Louis XI’s Conspiratorial Reign: Who Was the Universal Spider?

Discover the events which shaped King Louis XI’s reign.

May 22, 2023By Chester Ollivier, BA (Hons) History

louis xi king france universal spider


From rebelling against his father while still a prince, to restoring relationships in Italy, the Universal Spider had done it all. During his eventful reign, he put down a rebellion with his youngest brother and formed a postal service that helped to take France from the medieval world to the early modern one. Today, King Louis XI remains one of the most fascinating kings in French — and European — history.


Louis XI’s Early Life and Marriage

Louis XI (r. 1461-83), by Jacob de Littemont, c. 1469, via Wikimedia Commons


The future King Louis XI of France was born on 3rd July 1423 in Bourges, France, as the eldest of the fourteen legitimate children of King Charles VII of France and Marie of Anjou. Only seven of his siblings survived to adulthood, including the youngest of all fourteen siblings — Charles — whom he would frequently quarrel with in later life.


Louis’ earliest involvement in politics was during the Hundred Years’ War at Loches, when, aged 6 years old, he was at court in the presence of Joan of Arc, who had recently returned fresh from her victory over the English at the Siege of Orleans; a key turning point for the French in the conflict.


Then, shortly before Louis turned 13 years old, he was betrothed to marry Margaret of Scotland: the eldest daughter of King James I of Scotland. Theirs was to be a diplomatic marriage — a ploy to renew the Auld Alliance against their common enemy: England. They met on 24th June 1436 and were married the following day.

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The ceremony was conducted at the Castle of Tours, and presided over by the Archbishop of Reims. Despite it being a fairly small and private ceremony, the Scottish guests were quickly ushered out as Charles VII deemed it too expensive to both host and entertain them — the Scots saw this as an insult, but they too were too impoverished to wage war against the French crown for the sake of this oversight.


Charles VII, depicted as one of the three kings in The Adoration of the Magi, by Jean Fouquet, 1461, via Wikiart


Because of the couple’s young age, physicians had advised against the consummation of the marriage (Margaret was only 11 years old). As a result, Margaret continued her studies, while Louis joined his father on a tour to the loyal areas of the French kingdom. On this tour, Charles had come to understand both the temper and intelligence of his son, and it was on this tour that Louis was formally named as the Dauphin of France: Charles VII’s heir apparent.


By 1437, when Louis was a teenager, Paris had been recaptured by the French, and Louis and his father were finally able to ride into the French capital. However, Louis had already grown up seeing how vulnerable France was, and as a result, he perceived his father as a weakling — something he despised him for.


Rivalry with his Father: The Praguerie and Second Marriage 

Portrait of Charles VII, by Jean Fouquet, Louvre Museum, c. 1445-50, Web Gallery of Art


It didn’t take long for the new Dauphin to rebel against his father. When he was aged 16, in early 1440, Louis took part in an uprising known as the Praguerie. It was named after a similar rebellion that had taken place in the Bohemian city of Prague.


The roots of the Praguerie were aimed at combatting Charles VII’s reforms in the closing stages of the Hundred Years’ War, and the methods with which he was attempting to tackle the anarchy in France.


For example, ordinances passed at Orleans in 1439 granted Charles 100,000 Francs, but he also demanded contributions to the royal purse from the nobility on top of this sum, which enraged them. The main instigator of the Praguerie was Charles I, Duke of Bourbon. Alongside other members of the nobility, Charles and his bastard brother, John, helped to win over Louis by promising they would make him Prince Regent and depose Charles VII.


However, while on their recruitment drives, the nobles (and Louis) failed to gather the numbers they had hoped for and they had to ask for Charles VII’s forgiveness. Charles did forgive them — a large pension was gifted to the Duke of Bourbon, but Louis had to beg for forgiveness from his father.


Charlotte of Savoy, c. 1472, via latribunedelart.com


Following his forgiveness, Louis was entrusted to lead a band of mercenary soldiers against the Swiss at the Battle of St Jakob an der Birs on 26 August 1444, and was impressed with the Swiss’ military strength. However, the Dauphin frequently quarrelled with his father, and on top of this, a year later, his wife died childless, aged just 20.


On 27 September 1446, Louis was ordered out of court for disrespectful behavior aimed at Agnès Sorel, his father’s mistress and he was sent to his own province of Dauphiné, in south-east France. Despite frequent summons to court, Louis never returned, and this occasion was the last time that Charles VII and Louis would ever meet.


It was during this period in Dauphiné that Louis ruled as king in all but name: after 6 years of being a widow, he strategically married the eight-year-old Charlotte of Savoy in 1451, without his father’s consent. Eventually, Charles sent an army to Dauphiné in 1456 to forcibly return Louis to court, but Louis had fled to Burgundy, and was granted refuge by Duke Philip “the Good”. Charles was so furious when he heard this news, he warned Philip that he was “giving shelter to a fox who will eat [his] chickens.”


Five years later, Louis learned that his father was dying — he rushed back to Reims to be crowned, scared that his youngest brother Charles would be named king instead. Louis was successful and was crowned King of France on 25 July 1461.


The Origins of the “Universal Spider” Nickname

The entry of Louis XI into Paris, miniature in the Chroniques of Monstrelet, artist unknown, c. 15th century, via Wikimedia Commons


Despite his quarrels with his father, Louis XI’s early reign was characterized by the same traits that his father was renowned for: limiting the powers of the nobility and tax reforms. However, Louis XI had far more success than his father had had. A notable move that Louis made was removing many of his former co-conspirators — men who had considered themselves his friend — from their governmental positions. Instead, he instilled men of lower rank, who had shown great potential in their roles. For the fifteenth century, this was hugely progressive.


