The strange death of Louis XI at Plessis-les-Tours, 1483

Below are a number of extracts from Philippe de Commyne’s Memoirs of king Louis XI’s (1423 – 1483) time at the château of Plessis-les Tours which lies to the west of Tours.  The château was built in middle of the 15th Century under instructions from Louis XI  and it was there that he died.

The Six Books of Memoirs were written after Louis’s death for the Archbishop of Vienne click here to find the full text. They provide interesting insights into the superstitious mind of Louis who, in fear of assassination, spent his final months fortifying the château of Plessis-les-Tours. He frequently consulted with astrologers and, as you will read below,  he put a enormous amounts of faith in ‘holy men’ and hermits – it reminds me rather of the faith the Russian Tsar Nicholas had in Rasputin some 400+ years later.

Letter from Louis XI to the Parliament of Paris , written at Plessis-les-Tours, 17 January 1478.

From the PROLOGUE of Philippe de Commyne’s Memoir:
“MY lord archbishop of Vienne, you graciously requested that I should write an account for you about what I know of the acts of our master and benefactor, Louis XI (may God pardon him), a prince whom we both ought to remember. In order to comply I have done this as truthfully as my memory allows.”
Book 6 Part 6
How the King, on returning from Saint-Calude, went to Tours and stayed at Plessis where his illness became more severe and where few people saw him, and about the suspicions and fears which he entertained during his last days when he saw he was prone to sickness, and how he lived at Plessis.

The King returned to Tours and so shut himself away that few people ever saw him. He became remarkably suspicious and fearful of everybody, in case anyone should take away or seek to diminish his authority. He drove away all his usual servants, even those who had been closest to him, though he took nothing away from them so that they went to fulfil their offices and duties or to their homes. But this state of affairs did not last long, for he died shortly afterwards. He did many strange things which those who did understand him considered devoid of reason, but they did not know him. As for being suspicious, all powerful princes are, especially wise ones and those who have numerous enemies and have offended many as he had. Moreover he knew well enough that he was not loved by the leading figures in the kingdom, nor, indeed by many of the common people, and that he had taxed his subjects more heavily than any previous king, even though he wanted to lighten the burden, as I said. But he should have begun to do so sooner.”
“At first hardly anyone entered Plessis-du-Parc, which was the place where he stayed, apart from domestic servants and archers of whom he had four hundred, who in good numbers mounted the watch each day, patrolled round the place and guarded the gate. No lord or important person stayed inside, nor did many lords ever enter it. Nobody came except my lord of Beuajeu, the present duke of Bourbon, who was his son-in-law. All round Plessis he had a trellis of great iron bars set up and many-pointed spikes were planted in the walls at places where one could have got in from the moat. He also had four movable iron sentry boxes, called friars, made. They were pierced with holes through which one could shoot at leisure. This was a notable achievement which cost more than twenty thousand francs. And finally he positioned forty crossbowmen, both day and night, in the moat with orders to shoot anyone who approached at night before the gate had been opened in the morning. He thought, moreover, that his subjects were anxious to take over control as soon as they saw that the right moment had come. Indeed, some had discussed entering Plessis and expediting matters as they saw fit, because nothing was being attended to, but they dared not do so and they acted wisely, for he had taken good precautions. He changed his chamber valets and all the other officers often saying that fear of him and his reputation would be enhanced by doing these extraordinary things. One or two men stayed close to him in there in the hope of gaining influence, but they were men of low estate with poor reputations who, if they had been wiser, would have seen that as soon as he was dead the least that would happen to them would be dismissal from their positions, and that is what happened. They told him nothing of whatever was written or reported to them, unless it concerned the preservation of the state and the defence of the kingdom for nothing else bothered him. He was at this time at peace or at truce with everybody. He gave ten thousand crowns every month to his doctor, who received fifty-four thousand crowns in five months.
He committed his hopes for life to God and the saints, recognizing that without a miracle he could scarcely continue to live. And, remembering that our Lord extended the lives of some kings because of their own humility and repentance and because of the prayers of certain holy prophets, our King, who in humility surpassed all other princes of the world, sought out a religious or man of good life who lived austerely, so that he might mediate between God and Louis to lengthen his days. Everywhere such men were pointed out and he contacted several of them. Some came to speak with him and he talked only about prolonging his life. The majority of them wisely answered that they did not possess the power to do this. He offered great gifts [to the Church]; too large, according to the archbishop of Tours [Hélie de Bourdeille, archbishop of Tours, 1468-84], a Franciscan and cardinal of holy and good life. He wrote to the King and told him, among other things, that it would be better if he took away the money from the canons of the churches to which he gave his great gifts and gave it to the poor labourers and others who paid these heavy taxes, rather than raising it from them to give to these rich churches and canons. In the course of a year donations from his vows, his offerings, his reliquaries and his shrines easily exceeded seven hundred thousand francs. They included the silver grille at St. Martin’s at Tours, which weighed nearly eighteen thousand silver marks, the shrine of Saint Eutropius at Saintes and other reliquaries which he gave to the Three Kings at Cologne, to Our Lady of Aix [la-Chapelle] in Germany, to Saint Servius at Utrecht, and to the shrine of San Bernadino at Aquila in the kingdom of Naples, and the golden chalices sent to St. John Lateran at Rome as well as several other presents, both gold and silver, given to churches in his kingdom. He also gave extensive lands to the Church but these gifts were not permanent; the Church already had too much. “
Book 6  Part 7
[The visit of Francesco de Paulo to Louis XI]

