Book Five, Chapters 16-20; Book Six, Chapters 1-2

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Here I speak about the lead taken by the men of Ghent, who wanted to govern the affairs of their princess after the death of Duke Charles of Burgundy, about the disorders and outrages committed by them and about the deaths of the Chancellor of Burgundy and the lord of Humbercourt, whom they killed
AT the time of the siege of Amiens my lady of Burgundy was at Ghent in the hands of these very unreasonable men. This resulted in losses for her and profit for the King, for one person’s loss is another’s gain.

As soon as they learned of the death of Duke Charles they thought that they were free and they captured all their magistrates, who numbered twenty-six in all, and put to death all or most of them. They alleged as their excuse that the day before the magistrates had had a man executed and although he clearly deserved to die, the magistrates had no power to do this, they said, because their authority had expired on the death of the duke who had appointed them. They also put to death as well several of the important and good people of the town who had been friends and supporters of the duke, including some of those who in my time and in my presence had helped dissuade Duke Charles when he intended to destroy a large part of the town. They forced the lady to confirm their former privileges which had been taken away from them by the Peace of Gavere, made with Duke Philip, and the others removed by Duke Charles. These privileges only caused trouble between them and their prince. Also their principal inclination is to want a weak prince and they do not like any of them once they become rulers although, very naturally, they are fond of them during childhood and before they become lords, as they had liked this lady whom they had carefully guarded and cherished until she was of age. It must also be realized that if at the moment of the duke’s death, the men of Ghent had not caused trouble and they wished to try to defend the country, they could quickly have provided men to garrison Arras and, perhaps, Péronne. But they only thought of making trouble.

Yet while the King was besieging the town of Arras some ambassadors, representing the Three Estates of the territories belonging to this lady, came to visit him, because certain deputies to the Three Estates were meeting at Ghent. But the men of Ghent did whatever they liked because they had the lady in their hands. The King heard them and, amongst other things, they said that the proposals which they had made with the intention of forwarding the cause of peace proceeded from the wishes of the lady, who had decided to be guided in all matters by the wishes and advice of the Three Estates of her lands. Moreover, they asked the King to withdraw from the war which he was waging both in Burgundy and in Artois, and to appoint a day for a friendly peace conference; in the meantime the war should cease.

The King found he already had the upper hand and he thought that events would turn out even better for him, because he had been reliably informed that the Burgundian troops were dead or defeated everywhere and that many of them had joined his side, in particular the lord of Cordes, of whom he had a high opinion and not without reason; for he would not have been able to accomplish by force in a long time what he had achieved through him by collusion a very few days before, as you have heard. Therefore he did not pay much attention to their requests and demands. Besides he had also been informed, and realized clearly, that the people of Ghent were in such a state and causing so much trouble to their own side that they were in no position to give advice or orders for prosecuting war against him, for no wise man nor any who had held a position of authority with their former princes was consulted about anything, but all were persecuted and in danger of death. In particular, they hated the Burgundians very much for the great influence which they had enjoyed previously. Furthermore the King knew all about such matters for he could see more clearly than anyone else in his kingdom that the men of Ghent always desired to see their lord brought low, provided they did not feel any effects of this in their district. For this reason he decided that if they began to quarrel among themselves he would encourage the intensification of these divisions, because those with whom he had to deal were only stupid people (citizens for the most part), particularly ignorant of the subtle devices which this lord knew how to use so well. He did whatever was necessary to win and achieve his purpose.

The King seized on what the ambassadors said about their princess not doing anything without the deliberation and counsel of the Three Estates of her country, and told them that they were ill informed of her wishes and about other matters, because he was sure that she intended to conduct her affairs through some particular individuals who did not want peace and that they, the ambassadors, would be disowned. The ambassadors were thrown into great confusion by this, like men ill-accustomed to dealing with such important business and matters. They replied promptly that they were completely sure of what they said and they would show their instructions at the appropriate time. They were told that when it pleased the King they would be shown letters, written in such hands that they would be convinced by them, which said that the lady wanted to conduct her affairs through four people only. Then the King had them shown a letter which the Chancellor of Burgundy and the lord of Humbercourt had brought when they had come to Péronne on the previous occasion. It was partly written in the handwriting of the princess, partly in that of the dowager duchess of Burgundy, Duke Charles’s wife and sister of King Edward of England, partly in that of the lord of Ravenstein, brother of the duke of Clèves and a close relative of the young lady. So this letter was written in three hands but it ran only in the name of the princess and it had been written in this way to give it greater authority. The letter contained authority for the Chancellor and Humbercourt, and the lady had, moreover, declared that it was her intention that all her affairs should be managed by four people — the dowager her stepmother, the lord of Ravenstein, the Chancellor and Humbercourt — and she begged the King that whatever he wished to arrange with her should be handled by them, and that he should kindly address himself to them and have no communication with anyone else about this matter.

When the men from Ghent and the other deputies had seen this letter they were extremely angry about it, and those who were in touch with them helped to foment their anger. Finally the letter was given to them and they had no other message of much significance, because they would only think about their quarrels and about creating a new government and they did not think any further ahead, although the loss of Arras should have given them much to ponder. But they were people, townsmen for the most part as I said, who had not been brought up to deal with important affairs.

They took the direct road to Ghent where they found the lady and with her the duke of Clèves, who was a very old man and her close relative, through his mother. He had been brought up in Burgundy, that is at the Burgundian court, and he had always received from the family a pension of six thousand Rhenish florins so that besides being a relative had sometimes come to serve as a courtier. The bishop of Liège and several others were there attending the princess and looking after their own affairs. The bishop had come to obtain for his subjects the cancellation of the payment of thirty thousand florins or thereabouts which they used to pay to Duke Charles as a result of the agreement between them after their wars about which I spoke earlier. All these wars had taken place because of the dispute involving the bishop and his affairs. For this reason there was no great need for him to pursue this matter and he should have desired them to be poor (because he received nothing from his diocese except from a small estate), considering the greatness and prosperity of his diocese and its piety. The bishop was a brother to the dukes of Bourbon, John and Pierre (who is alive today),38 and was a man who liked good living and his pleasures, little recognizing what was good or bad for him. He gave asylum to Sir Guillaume de la Marck, a fine brave knight, although a very cruel and bad-tempered one, who had always been an enemy of his and the house of Burgundy and a supporter of the Liègeois. The lady gave him fifteen thousand Rhenish florins in the name of the bishop of Liège and of herself to win him over. But soon afterwards he revolted against her and his master, the bishop, after undertaking to make his son bishop by force and with the King’s approval. Later he defeated the bishop in battle, killed him with his own hand and had him thrown into a river, where his body remained for three days. The duke of Clèves was there because he hoped to arrange a marriage between his eldest son and the lady, which he thought would be suitable thing for many reasons. And I believe that it would have been arranged if the young man had pleased her and her advisers, because he was of the same house and his duchy bordered hers and he had been brought up there. But his lack of success was perhaps due to his having been seen too much and known too well.

  •  The verb regner can mean either to live or to reign in Commynes. Here, in the third person plural regnent, it seems that Commynes is referring to Pierre de Beaujeu and his wife, Anne, the regents for Charles VII, because Jean de Bourbon died on 1 April 1488.

