AMONG the great calumniated of history a place in the very front rank must be assigned to King Louis XI., of France. Not only has he been visited with what Macaulay would style historical decapitation, but he has been utterly travestied until he excites ridicule in schoolboy and philosopher alike. One of the most salient characteristics of this monarch was religious devotion, and it actuated itself especially in regard to the Mother of God. Protestant and freethinking writers have therefore endeavored to render his memory odious. With the exception of his contemporary Commines, all historians, down to our own day, have sinned in their treatment of Louis XI.; some have yielded to blind hatred, others being victims of ignorance or of superficiality. Claude de Seyssel, who has been justly styled the mitred valet of Louis XII., but obeyed the will of his master in decrying the reign of that master’s enemy. Peter Mathieu thought that he could best write for Henry IV. by writing against Louis XI. That writers of the calibre of Mezeray and Garnier 189 should blindly follow the crowd is to be expected; but one is pained on seeing Bossuet compromising his great name by crediting the hideous story which will form the main object of this article. When so great an aberration is encountered, no wonder that the gentle author of “Quentin Durward” should feel justified in exhibiting the enormities of Louis XI., by the light of the burning human torches at Plessis, and that Casimir Delavigne and Boucicault should have transferred the bloody shower of the scaffold of Nemours to the stage. But had Scott written his entrancing novel some years later, we doubt whether he would have represented Louis XI. as a mocking Tiberius and a bloody Rabelais, as a wolf in sheep’s clothing, and as a superstitious driveller. For the nineteenth century, redolent of humbug as it is, has witnessed the revelation of many historical shams, and, e converso, a number of wonderful rehabilitations, among which not the least striking is that of the man of Montlhéry.
During the reign of Louis Philippe there appeared a History of Louis XI., which would have been expected, because of its solidity, rather from the pen of a Benedictine than from that of a professor of the modern University of Paris. Its author, Urban Legeay, 190 had spent ten years in its composition; and his aim was to conduct his work just as Louis XI. presided over, nay, made his monarchy, — seeing nothing but its interest; so true is it that there are often similarities between the subject and the worthy writer of a history. M. Barbey d’Aurevilly, one of the most judicious of modern critics, drawing attention lately to this unfortunately neglected work, sees in the qualities of Louis XI., one of the most sensible of men, the most sure of his own actions, the “most desirous of the one thing,” an attraction “for all the faculties of this Urban Legeay, who was also sensible, who also applied himself to his task, never turning off to side-issues; and resembling Louis XI. also by that which was wanting in that great man — for the grandeur of Louis XI., equal, for him who knows how to measure it, to that of Charlemagne, seems inferior to the greatness of Charlemagne only in that which captivates the imagination at a distance — external éclat and poetry.”1 The work of Legeay has yet to be appreciated; he was no eagle, and his style was ordinary. 191 But the future historian of Louis XI. will find in his book the material for a successful one. It is something more than a history of Louis XI.: it is a history of the histories of the monarch, and his criticism of these confirms the judgments emitted in his own. He presents to us a Louis XI. of whom we have not even dreamt, and sets forth in all its merited grandeur a reign the glory of which could not be, after all, entirely abolished, since it left France prosperous and aggrandized; whereas monarchs like Louis XIV. and Napoleon, whose greatness is not contested, left her bleeding and diminished.
To proclaim the greatness of Louis XI., in face of the universal contempt shown for him, as at least equal to that of Charlemagne, was to declare one’s fitness for a lunatic asylum; but Legeay, very unlike a modern universitarian, thought of nothing but truth. He realized that Charlemagne had to do with barbarians, whom he defeated and baptized; Louis XI. had to do with civilized lords, many of whom were as powerful as himself. The glories of Charlemagne had been prepared by Charles 192 Martel and Pepin, and above all by the Papacy, then all-powerful and unresisted, even in whispers; Louis XI. followed immediately upon imbeciles, and was forced to contend with memories of Crécy, Poitiers, Azincourt, and of the murdered Maid of Orleans. During his entire reign the great lords, no longer loyal chevaliers after the fashion of the Paladins, were allied with the English and Burgundians, and leagued in revolt against the crown; but he defeated their projects as Charlemagne never defeated his barbarians, by force of intellect. But although intellectuality as the special characteristic of the greatness of Louis XI., he did not confine his sword to its scabbard; he was a thorough soldier, and he would not have his sword forgotten when designing his statue for his tomb in Notre-Dame de Cléry. That he could be brave even to audacity is shown by the interview of Péronne. Nor was Louis XI. the monster of duplicity which history has depicted him as being: Legeay proves that among the rulers of his time this sovereign was perhaps the only just one and the only one faithful to his word. Louis XI. was every inch a king; a greater one than Louis XIV., who was more of a sultan, and more “the sun,” but, to use the words of D’Aurevilly, 193 less a king in permanent action and incessancy of function. Charlemagne in his old age cried at the window from which he gazed on the river by which he expected the Norman ships to arrive; but when dying, Louis XI. wept not at the thought of the coming of those Valois who were worse than Normans for France, but counselled his son in regard to the evils he foresaw. Charlemagne was the Empire, Louis XI. was France. The grand monarque Louis XIV. had many mistresses, and the most costly of all, Versailles; Louis XI. had no mistress but France; he was without love, save for his state, remarked Commines, who knew him well. Legeay finds, and D’Aurevilly agrees with him, in Charlemagne, St. Louis, Louis XIV., and Napoleon, an imagination which frequently carries them away; but Louis XI. was always master of himself.
