Louis the Politic and Charles the Bold
In the latter half of the fifteenth century Europe had two notable sovereigns, Louis XI. of France and Charles the Bold, or Charles the Rash, of Burgundy; the one famous in history for his intricate policy, the other for his lack of anything that could fairly be called policy. The relations between these two men ranged from open hostility to a peace of the most fragile character. The policy of Louis was of the kind that was as likely to get him into trouble as out of it. The rashness and headstrong temper of Charles were equally likely to bring trouble in their train. In all things the two formed a strongly contrasted pair, and their adjoining realms could hardly hope for lasting peace while these men lived.
The hand of Charles was ever on his sword. With him the blow quickly followed the word or the thought. The hand of Louis—"the universal spider," as his contemporaries named him—was ever on the web of intrigue which he had woven around him, feeling its filaments, and keeping himself in touch with every movement of his foes. He did not like war. That was too direct a means of gaining his ends. It was his delight to defeat his enemies by combinations of state policy, to play off one against another, and by incessant intrigue to gain those ends which other men gained by hard blows.
Yet it is possible for a schemer to overdo himself, for one who trusts to his plots and his policy to defeat himself by the very neatness and intricacy of his combinations, and so it proved on one occasion in the dealings between these two men. The incident which we propose to relate forms the subject of "Quentin Durward," one of the best-known novels by Sir Walter Scott, and is worth telling for itself without the allurements of romance.
"Louis had a great idea of the influence he gained over people by his wits and his language," says one of his biographers. "He was always convinced that people never said what ought to be said, and that they did not set to work the right way." He liked to owe success to himself alone, and had an inordinate opinion of his power both of convincing and of deceiving people. In consequence, during one of his periods of strained relations with Charles of Burgundy, which his agents found it impossible to settle, this royal schemer determined to visit Charles in person, and try the effect on his opponent of the powers of persuasion of which he was so proud.
It was as rash a project as Charles himself could have been guilty of. The fox was about to trust himself in the den of the angry lion. But Louis persisted, despite the persuasions of his councillors, sent to Charles for a letter of safe-conduct, and under its assurance sought the Duke of Burgundy in his fortified town of Péronne, having with him as escort only fourscore of his Scotch guard and sixty men-at-arms.
It was a mad movement, and led to consequences of which Louis had not dreamed. Charles received him civily enough. Between rash duke and politic king there was every show of amity. But the negotiations went on no more rapidly now than they had done before. And soon came news which proved that Louis the schemer had, for once at least, played the fool, and put himself in a position of the utmost danger.
The policy of the royal spider had been stretched too far. His webs of plot had unluckily crossed. In truth, shortly before coming to Péronne, he had sent two secret agents to the town of Liége, to stir the unruly citizens up to rebellion against the duke. Quite forgetting this trifle of treachery, the too-hasty plotter had sought the duke's stronghold with the hope of placating him with well-concocted lies and a smooth tongue. Unluckily for him, his agents did not forget their orders.
The Liégoise broke out into rebellion, under the insidious advice of the French king's agents, advanced and took the town of Tongres, killed some few people, and made prisoner there the bishop of Liége and the lord of Humbercourt. The fugitives who brought this news to Péronne made the matter even worse than this, reporting that the bishop and lord had probably been killed. Charles believed them, and broke into a fury that augured badly for his guest.
"So the king came here only to deceive me!" he burst out. "It is he who by his ambassadors excited these bad folks of Liége! By St. George, they shall be severely punished for it, and he himself shall have cause to repent."
The measures taken by the incensed duke were certainly threatening. The gates of the town and castle were closed and guarded by archers. Louis was to all intents and purposes a prisoner, though the duke, a little ashamed, perhaps, of his action, affirmed that his purpose was to recover a box of gold and jewels that had been stolen from him.
