Memoires de Philippe de Comines.
The memoirs of Comines probably contain a larger amount of matter of general and permanent interest than any other book of the fifteenth century. In general vigour of mind, in shrewdness of observation, in all that we mean by mother-wit, their author was a man of the very highest class. He had, moreover, a turn for generalising and moralising upon the events which came under his notice, which gives his memoirs a kind and degree of interest quite peculiar to themselves. His reflections show us, with the utmost possible distinctness, what was the tone of thought current in his day amongst the most vigorous men of the age,—men who took their views from the facts which they saw around them, and who had not been affected in any appreciable degree by the revival of learning, which was then in its infancy.
Comines was just twenty years older than Erasmus (born 1466), and he died thirty years before Luther (1546). The whole furniture of his mind, all his principles of thought and action, were derived from intimate intercourse with the men of action of his day —Louis XI., Charles the Bold, and their various generals and ministers, the last kings and nobles of the Middle Ages. No writer, accordingly, sets in so strong and definite a light, or illustrates in such a variety of ways, the spirit by which that age was informed or the general principles which its leading men believed and acted upon. As, however, his reflections are inextricably mixed up with the facts to which they refer, and as the outline of these facts is less familiar to ordinary readers than their general purport and bearing, it is necessary to give some short account of the connection and sequence of the events in order to make the observations themselves intelligible.
Louis XI. succeeded to the crown on the death of his father Charles VII, which took place on the 22d July 1461. Politically, his position was most unfavourable and precarious. In fact he was rather the head of a confederacy than an actual sovereign.
The Dukes of Burgundy ruled almost as independent princes over a heterogenous mass of provinces which included Belgium, Picardy and the north-eastern side of France, as far south almost as the borders of Switzerland. Brittany was independent, or nearly so, under its dukes. Navarre and Foix were independent in the south. The Count of St. Pol held an important district between the territories of the King of France and the Duke of Burgundy, including the frontier towns on the Somme—Amiens, Abbeville, and St. Quentin, which stood pledged to the Duke of Burgundy for 400,000 crowns, and opened to him, and therefore to his English allies, a road by which invaders could advance straight upon Paris at their pleasure.
Besides these real feudatories, who were more or less in the position of independent sovereigns, there were a host of nobles who aspired with hopes of success to gaining for themselves a similar position. Within less than four years after Louis's accession (December 1464) they formed for this purpose the association called the Ligue du Bien Publique, the principal members of which were the Duke of Berry, the King's younger brother, the titular King of Sicily, and his son the Duke of Calabria, the Count of Armagnac, the Duke of Orleans, and his brother the Duke of Angouleme, the Duke of Bourbon, and the Counts of Nevers, St. Pol, Tancarville, and Penthievre.[ 1 Rene, the King of Sicily, ruled in Provence.] The head of the conspiracy was Charles the Bold, then Count of Charolais. Their object in general terms was to compel Louis to parcel out France into appanages, over which they were to have rule.
With this view their armies, headed respectively by Charles the Bold, the Duke of Brittany, and the Duke of Bourbon, took the field against Louis in the spring of 1465. Louis marched against the latter and speedily compelled him to sign an armistice. He then returned towards Paris, and at Mont-l’Héry encountered the army of Charles the Bold advancing from the north. An indecisive action between them took place on the 16th July 1465, in which one wing of each army defeated the wing of the enemy's army which was opposed to it. After the battle Louis continued his march to Paris, whither, after some delay, he was followed by Charles the Bold. After some indecisive attempts at a siege the war was ended by the treaty of Conflans (29th October 1465), by which Louis made enormous concessions to the different princes, giving in particular the Duchy of Normandy to his brother the Duke of Berry, and returning to Charles the Bold the towns on the Somme which about two years before (September 1463) he had redeemed from Duke Philip.
So far the princes had triumphed. The rest of the reign of Louis was occupied principally by the successful efforts which he made to reduce them to the position of subjects. The principal thing which enabled him to do so was the excessive rashness and presumption of his rival Charles the Bold, of which, however, Louis took advantage in most cases with consummate skill, though at least on one memorable occasion his over-cunning nearly ruined him.
Liège, and the towns on the Meuse, especially Dinant, had always been favourable to France and ill-affected to the Dukes of Burgundy. Charles the Bold marched against them in November 1465 as soon as the treaty of Conflans was concluded. By January 1466 he had extorted great concessions from Liege, and in the following August he utterly destroyed Dinant and inflicted further humiliations on Liege, which tried to help it. Louis took the opportunity of stirring up a quarrel between his brother and the Duke of Brittany, under the cover of which he dispossessed his brother of Normandy with very little resistance (January 1466). On the 15th June 1467 Duke Philip of Burgundy died, and was succeeded by his son, who soon after his succession fell into new and still more serious quarrels than before with Liege, which was again encouraged to revolt by the agents of Louis. On the 12th November Charles entered the town by a breach in the wall, executed many of the citizens, and suppressed the franchises of the town. Louis took the opportunity of attacking the Duke of Alencon and deposing him from his duchy. He further fortified his position by domestic measures. He put into the hands of Tristan 1'Hermite, the provost-marshal, a summary power of jurisdiction exactly corresponding to what has been so much discussed in our own times under the name of martial law. He assembled the states-general at Tours, which sat only for eight days, but made unbounded professions of obedience, and he encouraged up to a certain point the formation of militia amongst the great towns, and in particular at Paris. These measures at once proved and extended his popularity with the mass of the population who, on the whole, rather admired the 'bonne et roide justice' of Tristan, and were willing to support Louis to any extent against the princes. He accordingly assumed the offensive, and marched forces into Brittany, which compelled the Duke of Brittany and the Duke of Berry to sign a treaty at Ancenis (10th September 1468), by which they gave up their alliance with the Duke of Burgundy, the Duke of Berry renouncing his pretensions to Normandy, and contenting himself with a pension instead of an appanage.
Louis was now in a position to attack the Duke of Burgundy openly, but he was too jealous of his generals to give any one of them so important a task. He preferred to try the effect of a personal interview with the Duke, and went for that purpose to Peronne on the 9th October 1468. Whilst he was there in the power of his rival the news arrived of a fresh outbreak at Liege, which had been excited by Louis's manoeuvres. In order to save his life Louis was compelled to join Charles in an attack upon Liege, and to give a new appanage to his brother the Duke of Berry. He accordingly assisted in the storm of Liege (31st October), at which the town was burnt and the people massacred, and gave his brother the Duchy of Guienne instead of Champagne and Brie, which he had promised to give him. The object of giving the larger and more important province was to separate him as far as possible from the Duke of Burgundy.
About this time Louis began to try to injure Charles by intrigues with England. About eighteen years had passed since the final expulsion of the English from France (1450), but Charles the Bold had preserved and extended his father's relations with the English. He had married Margaret the sister of Edward IV., and there was much commercial intercourse between England and the Low Countries. Louis XI. accordingly favoured the Lancastrians, and having entered into relations with Warwick, then in disgrace in his government of Calais, did all in his power to favour his descent into England (September 1470), which led to the expulsion of Edward IV. Edward, however, returned in the following spring, and re-established himself by the victories of Barnet and Tewksbury (14th April, 4th May, 1471). This policy naturally irritated Edward on the one hand and Charles on the other, but its failure was almost recompensed by the birth of a Dauphin, afterwards Charles VIII., on the 30th June 1470, and the death of the Duke of Guienne, the king's brother, on the 24th May 1472. Charles accused Louis of having poisoned his brother, and marched an army into France, which failed before Beauvais. On this occasion St. Pol, in his capacity of Constable, acted the part of a double traitor, doing his best to betray Beauvais to Charles; but failing to join him openly or effectually, Charles retired from France, and proceeded to negotiate with the Emperor of Germany, Frederic III., the erection of his states into a kingdom (September 1473). Louis upon this made a more serious attack than before on the remaining princes of the Ligue du Bien Publique.
The Count of Armagnac's capital, Lectoure, was taken, he was killed, his wife poisoned, and the town destroyed. The Duke of Alençon was taken prisoner, was condemned to death, but kept in prison. The Duke of Lorraine died (August 1473), it was said, of poison. The Count of Maine died April 1473. The house of Bourbon was represented by daughters, and, in a word, the coalition of the princes of the blood was at an end. In eight years from the battle of Mont 1'Héry the only enemies whom Louis had left were the Duke of Burgundy, the Duke of Brittany, and the Count of St. Pol. Death and his own use of his opportunities had freed him of the rest. His enemies, however, were as bitter as ever. The Duke of Burgundy concluded a treaty with Edward IV. in July 1474, which led to an invasion from Calais in May 1475. The consequences of this might have been almost fatal to Louis if the Duke of Burgundy had not chosen to spend the winter of 1474-75 in besieging Neuss in the Bishopric of Cologne, by way of carrying out designs into which he had entered, of extending and consolidating the scattered parts of his dominions and revenging himself on the Emperor for refusing to make him a king. The siege of Neuss did not succeed, and prevented Charles from assisting Edward, who was induced by all sorts of wily flatteries on the part of Louis to sign with him the treaty of Pequigny (29th August 1475), which provided for seven years' truce between England and France, and ridded France for the time of the presence of the invaders. The Duke of Burgundy, not discouraged by his check before Neuss, formed a scheme for the conquest of Lorraine and Alsace, and set out to besiege Nancy. Before he did so he made a separate truce with Louis, one article of which bound him to give up St. Pol, who, having been driven by the king from St. Quentin, had taken refuge at Mons in the Duke's dominions (26th August). St. Pol was accordingly given up on the 24th November, and was tried, condemned, and (19th December 1475) executed as a traitor at Paris.
