Charles VIII was thirteen when his father died. For eight years his sister, Anne de Beaujeu, only ten years his elder, wisely ruled France as regent. She reduced governmental expenditures, forgave the people a quarter of the poll tax, recalled many exiles, freed many prisoners, and successfully resisted the attempt of the barons, in their Guerre Folle or Foolish War (1485), to regain the semi-sovereignty that Louis had overthrown. When Brittany joined with Orléans, Lorraine, Angoulême, Orange, and Navarre in a further revolt, her diplomacy and the generalship of Louis de la Trémouille defeated them all, and she ended the turmoil triumphantly by arranging the marriage of Charles to Anne of Brittany, who brought her great duchy as dowry to the crown of France (1491). The Regent then retired from the government, and lived her remaining thirty-one years in peaceful oblivion.
The new queen was quite another Anne. Short, flat, thin, and lame, with a stubby nose over a spacious mouth on a Gothically elongated face, she had a mind of her own, as shrewd and parsimonious as any Bretonne’s should be. Though she dressed simply in black gown and hood, she could, on occasions of state, gleam with jewelry and cloth of gold; and it was she, rather than Charles, who favored artists and poets, and commissioned Jean Bourdichon to paint Les heures d’Anne de Bretagne. Never forgetting her beloved Brittany and its ways, she hid her pride in modesty, sewed industriously, and struggled to reform the morals of her husband and his court.
Charles, says the gossipy Brantôme, “loved women more than his slight constitution could endure.” 11 After his marriage he restricted himself to one mistress. He could not complain of the Queen’s looks; he himself was a macrocephalic hunchback, his features homely, his eyes big and colorless and myopic, his underlip thick and drooping, his speech hesitant, his hands twitching spasmodically.12 However, he was good-natured, kindly, sometimes idealistic. He read chivalric romances, and conceived the notion of reconquering Naples for France, and Jerusalem for Christendom. The house of Anjou had held the Kingdom of Naples (1268–1435) until evicted by Alfonso of Aragon; the claims of the Anjou dukes had been bequeathed to Louis XI; they were now proclaimed by Charles. His council thought him the last person in the world to lead an army in a major war; but they hoped that diplomacy might ease his way, and that a captured Naples would allow French commerce to dominate the Mediterranean. To protect the royal flanks they ceded Artois and Franche-Comté to Maximilian of Austria, and Cerdagne and Roussillon to Ferdinand of Spain; they thought to get half of Italy for the parings of France. Heavy taxes, pawned gems, and loans from Genoese bankers and Lodovico, Regent of Milan, provided an army of 40,000 men, one hundred siege guns, eighty-six ships of war.
Charles set out gaily (1494), perhaps not loath to leave two Annes behind. He was welcomed in Milan (which had a score to settle with Naples), and found its ladies irresistible. He left a trail of natural children on his march, but handsomely refused to touch a reluctant maiden who had been conscripted to his pleasure by his valet-de-chambre; instead, he sent for her lover, presided over their betrothal, and gave her a dowry of 500 crowns.13 Naples had no force capable of resisting his; he entered it in easy triumph (1495), enjoyed its scenery, cuisine, women, and forgot Jerusalem. He was apparently one of the lucky Frenchmen who did not contract, in this campaign, the venereal disease that was later called morbus gallicus because it spread so rapidly in France after the troops’ return. A “Holy Alliance” of Alexander VI, Venice, and Lodovico of Milan (who had changed his mind) forced Charles to evacuate Naples and retreat through a hostile Italy. His reduced army fought an indecisive engagement at Fornovo (1495), and hastened back to France, carrying with it, among other contagions, the Renaissance.
