Portrait of Philip the Good (1396-1467), third Duke of Burgundy from the House of Valois. Half length, facing right. He is dressed in black, wearing a jewelled collar of firesteels in the shape of the letter B, for Burgundy, and flints, holding the Order of the Golden Fleece, which he instituted.
If a ruler’s success or failure depends as much on the ineptitude of his opponents as on his own skill, then Louis XI of France, wonderfully nicknamed ‘the Universal Spider’, was one of the luckiest monarchs in history. His principal antagonists were the last independent Duke of Burgundy Charles, nicknamed ‘le Téméraire’ (which translates as ‘the Rash’ as well as ‘the Bold’), Duke Frañsez II of Brittany, described by a contemporary Breton chronicler as ‘weak in body and even weaker in mind’, and the insecure usurper Edward IV.
On the minus side, the curse of genealogy lay heavily on the Valois dynasty. The legalistic justification for the devastating Hundred Years War was the English kings’ claim to the throne of France, based on a superior right of succession through the marriages of the first two Edwards to the eldest daughters of the House of Capet. The powerful Dukes of Bourbon and Counts of Bourbon-Vendôme also had a separate but junior line of descent from the Capetian King Louis IX. The greater problem was that the extended Valois clan, ‘the princes of the blood’, made the English Plantagenets seem like happy families.
The Dukes of Valois-Alençon were a cadet line descended from Count Charles of Valois, whose eldest son became the first Valois king. The Dukes of Valois-Anjou and of Valois-Burgundy were descendants of the second Valois king, and the Dukes of Valois-Orléans and of Valois-Orléans-Angoulême from the third. Their bitter rivalries had permitted relatively small English armies to conquer northern France. Even after Jeanne d’Arc shamed some of them into turning the tide, many years of ego massaging were required before they could be united to expel the invaders.
They were soon back to squabbling amongst themselves; but now, instead of hindering Charles VII (Louis’s father), their divisions helped him to reduce their importance by building on the foundations of absolutism. The king’s new measures included the 1438 Pragmatic Sanction, by which he ‘nationalized’ the Papacy’s right to appoint French clergy and the revenues deriving from it, and a standing army paid for by a land tax (taille) on non-nobles. The taille was awarded to the monarchy in perpetuity by the Estates General in 1439, thereby rendering themselves irrelevant: Louis XI summoned them only once in twenty-two years.
Charles VII’s reduced need to accommodate his nobles did not pass unnoticed, and the steps he took to rationalize the administration of justice and tax collection were seen for what they were – the thin end of a wedge of encroachment on traditional aristocratic prerogatives. His reforms provoked the short-lived 1440 Praguerie rebellion nominally led by Louis, his 17-year-old heir apparent, involving the Dukes of Bourbon, Alençon and Brittany, and the Count of Vendôme. There was a formal reconciliation, but Charles never forgave his son.
In 1441–3 Louis distinguished himself in operations against the English and the Count of Armagnac, and in 1444 Charles sent him to fight the fearsome Swiss at the head of an army of écorcheurs, savage and fiercely meritocratic French irregulars. Louis emerged with credit from the campaign, but received no reward. At court, relations between him and Agnès Sorel, Charles’s influential mistress, became so bad that in 1446 he was sent to govern the Dauphiné, the traditional principality of the heirs to the throne, and a nest of interlocking feudal and ecclesiastical jurisdictions calculated to break the spirit of any ruler.
Once again Louis rose to the challenge. He humbled the local lords, favoured the gentry and the bourgeoisie, and introduced reforms such as the first regular postal service in Europe. He also ignored frequent attempts to recall him and in 1451, in defiance of his father’s orders, he made a dynastic marriage with the House of Savoy. Charles intended to enforce Louis’s obedience by invading the Dauphine the following year, but had to turn aside to deal with the English reconquest of Guyenne. When the delayed invasion went ahead in 1456, Louis fled to the court of his uncle Duke Philippe of Burgundy.
