forgotten to countermand the orders given them. While he was in the castle of Peronne news was received by Charles of his treacherous dealings. Charles' rage was terrible. Ignoring the safe-conduct granted to Louis, he shut the castle gates upon him and left him in prison. Louis was not, however, without a resource in this dilemma. He found means to bribe the most influential counsellors of Charles, and these exerted themselves to allay the wrath of the Duke. After he had remained in confinement two days and nights, the Duke released him upon his signing a humiliating treaty. He promised to renounce all claims that had formerly been in dispute between Charles and himself, to give his brother, the Duke of Orleans, nearly half of France, and to accompany Charles to Liége and help put down the rebellion. So to Liége he went in company with Charles.

The people of Liége, with their usual impetuosity, refusing to believe that Louis had turned against them, marched out to meet the Burgundian army. They surprised it in a night attack, but were finally defeated in a great battle, and then the city was attacked by the Burgundians. Not the slightest resistance was offered, and Liége was soon at Charles' mercy. And a terrible mercy it was; the entire population, it is said, was massacred in cold blood, and the city razed to the ground. The terrible feature of this destruction of a whole people is that it was not a carnage committed in the fury of assault, but a long execution continued for months.

Having assisted in putting down a rebellion which he had himself incited, Louis was at liberty to return to France, which he did, congratulating himself that he had lost nothing save honor, and that one who had made him a prisoner by violating his word, had been stupid enough to release him on the strength of a word.

These events occurred in the year 1468. Charles having made peace with France, now thought of enlarging his own dominions, and as a first step sought to get the Emperor of Germany to crown him King; but in this effort he was unsuccessful. He proceeded, how-ever, to attack some of the Rhine provinces, and thus brought upon himself war with the Swiss. Meanwhile, in England, the house of York, with which Charles was allied, was temporarily overthrown by the house of Lan-caster, which weakened him in that quarter.

Louis took the opportunity of Charles' embarrassment to assemble the notables of France. He laid before them Charles' misdeeds, and they decided by acclamation that Louis was released from all oaths taken at Peronne. Soon after this the Lancastrians were defeated by the Yorkists, and their King, Henry VI, was assassinated. The same blow seemed fraught with ruin to Louis, for now Charles could again count upon England in his schemes. What Charles' purpose was, soon became apparent. He entered into correspondence with the Duke of Brittany and some other French nobles,, renewed his alliance with England, and openly avowed a determination, not merely to humble, but to dismember France. But, fortunately for Louis, there was a division in the camp of the enemy, which prevented immediate action. Meanwhile the Duke of Orleans died, and a quarrel arose over Guienne, which had belonged to Orleans, and was now claimed both by Louis and Charles. Louis at once took forcible possession of Guienne; Charles thereupon broke the truce and made war upon the King, marching into northern France, sacking towns and ravaging the country, until he reached Beauvais. There the despair of the citizens and the bravery of the women saved the town. Charles raised the siege and marched on Rouen, hoping to meet the Duke of Brittany; but that Prince had his hands full, for Louis had overrun his territories and reduced him to terms. Charles saw that the coalition had completely failed. He, too, made a fresh truce with Louis at Senlis (1472).

From this time forward Charles turned his attention mainly to the east, and ceased to interfere with the affairs of France.

Louis, contrary to all expectations, had extricated himself from all his difficulties. He had reconquered Brittany, and had recovered all of the South. His brother was dead, and with him had expired intrigues innumerable and countless dangers to the monarchy. That the crisis was not fatal to the King was a proof of his vitality and the firmness of his position.

In 1473 Louis entered into an alliance with the Swiss and the Rhenish provinces against Charles, the effect of which was to give the Duke abundant employment and to defer his meditated designs upon France. Two years later (1475) Charles concluded a treaty with Edward IV of England, in which he gave to the English all of France, keeping only for himself Nevers, Champagne and the towns on the Somme. As a result of this treaty Edward entered France through "the ever-open door of Calais" with a large army. Louis at once set his wits at work to relieve himself of the English by diplomacy rather than by war. He sought and obtained a personal interview with Edward. The negotiations opened with a proposal of marriage between the Dauphin and Edward's daughter, and money judiciously used in bribing Edward's ministers soon brought them to a satisfactory conclusion. Edward returned to England.

The Duke of Burgundy, who had joined the English army, but was temporarily absent, flew into a violent rage when he heard the news of this treaty, and threatened to declare war upon the English. Edward, on his part, proposed to Louis to recross the Channel and help him crush the Duke. The King took good care to decline the offer; his was an opposite game, and he concluded a nine years' truce with the Duke, hoping that he would go on to embroil himself still more deeply with the Swiss and the Empire. He, on his part, intended to avail himself of the opportunity afforded by this truce to crush out in France the last remnant of resistance to him on the part of the great nobles; and in this enterprise he succeeded.

