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Louis XI

Louis XIBorn: 3-Jul-1423
Birthplace: Bourges, Cher, France
Died: 30-Aug-1483
Location of death: Plessis-les-Tours, Touraine, France
Cause of death: Stroke
Remains: Buried, Basilica Notre Dame de Cléry, Cléry Saint André, France

Gender: Male
Religion: Roman Catholic
Race or Ethnicity: White
Sexual orientation: Straight
Occupation: Royalty

Nationality: France
Executive summary: King of France, 1461-83

Louis XI, King of France, the son of Charles VII and his queen, Marie of Anjou, was born on the 3rd of July 1423, at Bourges, where his father, then nicknamed the "King of Bourges", had taken refuge from the English. At the birth of Louis XI part of France was in English hands; when he was five years old, Joan of Arc appeared; he was just six when his father was crowned at Reims. But his boyhood was spent apart from these stirring events, in the castle of Loches, where his father visited him rarely. John Gerson, the foremost theologian of France, wrote a manual of instructions (still extant) for the first of his tutors, Jean Majoris, a canon of Reims. His second tutor, Bernard of Armagnac, was noted for his piety and humility. If, as has been claimed, Louis owed to them any of his tendency to prefer the society of the poor, or rather of the bourgeois, to that of the nobility, their example was his best lesson in the craft of kingship. In June 1436, when scarcely thirteen, he was married to Margaret, daughter of James I of Scotland, a princess of about his own age, but sickly and romantic, and in every way his opposite. Three years after this unhappy marriage Louis entered upon his stormy political career. Sent by his father in 1439 to direct the defense of Languedoc against the English, and to put down the brigandage in Poitou, he was induced by the rebellious nobles to betray his trust and place himself at the head of the Praguerie. Charles VII pardoned him this rebellion, due to his ambition and the seductive proposal of the nobles to make him regent. The following year he was fighting the English, and in 1443 aided his father to suppress the revolt of the count of Armagnac. His first important command, however, was in the next year, when he led an army of from 15,000 to 20,000 mercenaries and brigands -- the product of the Hundred Years' War -- against the Swiss of the canton of Basel. The heroism of some two hundred Swiss, who for a while held thousands of the French army at bay, made a great impression on the young prince. After an ineffective siege of Basel, he made peace with the Swiss confederation, and led his robber soldiers into Alsace to ravage the country of the Habsburgs, who refused him the promised winter quarters. Meanwhile his father, making a parallel campaign in Lorraine, had assembled his first brilliant court at Nancy, and when Louis returned it was to find the king completely under the spell of Agnes Sorel. He at first made overtures to members of her party, and upon their rejection through fear of his ambition, his deadly hatred of her and of them involved the king. The death in 1445 of his wife Margaret, who was a great favorite of Charles VII, made the rupture complete. From that year until the death of the king father and son were enemies. Louis began his rebellious career by a futile attempt to seduce the cities of Agenais into treason, and then he prepared a plot to seize the king and his minister Pierre de Brézé. Antoine de Chabannes, who was to be the instrument of the plot, revealed it to Charles, and Louis was mildly punished by being sent off to Dauphiné (1447). He never saw his father again.

Louis set out to govern his principality as though it were an independent state. He dismissed the governor; he determined advantageously to himself the boundaries between his state and the territories of the duke of Savoy and of the papacy; and he enforced his authority over perhaps the most unruly nobility in western Europe, both lay and ecclesiastical. The right of private warfare was abolished; the bishops were obliged to give up most of their temporal jurisdiction, the scope of their courts was limited, and appeals to Rome were curtailed. On the other hand, Louis granted privileges to the towns and consistently used their alliance to overthrow the nobility. He watched the roads, built new ones, opened markets, protected the only bankers of the country, the Jews, and reorganized the administration so as to draw the utmost revenue possible from the prosperity thus secured. His ambition led him into foreign entanglements; he made a secret treaty with the duke of Savoy which was to give him right of way to Genoa, and made arrangements for a partition of the duchy of Milan. The alliance with Savoy was sealed by the marriage of Louis with Charlotte, daughter of Duke Lodovico, in 1452, in spite of the formal prohibition of Charles VII. The king marched south, but withdrew again leaving his son unsubdued. Four years later, as Charles came to the Bourbonnais, Louis, fearing for his life, fled to Flanders to the court of Philip the Good, duke of Burgundy, leaving Dauphiné to be definitely annexed to the crown of France. The policy of the dauphin was reversed, his ten years' work was undone. Meanwhile he was installed in the castle of Genappe, in Brabant, where he remained until the death of his father. For this he waited impatiently five years, keeping himself posted by spies of every stage of the king's last illness, and thus laying himself open to the accusation, believed in by Charles himself, that he had hastened the end by poison, a charge which modern historians deny.