“AMONG the men renowned for their holiness, he sent for a man who lived in Calabria called Brother Francis [possibly Robert].The King called him ‘the Holy Man’ because of his holy life and the present King built, in his honour, a monastery at Plessis-du-Parc, in exchange for the chapel close to Plessis at the end of the bridge. This hermit had lived in a cave from the age of twelve until he was forty-three years old or thereabouts, when the King sent a steward of his household [Guy de Lauzi] in the company of the prince of Taranto, son of the king of Naples, to fetch him, because he did not want to leave without permission from the Pope or his king, which was a sign of wisdom in this simple man who had built two churches in the land of the Moors. From the start of this austere life and ever since he has never eaten meat or fish, eggs, milk or any fat. I do not think I have ever seen a man living such a holy life nor one through whom he Holy Spirit seemed to speak more clearly, for he was literate although he had never been to school; though it is true his Italian tongue helped him. The hermit passed through Naples where he was fêted and visited as much as a great apostolic legate, both by the king of Naples and by his children, and he talked with them like a natural-born courtier. From there he went to Rome where he was visited by all the cardinals. He had three audiences alone with the Pope, sitting next to him on a beautiful throne for three or four hours each time, which was a great honour for such an unimportant man. He answered so wisely that everyone was astonished. Our Holy Father allowed him to found an order called the Hermits of St. Francis. From there he came to the King who honoured him as much as if he had been the Pope himself, going down on his knees before him and beseeching him to pray to God on his behalf that it might please Him to prolong his life. He replied as a wise man should reply. I have often heard him preaching to the present King [Charles VIII] and all the great men of the kingdom and even as recently as two months ago. He appeared to be inspired by God in what he said and advised; otherwise he could never have known about the things of which he talked. He is still alive and he could therefore change for the better or worse, so I will say no more. Several joked about the arrival of this hermit whom they called the Holy Man, but they were not informed about this wise King’s thoughts nor did they know the reasons which induced him to do it.
The King was at Plessis with few companions, except archers, where he entertained the suspicions I have mentioned, against which he had taken good precautions, for he left no one in the town of Tours or in the countryside around of whom he had any suspicion, but he made them withdraw a long way from him and sent his archers to accompany them and conduct them away. No one spoke to him except about the really important matters which concerned him. Looking at him he seemed more dead than alive, and nobody would have believed how thin he was. He dressed more sumptuously than ever before and he wore only crimson satin robes trimmed with fine martens’ fur, quite a few of which he gave away without being asked to do so, for nobody would have dared to ask him for them. In order to be feared he ordered harsh punishments because he was afraid of losing people’s obedience, for he told me so himself. He replaced officers and disbanded troops, he cut down pensions or stopped them entirely, and he told me, a few days before his death, that he spent his time making and unmaking people. And he made himself more talked about in his kingdom than he had ever been; he did this for fear lest he be thought dead. For, as I have said several times, few people saw him. But when they heard what he was doing all were anxious and could scarcely believe he was sick. He sent men off in all directions outside the kingdom. To promote the marriage with England he promptly paid King Edward and the other Englishmen what he had granted them. In Spain it was friendship and fair words with presents for all. Everywhere he had good horses or mules bought, whatever the cost, or at least in those countries where he wanted them to think he was well, though not in this kingdom. At great expense he sent for dogs from every quarter; mastiffs from Spain, small greyhound bitches, greyhounds and spaniels from Brittany, small shaggy dogs from Valencia, all of which he bought more dearly than people usually like to sell them. He sent especially to Sicily for a mule from a certain officer of the country and paid him double its value. In Naples he bought horses and strange animals from all over the place, such as kind of small wolf, called a jackal, from Barbary, which was larger than a small fox. To Denmark he sent for two kinds of animals, one called an elk which has the body of a stag, is as large as a wild ox and has thick short horns. The other was a reindeer, which is like a fallow deer in body and colour but had much larger antlers, for I have seen a reindeer with fifty-four points. For six each of these animals he paid the merchants four thousand five hundred German florins. When all these animals were brought to him he did not count the cost nor, in the majority of cases, did he even speak to those who had brought them. And so, in short, he did many similar things so that he was more feared by his neighbours and subjects than he had ever been, for that was his intention and he did it for that reason. “
Book 6  Part 9
“Here I return to speak about the King, who was at Plessis and was critically ill, and how he sent for my lord the Dauphin, his son, to see and speak to him, and how he sent for the Sainte Ampoulle from Reims.