As Louis had foreseen, Charles resumed his project of establishing a great Empire on the Rhine, which involved him in continual and unfortunate warfare with the Swiss, who then ranked as the best soldiers in Europe. In 1476 he met with two defeats, one at Gran-son and a second, still more disastrous, at Morat. In the following year occurred the battle of Nancy in which his army was almost annihilated and Charles was himself slain on the field.

Louis at once decided to make the most that he could out of the disaster of his Burgundian rival, and the weakness of his heir, Mary. He entered Picardy and Burgundy. To keep the English at home he gorged them with money, and at the same time offered as a friend to give them a share in the spoil. In each province he advanced a different right. To the Burgundians he presented himself as the feudal guardian of Mary, the daughter of Charles, anxious to preserve her possessions to her. He also took possession of Franche Comté, and even entered Flanders. Then Mary, hoping to obtain a protector against this dangerous neighbor, offered her hand and all her rich possessions to the young Maximilian of Austria, and married him within six months after her father's death.

The King had entered upon his Burgundian con-quests heartily and full of hope. His ideas had become vast. With no powerful nobles left at home to give him trouble, and his great rival dead, the thought of Charlemagne occurred to him, and he would have been glad to annex to France, not Burgundy and Flanders alone, but a good slice of Germany. But he had now to reckon not only with the Princes of the Rhine provinces, but also with Maximilian. To give the details of his military operations would be tedious, and is hardly necessary, since all we now care for is their final result. It is enough to say that he met with successes, secured the provinces of Franche Comté, Arras, Artois, Hainault, and Cambrai; he also met with reverses and was compelled to abandon some of his conquests. His most disastrous battle was fought at Guinegate, where he was defeated by Maximilian in 1479. The war was languid after this; a truce followed in 1480, and a time of quiet for France.

In this same year (1480), on the death of the old King Réné, the two important provinces of Anjou and Provence fell to France, Margaret of Anjou, Réné's daughter and heiress, having ceded them to Louis in return for help. Finally, in 1482, Louis concluded a treaty with the Flemings, which ended opposition to his occupancy of Burgundy.

Louis was now at the height of his power; but already his health was failing. Let us see what he had accomplished : He had strengthened the throne of France by crushing the powerful nobles who had hitherto been a standing menace to the monarchy. He had added territory to France Burgundy and several other smaller provinces until he had given her very nearly the limits which she has at the present day. He had reorganized his army, profiting by his experience in the Burgundian wars, and had rendered it one of the most efficient military establishments in Europe. He had regulated the internal affairs of the country in such a way as to give additional strength to the central government, by placing in command of all the provinces those who were devoted to the interests of the crown. In a word, he had created a Kingdom out of a collection of disorganized and jarring elements, and had raised France to the position of the first among the nations of Europe. By a singular concurrence of circumstances, all the surrounding Kingdoms were now in the hands of youthful sovereigns, and the able and experienced Louis XI became the arbiter among them, Hungary, Bohemia, and Castile courted his favor; Venice at his request broke loose from the house of Burgundy, and Genoa placed herself under his protection.

All was going well with Louis, only he was dying. His health was failing, and he knew that his end was not far off. Yet he desired to live, partly because he feared death, dreading, it has been unkindly said, "the judgment below," and partly for the more worthy reason that he desired to accomplish still more for France. "Let me live a short time longer," said Louis XI to Comines, "and there shall be but one custom, one weight, one measure throughout the Kingdom. All the customs (laws) shall be set forth in French, in a fair book, which will cut short the tricks and plunderings of the lawyers, and abridge lawsuits. . . I will curb, as is fitting, these long robes of the Parliament . . will establish a powerful police in my King-dom." Comines adds that he had a strong desire to relieve his people, that he recognized the oppression under which they labored, and he "felt his soul burdened" thereby.

In the last year of his life Louis resided at Plessis, in a castle which has been described as a veritable donjon-keep, "behind gates of iron and bastions of iron in short, in a prison so well guarded that none entered." Here was the King confined, so meager and pallid that he durst not show himself, or, rather perhaps unable to go out, for he had been stricken with paralysis. And fearful tales were current among the people of the life led there by the invalid King, as that to reinvigorate his exhausted veins he drank the blood of infants.

But despite the popular tales of his eccentricities and excesses, there is evidence that his faculties remained unclouded to the last; that the priests who attended him in his last moments were unable so to work upon his superstitious nature as to secure from him any concessions for their order against his better judgment. He remained a King to the end. The end came on the 24th of August, 1483.

That Louis XI was a despot of the first order, it is not necessary to say. Yet his despotism was not unlightened nor wholly selfish. The hand which he laid upon the nobility was a heavy one; yet for the lower classes he had a fatherly solicitude, as is shown by his many wise ordinances. He worked intelligently and accomplished much for the general prosperity of the Kingdom. In his youth he had been an insatiable reader, and he continued throughout his life to be a patron of learning. He was particularly interested in the new art of printing, and it is said that on his accession to the throne he invited printers from Strasburg and set up a printing press at Sorbonne. On the whole, it may be questioned whether Louis XI has not a better title to be styled the "Great" than the more pompous Louis XIV, to whom this distinction has been accorded.

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