[Events at Ghent and the conquest of the duchy of Burgundy by Louis XI]

i The violence at Ghent

RETURNING to my account, the deputies arrived at Ghent. The council was called and the princess took her seat with several lords around her to listen to their report. They began to speak about the mission which she had given them and touched principally upon the point which would serve their purpose. They said that when they told the King she had decided to be guided in all matters by the counsel of the Three Estates, he replied that he was absolutely sure of the contrary and when they kept to their story the King offered to show them certain letters. The lady, taken by surprise, flew into a rage and said, on the spur of the moment, that it could not be true that the letter had been written or seen. Immediately the man to whom she was speaking, who was the Pensioner of Ghent or Brussels, took out of his shirt the very letter and, in front of everybody, handed it to her. He domnstrated that he was a very ill-conditioned man with little sense of honour to subject this young lady to such an affront; such a vile thing should not have happened to her. If she had committed such an error she should not have been publicly rebuked. It is not necessary to ask if she was very humiliated, because she had told everyone it was not so. The dowager, the lord of Ravenstein, the Chancellor and the lord of Humbercourt were present. The duke of Clèves and others had been carried along with fine words about the marriage and all of them were furious. Their quarrels increased and became manifest. Up to that time the duke of Clèves had always hoped that the lord of Humbercourt supported him over the marriage. But he felt deceived when he saw this letter and he became his enemy. The bishop of Liège did not like him because of things which had previously happened at Li&232;ge, where the lord of Humbercourt had been governor; neither did his companion, Sir Guillaume de la Marck, who was with him. The count of Saint-Pol,39 son of the Constable, hated the lord of Humbercourt and the Chancellor because they had handed over his father at Péronne to the King’s officers, as you heard about at length above. The men of Ghent hated them intensely, not because they had committed any offence against them but simply because of the great authority they had seen them exercising. But surely they deserved it as much as anyone else who lived in their time, either in these regions or elsewhere, and they had been good and loyal servants of their masters.

Finally, in the evening, after the letter had been shown in the morning, the Chancellor and the lord of Humbercourt were captured by the men of Ghent, although they had plenty of warning. They, to their great misfortune, did not know how to flee as several others had. I believe indeed that their enemies, whom I have named, gave help in their capture. Master Guillaume de Cluny, bishop of Thérouanne (who died later as bishop of Poitiers), was also captured with them and all three were put into prison together. The people of Ghent held a semblance of a trial, which they did not usually do when seeking revenge, and ordered the lawyers and one of the de la Marcks40 to interrogate them.

At the very outset they asked them why they had handed over the city of Arras through my lord of Cordes, but they did not dwell on this point, although they could not find any other fault with them. But their passion did not allow them to stop there because it did not matter to them in the first place to see their lord divested of such a town, nor was their sense or judgement sufficiently developed for them to recognize the harm that might in time happen to them as a result. So they concentrated on two points; first, on certain gifts which they said that they had taken, in particular, for a case which had previously been won by [Ghent as a result of] the judgement which they had issued and which the Chancellor had delivered against a certain individual, and for this these two [Hugonet and Humbercourt] had taken a gift from the city of Ghent. With regard to everything concerning this matter of bribery they answered very well, and about this particular point where the men of Ghent said that they had sold justice and taken money from them, the accused said that Ghent had won the case because the cause was good. With respect to the money which they had taken, they had never asked for it themselves nor had they got others to ask for it, but when it was presented to them they took it. The second point of their accusation on which the men of Ghent insisted was where they alleged that on several occasions during the time when they had been serving the late Duke Charles as his lieutenants, and during his absence, they had done several things inconsistent with the privileges and rights of the town, and that every man who infringed on the privileges of Ghent deserved to die. But such charges had no basis when levelled against these two because they were neither their subjects nor natives of the city, so they could not have broken their privileges. If the duke or his father had taken any of their privileges away from them it was through arrangements made with them after wars and dissensions. As for those which they had been allowed to keep, which were greater than was necessary for their own good they had been strictly observed by the accused.

Despite the excuses of thes two good and eminent men to these two charges (for they did not say much about the principal accusation which I mentioned at the beginning of the account), the aldermen of Ghent at the town hall condemned them to death on the grounds that they had infringed their privileges and taken money after settling the case which was mentioned above.

The two lords, hearing this cruel sentence, were naturally downcast and they could see no hope of escape from it as they were prisoners. Nevertheless they appealed to the King in Parlement, hoping that this would at least obtain them some delay before their execution and that in the meantime their friends would help to save their lives. Before the sentence was pronounced they had been severely tortured, without any legal form, and their trial lasted no more than six days. And despite the appeal, immediately they were condemned, they were given only three hours to confess and put their affairs in order. At the end of that period they were led out into the market place where they were placed on a scaffold.

The lady of Burgundy, who later became duchess of Austria, learning of this condemnation, went to the town hall to present a request and supplication on behalf of the two men. But it was to no avail. From there she went to the market place where all the people had assembled and were armed and there she saw the two men on the scaffold. The lady was wearing her mourning clothes and a shawl on her head. She had on a humble and simple outfit in order to move them to pity and there she pleaded with the people, with tears in her eyes and her hair dishevelled, to have pity on her two servants and to return them to her. A large number of the people were prepared to grant her request and not to kill the men. Others thought differently and they lowered their pikes against one another as if they were going to fight. But those who wanted to kill them found themselves in the stronger position and finally they shouted to those who were on the scaffold to dispatch them. So in the end they both had their heads chopped off and this poor maiden returned to her house in a very sorrowful and distressed state, because these were the most important ones in whom she had put her trust.41

After the people of Ghent had done this they separated her from my lord of Ravenstein and the dowager, Duke Charles’s wife, because they had signed the letter which the lord of Humbercourt and the Chancellor had delivered, as you heard. And they assumed complete authority and power over the poor princess, for so she could be aptly called, not simply because of the losses which she had already sustained in losing so many important towns, which she could never recover, seeing the powerful grip in which they were now held (for by favour, friendship or agreement she might still have some hopes for them), but because she found herself in the hands of real enemies and persecutors of her house; that was her true misfortune. In their actions generally there has always been more stupidity than malice and, also, it is always superior craftsmen who most often have influence and authority there; men who have no knowledge of great affairs or of the methods of governing a state. Their malice consists of two elements: one is that they want to weaken and enfeeble their prince by every means; the other is that when they have committed some wrong or great error and they see themselves the weaker party never do men strive for a settlement with greater humility than they do, nor give such large gifts, and they know better than any other town I have ever known how to best find the people to whom they should address themselves to arrange the settlement.

ii How at this same time the King had an army in the duchy of Burgundy and how he conquered it through the prince of Orange

While the King was taking the towns, cities and other places in the marches of Picardy, his army was in Burgundy, nominally under the leadership of the prince of Orange, who is still alive at present,42 a native and subject of the county of Burgundy, who had recently become an enemy of Duke Charles for the second time. So the King was making use of him, because he was a great lord both in the county as well as the duchy of Burgundy and was well connected and popular. But my lord of Craon was the King’s lieutenant in charge of the army, and was the man in whom the King placed his trust. Also he was a wise man and loyal to his master, though he liked his own profit a little too much. Approaching Burgundy, this lord sent the prince of Orange and others ahead to Dijon to make the necessary requests and seek their obedience to the King. They accomplished their task so well, principally through the efforts of the prince of Orange, that the town of Dijon and all the rest in the duchy of Burgundy placed themselves in the King’s hands, as did several in the county, like Auxonne and some other castles.

The prince of Orange was promised some fine estates and, in addition, all the places in the county of Burgundy which belonged to the succession of his grandfather, the prince of Orange, were to be put in his hands. He was in dispute over them with his uncles, my lords of Châteauguion, who, he said, had been favoured by Duke Charles.43 For their dispute had been argued with great solemnity before the duke for several days and the duke, being well supported by his lawyers, gave a verdict against the prince, at least so he said. For which reason he left the duke’s service and joined the King.

Despite this promise, when the lord of Craon found himself in possession of all the places mentioned above and had in his hands the best places of this inheritance which should have been given to the prince, he did not want to hand them over to him, whatever requests the prince made. So the King wrote to him about this matter several times without any sort of deception because he recognized well enough that the lord of Craon was on bad terms with the prince. But he was afraid of displeasing the lord of Craon who had complete control of the country and did not think the prince was brave enough or had the means to cause Burgundy to rebel as he did to a great extent later. But I will leave this story for the moment and deal with it again elsewhere.

iii Here I return to speak about the men of Ghent

After the people of Ghent had taken control of the government by force from the lady and put to death those two men, as you heard, and dismissed whoever they pleased, everywhere they began to appoint and dismiss people as they liked. In particular, they hunted out and punished indiscriminately all those who had best served the house of Burgundy, ignoring those who might have done some disservice. Above all they picked quarrels with the Burgundians, exiled them and took as much trouble as the king himself to force them to become his servants and subjects. The King wooed them with fine words and wise arguments and with very great gifts and promises, as well as with superior forces. In order to start with some dramatic action they set the duke of Guelders free from the prison where the Duke Charles had held him for a long time, for the reasons you have heard about previously. They made him commander of an army which they raised from among themselves, that is from Bruges, Ghent and Ypres, and they sent him to Tournai to burn the suburbs, an action which did little to advance their commander’s cause. It would have been better to have sent two hundred men and ten thousand francs in cash to support those others who had gone to Arras when it was besieged, had they arrived in time, than to collect ten such armies as that one which numbered twelve to fifteen thousand men and was very well paid. For it would not profit them much merely to burn a small number of houses in a place which hardly mattered to the King, since he raised no taxes there. But their understanding did not reach that far and I cannot think how God has preserved this town of Ghent for so long when it has caused so much evil, and when it has been of so little use to the country and to the public affairs of the county where it is situated and even less use to its prince. For it is not like Bruges, which is a great entrepôt for merchandise and a great meeting-place for foreign nations and from where, perhaps, more merchandise is dispatched than from any other town in Europe; it would be an irreparable loss if this town were destroyed.

