Louis XII (1462-1515) was king of France from 1498 to 1515. An ambitious and conspiratorial prince, he was later regarded as "good king Louis" and the "father of his people." His reign was remembered as a golden age of peace and repose.
The son of Charles, Duc d'Orléans, and Mary of Cleves, Louis XII was born on June 27, 1462. In 1465, when only 3 years old, Louis succeeded his father as Duc d' Orléans. Royal interference was to make the youth and early manhood of Louis d'Orléans a singularly unhappy one. In 1465 Louis XI appointed the chief councilors and servitors of the young duke and thereafter continued to keep a watch on the administration of the appanage. The king later married his daughter, Jeanne of France (a physically handicapped woman who was not expected to produce any heirs), to Louis.
By the time Louis was old enough to think about revenge, there were too few allies left him, so successful had Louis XI been in pacifying the aristocracy and repossessing the great appanages. So it was not until the accession of Charles VIII in 1483 that the duke had an opportunity to press his claims for a place in the government of the kingdom. The new king was young and inexperienced, and the dominant persons in his government were his older sister Anne and her husband, Pierre de Beaujeu. Louis tried to rally support from within the nobility and the royal administration itself for a rebellion against the guardians of the King. When support for this enterprise failed to materialize, he initiated intrigues with two old enemies of the monarchy, the Duke of Brittany and the son-in-law and political heir of the last Duke of Burgundy. The armed rising that he helped engineer against the Crown, the guerre folle of 1487-1488, ended disastrously with his capture. Louis spent 2 years in captivity, saved only by the fact that he was heir apparent to the throne. Then, in 1491, when Charles began to free himself from the domination of his sister and her husband, he arranged a reconciliation with the duke, and soon Louis began to enjoy the King's favor, as evidenced by the prominent part allotted him during Charles VIII's Italian invasion of 1494-1495.
The unexpected death of Charles VIII without male heirs in 1498 brought his cousin Louis d'Orléans to the throne as Louis XII. Louis secured a papal annulment of his marriage to Jeanne of France in December 1498. A month later he married Anne of Brittany, the widow of Charles VIII. This marriage helped prepare the way for a new invasion of Italy since it ensured that Brittany could not become a focus for intrigues against the monarchy. Like Charles VIII, Louis XII reorganized and reformed the royal administration, particularly that of justice, just before he descended upon Italy (1499) in search of conquest and glory.
In addition to the tenuous claim of Charles VIII to Naples, which Louis XII inherited, Louis himself had a family claim upon the duchy of Milan. Louis prepared the conquest of Milan by dissolving the League of Venice, the coalition that had expelled Charles VIII from Italy in 1495. This left Duke Lodovico Sforza of Milan isolated, and the French invasion of his duchy in 1499 was a complete success.
Louis then signed the secret Treaty of Granada (1500) with Ferdinand of Aragon, by which the two monarchs agreed to cooperate in the conquest of the kingdom of Naples and to divide it afterward. That conquest, too, was successful, but barely had the two allies installed themselves in their respective halves of the kingdom in 1502 when they began to quarrel. By 1503 disease and superior Spanish generalship had driven the French from Naples. Nine years later, in 1512, Louis XII was also driven from Milan. As in 1495, the expulsion of the French was achieved through a coalition, the Holy League of 1511, composed of Italian powers, led by the papacy, together with the Holy Roman emperor and Ferdinand of Aragon.
In 1513 the ambitious young ruler of England, Henry VIII, launched an invasion of France from Calais, while the Swiss, still smarting from earlier ill treatment at the hands of Louis XII, entered the service of the German emperor and launched another invasion of France from the east, gravely threatening Dijon and the whole province of Burgundy. Only because his enemies had no wish to push their aggression further was Louis XII able to negotiate settlements and escape without territorial sacrifices in France itself.
Of all the kings who ruled France in the late Middle Ages and the Renaissance, Louis XII is the most difficult to assess. This is largely owing to the lack of reliable contemporary documentation. Soon after his death, Louis XII was elevated by 16th-century historians and moralizing political theorists into an exemplar, a model of the "good king." But this idealized portrait is highly untrustworthy. At times he collected more annual revenue from his subjects than did the hated Louis XI (although it is likely that the realm was now wealthier), and in order to finance the Italian wars, Louis XII resorted to the sale of royal offices, an expedient that his successors were to enlarge upon and that had grave consequences for the future of the monarchy and for French society as a whole. His reputation as a good king was probably due more to the excesses of his immediate predecessors and successors, in comparison with whom he seemed especially beneficent, than to any unique attributes of his own.
It is not possible to determine how far Louis's policies were shaped by others and how far they were his own. Very soon after his accession he receded into the background of even his own government. As far as contemporaries could tell, foreign affairs, which were the most important matter for the King, were supervised by Georges d'Amboise, Archbishop of Rouen. Other domestic matters, especially the distribution of offices, pensions, and rewards, seem to have been very much influenced by the Queen, Anne of Brittany.
Assuring the royal succession was probably the most serious political problem for Louis XII. He and Anne had only one child, their daughter, Claudia. In 1514 Louis arranged the marriage of Claudia to Francis of Angoulême, a prince of the younger branch of the house of Orléans and heir apparent to the throne.
After Queen Anne died (1514), Louis XII remarried, partly in accord with the needs of his foreign policy and partly in the hope that he might yet have a son. The new queen was the sister of Henry VIII, Mary of England, a youthful beauty whose fast-paced life, contemporaries observed, wore down her aging and weakened husband. Louis XII died on the night of Jan. 1, 1515, less than 3 months after his remarriage. It is to his credit that he arranged the marriage of Francis of Angoulême to his daughter and that he associated his son-in-law with him in the government, for this assured the peaceful and undisturbed succession of Francis.
A detailed narrative of the reign of Louis, with an extensive bibliography, is J. S. C. Bridge, A History of France from the Death of Louis XI, 1483-1515, vols.3 and 4 (1929). Other prominent personalities of the reign have not received adequate biographical treatment. See also Marjory Bowen, Sundry Great Gentlemen: Some Essays in Historical Biography (1928), and M. R. Bolton, The Golden Porcupine (1947), a historical novel about Louis XII and his times.
Baumgartner, Frederic J., Louis XII, New York: St. Martin's Press, 1994.