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1435-1547 - Consolidation of France

While Italy was busied with the emancipation of men's minds and the organisation of intellectual life, a great political change was passing over Europe. France and England, after a long period of destructive warfare and internal troubles, had attained a national unity which they had never known before. Spain, by united action against the Infidels, had gained the elements of a strong national life. Even in distracted Germany the long reign of Frederick III. had made the Austrian House the center of German affairs ; and Frederick's son Maximilian was spreading into outlying regions the claims and influence of the House of Austria. Everywhere there were signs of new and powerful political organisations centring around a monarchy. As Italy found that the intellectual forms of the Middle Ages were no longer fit to contain the new wine of man's spirit, so other lands drifted away from the mediaeval conception of politics. Feudalism was crumbling; and the different classes in the State were being brought into more direct connexion with the Crown. There was a growing consciousness of national unity, which was the sure forerunner of a wish for national aggrandisement.

France was the first nation which realised her new strength. Charles VII [r 1422-1461] reconquered France from the English; but he owed his conquest greatly to the help of the Dukes of Brittany and Burgundy. On September 21, 1435, the Peace of Arras was signed between Charles VII and Philip the Good. France was, at last, in principle, united. The Peace of Arras did not, however, interrupt the war between France and England; but it rendered easier a conclusion of the conflict. To England nothing was left but Calais, with its surrounding territory, and the barren title of King of France; and thus ended the Hundred Years' War.

Louis XI [r 1461-1483] was aided by fortune as much as by his own cleverness in his endeavours to make himself really King of France. The Dukes of Berry, Burgundy, Anjou, and Brittany died without male heirs ; Louis XI. inherited Berry from his brother, and managed to gain from the Burgundian heritage the towns on the Somme and the Duchy of Burgundy. Rene of Anjou died in 1480 and left Anjou to the French Crown ; his other possessions, Provence and the Angevin claim to Naples, he bequeathed to his nephew Charles of Maine, who died next year, after having instituted Louis XI. his universal legatee.

At the accession of Charles VIII [r 1483-1498], Brittany only remained as a bulwark of feudalism against the might of the Crown. The young king's nearest relative, the Duke of Orleans, made common cause with the Duke of Brittany; but the royal army was successful; the Duke of Orleans was imprisoned, and the Duke of Brittany "died of chagrin", it was said. There were still elements of discord, as England threatened to interfere in Brittany, and Maximilian was betrothed to its heiress. But the young king Charles VIII, in 1491 assured the internal peace and accomplished the unity of France by freeing Louis of Orleans from his prison and treating him as a friend, while by marriage with Anne of Brittany he united the last great fief to the French Crown. France entered upon a period of prosperity unknown before, and its king was eager to find a field for his energies. The assertion of the old claims of the House of Anjou on Naples opened up a prospect which might well have turned a wiser head than that of Charles VIII. With them was united the title to the kingdom of Jerusalem; Naples was the stepping-stone to a great crusading expedition, in which the French king, strong in his national forces, might stand at the head of Europe and strike a deadly blow at the common enemy of Christendom. The old spirit of adventure joined with the new desire for national aggrandisement, and still strove to accommodate itself to the religious ideal of the past. The policy of France rested on a visionary basis.

Louis XII [r 1498-1515] conquered the duchy of Milan, and brought Duke Francis Sforza a captive to France in 1500. He resolved, also, to prosecute the claims of his family to Naples, then ruled by Frederick of Aragon. In 1501 Louis and Ferdinand of Spain agreed to partition between themselves the kingdom of Frederick, who, finding resistance impossible, retired to France and received a pension from Louis. The quarrel that ensued between Louis and Ferdinand ended in 1503 by the expulsion of the French from Naples.

Francis I [r 1515-1547] of France demanded the restitution to Henri d'Albret of the Kingdom of Navarre, which Ferdinand the Catholic had appropriated. The Emperor, Charles V, as the heir of Charles the Bold, laid claim to Burgundy, which had been seized by Louis XI, while in Italy Charles V would certainly desire the expulsion of the French from the State of Milan; and the French, on their side, would endeavour to drive out the Spaniards from Naples. It would have been a miracle if the collision had been avoided at a time when wars were waged for the merest trifles. It was necessary for Francis I to have an understanding with England, in order to prevent Henry VIII from making an attack upon the north of France while Francis I was fighting his Italian battles, which resulted in the celebrated interview of the Field of the Cloth of Gold. But the Emperor, Charles V promised Henry VIII that if Spain were victorious he would hand over several French provinces to him; then turning to Cardinal Wolsey, the all-powerful minister to whose advice the King always lent a ready ear, he offered him the Triple Crown.

Francis I found himself with the whole of Europe against him, and then his cousin, Charles, Duke of Bourbon, the greatest landed noble of France, and Constable of France, went over to the enemy. Francis I gave orders for all his property to be seized. In October, 1524, Francis I crossed the Alps. In the Battle of Pavia on 24 February 1525 the French army was dispersed, a hecatomb of the best blood in France, and Francis I was taken prisoner.

Henry VIII laid claim to France, though he consented to hand over Burgundy, Provence, and Languedoc to the Emperor, whilst the Duke of Bourbon was to have Dauphiny and the whole of his ancient heritage. If this claim were considered too exorbitant he would be content with the provinces which had once belonged to England: Normandy, Gascony, Guyenne, Anjou, Poitou and Maine, with Brittany thrown in. Francis I was kept prisoner until early 1526, when he surrendered Burgundy to the Emperor. Henry VIII finally made a treaty in 1546 at Ardres by which, in return for 800,000 crowns, he gave up Boulogne and its territory. Francis I renewed the struggle and regained Burgundy through the peace of Crepy March 31, 1547.

Everybody was thoroughly tired out.

With the sixteenth century a new era in the history of France begins. During the preceding four hundred years her kings had been engaged on the task which the Carolingians had already once accomplished, of consolidating the state and reviving central authority, of rescuing France and her monarchy from the power of the nobles. The English hindered the accomplishment of this arduous work for a hundred years; they were at last finally expelled, and in most directions the royal demesne was extended to the natural frontiers of the country.

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