Louis XI was king of France from 1461 to 1483. Louis XI’s reign ranks alongside those of the likes of Francis I and Henry IV  “Only Louis was really outstanding among the later Valois King’s” (Williams) By the time of his death, he had made a major impression on France. How?

Louis started the move down the road to royal absolutism. His greatest potential opponents in France at this time was the Burgundy family. By the time of his death he had destroyed this family and set the standards for other absolutist monarchs to build on – especially Francis I.

Louis had no scruples and believed that the ends justified the means and he was willing to do just about anything to achieve his goal. Above all else, he believed that a strong France was vitally important and that this could only be achieved by having a strong and unchallenged monarch. He had a four desires :

1 – a strong monarchy
2 – law and order in the kingdom
3 – good trade throughout the land and abroad
4 – a good reputation for France abroad.

He inherited a country in chaos after repeated English invasions and the nation was effectively dominated by the senior magnates. His father, Charles VII, had established the nucleus of a standing army and had improved the financial standing of the Crown by making Royal taxation permanent. Charles VII had built up a relationship with the senior magnates by decentralising government and handing out more power to the provinces. This was the opposite view to that held by Louis XI who wanted centralised royal authority with the nobility subservient to him.

As a result, in 1465 the nobility established the League of Public Good against Louis. This was led by Charles the Bold, Duke of Burgundy. The Burgundy family owned vast areas of land throughout France stretching from the Netherlands to the Swiss Alps. Although fighting seemed inevitable as the authority of the Crown was being obviously challenged, a stalemate took place with the Peace of Conflans which gave the nobility what they wanted which was essentially a desire to be left to rule their own lands as in the past and that a return to the status quo would occur.

It is probable that at this time Louis was incapable of fighting all of his opponents at the same time as his standing army was not strong enough nor did he have enough money to fund the use of mercenaries – or to increase size of his own army. The League melted away but it had served a very useful purpose: it had clearly shown Louis who were his enemies. 

He then broke promise after promise but rather than take on the nobility collectively he picked off one by one the weaker ones and as one fell he acquired their wealthy and used it to invest in his army to allow it to expand. By picking on the weaker ones first he could increase his power and build up his force until confronting the more powerful nobility. 

By 1470, Charles the Bold was so worried by the King’s success that he allied with the king of England who was himself fearful of a resurgent French monarchy. However, Louis knew about the power of money and bought off Edward IV in the Merchant’s Peace of Picquigny in 1475 when he was given a lump sum of 75,000 crowns with the promise of 50,000 crowns a year and the betrothal of Louis’s son to Edward’s daughter. 

After buying off Edward, Burgundy was next. Even Charles the Bold called Louis “the universal spider” – his ‘ web’ covered the whole of France like a spider and Louis was willing to wait and bide his time for the right moment. In 1474, 1476 and 1477 Burgundy was beaten by the Swiss who opposed his power near Swiss lands and Charles was killed at the last battle at Nancy in 1477. Thus, Charles had been removed without Louis doing anything.

He now made his first real mistake. Louis attacked Charles’ land and seemed intent on conquering it and putting himself into total authority of the region. Mary, daughter of Charles, quickly married Maximillian, the son of the Holy Roman Emperor. Now if Louis continued with his campaign he risked having to fight the might of the Emperor which he could not afford to do. In the Treaty of Arras of 1492, Louis got the Duchy of Burgundy and Picardy (all essentially in France), the Emperor got Flanders, Artois and Franche Comte while Guelderland, Utrecht, Liege and Lorraine got their independence.

A state that was to compete with the rest of Western Europe had to have an effective government system. Louis tackled this problem by appointing his own men to positions within the government and to the localities. However, these royal appointments were effectively outside of his control once they had reached their placements.

Communication was very difficult in such a large country and transport was difficult at the best of times and far more problematic during the winter months when the ‘roads’ cut up even more. Only Paris came under the total control of Louis and this city found it very difficult to over-rule royal orders.

One way of getting loyalty from the localities was to grant them privileges for loyalty and good behaviour. These could be very lucrative for individual towns and were similar to the charters given t that o towns in England. It was a far from subtle way of buying loyalty but it was symptomatic of the way Louis approached government – if he got what he needed then so be it. Towns that proved to be disloyal was severely punished as an example to others: this is what happened to Bourges and Rheims.

For years the nobility had effectively starved the Treasury of money. The full amount of taxes that the King could expect was never sent as accounting procedures were so poor that no one knew how much was owed and whether it had been paid. This is one reason why the standing army of Charles VII never expanded – he simply did not have the money to do so. Louis could not tolerate a system that allowed him to be ‘poor’ and the system of royal finance was overhauled. Money was raised by selling off offices (although this could have had a negative effect as you could not guarantee the quality of the office holder) and the system of tax collection was improved. This was just as well as Louis was a great spender of money.

In 1461 his income was 1 million livres. By 1483, the year of his death, the system had been so improved that his income was 3.9 million livres. But in that year he spent 2.7 million livres on his army alone.However, Louis would have considered this to be a good investment as a large army could be used to collect taxes even more effectively especially when the King decided to raise the taille to add even more money to raise income. Louis was also a massive briber of important people and it is said that his influence on the Holy Roman Empire was greater than that of the Emperor! Louis viewed bribes as an investment which could bring future benefits to France.

To aid his communication to the provinces, Louis attempted to set up a system of if post horses in 1464. This allowed him to send out written instructions which could not be misinterpreted and to receive written replies rather than rely on the memory of horsemen bringing back a verbal reply. However, this still did not get over the problem of France’s geographic enormity. Communication was still poor but this again shows the way the mind of Louis was working – seeking to modernise his state. To demonstrate the advance in French power, he ordered a display of French goods to be exhibited in London in 1470 and in the following year he established a Bureau of Mines to encourage prospecting. It was not successful but once again demonstrates the way his mind was working. He encouraged the creation of a fair at Lyons that was eventually to gain European fame as the leading fair in Europe. It was such a success that it was held four times a year instead of the traditional once like other fairs.

Wary of the growing power of the Pope in Rome, Louis signed the Concordat with Sixtus IV in 1472. This was a mutual understanding of each other’s interests. He had already abolished the Pragmatic Sanction (1438) in 1461 which had given the King of France superiority over the Pope’s political power. This was reversed by Louis and it is likely that this happened as he feared the power of the Emperor who was the temporal defender of the Catholic faith on Earth and who would be called on by the Pope to restore his power. By abolishing the Pragmatic, this was no longer a problem.


“Louis believed that everyone has his price; he was quick to strike off the head of an offending nobleman………. his native wit taught him that a statesman should be a good listener and greedy for information. That everybody of real importance should be known to him personally….. that he should exercise long sighted patience. In his aversion from bloodshed, in his preference for mercenaries and in his encouragement of Trade and Commerce he typifies a new type statesmanship.” (Fisher)


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