  •  Pierre de Luxembourg, d. 25 October 1482.
  • Everard de la Marck, d. 1506.
  • Mary’s plea was made on 31 March 1477, but she was not present at the execution on 3 April.
  • Jean II, prince of Orange 1475-1502.
  • The succession of Louis de Chalon was first disputed by Guillaume, prince of Orange, son of Louis’s first marriage and father of Jean II, and Louis and Hugues, sons of Louis’s second marriage.

Here the author talks about how wars and divisions are ordained and allowed by God because of the evil of men, principally for the correction of bad princes, and he cites several singular happenings worthy to be read about and understood, touching on the estate of such princes and their lordships
ALL things considered I think that God has created neither man nor beast in this world without creating something to oppose them in order to keep them humble and afraid. And so this town of Ghent is well sited where it is, for these are the countries of Christendom most given to pursuing the pleasures towards which man is inclined and to the most extravagant display and expense. They are good Christians and God is well served and honoured there. Nor is it only to this nation that God has given some sort of thorn. For to the kingdom of France He has opposed the English, and to the English the Scots and to the king of Spain, Portugal. I do not wish to speak about Granada for the inhabitants are enemies of the faith, but nevertheless up to the present Granada has caused Castile a great deal of trouble. To the princes of Italy, the majority of whom hold their lands without any titles, unless it is granted them in Heaven (and about that we can only guess), and who rule over their people in a rather cruel and violent manner, especially with respect to their financial affairs. God has set in opposition the republican towns which there are in Italy like Venice, Florence, Genoa and, sometimes, Bologne, Siena, Pisa, Luca and others which oppose the lords as the lords oppose them and everyone keeps an eye open to see that his neighbour does not become too powerful. And to give some specific examples, to the house of Aragon God has opposed the house of Anjou; the house of Orléans is set against the Visconti, dukes of Milan; to the Venetians, these Italian lords as I said, and in addition, the Florentines; to the Florentines, the Sienese and Pisans, their neighbours, and the Genoese; the Genoese have their own poor government and from faithlessness towards each other and their factions arise from their own family alliances such as the Fregosi, Adorni, Doria and others. This is so evident that enough is known about it. As for Germany you have always had the houses of Austria and Bavaria against one another, and the Bavarians especiaally are split amongst themselves, whilst the Austrians have opposed the Swiss. At the start this division began over a small village called Schwyz which only contained six hundred men. But all the others now take their name from it and they multiplied so much that two of the best towns which belong to the house of Austria, Zurich and Fribourg, are in the confederacy and they have won great battles in which dukes of Austria have been killed.44 There are many other divisions in Germany such as that between Clèves and Guelders, the dukes of Guelders against the dukes of Jülich, and the Hanseatic cities, which are situated so far to the north, against the kings of Denmark. And speaking about Germany generally, there are so many strongholds and so many people inclined to do wrong, to pillage and rob and to use force and violence against each other on the slighest pretext, that it is almost incredible. For a man with only a servant will defy a large city or even a duke in order to obtain a better excuse to rob. He makes some small castle set on a rock his base to which he can retire and where he as twenty or thirty horsemen, who will back up his defiance at his request.45 These people are very seldom punished by the German princes because they themselves make use of them when they need to do so. But the towns, when they are able to catch them, punish them severely and on many occasions they have besieged and destroyed such castles. The towns also employ paid soldiers. So it seems that the towns and princes of Germany live in the manner I have described and behave in this way towards one another, and it also appears that this is the way it has to be here and everywhere else. I have spoken only about Europe because I am not well informed about the other two parts of the world, Asia and Africa. But we are reliably told that they have their wars and divisions like us and they are even more sordid, for I have learnt that there are several places in Africa where they sell each other to Christians and that this is true can be seen from the Portugese, who have had slaves and still do. And for this reason I doubt whether we ought to reproach the Saracens very much; there are parts of Christendom where the same is done, although these parts are under Turkish rule or very close to it as in some parts of Greece.46

It may appear, therefore, that these divisions are necessary throughout the world and these points of conflict and opposing interests which God has given and ordained for each state and almost for each individual I have just spoken about are also necessary. And, at first sight, speaking as an illiterate man who only wishes to hold such opinions as one should have, it seems to me to be the case principally because of the stupidity of several princes and also because of the wickedness of some others who have enough intelligence and experience but who use them wickedly. For a prince or any man, whatever his position, who has power and authority over others, if he is well and widely read and experienced, will be affected for good or evil by this fact, for much knowledge makes the wicked worse and the good better. But nevertheless it is probable that knowledge does a man more good than harm, if only because he is shamed by a recognition of his own evil; that may be enough to prevent him doing wrong, or at least from doing it so often. And if he is not good he may not wish to appear to do evil or harm to anyone. I have seen many instances of this, when important people have often abstained from committing evil deeds because of their knowledge and, also, because they fear God’s punishment, of which they are more aware than ignorant people who neither have experience nor have read about these things.

Thus I will say that those who are unwise enough through having been brought up badly — and perhaps their temperament does not help — have no idea how far the power and lordship which God has given them over their subjects extends, because they have never experienced it or heard about it from those who know. Few who know about this are to be found with such princes, and if there are any who do they never wish to say anything for fear of displeasing them. If anyone wants to protest to them, nobody supports him and, at best, he may be thought mad and perhaps his words may be interpreted in the worst possible sense for him. From all this one must conclude that neither our natural reason nor our intelligence nor our fear of God nor our love of our neighbours prevents us from using violence against one another, from keeping what belongs to another or from taking it from him by every way open to us. Or, if powerful men hold the towns or castles of their relatives or neighbours, they will not want to return them in any circumstances. And, as soon as they have once given their reasons on the pretext of which they hold these possessions, all their subjects accept their statements, or at least their closest followers and those who want to be well thought of by them, do. I shall say nothing about the quarrels between less important people because they have superiors who sometimes give justice to the parties involved (at least to the one with a just cause) and who will pursue and defend a cause well and spend a lot of money on it. In time one will receive justice if the court (that is to say the prince under whose authority he lives) is not against one.