Louis and Charles were now left face to face, but the rashness of the latter soon delivered his rival from all danger. Charles employed the period of peace on 'which he had entered in invading Switzerland. The Swiss called upon Louis for help, according to former promises, but he left them to themselves. They soon showed that they wanted no help. Charles's army was routed at Granson, 3d March 1476.
He underwent a murderous defeat at Morat on the 22d June. These reverses encouraged René, the son of the titular King of Sicily, to make an attack upon Lorraine, which Charles had conquered, and he accordingly possessed himself of the Duchy and of its capital Nancy, which was besieged by Charles in the latter part of October. Ren6 with 8000 Swiss marched to raise the siege, and Charles was defeated and killed in the neighbourhood of the town on the 5th January 1477.
Without the loss of a moment Louis proceeded to take possession of the greater part of the states of Mary of Burgundy, the heir and daughter of Charles, on the ground that she was his ward in chivalry, and not contenting himself with this he raised an insurrection against her and her principal counsellors in the Flemish towns. She sent an embassy to him from the states of Ghent to treat of peace, instructed amongst other things to say that she would be guided in all respects by the advice of the states. He gave the ambassadors a letter written in part in her own hand, in which she said she would be guided by three of her father's ministers, of whom the Chancellor Hugonet and Humbercourt were two. This so enraged the people of Ghent that Hugonet and Humbercourt were put to death. Louis, however, did not succeed altogether in detaching the Flemings from the Duchess. Indeed, in betraying her confidence he overreached himself, for he prevented her from marrying the Dauphin, which, notwithstanding their difference of age (she was twenty and he eight), she was not indisposed to do. To secure herself a protector she married Maximilian of Austria (19th April 1477), through whom began the long connection of the Low Countries with the Empire. He was at first vigorously supported by the Flemings, but was obliged to give up the Duchy of Burgundy to Louis (August 1480).
In the spring of 1480 the King's health began to fail. He had an illness from which he never fully recovered. His fortunes, however, culminated in the most extraordinary manner. Rene, the titular King of Sicily, died 10th July 1480, and Louis united Provence to France; Mary of Burgundy died 27th March 1482, and the states of Burgundy, who were disgusted with Maximilian, made a treaty with Louis at Arras (23d December 1482) by which they agreed that her daughter Margaret of Austria, a child of two years of age, should be delivered over to Louis to be educated by him till she was old enough to be married to the Dauphin; and in the meantime he received possession of the county of Burgundy, Charolais, and Artois as her dowry. Finally, Edward IV. died 9th April 1483, leaving England under the government of his unfortunate infant son, and in a condition in which Louis had nothing to fear from it. Louis was thus triumphant at home and abroad. The Duke of Brittany was the only one of his vassals who still retained any independence. He was the unquestioned and substantial ruler of the rest of France, interpreting that word in a wider sense than had ever belonged to it before. He did not live, however, to enjoy his triumph. He died on the 30th August 1483.
Such is a very short outline of the principal events which Comines witnessed, and in one of which he played a part by no means unimportant. Let us now turn to his own observations upon them. The principal dates in his own career are as follows:—
He was born at Commynes on the Lys in 1447. He entered the service of Charles the Bold (then Comte de Charolais) in 1464. He passed to the service of Louis XI. (8th August 1472), receiving from him grants, and especially a grant of the principality of Talmont, which were afterwards the cause of litigations which embittered his later life. He served Louis XI . till his death in August 1483. He passed several years in litigation with the La Tremoille family, who contested the grant of Talmont, and was finally imprisoned in 1487 for two years and banished from court till 1492. He was again taken into favour by Charles VIII., accompanied him in his Italian expedition in 1493-95, remained with him till his death in April 1498, and then retired into private life till his own death on the 18th October 1511 at the age of sixty-four.
He begins his work with a prologue addressed to the Archbishop of Vienne, a statesman, a scholar, a physician, and more or less an astrologer, for it is said that he predicted to Charles the Bold some of the principal events of his life. His object, says Comines, is principally to commemorate Louis XI.
The King was not perfect certainly—' Perfection belongs to God alone; but when in a prince virtue and good qualities are more prominent than vice, he is worthy of great honour and praise,' inasmuch as princes have greater temptations than other men. Upon the whole Comines 'never knew a prince who had fewer vices than Louis,' though he had known many. The book, he adds, is written at the archbishop's request, —'a gentleman of excellent conditions'— and he, the author, hopes that the archbishop means to use it as materials for a book upon the subject to be written in Latin. It is obvious that Comines himself knew no Latin, and did not think much of French.
The first book of the memoirs1 contains an account of the war of the public good, and in particular of the battle of Mont-1'Héry (27th July 1465), a clumsy, indecisive scuffle, not quite unlike the battle of Sheriffmuir, in which each army beat half the other. Comines's description of it is full of curious reflections, the effect of which is heightened by the way in which he passes from shrewd practical observations to the most refined speculation. Many of the Burgundian nobility, he says, fought on foot, 'for amongst the Burgundians at that time those who dismounted with the archers were held in most honour, and a great number of the gentry always did so, that the common people might be more encouraged and might fight better; this they learned of the English whom Duke Philip had served in France in his youth.' The English were good soldiers, and 'tres grans cappitaines.' However, 'when God was tired of doing them good, they fell into trouble, and the House of York usurped the realm, or had it by a good title, I can't say which, for of such things heaven disposes.'
Comines adds farther on, 'Archers are the best of troops, but they ought to be in thousands, and ill mounted so that they may not be afraid of losing their horses,—indeed they need not have any. Moreover, those who have never seen anything are better in this business for a single day than those who have much experience. This is also the opinion of the English who are the flower of the archers of the world.' The superiority of soldiers who do not know their danger to those who do is not a very uncommon remark in our own days, but the observant and rather cynical vein which tends to it is relieved in the case of Comines by one of quite a different order. The horse, he says, did not wait for the foot at Mont 1'Héry according to the orders given. 'And in this God showed that battles are in his hand, and that he disposes of victory at his pleasure. And I do not believe that the human mind can sustain and set in order so great a number of people, nor that matters pass in the field as they are planned in the chamber; and any one who believed in himself to the point of thinking so would be mistaken towards God if he had natural reason.'
I suppose Comines means that men ought to act for the best, and recollect that God overrules their conduct, and that this is one of the ways in which the works which he has commenced are accomplished. 'However, every man ought to do what he can and what he ought, and to admit that it is one of the ways of accomplishing the works which God has sometimes commenced by small movements and occasions, and by giving the victory sometimes to one sometimes to another, and this is so great a mystery that kingdoms and great lordships sometimes are desolated by it, and others increase and begin to reign.'
He goes on to describe the extreme confusion of the battle. The Burgundian men-at-arms charged their own archers and rode over them. On account of the long peace hardly 50 out of 1200 'knew how to put a lance in rest,' none of the servants were armed and there were no regular troops. They thus broke themselves. However, 'God who orders such mysteries ' determined that the right wing of the Count of Charolais should win, which it accordingly did. 'I was with him that day and was less frightened than I ever was afterwards, because I was young (he was eighteen) and knew nothing of danger; but I was surprised that any one should dare to defend himself against such a prince as my master, for I thought he was the greatest of all.' What with the dust, the high corn, the inexperience and absolute want of discipline of the troops, everything fell into the wildest confusion, and Comines had occasion to make many shrewd observations. Louis and Charles, he said, ought to have thought highly of those who stood by them so well on this occasion, 'but they behaved like men not like angels. Men lost their estates and offices for having run away, and they were given to others who had run ten leagues farther. One man on our side lost credit and was banished from his master's presence, and a month afterwards he had more credit than before.' Charles stayed on the field, considering that he had won the day, and certainly he was a remarkable man. 'Great princes ought to know that favour and good fortune comes from God. I will say two things of him, one is, I think no man ever worked harder in all opportunities for bodily labour. The other is, I never knew a hardier man. I never heard him say he was tired or saw him appear to be frightened, and I was seven years in the wars with him, always in the summer, and sometimes winter and summer too.'
The interval between the battle and the treaty of Conflans is made by Comines the occasion of several curious observations and reflections. Whilst the Burgundian army was lying at Estampes before it marched to Paris, the Duke of Berry, Louis XI.'s brother, who, by the final treaty became Duke of Normandy, was talking about the battle. 'He was very young and had never seen such actions, and it seemed by his words that he was pained by them, for he spoke of the great number wounded whom he had seen on the side of the Count of Charolais, and showed by his words that he should have wished that this enterprise had never been undertaken than to see so many evils happen by him and in his cause.' Charles the Bold was disgusted at this weakness and observed, 'Did you hear what that man said? He is overcome by seeing 700 or 800 wounded men going about the town who are nothing to him, and whom he does not know. He would soon be overcome if the matter in any way affected him himself, and would be just the man to make terms readily and leave us in the mud; and on account of the old wars which have formerly happened between his father and mine, both parties' (i.e. Louis XI . and the French princes) 'would readily join to turn upon us, so it is necessary to look out for friends.' This 'imagination,' and nothing else, says Comines, caused Charles the Bold to send an embassy to England to make an alliance with Edward IV., 'and many such works are done in this world by imagination, especially amongst great princes, who are much more suspicious than other people by reason of the doubts and warnings suggested to them very often on account of flattery and without any need.'
