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Medieval Sourcebook:
Philippe de Commynes: Portrait Of Louis XI (c. 1498)


Louis XI (reigned 1461-1483) was a successful promoter of the French monarchy. One of his officials -Philippe de Commynes (c. 1447-1511 ) wrote memoirs which are amount to a lively and valuable account of late fifteenth century France. Commynes had been raised at the court of Burgundy and served Charles the Bold, Louis' great enemy, until ithe found it useful to change sides. Commynes had a gift for detailed political and personal analysis. Here is his account o Louis XI, portrayed as a tyrannical, but in some respects, brilliant King.

The King bad ordered several cruel prisons to be made; some were cages of iron, and some of wood, but all were covered with iron plates both within and without, with terrible locks, about eight feet wide and seven high; the first contriver of them was the Bishop of Verdun, who was immediately put in the first of them that was made, where he continued fourteen years. Many bitter curses he has had since for his invention, and some from me as I lay in one of them eight months together in the minority of our present King. He also ordered heavy and terrible fetters to be made in Germany, and particularly a certain ring for the feet, which was extremely hard to be opened, and fitted like an iron collar, with a thick weighty chain, and a great globe of iron at the end of it, most unreasonably heavy, which engines were called the King's Nets. However, I have seen many eminent and deserving persons in these prisons, with these nets about their legs, who afterwards came forth with great joy and honour, and received great rewards from the King. Among the rest, a son of the Lord de la Crutuse, in Flanders (who was taken in battle), whom the king married very honourably afterwards, made him his chamberlain, and seneschal of Anjou, and gave him the command of a hundred lances. The Lord de Piennes, and the Lord de Vergy, both prisoners of war, also bad commands given them in his army, were made his or his son's chamberlains and bad great estates bestowed on them. Monsieur de Richebourg, the constable's brother, bad the same good fortune, as did also one Roquebertin, a Catalonian, likewise prisoner of war; besides others of various countries, too numerous to be mentioned in this place.

This by way of digression. But to return to my principal design. As in his time this barbarous variety of prisons was invented, so before be died he himself was in greater torment, and more terrible apprehension than those whom he had imprisoned; which I look upon as a great mercy towards him, and as part of his purgatory; and I have mentioned it here to show that there is no person, of what station or dignity soever, but suffers some time or other, either publicly or privately, especially if he has caused other people to suffer. The king, towards the latter end of his days, caused his castle of Plessis-les-Tours to be encompassed with great bars of iron in the form of thick grating, and at the four corners of the house four sparrow-nests of iron, strong, massy, and thick, were built. The grates were without the wall on the other side of the ditch, and sank to the bottom. Several spikes of iron were fastened into the wall, set as thick by one another as was possible, and each furnished with three or four points. He likewise placed ten bow-men in the ditches, to shoot at any man that durst approach the castle before the opening of the gates; and he ordered they should lie in the ditches, but retire to the sparrow-nests upon occasion. He was sensible enough that this fortification was too weak to keep out an army, or any great body of men, but he had no fear of such an attack; his great apprehension was, that some of the nobility of his kingdom, having intelligence within, might attempt to make themselves masters of the castle by night, and having possessed themselves partly of it by favour, and partly by force, might deprive him of the regal authority, and take upon themselves the administration of public affairs; upon pretence he was incapable of business, and no longer fit to govern.

The gate of the Plessis was never opened, nor the drawbridge let down, before eight o'clock in the morning, at which time the officers were let in; and the captains ordered their guards to their several posts, with pickets of archers in the middle of the court, as in a town upon the frontiers that is closely guarded: nor was any person admitted to enter except by the wicket and with the king's knowledge, unless it were the steward of his household, and such persons as were not admitted into the royal presence.

Is it possible then to keep a prince (with any regard to his quality) in a closer prison than he kept himself? The cages which were made for other people were about eight feet square; and be (though so great a monarch) bad but a small court of the castle to walk in, and seldom made use of that, but generally kept himself in the gallery, out of which he went into the chambers on his way to mass, but never passed through the court. Who can deny that he was a sufferer as well as his neighbours, considering bow be was locked up and guarded, afraid of his own children and relations, and changing every day those very servants whom he had brought up and advanced; and though they owed all their preferment to him, yet he durst not trust any of them, but shut himself up in those strange chains and enclosures. If the place where he confined himself was larger than a common prison, he also was much greater than common prisoners.