So it is true that God is almost forced or summoned to show many signs and to afflict us in many ways for our stupidity or our wickedness, which I believe the more likely. But more dangerous and to be feared is the stupidity and ignorance of princes, for both the good and the bad fortunes of their lordships depend on them. Therefore, if a prince is powerful enough and has a large force of men-at-arms through whose authority he can obtain money at will to pay them and he can spend it on whatever else he likes without being concerned about public welfare, and if he will not in any way restrain himself from this mad, outrageous behaviour and expense, and if everyone, as far as he can, remonstrates with him without success and, what is worse, they incur his wrath, who but God can remedy things? God no longer speaks to men nor are there prophets who speak with His voice, for His faith is sufficiently accepted, understood and well known to those who want to listen and understand it for no one to be excused on the grounds of ignorance, at least among those who have lived for any length of time and have been endowed with natural reason. How, therefore, would these powerful men who do everything they want to do through force be punished if God did not lend a hand? Their least command is issued on pain of death. Some of them punish with a pretense of justice and they employ men of that profession who are ready to comply with their wishes and make a venial sin into a mortal one. And if there is no evidence they find ways of distorting the testimony of the parties and witnesses in order to trap a man and ruin him by running up his expenses, and they always give ear to anyone who wants to accuse the detained man whom they also want to charge. If this method is not sufficiently safe and convenient for attaining their ends they have other swifter methods. They say that it is very necessary to make an example of the man and they deal with the case as they see fit. With others who are a little more powerful and are their vassals they proceed by violent means. To one they say, ‘You have disobeyed me and acted contrary to the homage which you owe me,’ and they proceed to take his possessions away from him by force if they are able to do so (at least he no longer depends on them)47 and they make his life very uncomfortable. As for the man who is only their neighbour, if he is powerful and aggressive they leave him in peace, but if he is weak he will not know where to put himself, for they will accuse him of supporting their enemies or they will want to billet their troops in his lands or they will acquire claims against him or find some opportunity of destroying him or support his neighbour against him by loaning troops. They will deprive of office those of their own subjects who have served their predecessors faithfully, in order to promote new men, because they take too long to die. They will molest churchmen about their benefices so that they might at least obtain some profit to enrich someone else, very often at the whim of those who have not been any use to them or of men and women who in some circumstances can be very influential and enjoy credit. They cause their nobles ceaseless troubles and expenses by undertaking wars capriciously without seeking advice or considering those whom they ought to consult before beginning them, for they are the people who are going to risk their lives, persons and possessions, and therefore they ought to know about them a long time before they begin. To most of their people they leave nothing; and after the people have paid far greater taxes than they should, the princes still give no instructions for the way in which their troops should live. These live off the country continuously without paying anything, committing other crimes and excesses as we all know. For they are not content just to live but in addition they beat and abuse the poor people and force them to look elsewhere for bread, wine and victuals, and if any good man has a beautiful wife or daughter he would be very wise to protect her carefully.

Nevertheless, since there has to be some kind of payment, it would be easy to introduce better order so that the soldiers were paid every two months at least. In this way there would be no occasion or excuse for committing the evils they do on the pretext that they have not been paid, for the money is levied and collected at the end of the year. I say this about our kingdom, which is more oppressed and persecuted in this respect than any other land I know, and only a wise king would know how to rectify the situation. Our neighbours have other forms of punishment.

  •  At the battle of Sempach, 9 July 1386, Leopold III of Austria was killed.
  • This phrase from MSS. A., M. and P.
  • This sentence from MS. M.
  • Kinser translates au moins il ne tient pas a eulx as ‘or at least they try’. But presumably Commynes is thinking of the feudal concept whereby a man is discharged from his homage if he is attacked by his lord.

[The role of the Estates]
HOWEVER, to continue my account, is there any king or lord on earth who has the power, outside his own demense, to levy a single penny on his subjects without the approval and consent of those who are to pay it, unless he does so by tyranny and force? One could reply that there are times when it is impossible to wait for an assembly to gather because it would take too long to make preparations to start the war. I would retort that it is not necessary to be in such a hurry and there is usually enough time. I would also say to you that kings and princes have much more power when they undertake some enterprise on the advice of their subjects. They are then more feared by their enemies. When it is a question of defending oneself, that threat can be seen from afar, especially when it comes from foreigners. In such a situation, good subjects cannot complain or refuse to help. Crises never occur so suddenly that one cannot easily call together a few people to whom one can say, without using any deception, ‘This is not done without cause,’ and there is no need to begin some small war without any purpose, in order to have an excuse to raise money.

I fully realize that money is needed to defend and guard frontiers even when there is no war, in order not to be taken unawares, but this can be done inexpensively. A wise prince will know all about these things because if he is good, he will know that there is a God and a world and he will know what he should or can do and what he should not do. Now in my opinion, out of all the countries I have personally known, England is the one where public affairs are best conducted and regulated with least violence to the people. There no buildings are knocked down or demolished through war, and disaster and misfortune befall those who make war.

Our King is one with least reason in the world to say, ‘I have the privilege of raising from my subjects what I please,’ and those who have said this to make him appear more powerful have done the King no honour, since this only serves to frighten our neighbours and make them hate him and want more than ever to avoid coming under his rule. But if our King, or those who wish to exalt or magnify him, said, ‘I’ve such good and loyal subjects that they refuse me nothing which I ask of them, and I’m more feared and better obeyed and served by my subjects than any other living prince on earth, and they endure all misfortunes and afflictions more patiently and remember past injuries less than any others,’ it seems to me that would be high praise and it would be telling the truth. He should not say, ‘I take what I want because it’s my prerogative and I must maintain it.’ King Charles V did not say that. Indeed, I have never heard any king say that, but I have heard their servants say as much in the belief that they were doing their master a service. But in my opinion they misunderstood their master’s interests. They said it in order to appear good servants and did not realize what they were saying.

And to give an example of the cooperativeness of the French in our times it is only necessary to mention the Three Estates held at Tours [in 1484] after the death, in 1483, of our good master, King Louis, God have mercy upon him! One might have thought then that this assembly would be dangerous. Some persons of low estate and small repute said then, and have said the same several times since, that it was high treason to speak about calling the Estates as it diminished the King’s authority. But these are men who commit a crime against God, the King and the people. Such words help only those who are accustomed to whisper flattery in one’s ear and talk about things of little value; men who fear large assemblies because they may be found out and their practices condemned. At the time I am speaking about, everybody, whether of high, middle or low rank, thought the kingdom very expensive to run because they had borne and suffered for twenty years and more heavy and appalling taxes, which amounted to almost three million francs a year more than they had ever paid before. For Charles VII had never raised more than 1,800,000 francs a year but King Louis, his son, was levying at the time of his death 4,700,000 francs besides sums for the artillery and other similar things. Certainly it was painful to see and learn of the poverty of the people but our master had one good quality; he never amassed a fortune. He took everything and spent everything. He built more imposing fortifications and defenses for towns and other places in the kingdom than any of his predecessors. He gave much to churches. In some respects it would have been better if he had done less, because he took from the poor to give to those who had not need of it. In short, no one in this world is perfect.

But in this kingdom, which was so oppressed in many ways, was there any opposition to the present King after our King’s death? Did the princes and people take up arms against their young King? Did they want someone else as King? Did they want to take his authority away from him? Did they want to bridle him so that he could not use his royal powers to command? My God, certainly not!48 Yet there were some who were self-opinionated enough to say that this might have happened had they not been there. Everyone did the opposite to the questions I posed, for they all came to meet him, princes and lords, as well as the inhabitants of the towns. All recognized him as King and swore allegiance to him. The princes and lords presented their demands to him humbly on their knees in the form of petitions, and they established a council to which they appointed twelve of their number. From then onwards the King gave orders, although he was only thirteen years old, on the advice of his council.

At the meeting of the Estates several requests and suggestions were made with great humility for the good of the kingdom, all of which were remitted to the good pleasure of the King and his council. They granted him whatever was asked of them and agreed to whatever was shown to them in writing as necessary for the King’s business, without denying him anything. The sum asked for was 2,500,000 francs, which was enough to satisfy all his desires and if anything too much rather than too little, unless other matters cropped up. The Estates requested that after two years they should be recalled and said that if the King did not have sufficient money they would give him whatever he desired; if he had to wage war or someone were to offend him, they would place themselves and their possessions at his disposal, refusing him nothing he might need.

Is it over such subjects, who give so liberally, that the King should allege the privilege of being able to take things at his pleasure? Would it not be more just to God and the world to raise taxes in this way rather than by arbitrary desire? For no prince can raise taxes in any other way, as I have said, unless he does it by tyrannical means and is excommunicated. But there are many who are too stupid to know what they can or cannot do in this respect. On the other hand there are plenty of people who offend their master and neither obey nor assist him when he needs help. Instead, when they see him involved in diffuculties they despise him, rebel against him or disobey him by committing offences, thereby breaking the oaths of fealty they have sworn to him. Where I refer to ‘kings or princes’ I mean them and their governors and when I say ‘people’ I mean those who have high office and authority under them. The greatest wrongs are generally committed by the strongest because the weak only seek peace. I include women as well as men because sometimes and in some places they have power and authority, through their husband’s love or their ignorance49 or through having to look after their children’s affairs or because territories have descended to them. If I were to speak about the middling and small esates of this world, this account would take too long. For my purposes a mention of the greatest is sufficient because it is through them that God’s power and justice are revealed. But if bad luck befalls one poor man, or a hundred, nobody notices, because all is attributed to his poverty or to his lack of care or, if he is drowned or breaks his neck because no one was there to help him, people hardly bother to mention it. When misfortune befalls a great city people speak differently, although they do not say as much about it as they would if it had happened to a prince.