In speaking of the Burgundian party in Paris, Comines says that they hoped to get offices or places 'which are more desired in this city than in any other in the world, for those who have them get out of them what they can and not what they ought; and there are unpaid offices which are sold for more than fifteen years' purchase of their fees.' This introduces a chapter 2 headed 'Digressions on state offices and ambition from the example of the English.' The Duke of Bedford, when Regent of France and living at Paris, had never less than 20,000 crowns a month; and when he and others returned to England they did not choose to diminish their state, whence arose civil war which led ultimately to the establishment on the throne of Henry VII. 'Thus it is not at Paris or in France only that people fight for the worldly goods and honours, and princes and great lords ought to fear greatly to allow parties to arise in their households, for from thence the fire runs over the provinces, but I think this happens only by divine disposition; for when princes and realms have been very prosperous and rich and do not acknowledge the source whence such graces proceed, God raises up enemies male or female against them, whom no one could expect, as you may see by the kings mentioned in the Bible.'
Paris, however, suggests more practical observations to Comines. The following little bit of description is very picturesque. 'I must say that this town of Paris is well situated in the Isle of France, to be able to supply two such strong armies, for we were never in want of provisions, and inside Paris they hardly perceived our being there. Nothing rose in price except bread, and that rose one denier only; for we did not hold the upper rivers which are three, namely, Marne, Youne, and Seine, and other small ones which fall into them. Taken altogether I never saw a city surrounded by better or more fruitful country, and the quantity of goods arriving there is almost incredible. Since that time I have been at Paris with King Louis half a year without stirring, lodged at the Tourelles and eating and sleeping with him as a rule, and since his death for twenty months against my will, kept a prisoner in his palace, where I saw from my windows whatever came up the Seine from Normandy. Incomparably more came than I should ever have believed had I not seen it.'
The description of Paris introduces a further digression on some vices and virtues of Louis XI. It is introduced by a remark on the necessity of keeping your party out of the way of people who can seduce them, especially of a 'prince who wishes to gain people, which is a great grace which God gives to princes who know how to do it, and is a sign that he is not stained by that foolish vice and sin of pride which procures hatred towards all persons' (who are proud). 'For which reason when people come to such negotiations as treaties of peace, they should be made by the most trustworthy servants whom princes have and men of middle ages so that their weakness may not lead them to make a dishonourable bargain, or to frighten their master on their return more than necessary.' It is in illustration of this that Comines describes Louis XI . 'I have entered on this matter because I have seen much cheating in this world, and in that on the part of many servants towards their masters, and they cheat princes and lords who are proud and will not hear people speak more often than the humble who listen to them willingly. Of all that ever I knew the wisest in getting out of scrapes in time of adversity was King Louis XI. our master; and the most humble in words and in dress, and the one who worked hardest to gain a man who could serve him or hurt him, and he did not give up on being once refused by a man whom he was trying to gain, but continued making large promises and actually giving money and estate to one whom he knew to please him. And those whom he had turned out of their places in time of peace and prosperity he bought back very dear when he needed them, and used them and bore no grudge against them for the past. He was naturally a friend to people of middling condition, and the enemy of the great, who could do without him. No man ever listened so much to people or inquired into so many things as he did or wished to know so many people; for to say the truth he knew all people of authority and worth who were in England, Spain, Portugal, the Lordships of the Dukes of Burgundy, and in Brittany, as well as his own subjects, and these habits and manners of his saved his crown, if we consider the enemies whom he had made on his accession to the realm. But, above all, his great liberality served him, for as he was wise in adversity; so on the contrary, as soon as he thought he was in security or even in a truce, he set himself to discontent people by small means which were of little use to him, and he could hardly bear to be at peace. He spoke of people highly, and as readily in their presence as in their absence, except those whom he feared, who were many, for he was a sufficiently timid character. When his talk had done him some harm, or when he suspected that it had, and wished to set it to rights, he spoke thus to the person in question. I know my tongue has done me much harm; also at times it has given me great pleasure. It is at all events right that I should make amends. He never used these private speeches without doing some benefit to the person to whom he spoke, and he never did small ones.'
Comines concludes this character of his hero by dwelling on the advantage of his early adversities and contrasting him with the common run of the French nobility. 'Their education has no other end but to make them fools as to dress and as to words. They know nothing of literature. Not a single man of sense is put about them. They have governors to whom people speak of their affairs, but to themselves nothing; the governors do their business, and I know lords who have not thirteen livres' rent in money who are proud of saying "Speak to my people," thinking by such expressions to imitate the very great. So I have often seen their servants make a profit of them, making them well understand that they were fools.'
Besides the interest which attaches to the description of Louis XI. contained in this passage, it deserves notice as being one of many illustrations afforded by Comines's memoirs of the contempt which he felt for the average princes of his day, and of the degree in which his admiration of Louis XI. was due to the fact that he considered him superior to the natural weaknesses of his class. Comines hated and despised crowned heads as a rule, and his book is full of cynical maxims and reflections about them. Upon the treaty of Conflans he observes, 'Thus you may see that it is almost impossible that two great Courts should agree on account of the reports and suspicion which they continually feel. Two great princes who wished to love each other well ought never to see each other, but to send good and sensible men to each other who might discourse with them and make up quarrels.'
This amiable sentiment is by way of commentary on the affair of Peronne, repeated more fully in another part of the book. If two princes meet it is probable that they will hate each other. 'It is great folly for two great princes, who are, as it were, equal in power, to see each other unless they are very young, which is the time when they think of nothing but their pleasures; but as soon as they have been seized with the desire of increasing at each other's expense, even if there were no danger to their person (which is almost impossible), still their ill-will and envy increase.'
At all events, their servants are sure to quarrel; 'the servants cannot but talk of past times, and one side or the other will take offence. The team of one must be better equipped than that of the other, whence mockeries, which marvellously displease those who are mocked; and when they are of different nations their language and dress are different, and what pleases the one displeases the other. Of the two princes, it generally happens that one is handsomer and more agreeable than the other, of which he is vain and for which he likes to be praised, and this cannot be done without blaming the other. The first days after they have gone good stories are put about, and afterwards by habit, by carelessness, by way of continuation they are told at dinner or supper, and then on each side they are reported.'
Nothing can exceed Comines's hatred for princes. He gravely compares the relative demerits of the fools and the rogues, under which heads most of his many royal acquaintances appear to have come. Farther on he says, 'I have known two kinds of princes, some so subtle and suspicious that one could not know how to live with them, and they always thought that they were being deceived. The others trusted their servants sufficiently, but they were so heavy and understood their business so ill that they could not know whether they were treated well or ill. The latter are easily turned from hatred to love and love to hatred, and though there are very few good ones of either sort, either of those with whom there is no great business, or of those with whom there is no security, still I should prefer to live under the wise rather than the foolish, for there are more ways of escaping from them and propitiating their favour; for with the ignorant it is impossible to find any expedient, for business must be done, not with them, but with their servants, of whom many often deceive them. However, every one must serve and obey them in their own territories as a matter both of duty and force. All well considered, our only hope must be in God; for in him lies all our strength and all our goodness which can be found in nothing in this world; but this we all find out late and after we have had need of it. However, better late than never.' There is a sort of cumbrous resignation in the very run of these sentences, which shows how completely Comines had brought himself to regard princes as inevitable evils, against which there was no refuge except in God.
Various other passages are scattered through the book which show his opinion of princes very plainly. I will refer to a few of them. 'It is a great advantage to princes,' he observes, 'to have read histories in their youth, in which may be seen in plenty the meetings, the great frauds, cheats, and perjuries, which some of the ancients committed towards each other, taking and killing those who had put trust in their assurances. I do not say that all did so, but the example of one is enough to make many others wise and put them on their guard.' 'I cannot help blaming ignorant princes. Almost all lords are surrounded by clerks and men of the long robe (as is natural), and they are useful if they are good and very dangerous if they are bad. They always have in their mouths some law or history, and the best which can be found may easily be ill applied, but wise men who had read would not be abused, nor would their people be so bold as to tell them lies. Do not think that God has established the office of king or prince to be exercised by fools or by those who, from vainglory, say "I am no clerk, I leave matters to my council. I trust to them." And then without giving any other reason, go and amuse themselves.' This is followed by a curious practical application from the case of Louis XL, which shows amongst other things that Comines recognised the distinction between reading and mother-wit. He (Louis) was well read enough.'
‘He liked to ask and hear about all sorts of things. His natural sense was fearfully good, which takes precedence of all the other sciences which can be learnt in this world, and all the books which are written would be useless if they did not bring to memory past events, and if it were not that you see more in one book in three months than twenty men in a row, living one after the other, could with their eyes see and learn by experience.'
The conception of history, as a vast Newgate calendar, which is shown by the first part of this passage, and the glimpse which the end of it gives of the nature of purely personal governments administered by ignorant and idle boys, are both characteristic. Boys or men, however, it is all the same. The only effect of maturity is a development of the power of lying. 'Here you may see,' says Comines, after describing some of the intrigues between Louis and Charles, 'the miserable condition of princes who cannot by any means take security against each other. These two had made a final peace not fifteen before, and solemnly sworn to keep it honourably; still confidence could not be found by any means whatever.'
