Louis XI

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Louis XI

Louis XI (1423-1483), called the Spider King, was king of France from 1461 to 1483. He suppressed baronial power, made peace with England, and reorganized French royal authority.

The prosperity of France and the authority of the Crown were the major concerns of Louis XI. During his reign France recovered from the foreign and civil disasters of the Hundred Years War (1339-1453) and its economic collapse of the early 15th century. By extending his authority into every area of public life, Louis weakened the French aristocracy, always a threat to the Crown, and destroyed the power of the ducal house of Burgundy. He encouraged the development of new industries and put his country on the road to economic recovery after a century of war and occupation.

Louis XI was born at Bourges, the son of Charles VII and Marie of Anjou. At that time most of France was in English hands, and Charles's enemies scornfully called him the "King of Bourges" (that city being his temporary capital). During the next 2 decades Charles slowly reestablished his authority. Joan of Arc and later Jacques Coeur and other civil and military officials were of great help to Charles and earned him the epithet "the Well-served."

Louis grew up in the fortress of Loches under the direction of tutors and, like most princes of his day, learned classical Latin. He also achieved a highly developed command of written French and is one of the few kings who has a distinguished personal literary style. At the age of 13, Louis married Margaret Stuart, daughter of James I of Scotland.

Rebellious Dauphin

After 1436 Louis began to accompany his father on military campaigns and civil inspections of his diminished kingdom. Shortly afterward Louis was made lieutenant general of Languedoc and later of Poitou. He was responsible for defending these provinces against bands of roving mercenary soldiers who had terrorized the countryside for most of the century and also for collecting taxes, always a chief concern of the impoverished king of France. In 1440, apparently at the instigation of the dukes of Alençon and Bourbon, Louis joined a conspiracy against his father. After Charles put down the Praguerie, as the revolt was called, Louis again accompanied him on his journeys, but his participation in another conspiracy against the King in 1445 resulted in his banishment to Dauphiné, the traditional province of the heir apparent to the throne of France. From 1445 to 1456 Louis learned the business of ruling.

Louis's wife died in 1445, and in 1451, against his father's wishes, he married Charlotte of Savoy. In 1456, having again angered his father, Louis fled to the protection of Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy, the most powerful enemy of the French royal house, where he remained until his father's death in 1461. Louis's contemporary biographer Philippe de Comines assessed the importance of this period in Louis's life: "In my opinion, what he did in his youth, when he was a fugitive from his father under the Duke of Burgundy, where he remained six years, was very valuable to him, for he was compelled to please those of whom he had need, and this benefit (which is not small) taught him the meaning of adversity."

King of France

Upon the death of Charles VII in 1461, Louis ascended the throne of France. At the age of 38, Louis already had the striking appearance that was to inspire so many caricatures. He was somewhat below medium height and dressed very simply. He had a long nose, deeply set eyes, thin lips, a powerful jaw, and a jutting chin. He grew somewhat heavier in later life, but his legs remained thin. His epithet of "Spider King" was due to both his appearance and his authoritarian and unscrupulous character. Louis was a great talker and listener, and Comines wrote: "No man ever listened more constantly, or sought information on so many subjects as he, or sought to know so many people. … And his memory was so perfect that he retained everything." Louis was obsessed with the need to obtain accurate information, whether through diplomatic channels or otherwise, and he was just as concerned with the distribution of his own views to all parts of his realm. Louis was religious in an idiosyncratic and often misunderstood way. He endowed and rebuilt many churches, collected relics, and constantly sought the prayers of the French clergy and the Pope. But he also intervened often in Church affairs.

Above all else, Louis worked at rebuilding France. He worked long and hard and brought his will to bear on the great problems of his kingdom in a manner sometimes temperamental and cruel, sometimes jovial and unassuming. Comines's assessment of Louis's life remains a perceptive judgment: "I think that if all the good days he enjoyed during his life, days in which he had more pleasure and happiness than hard work and trouble, were carefully numbered, they would be found to be few; I believe one would find twenty days of travail and worry for every one day of ease and pleasure."

