THE son of Charles VII was an exceptionally troublesome dauphin. Married against his will at thirteeen (1436) to Margaret of Scotland, aged eleven, he revenged himself by ignoring her and cultivating mistresses. Margaret, who lived on poetry, found peace in an early death (1444), saying, as she died, “Fie upon life! Speak to me no more of it.”1 Louis twice rebelled against his father, fled to Flanders after the second attempt, and waited fretfully for power. Charles accommodated him by starving himself to death (1461);2 and for twenty-two years France was ruled by one of her strangest and greatest kings.
He was now thirty-eight, thin and ungainly, homely and melancholy, with distrustful eyes and far-reaching nose. He looked like a peasant, dressed like an impoverished pilgrim in a rough gray gown and a shabby felt hat, prayed like a saint, and ruled as if he had read The Prince before Machiavelli was born. He scorned the pomp of feudalism, laughed at traditions and formalities, questioned his own legitimacy, and shocked all thrones with his simplicity. He lived in the gloomy palace Des Tournelles in Paris, or in the chateau of Plessis-les-Tours near Tours, usually like a bachelor, though a second time married; penurious though possessing France; keeping only the few attendants he had had in his exile, and eating such food as any peasant might afford. He looked not an iota, but would be every inch, a king.
He subordinated every element of character to his resolve that France should under his hammer be forged out of feudal fragmentation into monarchic unity and monolithic strength, and that this centralized monarchy should lift France out of the ashes of war to new life and power. To his political purpose he gave his thinking day and night, with a mind clear, cunning, inventive, restless, like Caesar counting nothing done if anything remained to do. “As for peace,” said Comines, “he could hardly endure the thought of it.” 3However, he was unsuccessful in war, and preferred diplomacy, espionage, and bribery to force; he brought men around to his purposes by persuasion, flattery, or fear, and kept a large staff of spies in his service at home and abroad; he paid regular secret salaries to the ministers of England’s Edward IV.4 He could yield, bear insult, play at humility, wait his chance for victory or revenge. He made major blunders, but recovered from them with unscrupulous and disconcerting ingenuity. He attended to all deails of government, and forgot nothing. Yet he spared time for literature and art, read avidly, collected manuscripts, recognized the revolution that printing presaged, and enjoyed the company of educated men, particularly if they were Bohemians in the Parisian sense. In his Flanders exile he had joined the Count of Charolais in forming an academy of scholars, who salted their pedantry with jolly Boccaccian tales; Antoine de la Salle gathered some of these in the Cent nouvelles nouvelles. He was hard on the rich, careless of the poor, hostile to artisan guilds, favorable to the middle class as his strongest support, and in any class ruthless with those who opposed him. After a rebellion in Perpignan he ordered that any banished rebel who dared to return should have his testicles amputated.5 In his war with the nobles he had some special enemies or traitors imprisoned for years in iron cages eight by eight by seven feet; these were contrived by the bishop of Verdun, who later occupied one for fourteen years.6 At the same time Louis was much devoted to the Church, needing her aid against nobles and states. He had a rosary nearly always at hand, and repeated paternosters and Ave Marias with the assiduity of a dying nun. In 1472 he inaugurated the Angelus—a midday Ave Maria for the peace of the realm. He visited sacred shrines, conscripted relics, bribed the saints to his service, took the Virgin into partnership in his wars. When he died, he himself was represented as a saint on an abbey portal in Tours.
With the help of his faults he created modern France. He found it a loose association of feudal and ecclesiastical principalities; he made it a nation, the most powerful in Latin Christendom. He brought in silk weavers from Italy, miners from Germany; he improved harbors and transport, protected French shipping, opened new markets to French industry, and allied the government of France with the rising mercantile and financial bourgeoisie. He saw that the extension of commerce across local and national frontiers required a strong central administration. Feudalism was no longer needed for the protection and management of agriculture; the peasantry was slowly freeing itself from a stagnant serfdom; the time had passed when the feudal barons could make their own laws, mint their own coins, play sovereign in their domains; by fair means or foul he would bring them, one by one, to submission and order. He restricted their right to trespass on peasant properties in their hunts, established a governmental postal service that ran through their estates (1464), forbade them to wage private wars, and demanded of them all the back dues they had failed to pay to their liege lords, the kings of France.