After describing the transactions which ended in the treaty of Conflans, Comines proceeds to relate his experiences of the wars between Charles the Bold and Liege and the destruction of Dinant. Dinant, he observes, had been separated from Liege. 'It is the true sign of the destruction of a country when those who ought to hold together separate and abandon each other. This I say as well of princes and lords in alliance as of towns and communities; but as every one, I suppose, has heard and read examples of this I say only that King Louis, our master, better understood this art of separating people than any other prince I have ever seen or ever known.' He goes on to describe how Dinant was taken and the prisoners drowned before Bouvines. (' I do not know whether God allows it on account of their great wickedness, but the vengeance was cruel for them.') And he proceeds to describe the peace made between the Duke and Liege, and the manner in which the people of Liege broke the treaty and were attacked a second time by the Duke for not fulfilling it. Before making the attack a consultation was held as to what was to be done with the hostages given by the town for the fulfilment of the original treaty. Comines's account of it is very curious. 'A little before he set out he had had the question debated whether he should put his hostages to death, or what he should do with them. Some thought he ought to put them all to death, and amongst others the Lord de Contay (of whom I have often spoken) was of this opinion; and I never heard him speak so ill or so cruelly as this time. The wisest are sometimes mistaken, very often either from being passionate about the matter of discussion, or from love, or from hatred, or from wishing to contradict each other, and sometimes on account of the state of their persons, for what is done after dinner ought not to be regarded as a council. Some may say that people who commit any of these faults ought not to be a prince's council. To which I answer that we are all men, and if you want people who never talk foolishly, and are never more moved at one time than at another, you must look for them in heaven, for you cannot find them amongst men. On the other hand, you will always find at council people who will speak very well and wisely, though they are not generally in the habit of doing so, and thus one corrects another.'
Returning to the particular council, Comines goes on to state the opinion of Humbercourt (afterwards executed by the people of Ghent), 'one of the wisest and best-instructed knights I ever knew, which was, that in order to put God on his side in every respect, and to show all the world that he was not cruel or vindictive,' Charles ought to return the three hostages. His advice was taken, and it is fair to say that De Contay's opinion appears to have been regarded as monstrous. 'After the said Lord de Contay had given this cruel sentence against those poor hostages, part of whom had become hostages from mere goodness, one of the persons present whispered to me, "Look well at that man; though he is very old he is in very good health, but I would bet heavily that he will not be alive in a year from this day, which I say on account of the terrible opinion he has expressed." And so it happened, for he did not live long; but before he died he served his master well one day in battle.'
The history of the operations before Liege contains some curious remarks. The Liegeois attacked Duke Charles (his father had died some time before) in order to make him raise the siege of St. Tron and were defeated. 'They lost 6000 men, which seems a great deal to every one who does not care to lie; in my time I have seen in many places that where one man was killed people speak of a hundred, because they think it will give pleasure, and with such lies the masters are often deceived.' The people of Liege were thoroughly beaten. Two days after the battle 'the pride of this foolish people thoroughly changed and for slight loss.' Comines moralises on this. 'If the wrong party were wise he would risk nothing with those who have run away, but would be on his guard and try to find something to conquer to put them in heart and take away their fear. In every way lost battles have long tails and are bad for the losers.' He proceeds to describe very pithily the way in which victory gives confidence and defeat produces discouragement, and ends with his usual remark—'On this I speak from what I have seen, and such grace comes from God alone.'
This indeed is Comines's invariable result. In speaking of the success which Charles had in his campaign of 1467 against Liege, he says: 'And thus I conclude that he won great honour and glory in this campaign, and it came to him solely by the grace of God against all reason, and he would not have dared to ask for what he got; and according to human judgment he received all these honours and advantages on account of the grace and goodness he had shown to the hostages as before mentioned. I am glad to say this because princes and others at times complain as if they were discomfited when they have pleased or benefited, saying that this is unfortunate for them, and that for the future they will not pardon so lightly, or be liberal, or show favour, all of which appertains to their office. I think of such language as this and that those who act so show a cowardly heart; for a prince or any one else who never was deceived should be a mere fool not knowing good or evil or the difference between them.'
Comines follows at considerable length the course of events which ended in the storm of Liege by the united forces of Louis and Charles. His principal observation upon them is the one which I have already quoted about the importance of keeping princes apart if they are to be on good terms. The story is in every way degrading. [See also this brought out in Michelet, Bk. xv., etc.] Comines despised but pitied them. In describing the Duke's entry into Liege he says: 'The people is a poor thing, unless it is led by some chief whom they fear and reverence, but there are hours and times when their fury is much to be feared.' Few were killed when the town was taken, not more, Comines thinks, than about two hundred. He himself saw only four dead bodies, three men and a woman, but the misery endured was very great. 'I return to speak a little of the poor people who fled from the city. These poor wretches fled over the Ardennes with their wives and children.' Many were killed. A knight of the country routed a great band, and by exaggerating the number of killed— and there were in reality plenty —made his grace with Charles.
Others died of cold and hunger, and no wonder for the whole country was laid waste by the Burgundians, who divided their army into two bands the better to destroy the country;' and the frost was so intense that 'for three days the wine was served out in lumps cut with hatchets, for it was frozen in the barrels, and the ice had to be broken up into pieces, which people carried away in their hats or baskets.' Having described the fall of Liege, Comines proceeds to give an account of the various intrigues which were carried on between the King, his brother, the Duke of Guienne, and the Duke of Burgundy, showing how by degrees Louis contrived to remedy the effects of his false step in putting himself in the power of the Duke at Peronne, and to get rid of the treaty which he had signed as the price of his liberation. His chief methods being to separate his enemies by setting them against each other, and the great means which he used for that purpose being bribery, as regarded his brother and the Constable of St. Pol, and the Duke of Burgundy's overreaching pride and ambition, which gave him the opportunity of setting the others against him. The most characteristic passage in this part of the book is Comines's reflection on the Duke of Burgundy, whom few men knew so well. After saying that the Duke could not make up his mind to marry his daughter to the Duke of Guienne, he proceeds: 'I think that he would not have liked to have a son, and that he would never have married his daughter as long as he lived, but would always have kept her by him to keep people waiting on him who might serve and help him, for he aimed at so many great objects that his life was not long enough to accomplish them: and they were things almost impossible, for half Europe would not have contented him. He was bold enough for any undertaking. His person could endure the necessary labour. He was powerful enough in men and money; but he had not enough sense or shrewdness ['Malice.' The word as used by Comines contains exactly the same implied compliment to the intellectual merits of wickedness as our own 'shrewd.] to manage his undertakings. For other things being favourable to making conquests, everything comes to nothing unless very strong sense is present, and this, I think, must come from God. If any one could have taken some of the qualities of the King, and some of his qualities, he might have made a perfect prince. No doubt, in point of sense the King overmatched him; in the end he showed it by what he did.'
The intrigues which took place between Louis and Charles, Warwick and Edward IV., furnish Comines with the occasion of making some observations upon English affairs which have great interest for us. Referring shortly to the wars of the Roses, he says :' There had been in England seven or eight pitched battles, [His editor observes that there were twelve between 1455 and 1471, viz.— 1. St. Albans 1455; 2. Bloreheath 1459; 3. Northampton 1460; 4. Wakefield 1460; 5. Mortimer's Cross 1461; 6. St. Albans 1461; 7. Towton 1461; 8. Hexham 1463; 9. Banbury 1470; 10. Stamford 1470; 11. Barnet 1471; 12. Tewksbury 1471] and eighty lords and princes of royal houses died cruelly, as I have already said; and those who were not dead were refugees in the house of the Duke of Burgundy. They were all young lords, for their relations were dead in England; and the Duke of Burgundy had received them into his house as his relations on the side of Lancaster before his marriage. I saw them in such great poverty that beggars are not so poor. I saw a Duke of Exeter walking barefoot after the Duke's train, begging his bread from house to house without naming himself. He was the nearest of the line of Lancaster and had married the sister of King Edward. He was afterwards recognised and had a little pension to live upon. The Somersets and others were there. They have all been bribed since into these battles. Their fathers and relations had pillaged and destroyed the kingdom of France, and possessed most of it for many years. Those who lived in England and their children ended as you see, and then people say God does not punish people any more as he used in the days of the children of Israel; he endures bad princes and bad people? It is very true, indeed, that he no longer speaks to men as he used, for he has left examples enough in this world to be believed; but you may see when you read this, in addition to what you know besides, that none or few of these bad princes and others having authority in this world, who use it cruelly and tyrannically, remain unpunished; but it does not always come at a given day or at the time which those who suffer desire.'
After some account of the expedition of Warwick, the expulsion of Edward IV., and his return and re-establishment by the battle of Barnet [2 Sept. 1470; 14th April 1471], Comines makes a curious observation on English battles. 'Their custom in England is that when they have gained a battle they kill no one, especially not the common people (the common people know that every one tries to please them because they are the strongest), nor do they fine any one. [I cannot understand this; the law of forfeiture was then in full force. Perhaps Comines may have heard an indistinct report of the effect of the device of uses which was principally intended to defeat the law of forfeiture, and which the statute of uses was intended to defeat.] For which reason when the king had gone no harm was done to his party. Moreover, King Edward had told me that in all the battles which he gained, as soon as he got the upper hand he mounted on horseback and cried out that the people were to be spared and the lords killed, and of the lords none or very few escaped.'
Comines, of course, moralises over Edward. He despises him for being expelled from England so easily. 'What excuse could he allege for having made such a loss and all by his own fault, except by saying "I never thought it would happen"? Well ought a prince to blush if he is a grown-up man at having to make such an excuse; for it cannot be allowed. This is a good example for princes who never doubt or fear their enemies, and should put them to shame.' Their servants may flatter them and call it courage, but the wise will be of a different opinion. 'It is very honourable to fear what one ought to fear and to provide against it.'
