Louis XI was born on July 3, 1423 in Bourges, France to King Charles VII and Queen Marie of Anjou. His parents named him in honor of saint king, Louis IX. During his childhood, France fought against England during the latter half of the Hundred Years War. The English sought to overthrow the Valois royal family and replace them with their infant king, Henry VI.
Since England controlled a majority of France, Prince Louis grew up in Touraine. The prince proved to be an intelligent and cunning royal. However, he also demonstrated a manipulative and ruthless nature. As he grew older, Louis began to come into conflict with his father. Charles VII and his son often disagreed and tended to have opposing viewpoints. Because of this, both men became estranged by 1440.
Charles VII of France
During the last decade of Charles VII’s reign, Louis and the king had effectively fallen out. The breaking point between the two occurred in 1451. Without his father’s consent, Louis married Charlotte of Savoy. Louis sought to gain a foothold in Italy but Charles didn’t approve of the match. In response, the king stripped his son of his French territory of Dauphine and royal pension. Charles also began to pressure the Duke of Savoy to stop supporting Louis.
Despite his father’s anger, Louis remained undaunted. Due to Charles VII’s actions, the prince sent multiple ambassadors to his father. Louis stated that he would submit to the king but had certain conditions that he wanted Charles to meet. Enraged by his defiance, Charles sent an army to subdue Louis in Dauphine. However, the royal troops would shortly after be re-routed after news of an English invasion.
Louis once more attempted to make peace with his father. The prince offered his services to Charles VII but his father flatly refused. By December 1455, the king had dealt with the English and focused his attention on Louis. Charles had enough of Louis’s antics and wanted to end his intrigues. After being forewarned of Charles’s wrath, Louis fled to Burgundy on August 30, 1456.
Philip, Duke of Burgundy
Philip III, Duke of Burgundy, was Louis’s uncle. The prince believed that his only chance of reconciliation with Charles VII lay with Philip. From Burgundy, Louis asked to be pardoned by his father. However, Charles declined and instead took control of Dauphine in April 1457. On Louis’s behalf, Philip made an attempt at reconciliation. Although the duke failed, Louis remained under his protection until the king’s death.
On July 22, 1461, Charles VII died from a mouth infection. After learning of Charles’s death, Louis swiftly departed Burgundy with Philip. On August 15, the 38-year-old impatient prince became King Louis XI. At his coronation, the new king promised forgiveness to those who had wronged him. However, Louis’s ruthlessness soon revealed itself.
Shortly after assuming control of the government, Louis XI began a purge. A majority of his father’s administrators were imprisoned. As their replacements, Louis appointed men from the French lower classes. The king did this to ensure that this new administrators owed their authority to him. As a result, Louis had many loyal administrators under his control. Despite this, the king’s actions alienated many nobles in the process.
When Louis XI became king, he sought to expand France’s borders, reinforce his authority, and increase the monarchy’s wealth. Although he created a loyal administration, the king had to contend with a rebellious nobility. The dukes of Bourbon and Brittany began to make their discontent towards Louis known. In response, the duke of Burgundy’s son, Charles, joined them as well. Even the king’s younger brother, Charles, joined the rebel’s cause, albeit as a figurehead.
In 1465, these men created The League of the Public Weal to overthrow Louis XI. They stated that they wanted to restore good government and preserve their rights against a tyrant. Royal and rebel armies soon clashed but the conflict proved to be short lived. Afterwards, the king made peace with Bourbon and Brittany. However, the cost proved to be steep. In exchange for peace, northern France came under rebel control.
Charles, Duke of Burgundy
In 1467, Philip III died. His son, Charles, promptly became the new duke of Burgundy. Charles despised Louis XI and desired his downfall. To this end, Charles allied himself with the duke of Brittany and Edward IV of England. In October 1468, Louis met with Charles to discuss peace terms at Peronne.
However, the meeting went horribly. During the meeting, Charles learned that royal agents had started a rebellion in his territory. In response, the enraged Charles imprisoned Louis and forced him to make new terms. As a final insult, the duke made the king witness the revolt fail in person. Louis wouldn’t forget the humiliation that he suffered from Charles.
After being released from his short imprisonment, Louis XI’s mind fixated on revenge. In 1469, the king attempted to end the alliance between England and Burgundy. During the late 1460s, The War of the Roses gripped England. The former rulers, the Lancastrians, were ousted from power and in exile in France. In their place, the Yorkists reigned.
To overcome the Yorkists, Louis XI began to develop an alliance with the exiled Lancastrians. The French king’s cousin, Margaret of Anjou, was married to Henry VI. Louis offered aid if they overthrew Edward IV and the Yorkist government. In exchange, the restored Henry would assist the French king against Charles. However, the Lancastrians suffered a devastating defeat in May 1471, foiling Louis’s plans. Instead, the king’s attention turned towards dealing with his rebellious nobility.
Despite the earlier peace agreements, many members of the League of the Public Weal still conspired against Louis XI. The king remained in a dangerous situation until his brother’s died in 1472. Upon Charles’s death, Burgundy and Brittany made peace with Louis. However, the duke of Burgundy remained determined to undermine the king. Aware of this, Louis started making peace with Burgundy’s allies, neutralizing Charles in the process.
By 1475, the duke of Burgundy was at war. Seeing an opportunity to destroy him, Louis XI began aiding Charles’s enemies. On January 5, 1477, the duke died in battle. As a result, the biggest threat to the monarchy disappeared. With Charles dead, Louis now had the ability to bring down the powerful dukedom of Burgundy.
After Charles’s death, his only child, Mary, inherited Burgundy. Louis XI hoped to have his heir marry Mary and gain control of Burgundy. Instead, Mary married Archduke Maximilian of Austria. As a result, Maximilian posed a threat to Louis XI’s annexation plans. The Archduke was prepared to oppose the French king. However, by 1482, both men signed the Treaty of Arras. As part of its terms, Louis gained control over Burgundy, Boulonais, and Picardy.
The duke of Burgundy’s death marked the end of noble hostility towards Louis XI. After emerging victorious against his enemies, Louis focused on centralizing the monarchy’s power. The king developed a network of administrators and messengers throughout France. This was to extend the king’s control and to always be aware of new developments. Due to this network, France remained a peaceful and secure kingdom throughout the later years of Louis’s reign.
Seeking to increase his own wealth, Louis XI supported economic growth. Industry, guild activity, and printing were all heavily encouraged by the king. Louis worked tirelessly to increase economic activity throughout France. Since the kingdom’s economy was prospering, Louis successfully increased the monarchy’s wealth through taxes.
During the early 1480s, Louis XI’s health began to decline. The old king had been worn down from years of actively ruling. As he lay dying in 1483, Louis met with his only son and heir, Prince Charles. The old king imparted his final words of wisdom to the 13-year-old prince and asked that he retain his officials. On August 30, 1483, the 60-year-old Louis succumbed to his illness and died.
During his reign, Louis XI worked tirelessly to expand the monarchy’s power. He created a loyal administration that increased his influence throughout the kingdom. When his nobles threatened him, Louis ruthlessly crushed them in return. By the end of his reign, Louis’s schemes had created a secure and economically prosperous France.
Knecht, R. (2008). The Valois: Kings of France 1328-1589. London: Hambledon Continuum.
Mollat, M. J. (2019, August 26). Louis XI. Retrieved January 28, 2020, from https://www.britannica.com/biography/Louis-XI