One might ask why the power of God is more manifest against great people than against the insignificant. It is because the powerless and poor find enough to punish them when they have done something to deserve it. Very often they are punished without having done anything wrong, as an example to others, so that their possessions can be taken, or, perhaps, through the fault of the judge. At other times they well deserve it and justice must be done. But as for great princes and princesses, their powerful governors and provincial councillors, disorderly towns disobeying their master and their governors, who will investigate their lives? Even if the inquiry is completed, who will take the evidence to a judge? What judge would consider the evidence and impose the punishment? I am speaking of evil men, not good, but there are a few enough of them. And what are the resaons for which they and all the others commit these crimes about which I have spoken above, as well as many others about which I have said nothing, for brevity’s sake, without consideration for divine power and justice? In such cases, I say, there is a lack of faith and in ignorant people a lack of sense as well as faith, though principally the latter, from which it seems to me all the world’s evils proceed, especially the afflictions which cause people to complain of being hurt and downtrodden by other more powerful people. For if it is impossible for a poor man, who has a true and good faith and firmly believes the torments of hell to be truly what they are, to take something wrongly from another (or whose father or grandfather did so) and possess it himself (whether it be a duchy, a county, a town, a castle, chattels, a meadow, a lake, a mill, or whatever is appropriate to his rank), and still believe firmly, as we all ought to do, ‘I shall never enter paradise unless I give full satisfaction and return, to the best of my knowledge, whatever I have that belongs to another;’ then it is possible that any king, queen, prince or princess (or any other person in whatever state or condition he might be living in this world, either high or low, man or woman) would want to keep anything from his subject or subjects or from any other person whatsoever with a clear conscience to the best of his knowledge (as I said before) either from his closest neighbour or from another, or would want to put him to death wrongly and without cause, or keep him in prison, or would want to eject some to enrich others (which is the most common thing they do), or act dishonourably against their relatives and servants for their own pleasures, as with women and such like? Upon my word, no, it is incredible! If they thus have a firm faith and believe what God and the Church tell us on pain of damnation, knowing their lives are short and the torments of hell so horrible and without end or remission, would they be as they are? We must conclude they would not and that all these evils come from a lack of faith. For example, when a king or a prince is a prisoner and he is afraid of dying in prision, is there anything so dear to him in this world that he would not give it up for his freedom? He hands over his own possessions and those of his subjects, as you remember King John of France did after being captured by the prince of Wales at the battle of Poitiers. He paid three million francs and delivered the whole of Aquitaine, or at least what he held of it, and many other cities, towns and places, a third of this kingdom, and plunged this realm into such great poverty that for a long time money made of leather with a small silver nail in it circulated50 King John and his son, King Charles the Wise, handed over all this to obtain his release. Even if they had not wanted to hand over any of this, the English would not have killed him. At worst they would have put him in prison, but even if they had executed him it would not have hurt him by one hundred thousandth part of the least torment of hell. Nevertheless he gave up all these things I have mentioned and ruined his children and his kingdom becaue he believed what he saw and realized that otherwise he would not be freed. But perhaps in committing acts similar to that for which this punishment fell upon the King, his children and his subjects, people do not have firm faith and understanding of the offence which they commit against God and His commandments. For there is no prince (or hardly any) who, if he holds one of his neighbour’s towns, will return it, either because of his protests or because of any fear of God or because he wishes to avoid the pains of hell. Yet King John gave up so much simply to get out of prison. Thus I say again the trouble is a lack of faith.

I have just asked who would make inquiries into what the powerful do, who would lay the information before a judge and which judge would punish the guilty. My answer to those questions is that the charges against them will be the complaints and protests of the people they trample underfoot and oppress in so many ways, without compassion or pity, the grievous lamentations of widows and orphans whose husbands and fathers they have put to death, causing suffering to those who survive; indeed, the accusation will come from all those they have persecuted either in their persons or through their possessions. This will be the accusation; their loud cries of complaint and their pitiful tears will bring it to Our Lord’s notice and He will be the rightful judge of this. He, perhaps, will not want to punish them in the next world but will do so here and now. Thus we must expect that they will be punished because they refuse to believe and because they have neither firm faith nor trust. We must also say that God is forced to demonstrate to them by such examples and signs so that they and everyone else may be convinced that punishment has befallen them because of their cruel offences and that is it God who shows His strength, virtue and justice against them. For no one else in this world except Him has the power.

At first the punishments of God do not seem to be as serious as they eventually prove to be, but none of them befalls a prince, or those who have the direction of his affairs or those who govern a great city, without the consequences being far-reaching and very dangerous for their subjects. Unless their subjects are affected by them I do not call these things misfortunes: falling from a horse, breaking a leg, contracting a serious fever, are all curable, and such accidents do good by making princes wiser. Real misfortunes occur when God is so offended that He cannot endure it any longer and has to show His strength and divine virtue. First, He diminishes their senses. This is a great blow to those whom he afflicts. Then He upsets their family and allows divisions and dissensions to spring up. The prince falls into such disfavour with Our Lord that he sets aside wise counsel and promotes men who are inexperienced and unreasonable and who flatter him and agree with all he says. If he wants to levy a penny tax, they say levy two. If he threatens a man, they say hang him, and so on in everything. They advise him above all to make himself feared and to show himself proud and courageous. They hope thereby that they themselves will be feared as if authority was their birthright.

Those whom princes have banished and dismissed on such advice, after they have served them for many years, and who have many relatives and friends in their territory, are very displeased, as also are their friends and well-wishers on their behalf. And perhaps they may be so oppressed that they will be forced to defend themselves or to flee to some petty neighbour, who may possibly be an enemy of the prince who banished them. When there are internal dissensions, outsiders can interfere. Is there any plague or persecutions so severe as a war between friends and those who know one another, or any hatred so mortal? It is easy to defend oneself against foreigners when there is unity at home. They have no informers or allies. Do you believe that an unwise prince, surrounded by stupid advisers, can foresee the misfortunes which might eventually befall him because of dissensions among his subjects? Or that he recognizes that they could harm him? Or that this proceeds from God? He is not less well dined nor is his bed less fine nor does he have fewer horses or clothes than other men, and he is always well attended because he attracts men both by his promises and by distributing the goods and estates of those whom he has exiled as well as his own in order to increase his renown. But at the moment that he least expects it God will raise up an enemy against him and it may be someone of whom he has never heard. Then thoughts and great suspicions about those he has offended will crowd his mind and he will be afraid of many people who wish him no harm. He will not make God his refuge but will prepare his army.

  •  From MS. P.
  • Following MS. P.
  • Commynes’s remarks on the ransom of King John are based more on legend than historical fact. No leather money was ever issued and although he summarizes with some accuracy the terms of the treaty of Brétigny-Calais (1360), John’s desire for freedom did not stop him from returning to captivity in England in 1363, where he died in 1364, after his son Louis, duke of Anjou, had broken parole.

[Examples of revolutions in other states]
HAVE we not seen in our own time examples of this in countries close to ours? We have seen King Edward IV of England, who died a short time ago, head of the house of York. Did he not overthrow the house of Lancaster under which both he and his father had lived for a long time and had he not done homage to the Lancastrian king, Henry VI of England? Later Edward kept Henry in prison for many years at the Tower of London in the capital of the kingdom of England, and finally had him put to death. Have we not also seen the earl of Warwick, the chief and leading administrator of King Edward’s affairs (who had all his friends put to death, especially the dukes of Somerset), after becoming the enemy of King Edward, his master, giving his daughter in marriage to the prince of Wales, son of King Henry VI and attempting to restore the house of Lancaster, finally defeated and killed in battle, together with his brothers and relatives? Similarly several lords in England at one time killed their enemies, then later the children of their victims got their revenge when times changed and favoured them and they killed the others.

