An engraved portrait of Louis XI in 1450
One of the most intriguing and, let’s face it, entertaining characters in all of Ricardian history must be King Louis the Eleventh of France – known to history by his sobriquet The Spider. Others may cite Margaret Anjou or Henry Tudor as a deeper thorn in the flesh of King Richard the Third but surely the relentless Louie got under his skin in a much more personal and pesky way.
Although King Edward IV had been dealing with this eccentric and conniving monarch for awhile, it was not until the peace treaty of Picquigny in the summer of 1475 that the young Duke of Gloucester got his first taste of Louis. Edward, along with his brothers Richard and George, had landed in Calais in July with the royal army prepared to do battle.
Meeting up with Charles the Duke of Burgundy, his erratic brother-in-law, the English king quickly became frustrated with the Duke’s lack of military support. That, combined perhaps with the encroaching sloth that would eventually consume him, convinced Edward that a victory with France could not be exploited properly and might very well drain the treasury. So, to the astonishment of his youngest brother, Edward sued for peace – and a major payoff. The terms of that peace were a bit more than thirty pieces of silver delivered by Louis. In fact, the deal included 75,000 gold crowns delivered immediately with an additional 50,000 to be given once a year; his young daughter, Elizabeth, was pledged in marriage to the French king’s son and a somewhat nasty pact was struck to crack down on rebellious subjects in either country. To sign the treaty, the two monarchs met on a bridge; one dressed as a magnificent prince of the realm and the other looking like he had been dragged through a hedge backwards.
“Oh, he’s a very handsome King, that one!” Louis gleefully noted to his advisors. “He’s crazy about girls!”
Meanwhile, the young Gloucester, ever ready for battle, fumed and refused to be a party to the treaty and was not seen upon the bridge. Later, pushed by his big brother, Richard came into the parlor of The Spider where he was forced to dine and accept plate and fine horseflesh. Apparently, it did not break the ice. Instead, it reminded the French king that not every English royal or noble could be seduced with large bribes. It would be the beginning of a long-running feud between the two stubborn monarchs.
King Louis the Eleventh reigned as King of France for approximately twenty years, dying in 1483. But from his boyhood as Dauphin until adulthood, he managed to engage in so many feuds, so many intrigues and banishments by his harassed father Charles VII, that he early on acquired the name “The Universal Spider” and “The Cunning.” Caring nothing for ceremony or dress – with the exception of a peculiar winged cap – he often sat with servants at suppertime and in old age indulged in a loopy obsession with exotic animals that included a vast number of large birds that were either caged or allowed to soar free inside his caltrop-encrusted fortress at Plessis-les-Tours. But for all his eccentricities, he was no Henry VI. He was a wily and formidable opponent who never gave Europe a minute of peace during all his years on the throne.
Is it any wonder that he has intrigued writers from Shakespeare to Sir Walter Scott, Balzac, Victor Hugo? Or that he has been portrayed many times in films, most notably the story of Francois Villon in “If I Were King” (in which he is played by Oscar-nominated Basil Rathbone) as well as the Charles Laughton version of “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” wherein the ubiquitous Hollywood actor Harry Davenport took the role?
Harry Davenport as Louis XI in The Hunchback of Notre Dame
The next time Louis clashes with Richard was in 1483 shortly before his fatal illness. Refusing to be stymied by mundane death, The Spider was still up to his old tricks. He busily seized English ships and merchandise until merchants feared venturing into Bordeaux and other places under French authority. These merchants were forced to stand by mutely as Louis happily trashed truces and treaties with all the rebellious spirit of his youth. He ignored Richard’s coronation and when he did get around to congratulating him, did it in brief and dismissive tones. At that point, Richard took up his pen rather than his sword and behaved without the murderous psychopathic anger ascribed to him by traditionalists and lady novelists turned historian. Instead, he wrote the following:
“…in order that my subjects and merchants may not find themselves deceived as a result of this present ambiguous situation, I pray you that by my servant this bearer, one of the grooms of my stable (no more impressive envoy being called for!), you will let me know in writing your full intentions, at the same time informing me if there is anything I can do for you in order that I may do it with good heart. And farewell to you, Monsieur mon cousin.”
Unfortunately, Richard never got to make good on his sly jest to place a knave before a king. Shortly after he wrote this letter, The Spider popped off in his French fortress, undoubtedly surrounded by his beloved greyhounds and screeching parrots.
One wonders whether his court mourned or breathed a sigh of relief!
A portrait of a younger Louis XI in which he’s no doubt thinking up various intrigues.
This essay is based on Paul Murray Kendal’s “Richard the Third” and “Louis XI” as well as “Richard III” by Charles Ross.