It may be urged that other princes have been more given to suspicion than he, but it was not in our time; and, perhaps, their wisdom was not so eminent, nor were their subjects so good. They might too, probably, have been tyrants, and bloody-minded; but our king never did any person a mischief who had not offended him first, though I do not say all who offended him deserved death. I have not recorded these things merely to represent our master as a suspicious and mistrustful prince; but to show, that by the patience which be expressed in his sufferings (like those which he inflicted on other people), they may be looked upon, in my judgment, as a punishment which our Lord inflicted upon him in this world, in order to deal more mercifully with him in the next, as well in regard to those things before-mentioned, as to the distempers of his body, which were great and painful, and much dreaded by him before they came upon him; and, likewise, that those princes who may be his successors, may learn by his example to be more tender and indulgent to their subjects, and less severe in their punishments than our master bad been: although I will not censure him, or say I ever saw a better prince; for though he oppressed his subjects himself, he would never see them injured by anybody else.

After so many fears, sorrows, and suspicions, God, by a kind of miracle, restored him both in body and mind, as is His divine method in such kind of wonders; for He took him out of this miserable world in perfect health of mind, and understanding, and memory; after having received the sacraments himself, discoursing without the least twinge or expression of pain, and repeating his paternosters to the very last moment of his life. He gave directions for his own burial, appointed who should attend his corpse to the grave, and declared that he desired to die on a Saturday of all days in the week; and that he hoped Our Lady would procure him that favour, for in her he had always placed great trust, and served her very devoutly. And so it happened; for he died on Saturday, the 3otb of August, 1483, at about eight in the evening, in the Castle of Plessis, where his illness seized him on the Monday before. May Our Lord receive his soul, and admit it unto His kingdom of Paradise!

Small hopes and comfort ought poor and inferior people to have in this world, considering what so great a king suffered and underwent, and how he was at last forced to leave all, and could not, with all his care and diligence, protract his life one single hour. I knew him, and was entertained in his service in the flower of his age, and at the height of his prosperity, yet I never saw him free from labour and care. Of all diversions be loved hunting and hawking in their seasons; but his chief delight was in dogs. As for ladies, he never meddled with any in my time; for about the time of my coming to his court he lost a son, at whose death be was extremely afflicted, and he made a vow to God in my presence never to have intercourse with any other woman but the queen; and though this was no more than what be was bound to do by the canons of the church, vet it was much that his self-command should be so great, that he should be able to persevere in his resolution so firmly, considering that the queen (though an excellent princess in other respects) was not a person in whom a man could take any great delight.

In hunting, his eagerness and pain were equal to his pleasure, for his chase was the stag, which he always ran down. He rose very early in the morning, rode sometimes a great distance, and would not leave his sport, let the weather be never so bad; and when he came home at night he was often very weary, and generally in a violent passion with some of his courtiers or huntsmen; for hunting is a sport not always to be managed according to the master's direction; yet, in the opinion of most people, he understood it as well as any prince of his time. He was continually at these sports, lodging in the country villages to which his recreations led him, till he A,as interrupted by business; for during the most part of the summer there was constantly war between him and Charles Duke of Burgundv, and in the winter they made truces.

He was also involved in some trouble about the county of Roussillon, with John, King of Aragon, father of Peter of Castile, who at present is King of Spain; for though both of them were poor, and already at variance with their subjects in Barcelona and elsewhere, and though the son had nothing but the expectation of succeeding to the throne of Don Henry of Castile, his wife's brother (which fell to him afterwards), yet they made considerable resistance; for that province being entirely devoted to their interest, and they being universally beloved by the people, they gave our king abundance of trouble, and the war lasted till his death, and many brave men lost their lives in it, and his treasury was exhausted by it; so that he bad but a little time during the whole year to spend in pleasure, and even then the fatigues he underwent were excessive. When his body was at rest his mind was at work, for he had affairs in several places at once, and would concern himself as much in those of his neighbours as in his own, putting officers of his own over all the great families, and endeavouring to divide their authority as much as possible. When he was at war he laboured for a peace or a truce, and when be had obtained it, he was impatient for war again. He troubled himself with many trifles in his government, which be bad better have let alone: but it was his temper, and he could not help it; besides, he had a prodigious memory, and be forgot nothing, but knew everybody, as well in other countries as in his own.

From The Memoirs of Philip de Commines, trans. and annotated by A. R. Scoble (London: G. Bell & Sons Ltd., 1884), II, 75-81


This text is part of the Internet Medieval Source Book. The Sourcebook is a collection of public domain and copy-permitted texts related to medieval and Byzantine history.

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(c)Paul Halsall Mar 1996
halsall@murray.fordham.edu