Your RDA of Irony

The Strange Bedfellows of Louis XII

January 8, 1499

Let’s congratulate Louis XII and Anne of Britanny on their wedding anniversary. The customary gift (after the 75th anniversary) is formaldehyde. It was a second marriage for both, and the groom deserves special congratulations for surviving his first father-in-law: Louis XI!

If Karl Rove has a French role model, it must be Louis XI. One of the greatest dirty tricksters of history, his intrigues and machinations earned him the epithet “The Spider King“.

Louis XI was a genius at undermining his rivals, real and hypothetical. He fomented civil war in England, subsidizing the Lancasters and Tudors in their dynastic struggle that exhausted France’s oldest enemy. He undermined the Duchy of Burgundy, igniting a series of rebellions that eventually destroyed both the Duke and his vast duchy; and Louis managed to acquire many of the fragments. (He did fail to coerce the orphaned heiress of Burgundy to marry his son; she preferred the good-looking Hapsburg boy to the son of her father’s killer.)

However, his nastiest strategem was how he dealt with his second cousin, the Duke of Orleans. The Duke, the other Louis, was a virtuous and careful man, so he did nothing to justify even a suspicion of treason. Yet, his mere existence was a potential threat to the King and his young heir. If England could have dynastic wars, why not France. Louis XI wanted to eliminate even the potential for a threat. If he couldn’t blatantly kill the Orleans line, he did have a way to sterilize it.

The King had a daughter Jeanne who was crippled and incapable of having children. In most cases, the handicapped children of royalty and the aristocracy were sent off to the church, where they could be forgotten. The Spider King, however, had a more practical idea. He forced the Duke of Orleans to marry Jeanne. What could the Duke do? A refusal would have been treason.

That should have been the end of the House of Orleans. When Louis XI died in 1483, he was succeeded by his son Charles VIII. Charles coerced another orphaned heiress, Anne the Duchess of Brittany, to marry him. None of their children survived 15th century medicine, however; and when Charles died in 1498, guess who succeeded him? The next in the succession was the Duke of Orleans, now Louis XII.

(So, the nastiest trick of Louis XI really didn’t work; but you have to marvel at its evil.)

The new King wanted his marriage annulled and divulged all the conjugal challenges before Pope Alexander VI. Since the Pope had six children, he saw no reason for a king to be celibate. Jeanne was obliged to announce her retirement to a convent. The now bachelor King married the widow of Charles VIII. As it turned out, Anne of Britanny had one leg shorter than the other. However, this handicap could be surmounted…ahem. Their union produced at least some healthy daughters. (Louis XII would be succeeded by his son-in-law Francis I.)

Queen Anne died in 1514, and political considerations obliged Louis XII to marry again. But this time, the middle-aged man was presented with a healthy, very pretty teenage bride: Mary, the younger sister of Henry VIII. Louis was delighted–finally. But, to quote Shakespeare, “how strange desire should so outlive capacity”! Louis was dead within four months: the diagnosis was over-exertion.

It had to be an amusing funeral. Louis definitely was laid to rest.

p.s. The teenage widow returned to England where (unprecedented in this narrative) she then married someone she actually loved. And she lived happily ever after–until she died at the age of 37. Even true love couldn’t conquer 16th century medicine.

  1. Hal Gordon says:

    The story of Mary Tudor’s forced marriage to Louis XII, and subsequent marriage to her true love, Charles Brandon, was the subject of an 1898 historical novel, “When Knighthood Was In Flower” by Charles Major. Walt Disney did a film version in 1953, with Glynis Johns and Richard Todd as the star-crossed lovers. James Robertson Justice gives the role of Henry VIII a comic twist and steals the film.

  2. James Robertson Justice was a man of droll wit and inordinate charm. (Yes, we are frequently confused.) However, in 1515, Henry VIII was only 24 and handsome; the good looks were from his mother’s side.

    However delightful, Robertson-Justice was twice that age and unlikely to be called handsome.

    Sacrificing charm for historical accuracy, I might have cast the 27 year-old Roger Moore as Henry VIII. (Yes, I do feel somewhat ashamed but that is the price of being a history fanatic.)


  3. david traini says:

    Louis XI, obviously, was no saint.

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