Comines himself was a good deal employed by the Duke of Burgundy in negotiating with the English, in particular at Calais. It was the first time I ever knew 'that the affairs of this world are unstable.' He had, however, learnt some other things. Being at Calais, which was held for Warwick and Edward IV. during Edward's expedition, he was asked for news: 'I answered on every occasion that King Edward was dead, and that I was well assured of it, although I well knew the contrary.' There is some humour in the contrast between the coolness of this statement and the moralising vein of the whole book. He makes a curious observation on the battle of Barnet, and one much opposed to our common conception of the king-maker. 'Warwick never would fight on foot, but when he had set his people to work his custom was to mount on horseback. If matters went well for him he was in the melly. [Mr. Kinglake has authorised the use of this word.] If they went ill he took himself off early. This time he was forced by his brother, the Marquis of Montague, a very valiant knight, to dismount and send away the horses.' Edward put many people to death after this, for 'he had conceived great hatred against the people of England' on account of their love for Warwick. In leaving the subject Comines remarks, 'Of all the people in the world the English were most inclined to these (pitched) battles.'
I may here refer to several observations on the English character which occur in different parts of Comines, and which are slightly connected with the main stream of his narrative. The English, he says, are very civil [ 'Le sens des Francois et leur habillete ne se monstrant par dehors celle des Anglois,' ] (' tres honorables'), but they are very stupid. 'Never was there a treaty between the English and the French in which the sense and cleverness of the French did not show itself superior to those of the English. It is indeed a common saying with the English, which I have heard in treating with them, that they always or generally have got the best of their battles with the French, but loss and damage in the treaties they have had with them.' Elsewhere he observes : 'Without doubt the English are not so subtle in treaties as the French, and whatever people may say they are clumsy in business, but you must have a little patience and not debate with them angrily. This clumsiness applied to war as well as to peace. Speaking of the Duke of Burgundy's plan of getting helped by the English, he says, 'If he had wanted their help he would have had to keep them in sight for a whole season to help them to provide for and lodge themselves, and to teach them things necessary to be known in our continental wars; for nothing can be more stupid and clumsy than they when they first crossed the straits, but in a very little time they became excellent soldiers, wise and hardy.'
The merits of the English government, however, struck him quite as much as the roughness of the nation. ['En Angleterre les choses y sont longues car le Roy ne peult entreprendre une telle oeuvre sans apeller son parlement (que vault autant a dire comme les trois Estats) qui est chose tres juste et saincte et en sont les rangs plus fort et mieux.] Edward IV. could not help Charles the Bold without the consent of Parliament. 'The King cannot undertake such a business without assembling his Parliament, which is a great and holy thing; and the kings are stronger and better served when they do so, in such matters. When the estates are assembled the King declares his intention, and asks aid of his subjects, for no aids are raised in England unless it is to pass into France or to go to Scotland, or other such expenses; they give then very liberally and willingly, especially to pass into France.' In another famous passage, he says: 'In my opinion, of all the countries in the world that I know England is the one in which the public interests are best treated, where there is least violence done to the people, and where no buildings are broken down or destroyed in war, but the grief and loss falls on those who make the war.'
Comines's account of the various intrigues between Louis XI. and Charles the Bold, which at last resulted in the sacrifice by Charles of the Constable of St. Pol, are interesting principally on account of a few incidental observations which he makes upon their general character. The picture of Louis flattering the English, deceiving St. Pol, and overreaching Charles the Bold, partly by treaty and partly by deceit, is too intricate to be reproduced in miniature. Very shortly their purport was as follows: St. Pol had betrayed in turn Louis XI., Charles the Bold, and his nephew by marriage, Edward IV.; although Louis had paid him enormously in land and power to secure his fidelity, and though he had been one of the principal agents in inviting Edward into France to help Charles. He was no doubt one of the very worst and most deceitful of the men of that age. By various artful devices Louis bought off Charles on the one hand, and Edward on the other, and made them aware of the character of St. Pol. To illustrate the general effect of the story I will quote three passages which show in general terms how matters stood between Louis and Charles, Louis and St. Pol, and Charles and St Pol.
'It may appear hereafter,' says Comines, 'to those who read this, that there was no great good faith in these two princes' (Louis and Charles), 'or that I speak ill of them. I should be sorry to speak ill of either. Every one knows that I am obliged to the King, but to continue what you, my Lord Archbishop of Vienne, have required of me, I must tell part of what I know, however it may have happened. But, if you think of other princes, you will consider these great noble and notable and our King very wise; for he left his kingdom increased and at peace with all his enemies.' He then says that he will consider which of the two wished to cheat the other, in order that any young prince who happened to read the book might be on his guard. And he adds: 'To tell my opinion I think it clear that each prince meant to cheat the other, and that their objects were very similar.'
As between Louis and St. Pol matters were still worse. The King very much wished to see St. Pol and offered him terms to come. 'The Constable was very willing to come, provided that the King would swear by the Cross of St. Lou d'Angers, [A bit of the true Cross kept at the Church of St. Lou at Angers.] to do no harm to his person, and not to consent to any one else doing it; and he said that he might just as well make this oath to him as to the Seigneur de Lesent which he had formerly done. The King replied that he would not take that oath to any one, but that he was content to take any other oath that the Constable chose to ask for. You can well understand that the King and also the Constable were in great trouble of mind ('grant travail d'esprit'), for not a single day passed for a period of time without messengers about this oath going from one to the other. And for one who would well consider it, this is a miserable life of ours to take so much time and trouble in wasting life, in saying and writing so many things nearly opposite to our thoughts.'
To make the combinations complete I must give an instance of the relations which Louis managed to establish between St. Pol and Charles the Bold. St. Pol sent an ambassador, Louis de Creville, to Louis, who arrived at the same time as an ambassador from Charles. Louis put Charles's ambassador together with Comines behind a curtain, and led on De Creville to talk of the Duke of Burgundy and his indignation at the moment against the English. 'And in saying this, Louis de Creville, thinking to please the king, began to mimic the Duke, and to stamp on the ground, and swear by St. George and call the King of England Blancborgne (Blackburn), the son of an archer of that name, and every sort of mockery which could possibly be used about a man. The King laughed greatly and told him to speak out, and said that he began to be a little deaf and that he must say it again. The other began again with right good will. M. de Contay, who was with me behind the curtain, was greatly astonished and never could have believed whatever had been said to him the words he heard.'
The result of a long train of ingenious devices and negotiations of which these stories show the character, was, as I have already said, that St. Pol was sacrificed by the Duke of Burgundy and executed by Louis (19th Dec. 1475). The observations of Comines on the folly of St. Pol on the one hand, and the mixture of vice and folly on the part of the Duke of Burgundy on the other, are very characteristic. As St. Pol, after enumerating his resources and referring to his connection with Edward IV. who had married his niece, and to the advantage which he might easily have made of the enmity between the King and the Duke, who never agreed in anything in all their lives but in this'—i.e. attacking him—Comines continues, 'We must see that the deceiver Fortune had looked on him with an evil eye, or rather we must answer that these great mysteries do not come from fortune, and that fortune is nothing but a poetical fiction, and that God must have abandoned him, when we look at the matters above mentioned, and at others which I have not referred to, and if it appertained to a man to judge (which it does not, especially not to me), I should say that what reasonably must have been the cause of his punishment, was that he had always laboured with all his power to keep up the war between the King and the Duke of Burgundy, for on that was founded his great authority and great estate.' ... 'It is probable and certain that he was removed from the grace of God, in having made himself the enemy of these three princes, and in not having a single friend who dared to lodge him for one night; no other fortune put her hand to it.'2 As for the Duke of Burgundy, he says that he behaved very ill to the Constable, and that he soon 'received damage and thus to see the things which God has done in our time and does every day, it seems that he will leave nothing unpunished; and one can evidently see that these strange works come from him, for they are beyond the course of nature, and are sudden punishments, especially against those who are violent and cruel, who in general cannot be small personages, but very great, either lords or of princely authority.'
The principal reason which induced Charles to deliver St. Pol to Louis was his anxiety to get possession of Nancy, which he was besieging when St. Pol was given up. [St. Pol was executed at Paris, 19th December 1475. Nancy was taken 30th November 1475.] He took it a few days afterwards, and made it the point of various ambitious schemes for extending still further the limits of his heterogeneous empire.
In the following spring he invaded Switzerland, and suffered the defeats of Granson (3d March) and Morat (22d June). Nancy in the meantime was retaken by Ren6, the nephew of the old King of Provence (19th October), and in the winter was besieged by Charles, who was killed in front of it (6th January 1476). Comines gives a full account of these transactions.
I will refer only to a few characteristic remarks on the principal actors in them. As to Louis, he observes that after the battle of Granson he 'had very great joy, and was displeased only at the small number of men killed.' After Morat, his sister, the Duchess of Savoy, appealed to him for protection against Charles, who had entered Savoy after the battle, and had put her under a sort of guard near Dijon. She was very much afraid of her brother, but she found means to join him, and what was still better, to leave him safely. 'They were very glad to part from each other, and remained ever afterwards a good brother and sister till death.'