We have been led to these reflections while making some researches in reference to an almost universally credited charge against Louis XI., to the effect that the children of the Duke of Nemours were placed under the scaffold of their father, there to receive on their white robes the trickling blood of the victim. Michelet admits that the historians contemporary with Louis XI., even the most hostile, do not allude to such a horror. But 194 such silence does not prevent the champion liar of the universe, Voltaire, from accrediting the accusation. He says that “all the grace accorded to this unfortunate prince was that he might be buried in the habit of a Franciscan, — a grace which was worthy of these atrocious times, and which equalled their barbarity. But what was not usual, and was introduced by Louis XI., was the placing of the young children of the Duke under the scaffold, to be covered there with their father’s blood. . . . The unheard of torments suffered by the princes of Nemours-Armagnac would be incredible, if they were not attested by the request presented by the unfortunate princes to the Estates, after the death of Louis XI., in 1482.”2 And Duclos says: “The children of the culprit were placed under the scaffold, in order that the blood of their father should fall upon them.” 3 One would have expected better things of Garnier, but he says: “By a barbarity hitherto unexampled in our history, the unfortunate children of the Duke of Nemours were placed under the scaffold, that the blood of their father might flow on their heads.”4195
Before we refute this allegation, let us consult Duclos, an historian not suspected of devotion to Louis XI., in order to learn the crime, the expiation of which has furnished material to novelist and dramatist for a superlatively harrowing scene. The Duke of Nemours, in spite of the obligations binding him to Louis XI., entered into nearly all the plots against that monarch, and finally joined the faction of the Count d’Armagnac, head of his house. “Armagnac was one of those who prove that tyranny is sustained by baseness, and that legitimate power, when its possessor does not abuse it, is favorable to the happiness of the people.” The King, informed of the excesses of the Count, and suspecting him of relations with the English, entrusted the Count de Dammartin with full powers for investigation. The result was a declaration, on the part of the royal council, that the Duke of Nemours having obtained his duchy from the king, and having been loaded with favors, had been one of the chief inciters of civil war; and that having received pardon, and having sworn to serve his Majesty against all persons, he had again excited insurrection and had joined the Count d’Armagnac. Consequently Nemours was declared guilty of high-treason. 196 But Nemours begged the intercession of Dammartin; and Louis again pardoned the rebel Duke, “on condition that if he again swerved in his fidelity he should be punished for the crimes already committed. . . . He was ungrateful, and was one of the first to declare himself in the war of the ‘Public Weal.’ ” He even sought the assassination of his sovereign. Finally, Louis caused his arrest; he was condemned to decapitation, and executed in the Halles de Paris on August 4, 1477.