French Aristocracy and the English King

The great territorial principalities of 15th-century France, such as Burgundy and Brittany, were nominally fiefs granted by the king, but the allegiance of the great nobles had been strained or obliterated by English success during the Hundred Years War. Before he became king, Louis himself had attempted to profit from aristocratic disaffection in a series of revolts against his father. In 1464 Louis was faced with a serious revolt of the nobles who had formed the League of the Public Weal. He was forced to fight against the combined strength of the dukes of Burgundy, Bourbon, Brittany, and Lorraine, the Count of Armagnac, the Prince of Calabria, and his own brother, Charles of France. Louis fought the barons to a standoff in 1465 and settled the revolt by granting financial and legal concessions. In 1468 another conspiracy was formed, directed by Charles the Bold of Burgundy and supported by Edward IV of England. Again, Louis's adroitness and readiness to make concessions that he could later repudiate ended the revolt. In 1472 and again in 1474 Louis put down uprisings led by Charles. From 1475 to 1477 Louis withstood a last revolt and emerged with great gains. Charles the Bold and Edward IV had again allied against France, but Louis was able to secure a final truce between England and France in the Treaty of Picquigny (1475). This treaty marked the real end of English intervention in France after a century and a half of conflict. Charles the Bold was killed at Nancy in 1477 in a battle against the Swiss, with whom Louis had formed an alliance. With Charles's death the greatest single threat to Louis's stabilizing rule was removed.

Besides his political and military skill, Louis also had dynastic fortune on his side in his struggles with the nobles. During his reign the dynasties which ruled the great princely houses began to die out, thus allowing the king to reabsorb these dangerous principalities into the authority of the Crown. By skill, luck, and persistence, Louis had reassembled his kingdom.

Louis's Government of France

Louis was faced with the task of reorganizing the civil institutions of France. His reign was a sustained attempt to use royal authority to alleviate the economic and social problems of the kingdom. His methods did not make him loved. He continually raised old taxes and invented new ones. He insisted upon maintaining the effective standing army that his father had created. But he ruthlessly repressed abuses, particularly those of the nobility. His infinite capacity to obtain and absorb information made him intimately familiar with the events in the remotest parts of the kingdom—more familiar than some men would have cared him to be.

Louis's awareness of the complex role of economics in 15th-century society drove him to practice not only economic warfare against his enemies but also effective economic protectionism on behalf of his own territories. He urged the renewal of fairs and the abolition of tariff restrictions within the kingdom; he supported efficient city government; and he was always prepared to lessen the severity of his economic measures when he thought it necessary. Louis was much concerned with the role of the state in France's economy, and he experimented with state-owned shipping in the Mediterranean, state-operated arsenals, urban development, and control of the silk trade.

At his death in 1483, France had begun to improve its economic position, the great barons had been humbled, and the income of the Crown had been quadrupled. Louis left his son and heir, Charles VIII, a full treasury, a strong diplomatic position, and a restored throne.

Further Reading

The standard biography of Louis is Pierre Champion, Louis XI (2 vols., 1927; trans. 1929). A fascinating and reliable modern study is James Cleugh, Chant Royal (1970). See also Paul M. Kendall, Louis XI (1971). Very informative but outdated is D. B. Wyndham Lewis, King Spider: Some Aspects of Louis XI of France and His Companions (1929). The author's idiosyncratic religious and political views often flaw his work. The greatest work on Louis remains Philippe de Comines's Mémoires (many English translations), the observations of the most astute political observer of the 15th century and a man who knew Louis intimately. Recommended for general historical background are Edouard Perroy, The Hundred Years War (1945; trans. 1951); Denys Hay, Europe in the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Centuries (1966); and P. S. Lewis, Later Medieval France: The Polity (1968). The Burgundian background is treated in Joseph Calmette, The Golden Age of Burgundy (1959; trans. 1963).

Additional Sources

Tyrrell, Joseph M., Louis XI, Boston: Twayne, 1980. □

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Louis XI, 1423–83, king of France (1461–83), son and successor of Charles VII.

