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.
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 on Louis XI
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 Biography Sources
Tyrrell, Joseph M., Louis XI, Boston: Twayne, 1980.