“Lie, lie bravely: something will always remain. Fling mud: some of it will stick.” Voltaire was never more fully actuated by his cynically daring axiom than when, in his anxiety to asperse the memory of Louis XI., he said that “the unheard-of torments suffered by the princes of Nemours-Armagnac would be incredible, if they were not attested by the request presented by the unfortunate princes to the Estates after the death of Louis XI., in 1483.” The request to which the Sage of Ferney alludes was presented by the lawyer Masselin, and in the time of Duclos and Garnier it was preserved in the Royal Library at Paris; these authors knew it well, and the latter made a long extract from it in the nineteenth volume of his work. Now, in the 197 pleading of Masselin there is not a word such as Voltaire insinuates as existing, and which Duclos and Garnier implicitly recognize as existent; even the rhetorical figures employed by the interested advocate to excite sympathy for his unfortunate clients can not be twisted so as to justify the anecdote so eagerly used by the romanticists. Hence it is that Henri Martin, the pet historian of modern freethinkers, whose writings are marked by error, hatred, and prejudice, in things both little and great, is compelled to reject it. “It is a fable invented by the reaction against the memory of Louis XI.”5 And Fournier admits: “the execution of Nemours was very different from that which is generally described; the frightful details, the children kneeling under the scaffold, the shocking deluge of blood, as Casimir Delavigne represents it, form a mass of melodramatic paraphernalia which must now be relegated to the ‘Crimes Célèbres.’ ”6
As to the crimes so freely ascribed to Louis XI., for which he is said to have begged pardon in advance from the saints whose leaden images he carried on his hatband, many of them are either without any historical foundation, 198 or, when properly investigated, prove to have been not crimes, but justifiable actions on the part of a monarch. Duclos did not err on the side of devotion or in appreciation of true devotional character; but he had enough good sense to remark: “I need not allude to the monstrous alliance of cruelty and superstition which is ascribed to Louis XI., In the charge that he was wont to ask permission from the Blessed Virgin for his assassinations; those nonsensical tales merit no refutation.”7 If there was one quality which supereminently shone in Louis XI., one which stamped him as a born ruler of men, it was that of knowing how to choose his instruments. All those whom he raised to eminent positions of trust were men of great capacity. Some, like Cardinal Balue, were traitors — for the fifteenth century, the moral decadence and vital end of the Middle Age, was the period of traitors, — but he who sought only the good of France was never deceived as to their fitness for their positions. Romancists like Scott may be prodigal of sneers for Tristan l’Hermite, “the executioner.” We are not astounded when we hear the American journalist vituperate a President of the United States as an “ex-hangman,” on account of his having 199 been a sheriff of his country. But when grave historians hold up Louis XI. to ridicule for his confidence in Tristan, they betray their own unfitness to lift the torch of investigation. This “hangman” was a brave officer, a master of artillery, a tried servant of the crown, who had subdued the men of Liege in 1457, and who, as the executor of the high justice of the King, deserved as much respect as any Minister of the Interior who is responsible for the internal order of a nation.
Much has been said of the absolutism of Louis XI., but the truth would be better consulted if we were to say that for the mixture of feudality and government by Estates, which had obtained in France since the reign of Philip the Fair, he substituted a new form of government which may be called a limited monarchy;8 a form which is as essentially different from the absolute as from the constitutional. The limited monarchy is different from the constitutional, inasmuch as in the latter the national assemblies, periodically 200 gathered, enjoy political rights, the exercise of which gives to the nation a share in the conduct of public affairs. The limited differs from the absolute monarchy, because it tolerates local liberties, such as provincial and municipal privileges, etc. A few of the acts of Louis XI. were violently despotic; but he can not be said to have established a despotic monarchy, for he found in the prerogatives of the parliament and in the national customs an impediment to the erection of the royal will into a supreme law. His excesses remained excesses, and not until the reign of Francis I. (1515-47) did France see the royal will become legality. During the reign of Louis XI. the progress of the Third Estate was constant, and that by the very nature of events. According as a greater number of capable men were formed in its bosom, its influence became more considerable, and the administration passed, to a great extent, into its hands. The policy of Louis XI. contributed greatly to this result: he diminished the power of the nobles, whom he did not love, and proportionably elevated the others. He augmented the liberties of the communes, and was the real King of the people.
1 M. d’Aurevilly says: “It is said that Montesquieu, at the time of his death, had the intention of writing the Life of Louis XI. Certainly it would have been more brilliant than the work of M. Legeay; it would have shown more style, and even more perception. It would have presented Montesquieu; but would it have better presented Louis XI? Would it have shown more historic reality? That is doubtful.” Cf. “Œuvres et Hommes,” vol. viii.
2 “Essai sur les Mœurs,” etc. See also letter to Linguet, June, 1776.
3 “Histoire de Louis XI.,” vol. ii, p. 297.
4 “Histoire de France,” ed. 1768, vol. xviii, p. 339.
5 “Histoire de France,” 4th ed., vol. vii, p. 135.
6 “L’Esprit dans l’Histoire,” 2d ed., p. 113.
7 Loc. cit., vol. ii, p. 514.
8 By a limited monarchy we understand one in which the national assemblies, convoked at long intervals, have neither their own will nor action, and meet only to sanction the projects of the ruler; one in which the head of the state possesses all the legislative and executive power, disposes of the public revenue without rendering any account, and can levy taxes at his own will. Poirson: “Précis de l’Histoire de France pendant les Temps Modernes.” Paris, 1840.