On the 15th of August 1461, Louis was anointed at Reims, and Philip of Burgundy, as doyen of the peers of France, placed the crown on his head. For two months Philip acted as though the king were still his protégé. But in the midst of the festivities with which he was entertaining Paris, the duke found that Louis ventured to refuse his candidates for office, and on the 24th of September the new king left abruptly for Touraine. His first act was to strike at the faithful ministers of Charles VII. Pierre de Brézé and Antoine de Chabannes were captured and imprisoned, as well as men of sterling worth like Étienne Chevalier. But the king's shrewdness triumphed before long over his vengeance, and the more serviceable of the officers of Charles VII were for the most part soon reinstated, Louis' advisers were mostly men of the middle class. He had a ready purse for men of talent, drawing them from England, Scotland, Italy, Spain and Portugal. Such a motley throng of competent men had never before been seen at the court of France. Their origin, their previous crimes or virtues, their avarice or brutality, were indifferent to him so long as they served him loyally. Torture and imprisonment awaited them, whether of high or low degree, if he fancied that they were betraying him. Among the most prominent of these men in addition to Brézé, Chevalier and Chabannes, were Tristan Lermite, Jean de Daillon, Olivier le Dain (the barber), and after 1472, Philippe de Commines, drawn from the service of Charles the Bold of Burgundy, who became his most intimate adviser and biographer. Surrounded by men like these Louis fought the last great battle of French royalty with feudalism.

Louis XI began his reign with the same high-handed treatment of the nobles which had marked his rule in Dauphiné going so far as to forbid them to hunt without his permission. He forced the clergy to pay long-neglected feudal dues, and intrigued against the great houses of Anjou and Orleans in Italy. The malcontent nobles soon began to plan revolt. Discharged officers of Charles VII like Jean Dunois and John II duke of Bourbon stirred up hostility to the new men of the king, and Francis II duke of Brittany was soon embroiled with Louis over an attempt to assert royal control over that practically independent duchy. The dissatisfied nobility found their greatest ally in Charles the Bold, afterwards duke of Burgundy, and in 1465 formed a "league of public welfare" and declared war on their king. The nominal head was the king's brother Charles, duke of Berry, then eighteen years old, a weak character, the tool of the rebels as he was later the dupe of the king. Every great noble in France was in the league, except Gaston de Foix -- who kept the south of France for the king -- and the counts of Vendôme and Eu. The whole country seemed on the verge of anarchy. It was saved by the refusal of the lesser gentry to rise, and by the alliance of the king with the citizen class, which was not led astray by the pretences of regard for the public weal which loaked the designs of the leaguers. After a successful campaign in the Bourbonnais, Louis fought an indecisive battle with the Burgundians who had marched on Paris at Montlhéry, on the 6th of July 1465, and then stood a short siege in Paris. On the 28th of September he made a truce with Charles the Bold, and in October the treaties of Conflans and Saint Maur-les-Fossés, ended the war. The king yielded at all points; gave up the "Somme towns" in Picardy, for which he had paid 200,000 gold crowns, to Philip the Good, thus bringing the Burgundians close to Paris and to Normandy. Charles, the king's brother, was given Normandy as an apanage, thus joining he territories of the rebellious duke of Brittany with those of Charles the Bold. The public weal was no longer talked about, while the kingdom was plundered both by royal tax gatherers and by unsubdued feudal lords to pay the cost of the war.