Despite Charles’s threats, Philippe set Louis up with his own establishment at the castle of Genappe in his sub-duchy of Brabant, a prudent arm’s length south of the provincial capital at Brussels. By Valois standards Philippe’s heir Charles, Count of Charolais, was a loyal son: but he questioned Philippe’s benevolence towards Louis. He argued that it would be better to surrender the dangerously capable Louis to his father. If he lived he would promote sedition, and if killed his twenty-three-year younger brother would become Dauphin. Philippe thought otherwise, and fondly believed he was creating a bond of gratitude.
Louis’s policy over the next five years was straightforward: he opposed anything his father did, thus he backed the Yorkists against the Lancastrians in England’s civil war. Philippe took the same view, but Charolais was fascinated by the struggle between Warwick and Somerset over Calais. He became enamoured of handsome Henry Beaufort, and when he had to abandon the struggle for Calais gave him 1,400 livres [£135,000] to get himself and his men back to England and continue the fight.
I use the word ‘enamoured’ advisedly. Charolais’s intense admiration for Somerset led him to support Lancastrian resistance after Towton, seemingly in defiance of his father’s pro-Yorkist policy.† He felt Somerset’s execution deeply, and once he became duke he sheltered Somerset’s brothers and was reluctant to ally with the Yorkist regime. While he was also influenced by his adored mother Isabella of Portugal, a granddaughter of John of Gaunt, father of the Lancastrian dynasty, his motives appear to have been more personal.
The link may be that he was repelled by his father’s monumental promiscuity – at least twenty-four mistresses and eighteen recognized bastards. Although Charolais managed to overcome his revulsion and engender a daughter in 1457, in general he shunned female and sought out exclusively male company. In 1470 his illegitimate half-brother Baudouin fled to France and accused him of ‘unnatural vices’; but while he was almost certainly homosexual, it is more likely he sublimated his urges in violent sports and warfare.
During his time at Genappe Louis was at all times respectful of his uncle Philippe and also won over his sceptical son through their mutual passion for the chase. He even managed to remain friendly with Jacquetta’s brother Louis de Luxembourg, Count of Saint-Pol, who had been his comrade-in-arms in 1441, even though they backed different sides in the English civil war. During his time in exile Louis obtained an intimate knowledge of the strengths and weaknesses of men who would later oppose him, without permitting any of them to catch more than occasional glimpses of the workings of his own mind.
On the other side of France, Duke Frañsez of Brittany seems to have calculated (if, indeed, any coherent mental process was involved) that his interests were best served by stirring the English pot. After the Lancastrian defeat at Northampton he welcomed Marguerite’s emissary the Earl of Wiltshire, gave him the money to recruit Breton and Irish mercenaries, and the ships to transport them to join Jasper Tudor, Earl of Pembroke, in Wales. Few survived the rout that followed their defeat by Edward at Mortimer’s Cross. Frañsez continued to support Jasper, as well as the last Lancastrian holdout of Harlech Castle in Wales, for many years.
When Marguerite’s army marched on London after defeating and killing Richard of York and Warwick’s father at Wakefield, Philippe gave generous sanctuary to Richard’s two youngest boys. He also sent a contingent of hand-gunners, who shared Warwick’s defeat at the Second Battle of St Albans. Arguably more significant was the choice of one of Louis’s retinue, Lord de la Barde, to represent Burgundy to the Yorkists, and that he led a contingent of Burgundians to fight for Edward at Towton under the Dauphin’s banner.
Philippe’s greater contribution was to keep Charles VII in check. Charles was in poor health – he died four months after Towton – and desperate to be reconciled with his heir. Louis refused to go to him even when he was dying, and after he died shocked Philippe by making only a perfunctory gesture of mourning during the elaborate ceremonies the duke organized. Louis went along with the charade, making it clear he did so only to please his uncle, but eventually could bear it no longer and slipped away to get on with the business of ruling.
He immediately adopted many of the policies he had opposed while his father lived, among them support of the Lancastrians. Having been at the heart of the informal alliance between Burgundy and the Yorkists, Louis fully appreciated the threat it could pose to France. Also, France’s allies the Scots had obtained Berwick by helping Marguerite after Northampton – could he not obtain title to Calais now that she was truly desperate? Yet, having obtained her undertaking to cede the enclave if she recovered the throne, he did the bare minimum to keep the Lancastrian resistance alive.
