France: The End of the Hundred Years' War—The Reign of Louis XI
A T the beginning of the fifteenth century France was in a pitiable state. The horrors of the Civil War (see Chapter XXIX), the crimes it had induced, seemed to have crushed out all national spirit. So much so was this that the noxious Treaty of Troyes aroused little opposition. Few realized the national humiliation it involved, and at first it was received almost everywhere with something like satisfaction. Yet from the degradation of the Treaty of Troyes and its consequences France was to awake to true nationality.
In 1422 two kings held sway over France. In Paris, John Duke of Bedford ruled in the name of his baby nephew, Henry VI of England. At Bourges Charles VII of France established himself. The latter seemed far the weaker of the two. Only a small portion of France in the valley of the Loire was true to him, his army consisted chiefly of foreign hired troops, and the English contemptuously called him king of Bourges. They feared him not at all, but they determined to wrest from him all that he had, and they laid siege to Orleans.
Charles was vacillating and weak, and while Orleans struggled in the toils of the foe he idled uncertainly at the castle of Chinon. But now at length France found its soul as a nation. Patriotism awoke. A few years before one part of France had not greatly cared if another part had been devasted. One town had not greatly cared if another was besieged. Now Orleans was besieged, and all France cared, under the yoke of the foreigner although it was. The people of France cared, and in their cottages the peasants wept for the sorrows of their king and country, and armed only with their scythes and axes, they rose against the hated foreigner.
Joan of Arc
In the village of Domremy on the borders of Burgundy and Lorraine, there lived a simple peasant girl named Joan of Arc. All her short life she had heard of war and disaster, of divisions among the nobles, of invasion by a foreign foe. Now she heard how the rightful king of France was an outcast in his kingdom, denied his just inheritance by that foe.
She thought and dreamed of all these things, until at length she seemed to hear the voices of the saints calling her to go forth to save her country and her king. At first she feared to listen to these voices. Then, greatly daring, she determined to obey what seemed to her a heaven-sent command.
So she set forth on the long and perilous journey across the war-ridden land. God protected her and she reached the castle of Chinon in safety. She found it hard at first to make the king believe in her mission; but she was so filled with holy enthusiasm and devotion that none who came in contact with her could long remain unbelieving. Joan of Arc therefore was accepted as a soldier and a leader, and set forth for Orleans.
All that the awakened patriotism of France required was a leader who could command unquestioning obedience and direct its disunited efforts. Only a miracle was needed, and the miracle happened. Under the leadership of a girl of eighteen the undisciplined herd of nobles and their followers became a fighting machine. Men brutalized by long warfare became gentle as doves and fierce as lions. They swore no more, but they fought as if inspired. Before long Orleans was relieved, Charles VII was crowned at Reims, and the Maid's work was done. But she was not allowed to go back, to her peaceful village life as she desired, and in May of 1430 she fell into the hands of the enemy. By them she was cruelly burned as a witch.
This brutal act availed them nothing. The English and their Burgundian allies might kill the Maid, they could not kill her glorious work. For little more than a year only she had led France, but she had led it successfully to nationality and victory. The English cause was dead from the moment Joan of Arc carried her white banner into Orleans. So, in spite of weakness, divisions, intrigues, and even civil war, the English were, by slow degrees, driven out of France. At length only Calais remained to them, and the Hundred Years' War was at an end.
Earlier in this same year, Constantinople had fallen before the Turks, and they had laid hold of a great part of eastern Europe. That they were able to do so was due greatly to the enfeebled state of the Holy Roman Empire, and in part to the exhausted state of France. The emperor did little to stay the triumphant march of the Turks. France, which all through the Crusades had taken a leading part in combating their power, was too stricken and exhausted now, to attempt a crusade against their aggression.
This was a misfortune for eastern Europe, but it was well for France. Instead of frittering away strength upon foreign warfare, she turned to the work of national reconstruction and of regaining her high place among the powers of Europe.
France had suffered much during the Hundred Years' War, but it had gained much. It gained more than it lost, for out of the necessity of combining against a common foe a nation was born, and the nation redeemed itself. But its redemption was not due to monarchical power. It was due to the people who, during the long struggle, had begun to assert themselves. Without their awakened patriotism Charles, vacillating and mediocre as he was, could have accomplished nothing. He has been given the surname of the Victorious, but also that of the Well Served. The latter is, perhaps, the better name. He was well served by his people.
But the great strength of the French monarchy was only latent, and when peace was restored that strength awoke. Under the weight of it the dawning liberties of the people were blotted out, and from this time onward the kingly power in France increased until at length it became an intolerable tyranny against which, at the bitter end, the people revolted.
Under Charles VII France wrung itself free from a foreign yoke. Under his son, that sinister genius, Louis XI, it became a great monarchy. Louis XI may be called the first king of modern France. The kings who had gone before him had been mediæval. Louis was modern. There was no mediæval glamour about his court, and although he ruled like a tyrant, it was with the cool-headed tyranny of a lawyer, and not with the brutal arrogance of a feudal lord.
Louis was brave, but he never fought an enemy openly if he could gain his end in any other way. That many of his ways were tortuous mattered little to him. "He who does not know how to deceive does not know how to reign," was the sole maxim which he was at the pains to teach to his son the Dauphin.
To him war was a clumsy weapon, to be used only in the last resort. Money, and the power of a fair, if false, tongue, he esteemed much more. He was always ready to pledge his word, and unscrupulous in breaking it if he could gain thereby. He thought that every one had his price, and was willing enough to pay the price in order to win him to his side.
Government was a science to Louis, and he determined that there should be no power in France save the king's power. So he crushed the feudal nobles, both great and small, out of existence, and took possession of their lands. He taught them, by severe measures, that no man had the right to disturb the peace of the realm, or make alliance with the king's enemies.
He laid upon the people a burden of taxes hardly to be borne, but he granted to the burgher classes many privileges. This he did through no love of them, but merely that he might make use of them. To him men were but pawns in his great game, and he did what he would with them. Wily, perfidious, and cruel, he went his way alone, the States General being called together only once throughout his reign.
He was feared by all, loved by few, but he left France united, and with her borders defined and secured as they had never been before. With him the Middle Ages may be said to end.