After this failure Louis set to work to repair his mistakes. The duke of Bourbon was won over by the gift of the government of the center of France, and Dunois and Chabannes by restoring them their estates. Two months after he had granted Normandy to Charles, he took advantage of a quarrel between the duke of Brittany and his brother to take it again, sending the duke of Bourbon "to aid" Charles, while Dunois and Chabannes prepared for the struggle with Burgundy. The death of Duke Philip, on the 15th of June 1467, gave Charles the Bold a free hand. He gained over King Edward IV of England, whose sister Margaret he married; but while he was celebrating the wedding Louis invaded Brittany and detached Duke Francis from alliance with him. Normandy was completely reduced. The king had won a great triumph. It was followed by his greatest mistake. Eager as he always was to try diplomacy instead of war, Louis sent a gift of 60,000 golden crowns to Charles and secured a safe conduct from him for an interview. The interview took place on the 9th of October 1468 at Péronne. News came on the 11th that, instigated by the king of France, the people of Liége had massacred their bishop and the ducal governor. The news was false, but Charles, furious at such apparent duplicity, took Louis prisoner, only releasing him, three days later, on the king signing a treaty which granted Flanders freedom from interference from the parlement of Paris, and agreeing to accompany Charles to the siege of his own ally, Liége. Louis made light of the whole incident in his letters, but it marked the greatest humiliation of his life, and he was only too glad to find a scapegoat in Cardinal Jean Balue, who was accused of having plotted the treason of Péronne. Balue thereupon joined Guillaume de Harancourt, bishop of Verdun, in an intrigue to induce Charles of France to demand Champagne and Brie in accordance with the king's promise to Charles the Bold, instead of distant Guienne where the king was determined to place him. The discovery of this conspiracy placed these two high dignitaries in prison (April 1469). Balue spent eleven years in prison quarters, comfortable enough, in spite of the legend to the contrary, while Harancourt was shut up in an iron cage until 1482. Then Louis, inducing his brother to accept Guienne -- where, surrounded by faithful royal officers, he was harmless for the time being -- undertook to play off the Lancastrians against Edward IV who, as the ally of Charles the Bold, was menacing the coast of Normandy. Warwick, the king-maker, and Queen Margaret were aided in the expedition which in 1470 again placed King Henry VI upon the English throne. In the autumn Louis himself took the offensive, and royal troops overran Picardy and the Maconnais to Burgundy itself. But the tide turned against Louis in 1471. While Edward IV won back England by the battles of Barnet and Tewkesbury, Charles the Bold besieged Amiens, and Louis was glad to make a truce, availing himself of the double dealing of the constable, the count of Saint Pol, who, trying to win an independent position for himself in Picardy, refused his aid to Charles unless he would definitely join the French nobility in another rising against the king. This rising was to be aided by the invasion of France by John II of Aragon, Yolande, duchess of Savoy, and Edward IV of England, who was to be given the old Plantagenet inheritance. The country was saved a desperate civil war by the death of the king's brother, Charles, the nominal head of the coalition, on the 24th of May 1472. Louis' joy on receiving news of this death knew no bounds. Charles the Bold, who had again invaded France, failed to take Beauvais, and was obliged to make a lasting truce. His projects were henceforth to be directed towards Germany. Louis then forced the duke of Brittany to make peace, and turned against John V count of Armagnac, whose death at the opening of March 1473 ended the power of one of the most dangerous houses of the south. The first period of Louis' reign was closed, and with it closed forever the danger of dismemberment of France. John of Aragon continued the war in Roussillon and Cerdagne, which Louis had seized ten years before, and a most desperate rising of the inhabitants protracted the struggle for two years. After the capture of Perpignan on the 10th of March 1475, the wise and temperate government of Imbert de Batarnay and Boffile de Juge slowly pacified the new provinces. The death of Gaston IV count of Foix in 1472 opened up the long diplomatic struggle for Navarre, which was destined to pass to the loyal family of Albret shortly after the death of Louis. His policy had won the line of the Pyrenees for France.