Surely such strokes come about because of divine justice. But, as I said elsewhere, the realm of England enjoys one favour above all other realms, that neither the countryside nor the people are destroyed nor are buildings burnt and demolished. Misfortune falls on soldiers and on nobles in particular; thus nothing is perfect in this world.

After King Edward of England had obtained the upper hand in his realm and was receiving fifty thousand crowns a year from our kingdom, which was delivered to his Tower of London, and he had become so rich no one was able to rival him, he died suddenly, of melancholy it seems, because of the marriage of our present King and my lady Marguerite, the daughter of the duke of Austria.51 As soon as he heard the news he fell sick, for he knew himself deceived over the marriage of his daughter, whom he used to call my lady the Dauphine, and the pension, which he received from us and which he called tribute, was stopped. But it was neither tribute nor pension, as I explained previously. King Edward left a wife and two fine sons; one called the prince of Wales, the other the duke of York. The duke of Gloucester, brother of the late King Edward, took control of the government of his nephew, the prince of Wales, who was about ten years old, and did homage to him as king. He brought him to London, pretending that he was going to have him crowned, but really to get the other son out of sanctuary in London where he was with his mother, who was somewhat suspicious. In the end, with the assistance of the bishop of Bath, who had previously been King Edward’s Chancellor before being dismissed and imprisoned (although he still received his money), on his release the duke carried out the deed which you shall hear described in a moment. This bishop revealed to the duke of Gloucester that King Edward, being very enamoured of a certain English lady, promised to marry her, provided that he could sleep with her first, and she consented. The bishop said that he had married them when only he and they were present. He was a courtier so he did not disclose this fact but helped to keep the lady quiet and things remained like this for a while. Later King Edward fell in love again and married the daughter of an English knight, Lord Rivers. She was a widow with two sons.

At the time I am speaking about the bishop of Bath told the duke of Gloucester all about this affair and helped him a great deal in the execution of his evil plan. The duke had his two nephews murdered and made himself king, with the title King Richard. The two daughters [of Edward IV] were declared illegitimate in a plenary session of Parliament and their right to the royal arms was taken from them. All his late brother’s loyal servants, or at least those he could capture, were killed on his orders. The cruelty did not last long; for after he had become more filled with pride than any of his predecessors as kings of England in the last hundred years and he had killed the duke of Buckingham52 and gathered a large army, God raised up an enemy against him who had no power. This was the earl of Richmond, at that time a prisoner in Brittany, today king of England.53 He was a member of the house of Lancaster but he was not the closest claimant to the crown, whatever one may say about it (at least as far as I understand it). He himself told me on one occasion, a short while before he left this kingdom, that since the age of five he had been guarded like a fugitive or kept in prison. For fifteen years or thereabouts this earl of Richmond had been held prisoner in Brittany by Duke Francis, who died recently. He had fallen into the his hands during a storm when he was attempting to flee to France with his uncle [Jasper], the earl of Pembroke. I was at the duke’s court at the time they were captured.54 The duke treated them very gently as prisoners and on the death if King Edward, the duke gave Richmond a large force of men and boats and, with the cooperation of the duke of Buckingham (who later died for his part in this), he sent the earl to land in England. There was a great storm and contrary winds so he had to return to Dieppe and from there he made his way by land back to Brittany. When he returned to Brittany, he was anxious not to burden the duke with expenses because he had some five hundred English followers and he was also afraid the duke might reach some accord with King Richard which would be to his disadvantage. Indeed negotiations were in progress, so he and his company left withtout bidding the duke good-bye. A short time later he was paid just enough money for the passage of three or four thousand men. The present King gave those who were with him a large sum of money and some artillery. He was taken by ship from Normandy to land in his native Wales. King Richard marched to meet him but the earl of Richmond was joined by Lord Stanley, an English knight and husband of the earl’s mother, with reinforcements numbering more than twenty-six thousand men. A battle was fought. King Richard was killed on the battlefield and the earl of Richmond was crowned king of England on the field with Richard’s crown. Should one describe this as Fortune? Surely it was God’s judgement. But still, to make it even more evident — as soon as King Richard had had his two nephews cruelly murdered, as I said before, he lost his wife; some say he had her killed. He only had one son who died immediately afterwards. (This account I have just related would have fitted better later on when I shall speak about King Edward’s death, because he was still alive at the time with which this chapter deal. But I have included it in otder to illustrate my digression.)

Similarly we have seen the crown of Spain change hands after the death of the late king Don Enrique, who was married to the sister of the late king of Portugal — the one who was the mother of a beautiful daughter. Nevertheless she did not succeed but was deprived of the crown on the grounds of her mother’s supposed adultery. But this was not accomplished without much strife and bitter wars because the king of Portugal wanted to support his neice and so did several Castilian lords. But King Enrigue’s sister, who had married the son of Don Juan, the king of Aragon, obtained the kingdom and still possesses it. Thus this judgement and settlement was made in heaven, where enough others are made. Likewise you have seen not long ago the king of Scotland and his son, who was thirteen or fourteen years old, fighting each other. The son and his supporters won the battle and the king was killed on the field. The king had had his brother killed and he was suspected of having caused several other deaths besides.55

  •  Marguerite was affianced to Charles VIII in 1483 but although called ‘la Royne’ in French documents she was eventually sent back to Flanders in 1491 when Charles married Anne of Brittany.
  • Executed at Shrewsbury for rebellion, 2 November 1483.
  • Henry VII (1485-1509)
  • In 1471.
  • James III (1460-88) was suspected of murdering John, earl of Mar, in 1479, and was killed in the battle against his son, James IV (1488-1513), and his rebellious vassals on 11 June 1488.


[The war of succession in Burgundy]

i Here the author returns to his narrative and tells how the duke of Guelders, at that time leader of the Flemings, was killed at the siege of Tournai and how the Flemings were put to flight by the Frenchmen who were in Tournai

IT is time I returned to my principal concern and continued these memoirs which were begun at your request, my lord archbishop of Vienne.

When the duke of Guelders arrived before Tournai he set fire to everything up to the suburbs, where there were three or four hundred men-at-arms who rushed out and attacked the rear of his forces when they retreated, and immediately the people began to flee. The duke of Guelders, who was a very valiant man, turned round, hoping to make a way for his own men to retreat. But he was poorly supported and he was knocked to the ground and killed, as were a fairly large number of his men. It only needed a few royal troops to carry out this task. The Flemish host began to withdraw after this loss, although only a small band of them had been defeated. My lady of Burgundy, it was reported, was very happy at the results of this adventure, as were those who had her interests at heart, because it was said that the men of Ghent had certainly decided to marry her to the duke by force, because they could not have made her consent to this willingly, for several reasons which have been explained to you previously.

ii Here I speak about the King’s dealings with the Engish, during the time when he was waging war in my lady of Burgundy’s lands, to prevent them from interfering with his plans