This was because he did not wish the issue of who governed England to become a major bone of contention between France and Burgundy. He was coldly pragmatic and the sole purpose of his limited support for the Lancastrians was to keep England divided and weak for as long as possible, in order to diminish the value of an English alliance in Burgundian eyes. In this he was successful, leaving both Philippe and himself free to deal with more important bilateral matters and their own internal problems.
The Burgundian lands were separated by the duchies of Bar and Lorraine and by the Prince-Bishopric of Liège. Bar was ruled by Duke René d’Anjou, Marguerite’s father, and Lorraine – in succession to his mother – by René’s eldest son Jean. About half of Bar and all of Lorraine lay within the boundaries of the historic Holy Roman Empire, such that René and Jean owed nominal homage to the Emperor for them.
Considerably more significant was the homage René owed to the King of France for part of Bar, and all of Anjou and Provence. He was also titular King of Naples, having been expelled by the King of Aragon in 1441, a can of worms best left unopened here. More germane to our story is the war fought between René and Philippe over Lorraine in 1431, in which René was captured. He was eventually released in 1436 after agreeing a ransom that ruined him, even though he was never able to pay the whole amount.
Power abhors a vacuum, but the Angevins and their descendants clung on to Bar and Lorraine until 1766 because they were recognized as the legitimate rulers by both the Empire and France. The price of powerlessness was that their territory was regarded as a thoroughfare, and Nancy as an occasional alternative location for the courts of the French kings.
The existential threat to the Dukes of Burgundy was not so much that every duchy, sub-duchy and county recognized his overlordship according to its own laws and customs, a feudal overhang common to all the proto-nations of Europe. Their particular problem came from the example set by the autonomous Rhine valley cities outside their borders. Burgundy depended heavily on revenues from the commercial and industrial cities in Flanders, where a desire for comparable autonomy was never far below the surface.
Louis XI added two substantial territories to his kingdom in 1462–3, both by purchase. The first opportunity came about in early 1462 when the province of Catalonia overthrew the authority of King Juan II of Aragon, who had exhausted his credit in a war over Navarre. In May Juan signed treaties with Louis XI for the loan of 4,200 knights plus their retainers and led by the Count of Foix for an agreed price of 200,000 gold crowns [£25.4 million]. As surety Louis was to hold Roussillon and Cerdagne, Catalan counties north of the Pyrenees.
The Catalans, hard pressed by King Juan’s French army, invited King Enrique IV of Castille to become their ruler. He denounced the cession of Rousillon and Cerdagne and threatened to conquer the kingdom of Aragon in its entirety. In an adroit move, Louis persuaded Enrique to accept his arbitration, then prevailed on Juan to cede disputed territory in Navarre to keep Castille out of the war. The war dragged on for another decade though permutations including the Catalans’ election of René d’Anjou, who ruined himself again by trying to make good his claim; but by 1474 Rousillon and Cerdagne were permanently incorporated into France.
Louis’s other purchase seemed at first to be more straightforward. In 1435 his father had ceded the rich towns of the Somme valley in Picardy to Duke Philippe as part of the price he paid to break up the Anglo-Burgundian alliance. The terms were that the towns would revert to the French crown in return for 400,000 gold crowns [£51 million].
Louis completed the supposedly prohibitive payment and, with the help of high-placed agents at Philippe’s court, recovered the towns by the end of 1463. The complications here were that the taxes vigorously collected across France to raise the money were deeply unpopular, and that Philippe’s son Charolais violently opposed the deal and swore to reverse it.
Not only Burgundian feathers were ruffled. As before in the Dauphiné, Louis had been a whirlwind since becoming king, constantly touring and making no effort to cultivate his nobles. Indeed, he seemed at times to go out of his way to offend them, and spoke rather too freely about their personal shortcomings. He also enforced royal prerogatives at their expense, notably by revoking the patronage previously enjoyed by secular and ecclesiastical lords under the terms of the 1438 Pragmatic Sanction.