The overthrow of Charles the Bold was the second great task of Louis XI. This he accomplished by a policy much like that of Pitt against Napoleon. Louis was the soul of all hostile coalitions, especially urging on the Swiss and Sigismund of Austria, who ruled Tirol and Alsace. Charles's ally, Edward IV, invaded France in June 1475, but Louis bought him off on the 29th of August at Picquigny -- where the two sovereigns met on a bridge over the Somme, with a strong grille between them, Edward receiving 75,000 crowns, and a promise of a pension of 50,000 crowns annually. The dauphin Charles was to marry Edward's daughter. Bribery of the English ministers was not spared, and in September the invaders recrossed to England. The count of Saint Pol, who had continued to play his double part, was surrendered by Charles to Louis, and executed, as was also Jacques d'Armagnac, duke of Nemours. With his vassals terrorized and subdued, Louis continued to subsidize the Swiss and René II of Lorraine in their war upon Charles. The defeat and death of the duke of Burgundy at Nancy on the 5th of January 1477 was the crowning triumph of Louis' diplomacy. But in his eagerness to seize the whole inheritance of his rival, Louis drove his daughter and heiress, Mary of Burgundy, into marriage with Maximilian of Austria (afterwards the emperor Maximilian I), who successfully defended Flanders after a savage raid by Antoine de Chabannes. The battle of Guinegate on the 7th of August 1479 was indecisive, and definite peace was not established until after the death of Mary, when by the treaty of Arras (1482) Louis received Picardy, Artois and the Boulonnais, as well as the duchy of Burgundy and Franche Comté. The Austrians were left in Flanders, a menace and a danger. Louis failed here and in Spain; this failure being an indirect cause of that vast family compact which surrounded France later with the empire of Charles V. His interference in Spain had made both John II of Aragon and Henry IV of Castile his enemies, and so he was unable to prevent the marriage of their heirs Ferdinand and Isabella. But the results of these marriages could not be foreseen, and the unification of France proved of more value than the possession of so widespread an empire. This unification was completed (except for Brittany) and the frontiers enlarged by the acquisition, upon the death of René of Anjou in 1480, of the duchies of Anjou and Bar, and in 1481 of Maine and Provence upon the death of Charles II, count of Maine. Of the inheritance of the house of Anjou only Lorraine escaped the king.

Failure in Spain was compensated for in Italy. Without waging war Louis made himself virtual arbiter of the fate of the principalities in the north, and his court was always besieged by ambassadors from them. After the death of Charles the Bold, Yolande, duchess of Savoy, was obliged to accept the control of Louis, who was her brother. In Milan he helped to place Lodovico il Moro in power in 1479, but he reaped less from this supple tyrant than he had expected. Pope Sixtus IV, the enemy of the Medici, was also the enemy of the king of France. Louis, who at the opening of his reign had denounced the Pragmatic Sanction of 1438, had played fast and loose with the papacy. When Sixtus threatened Florence after the Pazzi conspiracy, 1478, Louis aided Lorenzo de Medici to form an alliance with Naples, which forced the papacy to come to terms.

More than any other king of France, Louis XI was a "bourgeois king." The upper bourgeois, the aristocracy of his "good cities", were his allies both against the nobles and against the artisan class, whenever they revolted, driven to desperation by the oppressive royal taxes which furnished the money for his wars or diplomacy. He ruled like a modern capitalist; placed his bribes like investments in the courts of his enemies; and, while draining the land of enormous sums, was pitiless toward the two productive portions of his realm, the country population and the artisans. His heartlessness toward the former provoked even an accomplice like Commines to protest. The latter were kept down by numerous edicts, tending to restrict to certain privileged families the rank of master workman in the guilds. There was the paternalism of a Frederick the Great in his encouragement of the silk industry -- "which all idle people ought to be made to work at" -- in his encouragement of commerce through the newly acquired port of Marseilles and the opening up of market placed. He even dreamed of a great trading company "of two hundred thousand livres or more", to monopolize the trade of the Mediterranean, and planned to unify the various systems of weights and measures. In 1479 he called a meeting of two burgesses from each "good city" of his realm to consider means for preventing the influx of foreign coin. Impatient of all restraint upon his personal rule, he was continually in violent dispute with the parlement of Paris, and made "justice" another name for arbitrary government; yet he dreamed of a unification of the local customary iaws (coûtumes) of France. He was the perfect model of a tyrant. The states-general met but once in his reign, in 1468, and then no talk of grievances was allowed; his object was only to get them to declare Normandy inalienable from the crown. They were informed that the king could raise his revenue without consulting them. Yet his budgets were enormously greater than ever before. In 1481 the taille alone brought in 4,600,000 livres, and even at the peaceful close of his reign his whole budget was 4,655,000 livres -- as against 1,800,000 livres at the close of his father's reign.