As to the Duke of Burgundy, 'his grief at the loss of the battle of Granson was so great, and so troubled his spirits that he fell very ill. He was so ill that whereas his natural heat was such that he never drank wine, but generally drank tisanne and ate preserved roses to cool himself, his grief affected his constitution, so that he was obliged to drink strong wine without water; and to draw the blood from his heart they put lighted tow to his blisters and thus applied heat to the region of the heart. [Mettoient des estouppes ardentes dedans des ventouses.] About this, my lord, you know more than I, having helped to treat him in this illness, and having made him shave his beard, which he allowed to grow; and I think he never was so wise as before after this illness, but that his sense was much diminished.'
'Such are the passions of those who never suffered adversity, and can find no remedy for it, and in particular proud princes; for in these and similar cases the first refuge is to return to God, and consider whether we have in any way offended him, and to humble ourselves before him, and confess our misdeeds; for he it is who determines such cases, nor can any one find any error in his judgments.
'Next to this it does great good to talk to one friend if possible, and boldly to lament one's faults to him, and not to be ashamed to show our grief before that special friend, for that lightens and comforts the heart.' The Duke, however, was too proud for this, and determined to try to retake Nancy. 'It would have been better for him not to be so obstinate, but God prepares these extraordinary resolutions for princes when it pleases him to change their fortune.’
The siege of Nancy began in the winter of 1475-76. A gentleman of Provence, Seffron by name, tried to enter the town to join the Duke of Lorraine, who commanded there.
He was taken prisoner. 'The Duke of Burgundy commanded him to be immediately hanged, saying that when a prince has opened a siege and made his artillery fire upon a place, those who try to enter it are worthy of death by the laws of war. However, this is not the practice in our wars, which are more cruel than the wars of Italy and Spain where this custom prevails. Seffron begged for his life, saying that he had a secret of importance to tell the Duke, which was the treason of Campo Basso his 1 II. 40. 2 II. 46. 3 II. 48. general. He was, however, executed. 'It would have been better for the Duke not to be so cruel, and to have heard him humanely.' He might then have escaped, and his house might have stood and been increased; 'but probably God had otherwise arranged since the dishonourable trick which the Duke had played upon the Count of St. Pol.'
A little farther on Comines go so far as to say, 'You have heard how God made the Count of Campo Basso commissary to execute vengeance for the business of the Constable at the proper place, in the proper manner, and far more cruelly,' i.e. than Charles had treated St. Pol. Comines preaches a striking little funeral sermon on Charles the Bold. It is an excellent specimen both of his manner and of the habitual cast of his thoughts. It begins with a story, glides off into a character, and is full of reflections. 'I have since seen a seal at Milan which I have often seen hanging to his doublet. It was a ring, and had a gem [One of the emblems of the Golden Fleece.] engraved on a cameo with his arms, which was sold at Milan for two ducats. The person who took it from him was a bad servant of his bedchamber. I have often seen him dressed and undressed in great reverence, and by great personages, and at this last hour his honours had left him, and he and his house perished, as I have said, at the place where he consented from avarice to give up the Constable; and soon afterwards, God pardon his sins, I saw him a great and honourable prince, as much esteemed and in request amongst his neighbours at one time as any prince who ever was in Christendom, and perhaps more.
'I saw no reason why he should incur the wrath of God sooner than others, except that he considered all the graces and honours which he had received in this world as proceeding from his own sense and virtue without, as he ought, attributing them to God; for in truth he had good and virtuous qualities. No prince ever excelled him in the desire to support the great and keep them in good order. His favours were not very great, because he wished every one to feel them. No one gave audience more liberally to his servants and subjects. When I knew him he was not cruel, but he became so before his death, which looked as if he would not last long. He was very magnificent in dress and other things, indeed rather too much. He highly honoured ambassadors and strangers; they were very well treated and received by him. He desired great glory, which was what caused more of his wars than any other thing, and he would willingly have resembled those ancient princes of whom so much has been said after their death; as bold as any man who reigned in his day. Well, all these thoughts are finished, and everything has turned to his shame and prejudice, for those who win always have the honour.'
He then goes on to describe the sufferings produced by the death of Charles in his various dominions, of which he observes: 'I have never known any lordship or country, size for size, or even of much larger extent, so abundant in riches, in furniture, and in buildings, and also in all sorts of prodigality, expense, feasting, and cheer as his territories were when I knew him; and if those who were not there at the time I refer to think that I say too much of them, others who were there like me will perhaps say that I say too little.'
After describing the death of the Duke of Burgundy, Comines goes on to describe the manner in which Louis XI . received the intelligence. He got the news by means of the post which he had established, and 'was so overjoyed at the news that he hardly knew how to behave,' although the first letter did not mention the Duke's death.
He behaved in a very characteristic manner to his own nobility on the occasion. 'He sent into the town of Tours for all the captains and other great personages and showed them these letters. They all testified great joy, and it seemed to those who looked into matters very close that many of them forced themselves to do so, and that, notwithstanding their behaviour, they would have preferred the Duke's fate to be different. The cause might be that the King was greatly feared, and they doubted whether, if he found himself freed from his enemies, he would not wish to make many alterations, especially in estates and offices; for there were many in the company who had been opposed to him in the matter of the Public Good, and some in the matter of his brother the Duke of Guienne.
After having talked with them for a time, he heard the Mass, and then had the table laid in his chamber, and other members of his council were there. As he dined he talked over these matters; and I know well that I and others noticed how those who were at table would dine, and with what appetite; but, to tell the truth (whether from joy or sorrow, I do not know), not one seemed to me to eat half his fill. They were not ashamed to eat before the King, for every one there had often eaten with him before.'
Louis lost no time after the death of Charles in taking possession of his dominions. I have already sketched very shortly the steps by which this was effected. Comines's account of the matter enters a good deal into details, which have lost much of their interest, but they suggest to him reflections which form far the most interesting part of his work. Indeed the last three chapters of the fifth book would give any one who does not care to read the whole work a very good notion of the general view of thought by which it is pervaded. They are introduced by the following remark upon the town of Ghent, suggested by the narrative which he had just given of the troubles caused there by the breach of confidence of Louis towards Mary of Burgundy, which ended in the execution of Humbercourt and Hugonet (?) 'I cannot think why God has so preserved this town of Ghent, from which so much mischief has come, and which is of so little use to the territory in which it is situated, and of much less to the prince, and is not like Bruges, which is a great depot for merchandise, and a great place of meeting for foreign countries, and in which, perhaps, more merchandise is sold than in any other town in Europe, and its destruction would cause irreparable damage.' The answer to the difficulty is that the case of Ghent is merely an illustration of the working of a general law. 'I think that God has created nothing in this world—man or beast—without making something contrary to it to keep it in fear and humility.' The turbulence of Ghent is thus intended as a reproof to the love of pleasure, which specially distinguished the Low Countries. And this is not the only nation to which God has given a string, 'for he has given the English as a check to the French, the Scotch to the English, Portugal to the Spaniards. I don't mention Granada, because the Moors are enemies to the Christian faith, still Granada has been a great trouble to Castille' (the tacit assumption that the divine government extends only to Christian countries is very characteristic). 'To the princes of Italy (most of whom hold their territories without any title, unless it is given to them by heaven, and of that we can only guess), who rule cruelly and violently over their people in the matter of taxation, God has given as a check the republics of Italy, such as Venice, Florence, Genoa, sometimes Bologna, Sienna, Lucca, and others which in many things are opposed to the nobility and the nobility to them. Each, too, has an eye on its fellows, to prevent their increase.'
After giving a good many other examples of this perpetual opposition, by which every prince and nation is punished for its faults, Comines diverges with a long and not very systematic discourse about the faults which require all this punishment. The principal cause, he says, of the evils of life is the stupidity ('bestialité') of the princes, and the wickedness of others who are better informed. Knowledge, he says, makes the good better and the bad worse, but, on the whole, it is a good thing, partly because it makes people ashamed of their own vices, partly because it makes them 'fear the punishment of God, of which they have more knowledge than the ignorant, who have neither reading nor experience. Ill-informed princes do not know how far the power and superiority which God has given them over their subjects extends.'
Upon the whole, however, he thinks that 'we must conclude that neither natural reason, nor our own sense, not the fear of God, nor the love of our neighbours prevent us from being violent towards each other or from keeping each other's property or taking it away from each other by every means in our power.' Hence, 'God is probably almost forced and constrained or summoned to display various signs, and to beat us with many rods by our stupidity, or, as I rather think, our wickedness; but the stupidity and ignorance of princes is very dangerous, and much to be feared, because upon them depends the prosperity or adversity of their territories.'
This reflection leads Comines to discuss at length the political evils of his time, and in particular to give an elaborate account of the condition of France and the French government which is full of interest. He introduces it by observing that soldiers ought to be regularly paid, and that when their pay falls into arrear they grievously oppress the population. He then goes on thus. 'Is there in the world a king or lord who has power beyond his own demesne to lay taxes on his subjects without the consent of those who are to pay, unless by tyranny and violence?
'It may be said that there are occasions when the assembly of the states cannot be waited for, and that to assemble the states would put off the commencement and undertaking of the war too long. Do not be in such a hurry. There is time enough; and I tell you that kings and princes are much stronger when they take their subjects' advice and are feared for it by their enemies. When you have to defend yourself you see the cloud come from a distance, especially when they are foreigners, and in such a case good subjects should refuse nothing and make no complaints.' After some further observations in the same strain he adds: 'Of all the lordships in the world3 that I know, England is the one where the public interests are best cared for, where the least violence is done to the people, and where no buildings are destroyed or knocked down in war, and the bad luck and misery falls upon those who make the war.'