Louis certainly knew he was playing with fire. He had, after all, helped to derail his father’s more modest attempts to assert royal authority in the 1440 Praguerie rebellion. Since then Charles VII had committed the taille to setting up the salaried compagnies d’ordonnance, drawn from the lesser nobility and gentry. This was the standing army with which Charles threw the English out of France in 1449–51 and Louis, confident of his own military skill, believed it would deter his nobles from resorting to arms.
It did not deter the Duke of Brittany, who inspired little enthusiasm among his subjects but could depend on their unqualified support in resisting any attempt by the French king to infringe on Breton autonomy. So, when Frañsez defied him in 1463 and Louis found he needed the support of the French nobility, he did not get it. The step too far was to make an enemy of Charolais at the same time, when Philippe was showing signs of senility and could no longer be depended on to keep his intemperate son under control.
The paradoxical result was that England moved to the front and centre of Louis’s diplomacy. He had created a critical mass of enemies and the last thing he needed was for an English army with its dreaded longbowmen to descend on Normandy. Thus the embassy sent by Edward IV, led by Chancellor George Neville, was manna from heaven. Louis agreed a one-year truce with Neville in October 1463, deluged the embassy with expensive gifts, and showed himself warmly disposed to the idea of a matrimonial alliance.
Not least, he expressed extravagant admiration for Warwick and requested he should lead a subsequent delegation to a peace conference to end the state of war that still existed between the two kingdoms. In what he thought was a masterstroke, Louis asked Duke Philippe to host the conference. Philippe, who, unlike his son, was rather pleased with the immense addition to his treasury from the redemption of the Somme towns, was flattered and moved almost permanently to his palace at Hesdin, the designated venue.
Warwick could not come because the Lancastrians and Scots continued to cause trouble well into 1464, and everybody – except Marguerite and Bishop Kennedy in Scotland, who begged in vain for further support – believed Louis was responsible. This was no longer the case: the Lancastrian gambit had outlived its usefulness. His aim was to prevent an Anglo–Burgundian alliance, and what better way than by winning over the man said to be the power behind the English throne?
In March 1464 Louis sent Lord de la Barde, who had fought for Edward at Towton, with an offer of marriage to Bona of Savoy, Louis’s 14-year-old sister-in-law. Edward coolly replied that he would give it serious consideration. Warwick, on the other hand, leapt for the fly and promised to go to Hesdin to agree the final terms of the treaty. As spring gave way to summer, letters arrived from Warwick excusing himself because negotiations with the Scots required his presence in York, and Louis became increasingly nervous.
Meanwhile Philippe was becoming restless, and Louis rode to Hesdin to soothe his uncle’s increasingly clouded mind. Finally an embassy arrived, but it was led by Warwick’s retainer Lord Wenlock and had only come to negotiate a one-year extension of the truce due to expire in October. Warwick would certainly come, Wenlock said, before then. By now Louis was genuinely desperate. His diplomacy was unravelling, reports from his spies indicated serious trouble brewing among his nobles, and now he had involved Duke Philippe in a fiasco. Louis left Hesdin on 9 July, never to see his uncle again.
‘I never saw a lord so ardently desire anything as this King desires this peace with the English’, reported Louis’s confidante Alberico Maletta, the Milanese ambassador. ‘I believe that if the earl of Warwick came he would obtain anything from the King to obtain this peace’. ‘Anything’ almost certainly included a French title and lands to go with it.
Then rumour swelled to certainty – Edward had secretly married Elizabeth Woodville, a beautiful English widow, and had announced it at a meeting of his Great Council after first permitting the oblivious Warwick to extol the virtues of Bona of Savoy. It was a brutal rejection of the French alliance, and Duke Philippe exploded with rage when he learned of it. Then Charolais announced he had arrested a spy sent by Louis – a nephew of the Croy brothers, Louis’s agents at the Burgundian court and the blackest of Charolais’s bêtes noires. The Universal Spider’s web had been torn apart.