Interestingly, Louis, who had been notoriously extravagant and lavish in his years as Dauphin, was extremely prudent as King. It was even reported that he mixed with common people and merchants, and wore rough and simple clothes. Louis XI was also actively involved in touring his kingdom throughout his reign, familiarizing himself with his people. In 1464, he established a system of royal postal roads. This was hugely advanced for the time, and ensured that relays to the king operated on all major roads in France. Eventually, this system spread throughout France, creating a major communications network across the country, and leading to Louis’ famous sobriquet, “the Universal Spider”.


Internal Conflicts

Charles I ‘the Bold’, Duke of Burgundy, by Rogier van der Weyden, c. 1460, via RKD


Louis XI also had to deal with some internal conflicts — arguably the most notable was with Charles I, Duke of Burgundy. It all started with Charles’ father and Philip III “the Good”, who was Duke of Burgundy at the time of Louis XI’s accession. Philip had the idea of going on a crusade, so Louis granted him 400,000 gold crowns in exchange for a number of territories (including Picardy and Amiens). Charles saw this as an insult and thought Louis XI was robbing him of his rightful inheritance.


He joined a rebellion alongside Louis XI’s brother Charles, which was unsuccessful for both the rebels and Louis. An unfavorable peace was the final outcome in 1465. It was not until 1472 that Charles finally caved in and sued for peace.


However, this did not last long — the Burgundian Wars broke out shortly after, and Charles invaded Switzerland. Louis XI had employed Swiss mercenaries in his army following his admiration for them at the Battle of St Jakob he had fought at decades before.


Charles’ invasion was a huge mistake. The Swiss roundly defeated the Burgundians at Grandson and Murten in 1476, and Charles was eventually killed at the Battle of Nancy on 5 January 1477, an event which formally ended the Burgundian Wars and permanently rid Louis XI of his long-time enemy.


Foreign involvement: Louis XI and the Wars of the Roses

Margaret of Anjou and Henry VI, from the Talbot Shrewsbury Book, c. 1445, via Historic Royal Palaces


Despite the Wars of the Roses being a predominantly English civil war, Louis XI was also involved in the latter stages of the conflict.  Why was he interested? Well, because Charles, Duke of Burgundy, had openly allied himself with the Yorkists who opposed the English king, Henry VI.


When Richard Neville, the Earl of Warwick (known as Warwick the Kingmaker) fell out with King Edward IV, Louis XI granted him refuge in France. During his time in France, Warwick formed an alliance with his long-time enemy, Margaret of Anjou (Henry VI’s wife) to restore him back to the throne. Amazingly, this ploy worked, and Henry was briefly reinstated to the throne. However, he was then murdered in 1471, following Edward IV’s second accession to the throne.


Once Edward IV had firmly established himself as the King of England, he invaded France in 1475, but Louis XI once again showed off his diplomatic skills. He cleverly negotiated the Treaty of Picquigny on 29 August 1475, the terms of which meant that the English army left France, and the French were gifted a large sum of money. The English also renounced their claims to Normandy, which for some historians, officially marked the end of the Hundred Years’ War.


The Italian Job: The Late 1470s in Louis XI’s Reign

Francesco Sforza, Duke of Milan, by Bonifacio Bembo, c. 1460, via Wikimedia Commons


Since Louis XI’s marriage to Charlotte of Savoy in 1451, there had been a strong Italian connection to France. However, it was not until the late 1470s that Louis XI’s main involvement in Italy went on show.


Due to both Charles VII’s and Louis XI’s involvements in Burgundy, Italy had been put on the back burner for many years, but following the death of Charles, Duke of Burgundy in 1477, the relationship between Italy and France was greatly improved, as France could be actively involved in Italian affairs once again.


Despite the traditional rivalry between the Italian states of Savoy and Milan, Louis had always maintained a strong relationship with Francesco I Sforza, the Duke of Milan. Another traditional French enemy, King Ferdinand I of Naples, also sought a French marriage alliance following the fall of Burgundy, while Louis XI also pursued friendly relations with the Papal States, despite their historic backing of the Dukes of Burgundy. Finally, in 1478, Louis also signed a favorable treaty with the Republic of Venice.


Louis XI’s Death and Legacy

Portrait of King Charles VIII of France, by Jean Perréal, c. 16th century, via Wikimedia Commons


The last few years of the Universal Spider’s reign had been characterized by bouts of apoplexy among other illnesses, and he finally succumbed to them, dying on August 30th, 1483 aged 60. He was succeeded by his thirteen-year-old son, Charles, who became King Charles VIII of France, and would rule until his untimely death in 1498.


The legacy which Louis XI left behind easily makes him one of the most famous kings in French history. From rebelling against his father before he was crowned king, to quarreling with his youngest brother, he may not be perceived as a traditional family-oriented king. However, he had 8 children with his wife, Charlotte of Savoy (three of whom survived into adulthood: Anne, Joan, and Charles).


He also established a postal service in 1464, and can be credited with modernizing French communications in an almost revolutionary sense — hence his nickname as the “Universal Spider”. He also formally ended the Burgundian problem which had plagued his father’s reign and restored the French relationship with Italy. Without a doubt, King Louis XI was one of the first kings of France to take the country out of the Middle Ages and into the Early Modern world.

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By Chester OllivierBA (Hons) HistoryChester is a contributing history writer, with a First Class Honours degree BA (Hons) in History from Northumbria University. He is from the North East of England, and an avid Middlesbrough FC supporter.