They did not like him. Representatives of 500 noble families met in Paris and formed the Ligue du bien public (1464) to uphold their privileges in the sacred name of the public good. The Count of Charolais, heir to the throne of Burgundy, joined this League, eager to add northeastern France to his duchy. Louis’ own brother, Charles, Duke of Berry, decamped to Brittany and headed the revolt. Enemies and armies rose against the King on every side. If they could unite he was lost; his only hope was to defeat them piecemeal. He dashed south across the Allier River and compelled a hostile force to surrender; he rushed back north just in time to prevent a Burgundian army from entering his capital. Each side claimed victory in the battle of Montlhéry; the Burgundians retreated, Louis entered Paris, the Burgundians returned with allies and laid siege to the city. Unwilling to risk rebellion by Parisians too intelligent to starve, Louis yielded by the treaty of Conflans (1465) almost all that his foes demanded—lands, money, offices; brother Charles received Normandy. Nothing was said about the public good; the people had to be taxed to raise the required sums. Louis bided his time.
Charles soon slipped into war with Duke Francis of Brittany, who captured him; Louis marched into Normandy and regained it bloodlessly. But Francis, rightly suspecting that Louis wanted Brittany too, joined with the Count of Charolais—who had now become Duke Charles the Bold of Burgundy—in an offensive alliance against the irrepressible King. Louis strained every nerve of diplomacy, made a separate peace with Francis, and agreed to a conference with Charles at Péronne. There, in effect, Charles took him prisoner, and compelled him to cede Picardy and share in the sack of Liège. Louis returned to Paris at the nadir of his power and repute; even the magpies were taught to mock him (1468). Two years later, in this reciprocation of treachery, Louis took advantage of Charles’s preoccupation in Gelderland, and marched his troops into Saint-Quentin, Amiens, and Beauvais. Charles persuaded Edward IV to unite with him against France, but Louis bought Edward off. Knowing Edward’s keen appreciation of women, he invited him to come and divert himself with the ladies of Paris; moreover, he would assign to Edward, as royal confessor, the Cardinal of Bourbon, who “would willingly absolve him if he should commit any sin by way of love or gallantry.”7 He maneuvered Charles into war with Switzerland; and when Charles was killed Louis took not only Picardy but Burgundy itself (1477). He soothed the Burgundian nobles with gold, and pleased the people by taking a Burgundian mistress.
Now he felt strong enough to turn upon the barons who had so often fought him, and had so seldom obeyed his summons to come out and fight for France. Many of the lords who had conspired against him in 1465 were dead, or incapacitated by age. Their successors had learned to fear a king who cut off the heads of traitorous aristocrats and confiscated their estates, who had built a strong army of mercenaries, and seemed always able to raise immense sums for purchases and bribes. Preferring to spend his subjects’ money rather than their lives, Louis bought Cerdagne and Roussillon from Spain. He acquired Rochelle through his brother’s death; he took Alençon and Blois by force; he persuaded René to bequeath Provence to the French crown (1481); a year later Anjou and Maine reverted to the monarchy; in 1483 Flanders, seeking the aid of Louis against the Holy Roman Empire, ceded to him the county of Artois, with the thriving cities of Arras and Douai. With the barons subdued, and the municipal parlements and communes submitting to the King, Louis accomplished for France that national unification and centralized administration which, a decade later, Henry VII was to achieve for England, Ferdinand and Isabella for Spain, and Alexander VI for the Papal States. Though this substituted one tyranny for many, it was at the time a progressive move, enhancing internal order and external security, standardizing currency and measurements, molding dialects into a language, and furthering the growth of vernacular literature in France. The monarchy was not absolute; the nobles retained large powers, and the consent of the States-General was usually required for new taxes. The nobles, the officials, and the clergy were exempt from taxation: the nobles on the ground that they fought for the people, the officials because they were so poorly paid and bribed, and the clergy because they protected king and country with their prayers. Public opinion and popular customs checked the King; the local parlements still claimed that no royal edict could become law in their districts until they had accepted and registered it. Nevertheless the path had been opened to Louis XIV and L’état c’est moi.
Amid all these triumphs Louis himself decayed in body and mind. He imprisoned himself at Plessis-les-Tours, fearing assassination, suspicious of all, seeing hardly anyone, punishing faults and defections cruelly, and now and then dressing himself in robes whose magnificence contrasted with the poor garb of his early reign. He became so gaunt and pale that those who saw him could hardly believe that he was not already dead.8 For years he had suffered agonies from piles,9 and had had occasional apoplectic strokes. On August 25, 1483, another attack deprived him of speech; and five days later he died.
His subjects rejoiced, for he had made them pay unbearably for his defeats and victories; the people had grown poorer, as France had become greater, under his merciless statesmanship. Nevertheless later ages were to benefit from his subordination of the nobles, his reorganization of finance, administration, and defense, his promotion of industry, commerce, and printing, his formation of a modern unified state. “If,” wrote Comines, “all the days of his life were computed in which joys and pleasures outweighed his pains and trouble, they would be found so few that there would be twenty mournful ones to one pleasant.” 10 He and his generation paid for the future prosperity and splendor of France.