Gateway to the Classics: Peeps at History: France by John Finnemore
Peeps at History: France by  John Finnemore

The House of Valois—II.

Another Charles now came to the throne, Charles VI., called Charles the Well-Beloved, because of his amiable disposition. But this unhappy King spent most of his life under the dark shadow of madness, and his reign was filled with such disorder and strife that France has scarcely known a time of greater misery. Charles was only eleven years old when he was crowned, and his uncles ruled on his behalf. They proved cruel tyrants, who laid such heavy taxes on the people that rebellion sprang up on all sides, and there were great disturbances in Paris and other parts of France.

When Charles had been twelve years on the throne, he marched to Brittany to punish a great noble who had been doing very evil deeds. On his way, he and his followers were passing through a deep forest, when a huge, wild-looking man, scarce half-clad, leapt from a thicket and seized the King's horse by the bridle. "O King, go no farther," he cried; "you are betrayed!" Then he bounded back into the thicket and was lost to sight.

For some time the King rode on, not speaking a word or glancing up. Then there was a sharp clash of steel. It was but a trifling matter. The King's squires were riding behind him. The lance of one happened by accident to strike against the helmet of another. But the ringing sound seemed to startle the King, and he trembled from head to foot. He took it for the first sound of assault. "I am betrayed!" he screamed, and drove his horse furiously among his friends, and struck such fierce blows with his sword that some were killed, while the rest fled in terror. When the latter came back, they found the King stretched on the ground in a deep sleep, as of one thoroughly worn out. They watched beside him, but he awoke a madman, and so he remained for the rest of his life.


The maid of Orleans

For many years there was a bitter quarrel as to who should hold the reins of office on behalf of the poor mad King. One party wished the King's uncle, the Duke of Burgundy, to rule; another party supported his brother, the Duke of Orleans.

First the Duke of Orleans was murdered, and then the Duke of Burgundy was slain by the Orleans party. The latter party was joined by the Dauphin, the eldest son of the King, and the struggle of these factions caused great distress in the country. It was at this time that the Hundred Years' War was renewed. Henry V. of England saw that France was weakened by civil war, and he crossed the Channel to seize, if possible, the French crown.

A powerful army, six times as strong as the English force, was gathered to meet Henry, but he overthrew the French with terrible slaughter at the great battle of Agincourt in 1415. Henry now found that the French resistance was broken down, and he became master of the North of France. Tired of war, first among themselves and then against the English, the French gave up the struggle. It was agreed by the Treaty of Troyes in 1420 that Henry V. should marry Catherine, daughter of the King of France, and that Henry should succeed to the French crown. Henry entered Paris in triumph, and ruled for a short time as Regent on behalf of Charles.

But the Dauphin was very angry with this treaty because it robbed him of his birthright, his father's crown. So he and his friends kept up the war with the English, and it was going on when Henry V. died in 1422. In a short time the poor mad King of France died too, and now the country had to choose whom they would have as King.

Henry V. had left a baby son, a year old, who became Henry VI. of England. According to the Treaty of Troyes he should have been King of France as well, but many Frenchmen declared for their own Prince, the Dauphin Charles, and said he was now Charles VII. Years of fighting followed, and the state of the country became more and yet more miserable. Suddenly the fortunes of France were changed as if by a miracle. There came to the Court of Charles a little peasant girl, the ever-famous Joan of Arc. She told him that she had seen a vision from heaven, which bade her go and save her country. She begged Charles to give her a body of troops to lead against the English, and at last he believed her, and did all that she wished.

At that time the English were about to seize Orleans, the second town in the kingdom, and Joan marched thither. Clad in shining armour, mounted on a fine war-horse, and bearing a banner in her hand, she led her men against the foe. The French soldiers put great faith in her, and they fought so well that the English were driven away, and the town was saved. After that Joan was often called the "Maid of Orleans." Up to this moment Charles of France had not been crowned, for Rheims, the city where the French Kings were crowned, was in the hands of the enemy. Winning victories on her way, the Maid marched against Rheims, and entered it in triumph. Next day Charles was crowned in the Cathedral, and Joan of Arc stood beside the high altar, her white banner in her hand.


Raising the siege of Orleans.

She felt now that her work was done, and she begged that the King would allow her to go home. But Charles would not grant this. He said that his soldiers would not fight so well if she were not there to lead them. From this time Joan won no great success, and before long she was taken prisoner by one of her own countrymen who was no friend to Charles. This Frenchman sold her to the English for a large sum, and she was put upon her trial as a sorceress, for it was said that she could only have won her marvellous victories by witchcraft. To the eternal disgrace of the enemies who Condemned her, and of the friends who did naught to save her, the heroic Maid of Orleans was burned alive at Rouen in 1431. Yet it was soon seen that her work was done. A new spirit had been aroused in the French, and the English seemed no longer to fight with their old stubborn endurance. Little by little the latter were driven back, until nothing remained to them of their French conquests save the town of Calais, and the Hundred Years' War was at an end.

Towards the end of his reign, Charles VII. had much trouble with his eldest son, the Dauphin Louis. Louis joined some great lords in making an attack on his father, and in the end left France and fled to the Court of Burgundy, where he was well received. Charles wished Louis to return, but the Dauphin would not come. Then the mind of Charles became filled with the idea that the friends of Louis wished to poison him. He refused to eat or drink, and in a short time he starved himself to death. He died in 1461.

Louis at once came back from Burgundy, and was crowned as Louis XI. He proved to be the slyest and craftiest King that ever ruled in France. He was cold and cunning and cruel. If he wished for a thing he never went in a straightforward way to get it; he tried always to obtain it by means of a trick. No one could believe him, and he never believed anyone. He had two great aims in ruling France—one was to lessen the power of the nobles, the other was to enlarge his borders.

When he tried to curb the power of his nobles, they rose against him, and held their own for a time. But though he was worsted in the open field, Louis gained his end at last. He had no love of war, and trusted much more to his powers of double dealing and cunning than to the sword. One by one he mastered the great nobles; some he crushed, some he won over by smooth promises, and against one great vassal all his powers were bent. This was Charles the Bold, Duke of Burgundy.

Burgundy was a great province in the east of France, and its lord, though in name a vassal and servant of the crown of France, was as powerful and perhaps more powerful than Louis himself. For the Duke of Burgundy ruled over the Low Countries with their busy towns, and his broad lands and wealthy cities made him the richest prince in Europe. Charles the Bold was a rash, headstrong man, never happy save when assailing his enemies, and of these enemies he accounted his crafty liege lord the chief.


Charles the Bold charging at the head of his troops.

There was much bickering between Louis and Charles, and now one held the upper hand, now the other. In the end Charles was killed in battle with the Swiss, and his great power fell to pieces. Louis seized upon the great province of Burgundy, and added it to France, and in other directions he became master of Provence and Anjou.

With all his cunning, his falseness, and his cruelty, Louis pretended a great love of religion. He fixed little leaden images of saints in the band of the shabby old hat he wore, for the miserly King clad himself in mean and threadbare garments. He robbed his people to make the churches fine; he went on long pilgrimages and gathered relics; he made long prayers; and was the first Monarch of France to bear the title of "Most Christian King."

As he grew older his suspicion of all around him grew stronger and stronger. He shut himself up in a gloomy old castle, and the warders were ordered to shoot down all who came near without permission. In the wood around the castle hundreds of man-traps were set to catch any trespassing near the walls, and passers-by who could not give a clear account of themselves were seized by his hangmen and strung up to the branches of the forest trees, or drowned in the moat. At last he died in the year 1483, and his son Charles VIII, came to the throne.

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