The den of the lion had closed on the fox. Now was the time for the fox to show his boasted wit, for his position was one of danger. That rash-headed Duke of Burgundy was never the man to be played with, and in his rage was as perilous as dynamite. It was, in truth, an occasion fitted to draw out all the quickness and shrewdness of mind of Louis, those faculties on which he prided himself! To gain friends in the castle he bribed the household of the duke. As for himself he remained quiet and apparently easy and unsuspicious, while alertly watchful to avail himself of any opportunity to escape from the trap into which he had brought himself. During the two days that succeeded, the rage of Charles cooled somewhat. Louis had offered to swear a peace, to aid Charles in punishing the Liégoise for their rebellion, and to leave hostages for his good faith. This the angry duke at first would not listen to. He talked of keeping Louis a prisoner, and sending for Prince Charles, his brother, to take on himself the government of France. The messenger was ready for this errand; his horse in the court-yard; the letters written. But the duke's councillors begged him to reflect. Louis had come under his safe-conduct. His honor was involved. Such an act would be an eternal reproach to Burgundy. Charles did reflect, and slowly began to relent. He had heard again from Liége. The affair was not so bad as he had been told. The bishop and lord had been set free. The violent storm in the duke's mind began to subside.
Early in the next day the irate duke entered the chamber of the castle in which he held his royal guest a prisoner. The storm had fallen, but the waves still ran high. There was courtesy in his looks, but his voice trembled with anger. The words that came from his lips were brief and bitter; there was threat in his manner; Louis looked at him with more confidence than he felt.
"Brother," he said, "I am safe, am I not, in your house and your country?"
"Yes," answered the duke, with an effort at self-repression; "so safe that if I saw an arrow from a bow coming towards you I would throw myself in the way to protect you. But will you not be pleased to swear to the treaty just as it is written?"
"Yes, and I thank you for your good-will," said Louis, heartily.
"And will you not be pleased to come with me to Liége to help me punish the treason committed against me by these Liégoise, all through you and your journey hither? The bishop is your near relative of the house of Bourbon."
"Yes, Pâques-Dieu!" replied Louis; "and I am much astounded by their wickedness. But let us begin by swearing this treaty; and then I will start with as many or as few of my people as you please."
"My brother, the fox, is over-willing," may have been the thought that passed through the duke's mind. "He is ready to lose his foot to get his body out of the trap."
But whatever his thoughts, in action he took prompt measures to bind the slippery king to his promise. From Louis's boxes was produced the cross of St. Laud, claimed to be made of the wood of the true cross, and so named because it was usually kept in the church of St. Laud, at Angers. It was said to have belonged to Charlemagne, and Louis regarded it as the most sacred of relics. On this the king swore to observe the treaty, though it contained clauses to which he would not have assented under other circumstances. The document was immediately signed. Louis, for the first moment since learning of his almost fatal blunder, breathed at ease. As for the second part of his promise, that of helping Charles to punish the townsmen whom he had himself stirred to rebellion, it little troubled his conscience—if he possessed any sentiment that could properly be denominated by this name.
On the day after the signing of the treaty the two princes set out together. Charles was followed by his army, Louis by his modest body-guard, which had been augmented by three hundred men-at-arms, just arrived from France. On the 27th of October [1468) ?> they arrived at the rebellious city. There seemed no trouble to get into it. No wall or ditch surrounded it. The duke had previously deprived it of these obstacles to his armies. But an obstacle remained in the people, who could not easily be brought to believe that the king of France and the Duke of Burgundy, those fire-and water-like potentates, were true allies. The thing seemed impossible. Louis was their friend, and would certainly strike for them. They made a sortie from the city, shouting, "Hurrah for the king! Hurrah for France!"
To their consternation, they saw Louis and Duke Charles together at the head of the advancing army, the king wearing in his hat the cross of St. Andrew of Burgundy, his false voice shouting "Hurrah for Burgundy!"
The surprise of the Liégoise was shared by many of the French, whose sense of national honor was shocked to see so utter a lack of pride and so open a display of treachery in their monarch. They had not deemed his boasted policy capable of such baseness. Louis afterwards excused himself with the remark, "When pride rides before, shame and hurt follow close after," a saying very pretty as a politic apothegm, but not likely to soothe the wounded pride of France.
