The Dauphin Charles was only thirteen years old when his father, Louis xi. , died, yet according to the law of the land he could have begun to reign at once. But the prince was delicate and ignorant, so for eight years his sister Anne ruled the kingdom of France for her young brother.
In 1483, when Anne began to govern France for the young king, Charles viii. , she was only twenty-two years of age. She was known as Madame la Grande, and soon showed that she was a wise and capable ruler as well as a true and noble lady.
The young king writhed under his sister's firm control, but he was unable to throw it aside. The nobles combined against her, but she went steadfastly on her way, reducing the taxes and giving offices of state to many of the great nobles, until they forgot their dislike to the government of Madame la Grande. She also set free many whom Louis had left in prison, and pleased every one by getting rid of the late king's favourites, among whom was the hated barber Olivier le Daim.
Anne had also an enemy in her sister's husband, Louis of Orleans. Being the next heir to the throne, he thought that he, rather than his cousin Anne, should be regent.
Annoyed by his boastful ways, and thinking, too, that Louis was more powerful than she liked, Madame la Grande tried to take him prisoner while he was staying in Paris. The duke, however, escaped, and joining Duke Francis of Brittany, began to invade France.
Anne, nowise dismayed, sent a large army against the invaders. In July 1488 a great battle was fought, in which the troops of the regent were victorious. The Duke of Orleans was captured and shut up in the tower of Bourges. To make him doubly secure the poor duke was locked up at night, in a cage.
About a month later Francis of Brittany died, leaving his duchy to his two daughters. The younger daughter died soon after her father, and Anne, the elder, was then left alone with her great inheritance.
Madame la Grande at once made up her mind that Charles should wed Anne, and thus unite Brittany to France.
But the dauphin, you remember, already had a little bride waiting for him. Princess Margaret, daughter of Maximilian and Mary of Burgundy, had been sent to France while Louis xi. was alive, that when she was old enough she might marry Charles.
Madame la Grande, however, meaning to have her own way, sent Princess Margaret back to Burgundy. Then in 1491 she had the joy of seeing her brother married to Anne of Brittany, and the greater joy of knowing that Brittany would no longer be a thorn in the crown of the French king
This was the last act of Madame la Grande as regent Charles was now more than ever restive under his sister's control, so, wise as ever, Anne laid aside the power she had used so well, and left the king to rule alone.
The king, without Madame la Grande to restrain him soon began to listen to those who urged him to go to war with Italy, to win back Naples, which the Spaniards had taken from the French.
Florence, too, distracted by the feuds among her princes turned to Charles for help, saying that if he would defend the liberties of the city God would uphold him.
It was a rash undertaking. Anne warned Charles not to go; his counsellors, for the most part, also foretold the danger of the expedition.
But the king had already found it pleasant to take his own way, and he made up his mind that he would go to Italy. "There was none save himself and two lesser folk who found it good," says an old writer.
In the summer of 1494 Charles set out with a gallant army for Italy.
Among all his troops there was no one who had been less educated than the king himself. His appearance, too, was against him, for he was "short and misshapen," while his face was so plain that the Italians were shocked at his ugliness.
Meanwhile the princes of Italy, quarrelling among themselves, were all unprepared for war with a foreign foe.
When they reached Italy, therefore, Charles and his army simply rode through the cities, meeting with little or no resistance.
The Pope looked on and remarked with scorn that the French king came "not with arms to conquer so much as with chalk to mark up his lodgings " in the different towns at which he stopped.
But wherever Charles went he had the proud air of a conqueror. His troops, too, were allowed to pillage the towns and be insolent to the citizens, so that the Italians grew indignant.
Thus in every village and town through which he passed Charles, all unconsciously, left behind him enemies.
As the French king approached the town of Pisa he was hailed with joy, for the citizens were tired of being ruled by Florence, and Charles had promised to deliver them from the yoke they hated.
While Charles stayed at Pisa, a deputation headed by the great friar Savonarola, whose story you must some day read, came to the king and greeted him as God's messenger to Florence.
Charles did not understand Savonarola's words, although he promised that Florence should enjoy his goodwill.
But after the French king had entered the beautiful city, imagine the dismay of the inhabitants when he proposed to recall the Medici, the very family the Florentines had banished from the city as traitors. He even wished to tax the city for having banished the tyrants.
The magistrates of Florence, however, compelled Charles to give up his plan of restoring the Medici, and not only so, but they forced him to say that he would restore the towns which he had taken from them.
As the Florentines promised to pay the king a large sum of money if he agreed to their demands, Charles did not hesitate. Pisa, whose liberties he had promised to guard, he then faithlessly forsook and gave back to the Florentines.
On New Year's Eve, 1494, Charles at length reached Rome, entering the city at night, by torchlight. Here as elsewhere the king behaved as though he had conquered-the city. But he was anxious to reach Naples, so he hastened on, to find that the King of Naples had fled on hearing of his approach, leaving the defence of his kingdom to his son Ferdinand ii.
Ferdinand was the only prince who opposed Charles on this expedition. He was, however, defeated, and early in 1495 Naples hailed the French king, as so many Italian cities had already done, as a deliverer.
But Charles was yet to suffer for his foolish way of treating the Italians in the cities and villages through which he had passed. For the Italians now rose to fight under their princes against the king who had treated them as a conquered people, and whose troops had plundered their homes.
Blessed by the Pope and aided by Spain and the Emperor Maximilian, whose daughter Margaret Charles had refused to marry, the Italian princes joined together to cut off the French army if it attempted to retreat to its own country.
Charles was in grave peril, and as soon as he heard of the force that was marching against him, he left Naples, and prepared to go home as quickly as possible.
Passing Rome, Charles reached Florence, to find the gates of the city shut against him by the great preacher Savonarola.
Onward still he marched, ordering all those soldiers who had been left to garrison the conquered towns again to join the army.
The Apennines were crossed in safety, but at Fomovo, in July 1495, Charles found the enemy who hoped to stay his homeward march.
But the French fought bravely and gained a great victory. It was at the battle of Fornovo that the famous knight Bayard, "sans peur et sans reproche," or, as we say, "without fear and without reproach," gained the notice of the king by his bravery.
In the thick of the fight two horses were killed beneath him, and although he was but twenty, he captured one of the enemy's banners, and presented it to Charles, who gave him five hundred crowns as a reward.
After the battle of Fornovo the Italian princes and their allies made peace with Charles, and he was able to hasten back to France, which he reached after the absence of little more than a year.
Naples had been left with only a small French garrison, so it was soon retaken by Ferdinand ii. Thus the great expedition to Italy had accomplished nothing.
Charles, however, was not greatly troubled. He spent his days going from town to town holding merry jousts, tilting in tournaments, and the history of the times tells us that he "thought of nothing else."
But after a time Charles grew strangely different, and a year or two before his death he began to "visit his realm up and down, leading a good and holy life and doing justice, so much so that his subjects were content therewith."
One day in April 1498 the king went to watch a game of tennis. As he passed through a low archway which led to the tennis-court, he struck his head against it, but seemed little hurt.
A few minutes later, however, he fell suddenly to the ground. Nine hours afterwards he died, being only twenty-eight years of age.
His people, touched by the kindness he had shown to them during the last two years of his life, mourned for him as for a friend.
Philip Comines, who was the great historian of his day, and whom Charles had had reason to treat with great severity, yet wrote of the king, "No man was ever so humane and gentle of speech. I think he never said a word to hurt any man's feelings."