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

The House of Valois—III.

Under Charles VIII. another wide possession came under the dominion of France. Hitherto the great province of Brittany had been ruled by its own dukes, but the land now fell to the Duchess Anne. She was married to Charles VIII., and in this way Brittany was joined to France. The chief event in the reign of Charles VIII. is the war in Italy. Up to this time the French had not been at war with any other great nation on the Continent. There had been fighting enough and to spare between the King and the great lords, and between France and England; but now Charles marched into Italy to seize the southern province of the two Sicilies.

At first he met with much success, and took Rome, and Naples, and other great cities; but before long the Italians turned against him, and he was forced to retreat. He was attacked as he retired, but he won the battle, and returned safely to France. He left some troops to guard the places he had won, but these were soon driven out of the country, and the French had gained nothing.

Charles intended to return to Italy, but he did not live to carry out his plans. One day he went to see a game of tennis played in the moat of the castle of Amboise where he was living. He had to pass through a low doorway, and he struck his head against the crown of the passage. The blow was so severe that within a few hours Charles died. He was only twenty-eight when he died, and as he had no son, he was succeeded by his cousin Louis, the Duke of Orleans, who was crowned as Louis XII.

Louis XII. was a kind-hearted ruler, who was friendly with his subjects, and during his reign there was peace in the land. He carried on wars, but they were in Italy, for, like his cousin, he dreamed of Italian conquests. In these wars he fought a number of battles, and took a number of cities, but France gained nothing by his exploits. In the end the French soldiers were driven out of Italy, after the wars had cost great sums of money and the lives of many brave men.

Among his other enemies, Louis XII. numbered Henry VIII. of England. Henry had only just come to the English throne, and was at that time a bold, warlike young prince. The English beat the French in 1514 at the famous Battle of Spurs, so called because the French made more use of their spurs to run away than of their swords to fight. After this battle Louis made peace with England, and married Princess Mary, the sister of Henry VIII.; but the marriage was soon ended by his death. At home Louis was much beloved by the French nation, for he was eager for their welfare, and wished to rule justly. He won the name of "Father of his People," and when he died in 1515 his subjects mourned for him deeply.

Louis XII. left no son, so the throne fell to his cousin, who became Francis I. Francis was a gay, handsome young man, fond of war, and loving pleasure. His reign covers a very important time in the history not only of France, but of Europe: the time of the Reformation. This is the name given to that movement by which the authority of the Pope of Rome was set aside in many parts of Europe. Many people had begun to question the teaching of the Church of Rome, and the doings of the Pope, the head of the Church. At last they began to speak against the evils that they saw, and chief among them was the famous German monk, Martin Luther.

Luther's anger flamed up very fiercely against the sale of Indulgences. Pope Leo X. needed money, and to obtain it he sent out men who sold pardons for sins; these were called Indulgences. Each pardon was in the form of a written and sealed letter. The pardoners who sold these papers assured the purchasers that they might obtain forgiveness for any sin they pleased, on purchasing the Indulgence which dealt with that particular crime. Luther began by assailing the Indulgences; he ended by attacking many other teachings that seemed wrong in his eyes, and he was joined by many followers who agreed with him. The name Protestant was given to these people because they protested against the evils they saw, and they were also called Reformers, because they wished to reform, to make better, the teaching of the Roman Catholic Church.

Before long the two parties were at bitter strife, and for many years, and in many lands, Protestants and Catholics battled together fiercely in the name of religion: nor was the warfare in France less bitter and dreadful than in other countries. But in the reign of Francis there was no great strife, though there was bitter persecution; and the worst blot on his memory is the manner in which he treated the Vaudois, a simple, hardworking people who lived among some quiet Alpine heights.

The Vaudois had long held reformed opinions, for many of them were sprung from Albigenses, who had fled from Languedoc hundreds of years before into these mountain villages to hide themselves. Francis was persuaded that these heretics, as their enemies called them, would do him some harm, and he ordered that they should be driven from the province. A terrible persecution followed. Troops were sent against the Vaudois, and their country was ravaged with fire and sword. Towns, villages, farmhouses were burned to the ground. The men were strangled, the women and children were burned. The crops were destroyed and the country laid waste, and no living creature was left save a few who fled to hiding in deep caverns and solitary places far amidst the hills.


The field of the cloth of gold

Francis himself took little interest in religious questions: the great aim of his life was to gain more power for himself, to rule wider lands, and be known as a famous warrior. In the early part of his reign he wished to be not only King of France, but Emperor of Germany, and there was a great struggle for the imperial crown between Francis and his great rival, Charles V. of Spain. Both Francis and Charles tried to win the support of Henry VIII. of England, and a meeting was arranged between Francis and Henry on French soil. They met, and such was the magnificence of the tents, the trappings, the dresses, and the armour worn by the Kings and their splendid trains, that the place became known as the Field of the Cloth of Gold. In the end Francis failed to gain the imperial crown. Charles was chosen Emperor, and for many years the quarrels between Charles and Francis led to great wars in France, Italy, and Germany.

Francis was a great patron of art and letters. At his splendid Court were found poets, artists, musicians, men of science, and his reign saw the Renaissance, the "New Birth," when learning and art woke from the long sleep of the Dark Ages, and the pen began once more to be mightier than the sword. He died in 1547 and with the accession of Henry II., France entered upon one of the darkest stages of her history.

During the next half-century the religious strife between Protestant and Catholic was to grow to a terrible height, to be marked by dreadful scenes of treachery, bloodshed, and cruelty, and the chief contriver of all the crime and misery which were to stain the annals of France was the new Queen, Catherine de Medici, wife of Henry II. Catherine was an Italian woman, daughter of a great Florentine family, and was one of the worst women of whom we can read in history. But while her husband lived her power was not great; it was after her sons came to the throne that her hand was felt in French affairs.

During the reign of Henry II. great numbers of French people came over to the side of the Reformers. As a rule they were followers of Calvin, a great French teacher, and they called themselves Calvinists. Henry was a Roman Catholic, and persecuted the Calvinists. Many of them were burned at the stake for their faith. An attempt was made to introduce the Inquisition into France, but it failed. Under the Inquisition, men called Familiars were sent to work their way into the confidence of the people and discover their religious beliefs. All Protestants were informed upon, and they were put to death and their goods seized. But the Parliament of France would have none of it, and France was saved from the horrors of the Inquisition, as these were known at that time in Spain and the Netherlands.

During the reign of this King the English lost their last town in France. A French commander heard that Calais was not well guarded, and he made a sudden assault on the place. He took it easily, to the great vexation of the English who had been very proud of holding a town on French soil. Queen Mary of England was so grieved at the loss that she said that when she died the name Calais would be found graven on her heart.

Henry II. came by his death in a strange manner. He was holding a great festival in honour of the marriage of his two daughters, and all kinds of sports were going on. Henry asked a Scottish gentleman to tilt with him. By an accident the Scottish knight drove his spear into the King's face, and the point entered Henry's eye. The wound was mortal, and in ten days he died.

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