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Ch. 3: The Struggle With Burgundy

1. Power of Burgundy.--All the troubles of France, for the last 80 years, had gone to increase the strength of the Dukes of Burgundy. The county and duchy, of which Dijon was the capital, lay in the most fertile district of France, and had, as we have seen, been conferred on Philip the Bold. His marriage had given to him Flanders, with a gallant nobility, and with the chief manufacturing cities of Northern Europe. Philip's son, John the Fearless, had married a lady who ultimately brought into the family the great imperial counties of Holland and Zealand; and her son, Duke Philip the Good, by purchase or inheritance, obtained possession of all the adjoining little fiefs forming the country called the Netherlands, some belonging to the Empire, some to France. Philip had turned the scale in the struggle between England and France, and, as his reward, had won the cities on the Somme. He had thus become the richest and most powerful prince in Europe, and seemed on the point of founding a middle state lying between France and Germany, his weak point being that the imperial fiefs in Lorraine and Elsass lay between his dukedom of Burgundy and his counties in the Netherlands. No European court equalled in splendour that of Philip. The great cities of Ghent, Bruges, Antwerp, and the rest, though full of fierce and resolute men, paid him dues enough to make him the richest of princes, and the Flemish knights were among the boldest in Europe. All the arts of life, above all painting and domestic architecture, nourished at Brussels; and nowhere were troops so well equipped, burghers more prosperous, learning more widespread, than in his domains. Here, too, were the most ceremonious courtesy, the most splendid banquets, and the most wonderful display of jewels, plate, and cloth-of-gold. Charles VII., a clever though a cold-hearted, indolent man, let Philip alone, already seeing how the game would go for the future; for when the dauphin had quarrelled with the reigning favourite, and was kindly received on his flight to Burgundy, the old king sneered, saying that the duke was fostering the fox who would steal his chickens.

2. Louis XI.'s Policy.--Louis XI. succeeded his father Charles in 1461. He was a man of great skill and craft, with an iron will, and subtle though pitiless nature, who knew in what the greatness of a king consisted, and worked out his ends mercilessly and unscrupulously. The old feudal dukes and counts had all passed away, except the Duke of Brittany; but the Dukes of Orleans, Burgundy, and Anjou held princely appanages, and there was a turbulent nobility who had grown up during the wars, foreign and civil, and been encouraged by the favouritism of Charles VI. All these, feeling that Louis was their natural foe, united against him in what was called the "League of the Public Good," with his own brother, the Duke of Berry, and Count Charles of Charolais, who was known as Charles the Bold, the son of Duke Philip of Burgundy, at their head. Louis was actually defeated by Charles of Charolais in the battle of Montlhéry; but he contrived so cleverly to break up the league, by promises to each member and by sowing dissension among them, that he ended by becoming more powerful than before.

3. Charles the Bold.--On the death of Philip the Good, in 1467, Charles the Bold succeeded to the duchy of Burgundy. He pursued more ardently the plan of forming a new kingdom of Burgundy, and had even hopes of being chosen Emperor. First, however, he had to consolidate his dominions, by making himself master of the countries which parted Burgundy from the Netherlands. With this view he obtained Elsass in pledge from its owner, a needy son of the house of Austria, who was never likely to redeem it. Lorraine had been inherited by Yolande, the wife of René, Duke of Anjou and titular King of Sicily, and had passed from her to her daughter, who had married the nearest heir in the male line, the Count of Vaudémont; but Charles the Bold unjustly seized the dukedom, driving out the lawful heir, René de Vaudémont, son of this marriage. Louis, meantime, was on the watch for every error of Charles, and constantly sowing dangers in his path. Sometimes his mines exploded too soon, as when he had actually put himself into Charles's power by visiting him at Peronne at the very moment when his emissaries had encouraged the city of Liège to rise in revolt against their bishop, an ally of the duke; and he only bought his freedom by profuse promises, and by aiding Charles in a most savage destruction of Liège. But after this his caution prevailed. He gave secret support to the adherents of René de Vaudémont, and intrigued with the Swiss, who were often at issue with the Burgundian bailiffs and soldiery in Elsass--greedy, reckless men, from whom the men of Elsass revolted in favour of their former Austrian lord. Meantime Edward IV. of England, Charles's brother-in-law, had planned with him an invasion of France and division of the kingdom, and in 1475 actually crossed the sea with a splendid host; but while Charles was prevented from joining him by the siege of Neuss, a city in alliance with Sigismund of Austria, Louis met Edward on the bridge of Pecquigny, and by cajolery, bribery, and accusations of Charles, contrived to persuade him to carry home his army without striking a blow. That meeting was a curious one. A wooden barrier, like a wild beast's cage, was erected in the middle of the bridge, through which the two kings kissed one another. Edward was the tallest and handsomest man present, and splendidly attired. Louis was small and mean-looking, and clad in an old blue suit, with a hat decorated with little leaden images of the saints, but his smooth tongue quite overcame the duller intellect of Edward; and in the mean time the English soldiers were feasted and allowed their full swing, the French being strictly watched to prevent all quarrels. So skilfully did Louis manage, that Edward consented to make peace and return home.

