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Turbulent son of the winner of the Hundred Years War (Charles VII), the King of France Louis XI has a reputation as a tough ruler, sometimes seen as a tyrant. His reign was nevertheless fundamental, both in the fight to the death he delivered to the Duke of Burgundy Charles the Bold, and in the assertion of a monarchy increasingly centralized over the person of the king. While France is once again experiencing economic growth, the reign of Louis XI, however authoritarian it may be, will allow the advent of the Renaissance kings and with it the influence of France, which becomes the leading European power.
Louis XI, turbulent son of Charles VII
Born in 1423, while France is in a very bad position vis-à-vis the English (the Treaty of Troyes was signed in 1420), Louis is the son of Charles VII (who is not yet king) and Marie d'Anjou . He benefited from a high quality education, notably in law and theology, but, having become the Dauphin, he was also a political instrument of his father. He married him in 1436 to Margaret of Scotland, to whom he apparently left a very bad memory (she died at only 21 years old).
As Charles VII entrusted him with increasingly important responsibilities, Louis freed himself a little more by not hesitating, along with John II of Alençon, to join the so-called Praguerie revolt; he was only sixteen then! This revolt of the Princes was crushed by Charles VII, who sent his son to the Dauphiné. There, Louis manages his principality autonomously, installing a Parliament in Grenoble in 1451, and marrying Charlotte of Savoy, against the advice of his father, whom he continues to oppose more or less directly during the 1440s. At the same time, he took the opportunity to build up a solid clientele. Charles VII ended up directly threatening the Dauphiné in 1456, and Louis took refuge in the court of the Duke of Burgundy, Philippe le Bon. He remained in the Netherlands until his father's death in 1461, and then returned to France to be crowned in Reims.
"The universal aragne"
The political skill that would later make his reputation is not yet certain at the start of his reign, since in wanting to break with that of his father, Louis XI threw a number of competent officers into the arms of his enemies. This does not prevent him from meddling in foreign policy by intervening in the problems of Aragon; his financial support to John II of Aragon against the revolt of the Catalan cities allows him to acquire Roussillon and Cerdanya (which his son Charles VIII will return to Aragon to have a free hand in Italy), even if he To do this, Perpignan had to fold in 1463. The same year, Louis XI negotiated with Philippe le Bon, Duke of Burgundy, the purchase of the towns of the Somme. Thus, the king contributes to the territorial expansion of the kingdom of France.
To control a country increasingly agitated because of the disorganization due to the dismissal of his father's officers, Louis XI decides to embark on a journey to get closer to his people, and does not hesitate to do some crowd baths on donkey back, direct reference to Christ. These great voyages are one of the original features of his reign.
It was, however, by gradually taking over the reins of the kingdom that Louis XI obtained his famous nickname, "universal aragne", found by Commynes (1447-1511). The king weaves his web, not hesitating to plot, but at the same time, gradually pouring into paranoia. This recovery is long and difficult, and is done in the plot but even more in the war.
The war of the public good
The authoritarian policy of Louis XI and the disorganization of the kingdom at the beginning of the 1460s encouraged the Great to revolt against the king. They are almost all there, in particular the count of Charolais (Charles, son of the Duke of Burgundy, and future “the Bold”) and especially the brother of Louis XI, Charles of France. The revolted princes obtain the support of the Duke of Brittany, and claim to act "for the public good" by proposing reforms to restore the stability of the kingdom, undermined by the king's policy. The battle of Montlhéry (July 16, 1465) did not allow the situation to be resolved, and Louis XI maintained his nascent reputation as a skilful negotiator by achieving targeted concessions (and not always respected, as when he invested Normandy) to divide the coalition. It also benefits from the support of the cities.
However, the war led by the League of Public Good gradually slipped towards a direct confrontation with Burgundy when Charles, Count of Charolais, succeeded the duchy to his father Philippe le Bon. We are in 1467 and the clash between Louis XI and Charles the Bold will last for ten years.
Louis XI against Charles the Bold
The king and the duke of Burgundy met in 1468 in Péronne. At the same time, Louis XI encouraged the rebellion of the Liégeois against Charles. But it is a failure, and he must withdraw and negotiate, still obtaining the rally of Philippe de Commynes. The Duke of Burgundy, for his part, enjoyed the support of Edward IV of England by marrying his daughter. Louis XI then appears in relative weakness vis-à-vis his rival.
The 1470s turned to the advantage of the King of France, despite some successes by Charles the Bold at the very beginning of the resumption of the war. The Duke of Burgundy was defeated in 1472 at Beauvais, then for a time turned away from his ambitions in France, eyeing the side of the Empire. This only earned him new enemies, including the towns of Alsace, supported by the Swiss. By trying to regain the advantage, Charles the Bold ended up failing in front of the walls of Nancy, where he was found dead in January 1477. Louis XI was thus rid of a formidable adversary, and he was long suspected of having orchestrated the Alsatian revolts, even if its role is now relativized. The king nevertheless had more difficulty in securing the possessions of the Duke of Burgundy; the latter's daughter, Marie de Bourgogne, married Maximilien de Habsbourg, and the conflict did not end until the Treaty of Arras in 1482. If Louis XI obtained Picardy, the Duchy of Burgundy and Franche- Comté, it is not the same for the Netherlands, which goes to Philippe le Beau. The consequences are very important, since Philippe is the father of a certain Charles V, who will not hesitate to claim Burgundy during his fight with François Ier ...
Louis XI beheads the Great
It was literally and not only figuratively that Louis XI took advantage of his advantage in the 1470s to behead some of his last rivals. The death of his brother Charles of France confirms the succession to the throne for the son of Louis, born in 1470. Then, Jean d'Armagnac was assassinated in 1473, while the Constable of Saint-Pol and Jacques d'Armagnac were respectively executed in 1475 and 1477. A conspiracy bringing together Burgundy, Brittany and England breaks out in 1475, but does not obtain support from a fearful French nobility. The king even obtained peace with England at the Treaty of Picquigny (August 29, 1475).
The last obstacle to Louis XI’s hold on the kingdom is the powerful René of Anjou, his cousin. But, once again, the King of France suffered a stroke of fate when King René died in 1480, followed shortly after by his son. Thus, all the Angevin possessions return to the throne of France! Louis XI's son, Charles VIII, used it to claim the kingdom of Naples in 1494, marking the start of the wars in Italy.
A difficult end of reign
During his reign, Louis XI managed to find a certain balance between authoritarianism and negotiations, in particular with a middle nobility who, unlike the Greats, never really rebelled against him. He benefited for a time from the economic prosperity and the demographic growth observed at the end of the reign of Charles VII, and launched reforms which showed a certain unity of the kingdom (such as the creation of the royal post office in 1477).
But the beginning of the 1480s is more difficult, and Louis XI must impose a fiscal policy which causes new tensions, in particular with the cities, which were until then an important support of the king.
More and more devout, Louis XI, of fragile health for a long time, died on August 30, 1483. Unlike other French sovereigns, he was not buried in Saint-Denis but in the basilica of Notre-Dame de Cléry, where he commissioned a funeral monument from several great artists of his time as early as the late 1460s, thus marking a taste for the arts that historians have long denied him.
His son Charles VIII, still a minor, succeeded him after the regency of Anne of France and Pierre de Bourbon-Beaujeu. France is fully entering the Renaissance.
- Louis XI, biography of Joelle Blanchard. Perrin, 2015.
- J. Favier, Louis XI, Fayard, 2001.
- S. Cassagnes-Brouquet, Louis XI or well-tempered patronage, PUR, 2007.