It was at Fornovo that Pierre Terrail, Seigneur de Bayard, then twenty-two, first displayed the courage that earned him half the famous title of le chevalier sans peur et sans reproche. Born in the Chateau Bayard in the Dauphiné, he came of a noble family every head of which, for two centuries past, had died in battle; and in this encounter Pierre seemed bent on continuing the tradition. He had two horses killed under him, captured an enemy standard, and was knighted by his grateful King. In an age of coarseness, promiscuity, and treachery he maintained all the virtues of chivalry—magnanimous without display, loyal without servility, honorable without offensive pride, and carrying through a dozen wars a spirit so kindly and gay that contemporaries called him le bon chevalier. We shall meet him again.
Charles survived his Italian journey by three years. Going to watch a game of tennis at Amboise, he struck his head against a loosened door, and died of a cerebral lesion at the age of twenty-eight. As his children had predeceased him, the throne passed to his nephew the Duke of Orléans, who became Louis XII (1498). Born to Charles of Orléans when the poet was seventy, Louis was now thirty-six, and already in feeble health. His morals were abnormally decent for the time, and his manners were so frank and amiable that France learned to love him despite his futile wars. He seemed guilty of discourtesy when, in the year of his accession, he divorced Jeanne de France, daughter of Louis XI; but he had been forced by that pliantly inflexible king to marry the unprepossessing girl when he was but eleven years old. He could never develop affection for her; and now he persuaded Alexander VI—in return for a French bride, county, and pension to the Pope’s son, Caesar Borgia—to annul that marriage on grounds of consanguinity, and to sanction his union with the widowed Anne of Brittany, who carried her duchy in her trousseau. They took up their abode at Blois, and gave France a royal model of mutual devotion and loyalty.
Louis XII illustrated the superiority of character to intellect. He had not the shrewd mind of Louis XI, but he had good will and good sense, and wit enough to delegate many of his powers to wisely chosen aides. He left administration, and most policy, to his lifelong friend Georges, Cardinal d’Amboise; and this prudent and kindly prelate managed affairs so well that the whimsical public, when any new task arose, would shrug its shoulders and say, “Let Georges do it.”14 France was astonished to find its taxes reduced, first by a tenth, then by a third. The King, though reared in riches, spent as little as possible on himself and his court, and fattened no favorites. He abolished the sale of offices, forbade the acceptance of gifts by magistrates, opened the governmental postal service to private use, and bound himself to choose, for any administrative vacancy, one of three men nominated by the judiciary, and not to remove any state employee except after open trial and proof of dishonesty or incompetence. Some comedians and courtiers made fun of his economies, but he took their humor in good spirit. “Amongst their ribaldries,” he said, “they may sometimes tell us useful truths; let them amuse themselves, provided they respect the honor of women.... . I had rather make courtiers laugh by my stinginess than make my people weep by my extravagance.”15 The surest means of pleasing him was to show him some new way of benefiting the people.16 They expressed their gratitude by calling him Père du Peuple. Never in its memory had France known such prosperity.
It was a pity that this happy reign tarnished its record with further invasions of Italy. Perhaps Louis and other French kings undertook these sallies to occupy and decimate the quarrelsome nobles who might otherwise have harassed France with civil war, threatening the still unstable monarchy and national unity. After twelve years of victory in Italy, Louis XII had to withdraw his troops from the peninsula, and then lost to the English at Guinegate (1513) an engagement derisively called the Battle of the Spurs because the French cavalry fled from the field in such unwonted haste. Louis made peace, and was content thereafter to be only King of France.
The death of Anne of Brittany (1514) completed the cycle of his woes. She had given him no heir, and it was with little pleasure that he married his daughter Claude to Francis, Count of Angoulême, now next in line for the throne. His aides urged him, at fifty-two, to take a third wife and cheat the ebullient Francis by begetting a son. He accepted Mary Tudor, the sixteen-year-old sister of Henry VIII. She led the ailing King a merry and exhausting life, insisting on all the attentions due to beauty and youth. Louis died in the third month of his marriage (1515), leaving to his son-in-law a defeated but prosperous France that remembered with affection the Father of the People.