4. The Fall of Charles the Bold (1477).--Charles had become entangled in many difficulties. He was a harsh, stern man, much disliked; and his governors in Elsass were fierce, violent men, who used every pretext for preying upon travellers. The Governor of Breisach, Hagenbach, had been put to death in a popular rising, aided by the Swiss of Berne, in 1474; and the men of Elsass themselves raised part of the sum for which the country had been pledged, and revolted against Charles. The Swiss were incited by Louis to join them; René of Lorraine made common cause with them. In two great battles, Granson and Morat, Charles and all his chivalry were beaten by the Swiss pikemen; but he pushed on the war. Nancy, the chief city of Lorraine, had risen against him, and he besieged it. On the night of the 5th of January, 1477, René led the Swiss to relieve the town by falling in early morning on the besiegers' camp. There was a terrible fight; the Burgundians were routed, and after long search the corpse of Duke Charles was found in a frozen pool, stripped, plundered, and covered with blood. He was the last of the male line of Burgundy, and its great possessions broke up with his death. His only child, Marie, did not inherit the French dukedom nor the county, though most of the fiefs in the Low Countries, which could descend to the female line, were her undisputed portion. Louis tried, by stirring up her subjects, to force her into a marriage with his son Charles; but she threw herself on the protection of the house of Austria, and marrying Maximilian, son of the Emperor Frederick III., carried her border lands to swell the power of his family.

5. Louis's Home Government.--Louis's system of repression of the nobles went on all this time. His counsellors were of low birth (Oliver le Daim, his barber, was the man he most trusted), his habits frugal, his manners reserved and ironical; he was dreaded, hated, and distrusted, and he became constantly more bitter, suspicious, and merciless. Those who fell under his displeasure were imprisoned in iron cages, or put to death; and the more turbulent families, such as the house of Armagnac, were treated with frightful severity. But his was not wanton violence. He acted on a regular system of depressing the lawless nobility and increasing the royal authority, by bringing the power of the cities forward, by trusting for protection to the standing army, chiefly of hired Scots, Swiss, and Italians, and by saving money. By this means he was able to purchase the counties of Roussillon and Perpignan from the King of Aragon, thus making the Pyrenees his frontier, and on several occasions he made his treasury fight his battles instead of the swords of his knights. He lived in the castle of Plessis les Tours, guarded by the utmost art of fortification, and filled with hired Scottish archers of his guard, whom he preferred as defenders to his own nobles. He was exceedingly unpopular with his nobles; but the statesman and historian, Philip de Comines, who had gone over to him from Charles of Burgundy, viewed him as the best and ablest of kings. He did much to promote trade and manufacture, improved the cities, fostered the university, and was in truth the first king since Philip Augustus who had any real sense of statesmanship. But though the burghers throve under him, and the lawless nobles were depressed, the state of the peasants was not improved; feudal rights pressed heavily on them, and they were little better than savages, ground down by burthens imposed by their lords.

6. Provence and Brittany.--Louis had added much to the French monarchy. He had won back Artois; he had seized the duchy and county of Burgundy; he had bought Roussillon. His last acquisition was the county of Provence. The second Angevin family, beginning with Louis, the son of King John, had never succeeded in gaining a footing in Naples, though they bore the royal title. They held, however, the imperial fief of Provence, and Louis XI., whose mother had been of this family, obtained from her two brothers, René and Charles, that Provence should be bequeathed to him instead of passing to René's grandson, the Duke of Lorraine. The Kings of France were thenceforth Counts of Provence; and though the county was not viewed as part of the kingdom, it was practically one with it. A yet greater acquisition was made soon after Louis's death in 1483. The great Celtic duchy of Brittany fell to a female, Anne of Brittany, and the address of Louis's daughter, the Lady of Beaujeu, who was regent of the realm, prevailed to secure the hand of the heiress for her brother, Charles VIII. Thus the crown of France had by purchase, conquest, or inheritance, obtained all the great feudal states that made up the country between the English Channel and the Pyrenees; but each still remained a separate state, with different laws and customs, and a separate parliament in each to register laws, and to act as a court of justice.


Charlotte M. Yonge

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