Those who read these memoirs in days to come and who understand the affairs and interests of this kingdom and its neighbours better than I do may be surprised that since the death of Duke Charles of Burgundy up to this moment, that is about a year later, I have not made a single mention of the English or how they could allow the King to lay his hands on towns which lay so close to them like Arras, Boulogne, Hesdin, Ardes and several castles, or to besiege Saint-Quintin for many days. The reason is that the intelligence and understanding of our King exceeded that of the reigning English king, Edward [IV], although King Edward was a very brave prince who had won eight or nine battles in England. All of these he had fought on foot, which speaks highly of his qualities. But these were disputes of short duration where King Edward’s judgement was not necessarily exercised, for as soon as the battle was over he was in control until the next crisis, for if any conflict breaks out in England one or other of the rivals is master within ten days or less. But our affairs over here are not conducted in this way. It is necessary for our King, when he is waging war, to know what is going on in many parts of his realm and in neighbouring territories. In particular amongst all his other concerns he must be able to satisfy the king of England or to divert his attention by embassies, presents and fine words so that he will not interfere in our affairs. For our master was well aware that all the English nobles, commons and clergy are at any moment inclined to fight against this kingdom, using the excuse of the claims they pretend to have to it, and in hopes of winning profit here, because God permitted their predecessors to win several battles in this kingdom and to hold both Normandy and Guyenne for a long time; they possessed the latter for three hundred and fifty years up to the time when King Charles VII first conquered it. During this time they carried off great spoils and riches to England, from both the poor people and the lords of France, whom they had imprisoned in large numbers, as well as from the towns and other places they had captured in this realm. They always hoped to be able to repeat this. But it would only have been with the greatest difficulty that they could have done this during the reign of our master, King Louis, because he would never have risked his realm to the extent of making all the nobility of the kingdom dismount to fight the English as was done at Agincourt. And he would have proceeded far more wisely if things had come to such a pass, as you can see by the way he quickly handled matters when King Edward of England did invade. Now our master soon realized that the king of England and his closest advisers were more inclined to make peace and to take his gifts, so for this reason he promptly paid the pension of fifty thousand crowns which he delivered to the king of England at London (they called it tribute). To his closest advisers he paid some sixteen thousand crowns, that is to say, to the Chancellor, to the Master of the Rolls (who is the present Chancellor), to the Lord Chamberlain, Lord Hastings, a man of great sense, virtue and authority, to Sir Thomas Montgomery, to Lord Howard, who later became duke of Norfolk under that wicked King Richard, to the Master of the Horse [Sir John] Cheyne, to [Sir Thomas] St. Leger and to the marquis [of Dorset], son of the queen of England by a previous marriage, and he gave very great gifts to all those who came to his court. Even when they came with very strict instructions he would dispatch them with such fine words and presents that they would be satisfied with him. On the other hand, sometimes, when they recognized that the King, our master, was only doing this to gain time and to forward his own designs in this war which he had begun, they disguised this fact because of the great profit they received from him. To all those just mentioned he gave gifts besides their pensions. I am certain that in less than two years he gave to Lord Howard, as well as his pension, both money and plate to the value of twenty-four thousand crowns, and to the Chamberlain, Lord Hastings, he gave on one occasion alone a thousand marks’ worth of silver plate. Quittances from all these people could be found in the Chambre des comptes1 at Paris, except from Lord Hastings, Lord Chamberlain of England (and there is only one of them, so it is an important office).

It was very difficult to persuade the Lord Chamberlain to become a pensioner. He did so eventually through me because I had helped to make him friendly with Duke Charles of Burgundy, whom I was serving at the time. Charles gave him a pension of a thousand crowns a year. I told the King about this and it likewise pleased him that I should be the agent to make him his friend and servant, for previously he had always been a great enemy, both while the duke was alive and after his death, for he supported the lady of Burgundy and if it had been up to him England would have helped her against the King. So I began this friendship by writing letters and the King gave him a pension of two thousand crowns, double what the duke of Burgundy had given him. The King, our master, sent Pierre Clairet, one of the stewards of his household, to him, strictly instructing him to receive a quittance so that in the future it could be seen and proved that the Lord Chamberlain, the Chancellor, the Admiral and the Master of the Horse of England, and several others, were pensioners of the King of France.

Pierre Clairet was a very clever man. He had a private conversation with the Lord Chamberlain in his room in London. When he told him whatever it was necessary to say and, on the King’s behalf, presented him with the two thousand crowns in gold (for the King never gave money to great foreign lords in any other type of coin) and after the Chamberlain had received this money, Pierre Clairet asked him to sign a quittance for it so that he himself could be quit. Lord Hastings prevaricated. Clairet then asked him again to simply give him a letter three lines long addressed to the King, saying that he had received the money, which would serve as a quittance for him to the King, his master, so that he would not think that Clairet had robbed him of it, because the King was somewhat suspicious by nature. When the Chamberlain saw that Clairet’s request was entirely proper he said, ‘Master Clairet, what you say is quite reasonable, but this gift comes freely from your master, the King. I didn’t ask for it. If it pleases you that I should take it you can put it here in my sleeve, but you’ll get neither letter nor quittance from me because I don’t want people to say of me “The Lord Chamberlain of England was the King of France’s pensioner,” nor do I want my quittances to be found in hisChambre des comptes.’ Clairet said no more, left him the money and came back to report to the King, who was very angry that he had not brought the quittance. But he praised the Chamberlain for his action and respected him more than all the other servants of the king of England. Thereafter the Chamberlain was always paid without him giving a quittance.

In this way our King dealt with the English. Nevertheless the king of England was often asked and urged by the supporters of the young princess to help and as a result he sent embassies to the King to protest about this matter and put pressure on him to make peace or at least a truce. For among the Englishmen in his council and especially in Parliament (which is their equivalent of the Three Estates) were to be found a number of wise, far-sighted men, who did not receive pensions like the others and they, and in particular the commons, were very anxious that the king of England should help the lady as much as he could, saying that we, for our part, were deceiving them and that the marriage would never take place. This could easily be seen because in the treaty made at Picquigny between the two kings it had been sworn and promised that within a year we would send for the daughter of the king of England, who had already been called my lady the Dauphine, and that this time-limit had long passed. But whatever representations his subjects made, the king did not want to listen to them; there were many reasons for this. He was a ponderous man who was much addicted to his pleasures. He had not known how to endure the rigours of war in this country and having seen himself escape from great difficulties he had no wish to return to them. On the other hand his greed had been moderated by the delivery of fifty thousand crowns every year to the Tower of London. Also when his ambassadors came [to France] they were made so very welcome and they were given so many fine presents that they went away satisfied, although in order to gain time they were never given any definite answers. They were always told that in a few days the King would send to their master good envoys who would give him such assurances about any matter which bothered him that he would be satisfied. Thus about three weeks or a month after the ambassadors had left, sometimes later sometimes sooner (and this is of no importance in such affairs), the King would send his envoys. They were always men who had not been on the previous mission so that if the former envoys had made some proposal which had not subsequently been carried out, the new envoys would not know what to reply. Also those who were sent took a great deal of trouble in every possible way to give the king of England such assurances about France that he would remain patient and not turn against her. For he and the queen, his wife, so wanted the marriage to take place that this, and the other reasons I have mentioned, made him ignore what some of his council told him was the great prejudice of his realm and made him fear for the breaking off of the marriage because of the scorn poured upon it already in England, especially by those who wanted dissension and strife.

To make this explanation a little clearer; the King, our master, never wanted to complete this marriage, for the ages of the couple were not compatible since the girl (who is the present queen of England) was much older than my lord the Dauphin, out present King. So by these ruses, a month or two being gained with each coming and going, the King prevented his enemy from using the opportunity to harm him. For without a shadow of a doubt had it not been for the hopes of this marriage the king of England would not have been so tolerant of the King taking those places so close to him without exerting himself to protect them. And if right at the start he had declared himself for the lady of Burgundy, the King, who was afraid of placing things in jeopardy or leaving them to chance, would not have weakened the house of Burgundy as much as he had.

I recount these matters principally to allow one to understand how the affairs of this world are conducted, so that one can either take advantage of them or prepare oneself against them and so that it may be useful to those who have important business on hand and who read these memoirs. For although their intelligence may be considerable a little advice is sometimes useful. It is true that had my lady of Burgundy wanted to agree to marry Lord Rivers, brother of the queen of England, he would have come to her aid with a good number of soldiers. But it would have been a very unequal marriage for he was only a minor earl and she was the greatest heiress of her time.

Many negotiations were in hand between the King and the king of England and among them was a proposal from the King that if Edward would join him and come in person to invade part of the lands of the lady and take his share of them, then the King would consent to let the king of England have the county of Flanders, which he would hold free of homage, as well as the duchy of Brabant. The King even offered to conquer at his own cost the four largest towns of Brabant and hand them over to the king of England and, moreover, to pay him for ten thousand Englishmen for four months so that he might more easily bear the costs of the army. To help him, he was to lend him a large number of guns with horses and wagons to transport them and whilst the king of England conquered Flanders the King in the meantime was to attack the enemy elsewhere.