….The items which were thought necessary for his health were sent to him from all over the world. The late Pope Sixtus [IV], on hearing that the King wanted, for devotional purposes, to have the corporal which St. Peter had used when saying Mass, sent it to him straightway together with several other relics which were returned to him. The Sainte Ampoulle which was kept at Reims and had never been removed from there, was brought to him in his chamber at Plessis and was standing on his cupboard at the time of his death. His intention was to be anointed with it as he had been at his coronation, although many thought that he wanted to be anointed all over. This was unlikely, for the Sainte Ampoulle was very small and there was not much [oil] in it. I myself saw it at the time I am speaking about and also when the King was buried at Notre Dame de Cléry.
The present Sultan sent him an ambassador who came as far as Rhive in Provence. But the King did not want either to receive him or for him to proceed further. The ambassador was bringing him a huge scroll of relics which were still in Turkish hands at Constantinople and he offered them to the King with a large sum of money, provided the King would keep strict watch over the Sultan’s brother [Djem], who was in the kingdom in the hands of the knights of Rhodes. At present he is at Rome in the Pope’s hands. “
Book 6   Part11
[The death of Louis XI]

“He continued to say sensible things and his illness lasted, as I said, from Monday to Saturday evening. …
….I have mentioned how his impending death was announced to him with so little discretion. But some five or six months previously the King was very suspicious of everybody, particularly all those who were fit to exercise authority. He was afraid of his son and had him kept under strict watch. No one could see him or speak to him except with the King’s permission. In the end he was even frightened of his daughter and son-in-law, the present duke of Bourbon. He wanted to know who entered Plessis with them and, finally, he broke up a council which the duke of Bourbon was holding there on his orders. When his son-in-law and the count of Dunois returned from conducting the embassy, which had come to the marriage of the King, his son, and the Queen at Amboise, and they came back to Plessis and brought many people with them, the King, who had the gates heavily guarded, was in a gallery overlooking the court. He called one of the captains of his guard and ordered him to go and touch the followers of these lords to see if they were wearing brigandines under their clothes and to do this whilst talking to them and without appearing to do it. Just see! If he had made many men live in fear and suspicion under him, how amply he was repaid! Whom could he trust when he was suspicious of his own son, daughter and son-in-law! I say this not only about him but about all lords who desire to be feared; they are never aware of revenge until they are old and then, as a penance, they fear everybody. What torment it was for this King to have such fears and passions!
….It is true that the King, our master, had dreadful prisons made, including cages, some of iron and others of wood, fitted with iron bars inside and out and with terrible locks, about eight feet wide and a foot higher than a man. The original inventor of such prisons was the bishop of Verdun. He was immediately put in the first of them to be made where he spent fourteen years. Many others have cursed him since, myself included, because I did eight months in one of them during the reign of the present King. Previously the King had obtained horrible shackles from the Germans. These were very heavy and terrible and put on the feet, with one ring on each foot, and were very difficult to open, like a collar, having a thick, heavy chain with a huge iron ball on the end, much heavier then it need or ought to have been. They were called the King’s daughters. Yet I have seen many well-born prisoners wearing them on their feet; they have since been released and enjoyed great honour and happiness and even received great benefits from him. Among them was a son of my lord of Gruthuse of Flanders, who had been captured in battle. The King provided him with a wife, made him his chamberlain and seneschal of Anjou and gave him command of a hundred lances. The lord of Piennes, a prisoner of war, was another and so was the lord of Vergy. Both received soldiers from him and were chamberlains to him or his son and had other great offices. So did my lord of Richebourg, brother of the Constable [Saint-Pol], and a man called Rocaberti from Catalonia who had similarly been a prisoner of war, to whom the King gave great gifts, as well as to several others from various countries whom it would take too long to name.