The treachery of Louis roused a different feeling in the hearts of the Liégoise,—that of indignation. They determined to defend their city, despite its lack of ramparts, and met the advancing army with such spirit that it was obliged to convert its assault into a siege. Night after night the Burgundian army was troubled by the bold sorties of the citizens. In one of these the duke and king both were in danger of capture. At ten o'clock, one night, about six hundred well-armed men made a sudden assault upon the duke's quarters. They were ill-defended. Charles was in bed. Only twelve archers were on guard, and these were playing at dice. The assault came with startling suddenness. The archers seized their arms, but had great difficulty in defending the door-way. Charles hastened to put on breast-plate and helmet and to join them. But only the opportune arrival of aid saved him from being seized in the midst of his army.
Louis ran a similar danger. His quarters had simultaneously been attacked. Luckily for him, his Scotch guardsmen were more ready than those of Burgundy. They repulsed the attack, with little heed whether their arrows killed hostile Liégoise or friendly Burgundians. As for the assailants, they found it easier to get into the French camp than out of it. They were killed almost to a man.
On the next day the duke and his councillors determined on an assault. The king was not present, and when he heard of it he did not favor the plan.
"You have seen the courage of these people," he remarked. "You know how murderous and uncertain is street-fighting. You will lose many brave men to no purpose. Wait two or three days, and the Liégoise will certainly come to terms."
Most of the Burgundian captains were of the same opinion. The duke, whose rash spirit could ill brook opposition, grew angry.
"He wishes to spare the Liégoise," he angrily exclaimed. "What danger is there in this assault? There are no walls; they cannot put a single gun in position; I certainly will not give up the assault. If the king is afraid, let him get him gone to Namur."
This insult to the king, which shocked the Burgundians themselves, was repeated to him, and received in silence. He had made up his mind to drain the cup of humiliation to the dregs. The next day, October 30, the assault was made, Charles at the head of his troops. Louis came up to join him.
"Bide your time," said Charles. "Put not yourself uselessly in danger. I will send you word when it is time."
"Lead on, brother," answered Louis. "You are the most fortunate prince alive; I will follow you."
On they marched—into, as it proved, an undefended city. The Liégoise had been discouraged by the fall of many of their bravest men. It was Sunday; no attack was looked for; "the cloth was laid in every house, and all were preparing for dinner"; the Burgundians moved through empty streets, Louis following with his own escort, and shouting, "Hurrah for Burgundy!"
By mid-day the vengeance of Charles was complete; the town had been pillaged; there was nothing left to take in house or church; many a floor was stained with blood; Liége for the time was ruined.
As for the arch-deceiver to whom all this was due, he completed his work of baseness by loading the duke with praises, his tone and manner so courteous and amiable that Charles lost the last shreds of his recent anger.
"Brother," said the king the next day, "if you still need my help, do not spare me. But if you have nothing more for me to do, it would be well for me to go back to Paris, to make public in my court of parliament the arrangement we have come to together; otherwise it would risk becoming of no avail. You know that such is the custom of France. Next summer we must meet again. You will come into your duchy of Burgundy, and I will go and pay you a visit, and we will pass a week joyously together in making good cheer."
It may be that this smooth speech was accompanied by a mental commentary,—"Let me once get from under your claws, my playful tiger, and I will not be fool enough to put myself back there again,"—but if so nothing of the kind appeared on his face.
Charles made no answer. He sent for the treaty, and left it to the king to confirm or renounce it, as he would. Louis expressed himself as fully satisfied with its terms, and on the next day, November 2, set out on his return to France. Charles kept him company for some distance. On parting, the king said,—
"If my brother Charles, who is in Brittany, should not be content with the assignment which I, for love of you, have made him, what would you have me do?"
"If he do not please to take it, but would have you otherwise satisfy him, I leave that to the two of you to settle," said Charles.
With these words he turned back, leaving Louis to pursue his way free once more, "after having passed the most trying three weeks of his life."
That the fox kept faith with the lion, or the lion with the fox, is not to be looked for. New disputes broke out, new battles were fought,—not now in alliance,—and the happiest day in the life of Louis XI. was that in which he heard that Charles of Burgundy, the constant thorn in his chaplet, had fallen on the fatal field of Nancy, and that France was freed from the threatening presence of the bold and passionate duke.