Early Life

As dauphin Louis was almost constantly in revolt against his father. He was pardoned after joining (1440) the Praguerie; after conspiring (1446) against Agnès Sorel and Pierre de Brézé, he was exiled to the Dauphiné, which he governed himself. His continued intrigues forced another exile (1456–61), this time to the court of Philip the Good of Burgundy.

Conflict with the Nobility

Louis began his reign by dismissing many of his father's best advisers; but he soon deserted his former allies of the Praguerie and began the task of centralizing all authority in the crown. His measures to curb the power of the great nobles aroused (1465) the League of the Public Weal, headed by Charles the Bold, son of Philip the Good; Francis II, duke of Brittany; Jean, comte du Dunois; Antoine de Chabannes; and the dukes of Alençon and Bourbon, under the nominal leadership of the king's brother Charles. The lesser nobility, the bourgeoisie, and the lower classes supported Louis, who also allied with the citizens of Liège, a Burgundian protectorate, against Charles the Bold. Louis successfully defended Paris, but in Oct., 1465, he granted the demands of the rebels in the treaties of Conflans and Saint-Maur-des-Fossés. He soon violated the treaties, taking Normandy from his brother Charles, to whom it had been granted.

In 1467 a new coalition against the king was formed by Charles the Bold, now duke of Burgundy, with Francis II; Charles also obtained the support of King Edward IV of England. When the duke of Brittany invaded Normandy, Louis arranged a truce with him. In 1468, at the expiration of the truce with Brittany, he subdued Normandy and forced Francis II to sign the Peace of Ancenis (1468). Having visited Péronne for an interview with Charles the Bold, Louis was made (1468) prisoner and forced to sign a treaty granting important concessions and compelling him to participate in suppressing the revolt of Liège, which he had helped instigate. After his release Henry involved himself in English affairs against Edward IV (see Roses, Wars of the), aiding the restoration of King Henry VI.

Conflict with the French nobles continued. The death (1472) of Louis's brother Charles removed one opponent, and after a brief campaign Louis signed truces with Francis II and Charles the Bold. Charles renewed his alliance with Edward IV, who had regained the English throne. Louis, however, succeeded in buying off Edward IV when he invaded (1475) France to aid Charles, and in uniting the enemies of Charles the Bold, among whom the Swiss were the strongest. The Swiss victories over Charles and his death (1477) at Nancy enabled Louis to take Burgundy, Picardy, Boulogne, Artois, and Franche-Comté from Charles's daughter, Mary of Burgundy. Mary's husband, Maximilian of Austria (later Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I), defeated (1479) Louis at Guinegate, but was ultimately forced to concede the Burgundian territories to Louis in the Treaty of Arras (see Arras, Treaty of). On the extinction of the house of Anjou, Louis acquired Anjou, Maine, Bar, and Provence.

Characteristics of Louis's Reign

A born diplomat, Louis skillfully checked his foreign and domestic enemies and set up an efficient central administration. He used commissions (and the one States-General he convoked) to give his acts the appearance of popular approval. He diminished the prestige of the courts. Despite his revocation (1461) of his father's pragmatic sanction of Bourges, he intervened freely in church affairs. He imposed heavy taxes, using much of the revenue to purchase support. He also encouraged industry and expanded domestic and foreign trade. Louis preferred men of humble origin, and among his advisers were Olivier Le Daim, Louis Tristan L'Hermite, and Cardinal Balue, whom he rewarded liberally, though he was niggardly in his own expenses. Fearing assassination, he spent his last years in virtual self-imprisonment near Tours. He was succeeded by his son, Charles VIII.


See writings of a contemporary, Comines; biographies by P. H. Champion (tr. 1929, repr. 1970), J. Cleugh (1970), and P. M. Kendall (1971).

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Louis XI (1423–83) King of France (1461–83). A rebel against his father, Charles VII, he was driven out of his province of the Dauphiné in 1456 and sought refuge at the court of Burgundy. As king, he suppressed rebellious nobles, largely by exploiting divisions between them. The greatest of his rivals was Charles ( the Bold) of Burgundy, but after Charles' death (1477) Louis gained Burgundy, and also, after another convenient death, Anjou. He encouraged industry and the towns, and greatly strengthened the French monarchy although he was unpopular with most classes and known as ‘the Spider’.