This favourable view of England leads him to say that the natural disposition of the French is such as to make inexcusable in their kings to tyrannise over them. The people, he says, are naturally loyal. 'Our king is of all lords in the world the one who has least cause to say, "It is my privilege to levy what I please on my subjects." Neither he nor any one else has that privilege, and those who say he has to raise his reputation for greatness do him no honour, but cause him to be hated and feared by his neighbours, who for no consideration would be under his rule, and indeed some of his subjects would be glad to be out of it. If our king or those who wish to praise and honour him said, "I have such good and loyal subjects that they refuse me nothing that I ask of them; and I am more feared, obeyed, and served by my subjects than any other prince who lives in the world, and they endure more patiently all evils and hardships and less remember past evils" —I think that would be a great credit to him.' He goes on to prove his point by reference to the proceedings of the States-General of Tours held in 1483. After a good many discursive observations and illustrations upon various points he works round again to his favourite reflections upon the divine government. 'The greatest evils come from the strongest, for the weak seek only patience. It is by the care of the great that we know the power and justice of God. As for misfortunes that happen to one poor man or to a hundred no one notices them; everything is ascribed to his poverty or folly, or if he gets drowned or breaks his neck, inasmuch as he is alone, people hardly care to hear about it. If a misfortune falls upon a great city people do not speak of it so much as of the misfortunes of princes.
'We must say then why the power of God shows itself rather against the great than against the small' (the preceding observations seem to imply that the difference is only that in the case of the poor it is not noticed, but this want of system is very characteristic of Comines). 'It is because there are plenty of people to punish the little and the poor when they give cause; indeed, they are often punished enough without giving any cause, either as an example to others or to get their goods, or perhaps by the fault of the judge, and sometimes they do deserve it well and justice must be done'—but who is to punish the great and how come they to want punishing? 'I say it is for want of faith, and in the case of the ignorant for want both of faith and of sense, but principally for want of faith, from which I think proceed all the evils in the world, and in particular the evils of those who complain of being oppressed by others and by superior force. For if a poor man who had true and good faith, be he who he might, believed firmly that the pains of hell are such as they really are, and also believed that he had wrongfully taken the property of another, or that his father or grandfather had taken it and that he held it (whether duchies, counties, towns, or castles, furniture, a meadow, a pond, a mill, each according to his condition), and firmly believed as we ought to believe, "I shall never enter Paradise unless I make satisfaction and return what I wrongfully possess," is it credible that any prince or princess in the world would keep anything from his subject or his neighbour, or put any one to death wrongfully, or keep him in prison, or take from one to enrich another (which is the most cruel of their trades), or make base designs against their relations or servants for their pleasure as in the case of women or the like? On my faith, no. It is not credible. If then they had firm faith, and believed what God and the Church order as under pain of damnation, knowing their days to be so short, and the pains of hell so horrible and without any end, or remission for the damned, would they act as they do? We must conclude that they would not, and that all evils arise from want of faith.'
He then enters at length into the history of the enormous ransom which King John paid to get out of the hands of the English, whereas the worst which Edward III. could have done to him was not 'one hundredth thousandth part as bad as the least pain of hell;' and concludes thus —' There are no princes or but few who if they hold a town of their neighbour's will choose to give it up upon any remonstrance, or for fear of God, or to avail the pains of hell. Yet King John gave all that merely to deliver his person from prison; I say then that it is want of faith, which causes all our evils.'
Comines need not by the way have gone so far for his illustration. The tenacity with which he himself clung to property which he had derived from a most unjust grant of Louis XI., proved clearly enough that all the terrors of another world were overbalanced in his own estimation by present wealth.
Having concluded his reflections, Comines returns to his history and describes at length the various intrigues which were connected with the attainment of Louis XI.'s great object,—the appropriation of the dominions of Charles the Bold, and Comines's own embassy to Florence. This part of the memoirs contains little that is of special interest till we come to the death of Louis XI .
Comines returned from Italy a little before the battle of Guinegate (7th August 1479), in which the Flemings fought, on behalf of the Archduke Maximilian, a drawn battle with the French army. Louis was much vexed at the news, but determined to make peace if possible with the archduke, and to attend, as we should say, to internal reforms. 'He desired with all his heart to be able to make great reforms in his kingdom, and in particular to shorten trials, and thereby to reform the procedure of the Parliament not to diminish their number or authority, but he had several things on his mind for which he disliked them. Moreover, he much desired that the whole realm should use one customary law, and one set of weights and measures, and that all the customs should be written in French in a fair book to avoid the chicanery and plunder of the advocates, which is greater in this realm than anywhere else in the world.'
These plans, however, were cut short by a fit from which he never quite recovered. He was aware of his danger and was greatly alarmed at it, and took the most extraordinary measures to prolong his life. He sent for a kind of saint from Calabria—a hermit who 'at twelve years of age settled in a cave where he lived till the age of forty-three, when the king sent one of his household to fetch him. When the hermit came Louis fell on his knees before him, 'that it might please him to prolong his life.' Comines obviously believes in the hermit, and says that he 'seemed inspired by God' in what he said, and displayed supernatural knowledge, but he did his employer no particular good. Louis, however, tried other expedients. He determined, in the first place, to conceal his condition from his subjects. 'He inflicted severe punishments to be feared, and for fear of losing his authority, for so he told me. He changed offices and dismissed soldiers, diminished or took away pensions in all directions, and told me a few days before his death that he passed his time in making and unmaking people; and he made himself more talked of through the kingdom than he had ever done, and this he did for fear he should be supposed to be dead, as I have said few people saw him, and when they heard of the things which he did every one doubted and could hardly believe that he was ill.'
He undertook new schemes, he made expensive purchases, 'he bought a good horse whatever he cost, or a fine mule in countries where he wished to be thought well, for he did not do so in this kingdom. He sent to buy dogs everywhere. In Spain he bought allans. [Especes de chiens grand, fort, et courageux.] In Brittany little greyhound bitches, greyhounds, and spaniels, for which he paid a high price; at Valence little hardy dogs which he paid for at a higher price than their owners asked for them; he sent to Sicily to buy a particular mule from an officer of the country, and he paid twice its value; at Naples he bought horses. He bought curious beasts on all sides. In Barbary he bought a sort of little lions, not larger than small foxes, which they call aditz. He sent to Denmark and Sweden for two kinds of beasts, one called elks, which have bodies like stags, are as big as buffaloes, and have thick and short horns the others called reindeer, which are in body and colour like bucks, except that their horns are larger, for I have seen a reindeer with fifty-four points. For six of each of these beasts he paid to merchants 4500 German florins. When these creatures were brought to him he took no notice of them, and generally did not speak to those who brought them. In fact he did so many things of this sort that he was more feared by his neighbours and subjects than he had ever been; this was his object and he acted thus with this view.'
'He continued and even pressed on all the negotiations in which he was engaged, and extended his influence over Flanders, Brittany, Spain, Italy, and Switzerland. The kings of Scotland, the kings of Portugal, and his allies, and part of Navarre did as he pleased. His subjects trembled before him. What he commanded was instantly accomplished without difficulty or excuse.' He did not, however, neglect the spiritual arm. 'Touching the things which were thought necessary for his health, they were sent to him from all parts of the world. The last Pope Sixtus' (Sixtus IV.) ‘being informed of his illness, and hearing that as a matter of devotion the King wished for the altar-cloth on which my lord St. Peter sang mass, sent it him at once with several other relics which were returned. The holy jar which is near Rheims, which had never been removed from its place, was brought to him in his chamber at Plessis, and was on the sideboard when he died. He intended to be anointed from it as he had been at his coronation, and many people thought that he wished to anoint his whole body, which is not likely, for the said holy jar is very small and there is not much in it. I saw it at the time I speak of, and also when the King was buried at Nostre Dame de Clery.
'The present Sultan' (Bagazet II.) 'sent him an ambassador who came as far as Riez in Provence, but the King would not hear him nor allow him to come further. This ambassador brought him a great roll of relics which are still at Constantinople in the possession of the Sultan. He offered them to the King with a large sum of money, if the King would be good enough to keep in prison the Sultan's brother who was in France, under the protection of the knights of Rhodes, and is now at Rome under the protection of the Pope.' The only effect of all this devotion was that 'one favour God gave him.' He lived longer than the other princes of his day 'but not much.' 'All had their good and bad points, for all were men; but without flattery he had more royal and princely qualities than any of them. I have seen them all and know their powers.'
His fear of death was almost entirely moral. He retained all his faculties. 'Never in all his illness did he complain, as all kinds of people do when they are ill. At least I do, and I have seen others do so, and they say that to complain eases one's sufferings.' His illness lasted from Monday till Saturday night. 'Here,' says Comines, 'I would compare the evils and pains which he caused to others with those which he suffered himself before he died; for I hope they will have taken him to heaven, and that this caused part of his purgatory. If they were neither so great nor so long as those which he caused to others, he bore a different and higher office in the world than they; besides he had never suffered personally, but was so much obeyed that it seemed almost as if all Europe was made only to obey him, whereby the little that he suffered against his nature and habit was harder for him to endure.'
Nothing can be more curious than the mixed feelings with which Comines regards his hero's sufferings. He looks on them as expiations for the faults which had disfigured a great and good career; but he constantly keeps in view the faults of which they were the expiation. He goes into this, after his fashion, at great length, and in a wandering, gossipy manner, which nevertheless is highly characteristic.