But this is not our main concern, and to return to that it must be said that, as in his time these evil and various types of prison were invented, so before he died he found himself in similar or even greater fear than those he imprisoned in them. This I hold to be a matter of great favour for him and part of his time in purgatory. And I mention it to show that there is no one, whatever his rank, who does not suffer either privately or in public, particularly if he has made others suffer.
Towards the end of his life the King had his castle of Plessis-les-Tours entirely surrounded by iron bars in the form of a thick grille. At the four corners of the house were placed the four large, strong, pierced, iron sentry boxes. The grille rested against the wall on one side and on the edge of the moat on the other, for it had a flat bottom and steep sides. He had many iron spikes fastened to the wall, each with three or four points and they were placed very close to one another. Furthermore he ordered ten crossbowmen from each of the sentry boxes to stay in the moat to shoot those who approached before the gate was open. He wanted them to lie in the moat and withdraw to the iron sentry boxes when necessary.
He clearly understood that this fortification would not be strong enough to withstand a large number of men or an army but that did not worry him. He was simply afraid that one lord or a handful might attempt to take the place by night, partly in collusion with those inside and partly by force, and that they would take away his authority and force him to live like an insane man unfit to govern. The gate of Plessis did not open before eight o’clock in the morning, nor was the drawbridge lowered. Then the officers entered the castle and the captains of the guards placed the normal gatekeepers at their post and ordered pickets of archers, either to the gate or around the courtyard, as if it were a closely guarded frontier post. No one entered except by a wicket-gate, nor without the King’s knowledge, unless they were stewards of the household or people of this type who were not going into his presence. Is it possible to keep a king, in suitable state, in closer imprisonment than he kept himself? The cages where he had held other people were some eight feet square and he, who was such a king, had a small court of the castle in which to walk about. Even then he hardly went into it but stayed in the gallery, not leaving it except to go into the rooms. He went to Mass without going through that courtyard. Who would want to deny that the King was suffering when he shut himself up and had himself guarded, when he was afraid of his children and all his closest relatives, when he changed and removed his servants and those he had patronized from day to day, when they owed all their wealth and honour to him, and when he dared not trust any of them but shut himself up with such strange chain and barricades? It is true that the castle was larger than a common prison but he was greater than any common prisoner. One could say that others have been more suspicious than he but this was not in my time nor were they, perhaps, such wise kings with such loyal subjects. They were probably cruel tyrants anyway. But the King never harmed anybody unless he had offended him.
….After so many fears, suspicions and sorrows Our Lord performed a miracle and cured him in both mind and body, as He is accustomed to doing by His miracles. …. He gave orders for his own burial, as to whom he wanted to accompany his body and as to what route was to be taken. He said that he did not expect to die until Saturday and Our Lady would obtain him that favour, for he always had great faith in her and prayed very devoutly to her. Also, on the following Saturday he was to be buried. And so it happened, for he died on Saturday 30 August 1483 at eight o’clock in the evening at Plessis where he had fallen sick the previous Monday. May Our Lord have received him into His kingdom of Paradise! Amen! “

About Jim McNeill

I am a blogger on 'The Social History of the Touraine region of France (37)' and also 'The Colonial History of Pennsylvania and the life & Family of William Penn'. I am a Director of Fresh Ground Group Ltd.
This entry was posted in 15th Century, Louis XI, Plessis-les-Tours and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to The strange death of Louis XI at Plessis-les-Tours, 1483

  1. actually after completing school in france I had wondered what death had befallen him, French kids of my generation (boomer) knew that th Duke of Burgondy, and Louis’ adversary, had been eaten by wolves – in adulthood I wondered… anyway, thanks for your research one less flaw in my education!
    Christinejavascript:HighlanderComments.doExternalLogout( ‘facebook’ );

  2. Pingback: Louis XI at Plessis-les-Tours | Social history in the Touraine ~ Central France

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