The king who did most for French royalty would have made a sorry figure at the court of a Louis XIV. He was ungainly, with rickety legs. His eyes were keen and piercing, but a long hooked nose lent grotesqueness to a face marked with cunning rather than with dignity. Its ugliness was emphasized by the old felt hat which he wore -- its sole ornament the leaden figure of a saint. Until the close of his life, when he tried to mislead ambassadors as to the state of his health by gorgeous robes, he wore the meanest clothes. Dressed in grey like a pilgrim, and accompanied by five or six trustworthy servants, he would set out on his interminable travels, "ambling along on a good mule." Thus he traversed France, avoiding all ceremony, entering towns by back streets, receiving ambassadors in wayside huts, dining in public houses, enjoying the loose manners and language of his associates, and incidentally learning at first hand the condition of his people and the possibilities of using or taxing them -- his needs of them rather than theirs of him. He loved to win men, especially those of the middle class, by affability and familiarity, employing all his arts to cajole and seduce those whom he needed. Yet his honied words easily turned to gall. He talked rapidly and much, sometimes for hours at a time, and most indiscreetly. He was not an agreeable companion, violent in his passions, nervous, restless, and in old age extremely irascible. Utterly unscrupulous, and without a trace of pity, he treated men like pawns, and was content only with absolute obedience.

But this Machiavellian prince was the genuine son of St Louis. His religiosity was genuine if degenerate. He lavished presents on influential saints, built shrines, sent gifts to churches, went on frequent pilgrimages and spent much time in prayer -- employing his consummate diplomacy to win celestial allies, and rewarding them richly when their aid secured him any advantage. St. Martin of Tours received 1200 crowns after the capture of Perpignan. He tried to bribe the saints of his enemies, as he did their ministers. An unfaltering faith taught him the value of religion -- as a branch of politics. Finally, more in the spirit of orthodoxy, he used the same arts to make sure of heaven. When the ring of St. Zanobius and the blood of Cape Verde turtles gave him no relief from his last illness, he showered gifts upon his patron saints, secured for his own benefit the masses of his clergy, and the most potent prayers in Christendom, those of the two most effective saints of his day, Bernardin of Doulins and Francis of Paolo.

During the last two or three years of his life Louis lived in great isolation, "seeing no one, speaking with no one, except such as he commanded", in the château of Plessis-les-Tours, that "spider's nest" bristling with watch towers, and guarded only by the most trusty servitors. A swarm of astrologers and physicians preyed upon his fears -- and his purse. But, however foolish in his credulity, he still made his strong hand felt both in France and in Italy, remaining to the last "the terrible king." His fervent prayers were interrupted by instructions for the regency which was to follow. He died on the 30th of August 1483, and was buried, according to his own wish, without royal state, in the church at Cléry, instead of at St. Denis. He left a son, his successor, Charles VIII, and two daughters.

Father: Charles VII (King of France)
Mother: Mary of Anjou
Wife: Margaret (m. 24-Jun-1436)
Wife: Charlotte of Savoy (m. 14-Feb-1451)
Daughter: Anne (b. Apr-1461, d. 14-Nov-1522)
Daughter: Jeanne (b. 23-Apr-1464, d. 4-Feb-1505)
Son: Charles VIII (King of France, b. 30-Jun-1470, d. 8-Apr-1498)

    French Monarch (22-Jul-1461 to 30-Aug-1483)


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