Certain persons, whom Comines does not name, 'whom he had elevated too suddenly and without occasion, one being his physician, took upon themselves without fear to say things to so great a prince which did not become them, and they did not observe the reverence and humility which belonged to the occasion, as those who were brought up in his court, or those who had been a short time before driven away by his fancies, would have done: not just as two great personages whom he had put to death in his time had had their death signified to them by commissaries appointed for the purpose, who declared their sentence to them in few words. So did the three persons aforesaid signify to our King his death in words short and rude, saying, "Sir, we must do our duty, hope no more in this holy man or in other things, for assuredly it is all over with you, therefore think of your conscience, for there is no remedy." . . . What pain it was to him to hear the news. Never man feared death so much, or did so many things to avoid it. Throughout his life he had begged his servants and me, like the rest, if we saw him under the necessity of dying, to say nothing to him except "speak little," and that we were only to move him to confess himself without pronouncing that cruel word death, for he thought he should never have the heart to hear such a cruel sentence. However, he bore it bravely, and everything else besides even to death itself, better than any man whom I ever saw die.'
The mixture of sympathy and respect for the king, with a recognition of the retributive justice of his sentence which appears in these words is still more strikingly displayed in what follows. 'His illness lasted, as I have said, from the Monday to the Saturday evening, and I will compare the misfortunes and sufferings which he caused others to suffer, with those which he suffered before he died, because I hope they will have got him into heaven, and that this was in part the cause of his purgatory' (i.e. here on earth). 'If his sufferings were not so great or long as those which he inflicted on others, he had a different and a higher place in the world from theirs, and he had never suffered in his own person but had been so much obeyed, that it seemed as if nearly all Europe had been made to obey him, so that the little that he suffered against his nature and custom was harder for him to bear. The principal sufferings, however, which he underwent were moral. For five or six months before his death he suspected every one, and in particular all those who were deserving of authority.' . . . 'If he had made many people live in fear and suspicion under him he was well paid for it; whom could he trust when he suspected his son, his daughter, and his son-in-law?’
His physician was an additional punishment. He was so very 'rude that one would not say to a lacquey the rude and outrageous things which he said to the King, and the King feared him so that he dare not send him away.' The physician had told him that he would not live eight days after dismissing him. 'This so frightened him that ever afterwards he flattered and paid him, which was a great purgatory for him in this world, considering the great obedience which he had had from so many honourable and great personages.' It is true, says Comines, that he had made cruel prisons, such as iron cages, which 'many have since suffered, I amongst the rest, who tasted of them under the present King for eight months;' but in his last days he made a larger and stricter prison for himself, 'which, I think, was a great grace for him and part of his purgatory, and I say so to show that there is no man, of whatever dignity, who does not suffer either secretly or in public, and in particular those who have made others suffer.' This larger and stricter prison was the palace of Plessis, which, says Comines, he 'caused to be enclosed with great iron bars in the form of huge grates, and at the four corners of the house four turrets of iron, good, large, and thick.' He surrounded the castle with guards, and the strictest rules were laid down as to admission to it. Is it possible to keep a king ' who is to be honourably guarded in a closer prison than that in which he kept himself? The cages in which he kept others were eight feet square, and he who was so great a King had but a small court in the castle to walk in; he hardly ever came there, too, for he stayed in the gallery, except when he went to mass through the rooms without passing through the court. Can it be said that this King did not suffer as well as others when he thus shut himself up and had himself guarded, and was so much afraid of his children and near relations, and changed and moved every day his servants and the companions of his meals, who were dependent upon him for their property and honour, and dared not trust any of them, and thus chained himself with a strange chain and restraint? If the place was larger than a common prison, he was greater than common prisoners.'
Louis, Comines adds, had very little pleasure in life. For the latter part of his life he was faithful to his Queen, which, as Comines oddly observes, was no doubt right; but was a great thing to do, considering how many other ladies were 'at his orders,' and that the Queen 'n'etoit point de celles ou on devoit prendre grant plaisir mais au demeurant fort bonne dame.'
He was very fond of hunting, but in that 'he had almost as much fatigue as pleasure.' He got up early and hunted late, and often came home very tired and generally out of temper with some one.' He was constantly engaged in war, but that was very laborious. 'Whilst he was resting, his mind was at work, for he had business in many places, and took part in his neighbours' affairs as readily as in his own'; when he was at war he desired peace or truce; when he had it he could scarcely endure it. He mixed himself up in many small matters in his kingdom, many of which he might have avoided; but such was his constitution, and so he lived. His memory, too, was so good that he remembered everything and knew everybody in every country near him. He seemed, indeed, fitter to govern a world than to govern a kingdom.'
After running through the chief events of his life, Comines remarks upon it, 'At what time, then, can one say that he enjoyed himself in all these affairs? I think that from his infancy and innocence he had nothing but suffering and labour till his death; and that if all the good days, which he had in his life in which he had more joy and pleasure than labour and fatigue, were well counted, few would be found. I think that there would be twenty days of labour and sorrow for one of pleasure and ease.'
As his manner is, this leads Comines to make similar remarks on others. Charles the Bold was no happier 'What ease had he? Always labour of body and mind without pleasure. And what did he get by his labour? What need had he of it? He who was such a rich lord and had so many towns and lordships under his orders, where he might have been so happy if he had pleased.'
He makes similar remarks about Edward IV. and Mahomet II., and at last concludes with the following passage—the most characteristic, perhaps, in the whole book. 'Look, then, at the death of so many great men in such a short time, who laboured so hard to increase themselves and to get glory, and have suffered for it so much in passions and in troubles, and shortened their lives, and perhaps their souls may suffer for it. In this I do not refer to the aforesaid Turk, for I consider this point settled, and that he is lodged with his predecessors. Of our King I have hope (as I said) that our Lord will have mercy on him and also on the others, if he pleases. But to speak naturally, as a man who has no great natural or acquired sense but some little experience, would it not have been better for him and all other princes and men of middling estate who have lived under the great, and will live under those who rule, to choose a middle course in these things? That is to say, to be less careful, and to work less, and to undertake fewer things, to have more fear of offending God and oppressing the people and their neighbours in the many cruel ways which I have sufficiently described already, but to take harmless ease and pleasure. Their lives would be the longer for it, illnesses would come later, and their deaths would be more regretted, and by more people, and would be less desired, and they would fear death less. Can we see better examples to show that man is but a poor creature, and that this life is miserable and short, and that great and small come to nothing when they are dead? for to every one their bodies are an object of horror and detestation, and the soul when it leaves the body must go to receive judgment, and their sentence is given according to the works and deserts of the body.'!
Such is the picture drawn by Comines of the great men with whom the most stirring part of his life was passed. I have tried to reproduce it as fully as is consistent with great condensation, because it appears to me to show with unrivalled clearness how in the fifteenth century the most unhesitating religious belief might be entertained by what we should call a bad man, and how if this happened to be the case his mind would be affected by it.
It is perfectly clear from Comines that both Louis XI . and Comines himself believed with an absolute conviction of its truth in the current creed of the day. They had, in the fullest measure, that certainty which in these days so many people long for with a passionate longing, and are willing to buy at any price whatever. No one can deny that it had a great effect upon them. It is hardly too much to say that Comines's whole mind was haunted at all times and at every point by a belief in an invisible and immensely powerful and artful man whom he called God, and whom he believed to be continually engaged in devising all sorts of plans by which the visible rulers of the earth might be outwitted and controlled, in order that effect might be given to a set of general rules, constituting, according to Comines's view, a code of supernatural criminal law.
It was hopeless, no doubt, to try to outwit God, but it was by no means impossible to effect bargains and compromises with him, and by different ways and means known to, and at the disposal of, the priesthood to escape from the penalties which he would otherwise have inflicted.
The moral effect of this belief is fully displayed by every step in the history of Louis XI. It did not make him a good man. It had not, so far as we can judge, the very smallest tendency in that direction. It did, however, beyond all doubt, impose a very strong check on his conduct. It drove him into odd roundabout ways of doing outrageous things, and seems to have made him feel when he was winning, much as a boy feels when he does something which he particularly wishes to do, taking his chance of being punished if he is found out.
Christianity, regarded as a system by the operation of which he might very probably be punished, had thus a considerable and a rather wholesome, though a distorted and on the whole ignoble effect on Louis XI . As a system by which his heart could be touched, by which the aims of his life could be regulated and his feelings purified, it would seem hardly to have affected him at all. His biographer displays perhaps even more fully the same state of mind. He does not disapprove of his hero, or even like him much the less, on account of his admitted iniquities. Comines appears to regard his sins as matters, so to speak, between him and his Maker, which, if he chose to run the necessary amount of risk, he was justified in committing as far as his fellow-creatures were concerned.
Another matter upon which every page of Comines throws a broad light is the extreme ignorance of the times in which he lived. The complete absence of any sort of literary or scientific training amongst the aristocracy of his day is proved by half the passages which I have extracted above; and the general tone of the whole book shows how the absence of such training lowered the most conspicuous natural gifts into something little better than cunning and violence. It is melancholy to see how men like Louis XI. and Charles the Bold, whose natural gifts were on a level with those of the greatest modern statesmen, looked upon politics as a mere field for personal ambition. When either of them by any accident gets a glimmering notion of the importance of promoting the general good of the state and improving its institutions, Comines looks upon their virtue and wisdom as something prodigious. The utmost that he appears practically to expect of any one is that he will be rather moderate, and not inhumanly cruel or treacherous in the pursuit of his personal objects.