The king of England replied that the towns of Flanders were large and powerful and it would a very difficult country to keep once he had conquered it, and Brabant likewise, and anyway the English were not very much in favour of this war because of the strength of their commercial ties [with Flanders], but that since the King was proposing to give him a share of his conquests, would he be so good as to deliver to him some of the places he had already conquered in Picadry, such as Boulogne and the others, and that having done this he would declare himself for him and send men to serve him for whom he could pay. This was a very wise reply.

  •  The French equivalent of the English Exchequer.

How several marriage proposals were made to my lady of Burgundy and how she finally married Maximilian, the Emperor’s son
SO, I as I said before, bargaining between the King and the king of England went on all the while in order to gain time whilst the lady of Burgundy’s position was weakening. For, of the few solderis remaining to her after her father’s death, many joined the King, especially after my lord of Cordes had done so, bringing several over with him. Others changed sides of necssity, either because their estates were situated close to or within towns which were already in the King’s obedience, or because they wanted to obtain rewards from him, for no other prince shared out his possessions so generously among his servants as he did. Furthermore, troubles daily increased in these large towns, especially at Ghent which stirred up everything as you heard.

In the lady’s entourage many were talking about possible marriages for her, saying that she should either marry to defend the lands which remained to her or that she should marry my lord the Dauphin so that she would be able to keep all her lands. Some people very much wanted this marriage to take place and she did too, especially before the delivery of the letters which the lord of Humbercourt and the Chancellor carried. Others pointed out the Dauphin’s extreme youth — he was only about nine years old2 — they also mentioned that he was pledged to the English marriage and they recommended the son of the duke of Clèves. Yet others suggested the son of the Emperor, Maxilimilian, the present king of the Romans.3

The lady had begun to hate the King as a result of those letters which she thought had led to the death of those two good men, and to her own public humiliation when they were delivered to her in front of so many people as you heard. Also, it had inspired the men of Ghent audaciously to chase away her officers, separate her from her mother-in-law and the lord of Ravenstein and so petrify her ladies [-in-waiting] that they dared not open a letter without showing it to their mistress nor speak to her except in a whisper.

She then began to keep aloof from the bishop of Liège, a member of the house of Bourbon, who wanted her to marry my lord the Dauphin. This would have been a very suitable and honourable marriage for the lady had it not been for the Dauphin’s extreme youth. Nevertheless the bishop was unable to achieve this, so he withdrew to Liège and the matter was dropped. Indeed it would have been very difficult to arrange to suit everybody and I believe that if anyone had got involved in the affair they would have failed and come away with no great honour. Afterwards, a council was held about this matter at which my lady of Hallwin,4 the first lady-in-waiting to the princess, was present and she said, as it was reported to me, that what they needed was a man and certainly not a child. Her mistress was a woman capable of bearing children and that was what the country needed. This opinion prevailed although some blamed the lady for having spoken so frankly, but others praised her for it and said she only spoke about the marriage and what was very necessary for the country. Afterwards the talk was only about finding the right man. I really believe that if the King had wanted her to marry the present lord of Angoulême,5 she would have done so, as she wanted very much to remain allied to the royal house of France. Yet God wanted to arrange another marriage and, perhaps, we still do not know why He wanted to do this. We can see what has happened; as a result of this marriage, here in this kingdom and elsewhere much more serious wars have broken out (in which Flanders, Brabant and other regions have suffered great oppression) than would have done so if she had married my lord of Angoulême.

The duke of Clèves was at Ghent with the lady, eagerly looking for friends and thereby hoping to arrange the marriage of his son with the princess. She was not at all inclined towards this match and the character of Clèves’s son did not please her nor her close advisers. So they began to negotiate for a marriage with the Emperor’s son, the present king of the Romans, about which there had been some previous discussions between the Emperor and Duke Charles. They had come to an agreement about it. The Emperor also had a letter written by the princess on her father’s instructions and he had been given a diamond ring. The letter said that she, in accordance with the good wishes and desire of her lord and father, promised to marry the duke of Austria, son of the Emperor, as it had been agreed, on the conditions her lord and father saw fit to arrange.

The Emperor sent certain ambassadors to the princess, who was at Ghent. When they arrived at Brussels they received letters telling them to wait there a while and that envoys would be sent to them. The duke of Clèves did this because he did not want them to come and he was trying to make them return dissatisfied. But the ambassadors, who already had contacts in the household, or at least with the dowager duchess of Burgundy, who had been banished and separated from the princess as you heard, continued on their way, for she had advised them, so I was told, that they should proceed despite the letters. She also told them what they ought to do when they arrived at Ghent and that the princess was very well disposed towards their business as were several of those close to her. The Imperial ambassadors followed this advice and came directly to Ghent, despite their orders to the contrary. This displeased the duke of Clèves immensely, but he was still ignorant of the ladies’ wishes. It was suggested in council that the ambassadors should be given an audience and it was decided that after they had presented their credentials the princess should tell them that they were very welcome and that she would lay before her council whatever they said to her; a reply would then be given to them. In the meantime she would say no more. The lady agreed to this suggestion.

The ambassadors presented their letters when they were told to do so and announced the purpose of their mission. As the marriage had been arranged between the Emperor and the duke of Burgundy, her father, with her full knowledge and consent, as it appeared by letters written in her own hand, which they displayed, together with the diamond, which they said had been given and sent to him as a token of marriage, they strongly urged her, on their master’s behalf, to be pleased to fulfil the terms of the marriage, according to the wishes and promises of her lord and father and of herself, and to declare before all those present whether she had written the letter or not and whether she wished to keep her promise. On hearing these words and without asking for advice, the princess replied that she had written the letters at her father’s command and that she had sent the diamond. The ambassadors thanked her profusely and returned joyfully to their lodgings.

The duke of Clèves was very upset by this reply which was contarary to what had been decided upon in council. He protested strongly to the princess that she had spoken ill-advisedly. But she replied that she could not do otherwise and, since it had been promised, she could not go against it.

Hearing her words, and knowing full well that there were several there who held a similar opinion, he decided, a few days later, to go back to his own land and give up his plans. And so this marriage was accomplished, for the Duke Maximilian came to Cologne where many of the princess’s officers went to meet him. I really do believe that they found him almost penniless and had to take him some money because his father was a very mean man, more so than any other prince or indeed anyone else of our time. The Emperor’s son was brought to Ghent, accompanied by seven or eight hundred horsemen, and the marriage was concluded. This, at first sight, brought little benefit to the subjects of the princess, for instead of bringing money it was necessary to give it to him. His forces were not powerful enough to face those of the King, nor did their characters afford them well with those of the subjects of the house of Burgundy, who had lived under rich princes, who gave away good offices and maintained a fine, splendid court with lavish furnishings, food and clothes for themselves and their servants. The Germans were just the opposite, for they are uncouth folk who live boorishly.

I have no doubt that it was with serious deliberation and wise counsel, and even owing to God’s favour, that the French law and ordinance was made that daughters should not inherit the kingdom, in order to avoid it falling into the hands of a foreign prince and other foreigners, for the French people would scarcely have been able to tolerate it. Nor would other nations. And, in the long run, there are no lordships, in particular no powerful ones, where in the end the country does not remain in the possession of its own people. You can see from the example of France, where the English held extensive territory for four hundred years, but at the present time they hold only Calais and two small castles, which cost them a great deal to keep. The remainder they lost more quickly than they had conquered it because they lost more in a day than they gained in a year. The same thing is exemplified by the kingdom of Naples, the island of Sicily and the other provinces which the French had possessed for many years, and where signs of their former power are now only indicated by the graves of their predecessors. Even though a country could endure a very wise foreign prince with a small very orderly following it could not easily put up with a large number of men. If he were to bring them with him or send for them, because of the threat of war, and they were to come, it would be only with the greatest difficulty that he could avoid envy, discord and quarrels. These arise as much over the differences of customs and temperaments as over the violence which they often use, since they will not love the country as much as those who were born there and, above all, they will want the country’s offices and benefices and want to control its affairs. In order to act correctly a prince would have to be very wise when he comes to a foreign country to reconcile all these conflicting claims, and if a prince is not blessed with this ability, which above all others proceeds from God’s grace alone, whatever other good qualities he has, he will scarcely be able to overcome this failing. And if he lives out a man’s normal lifespan he will have great troubles and difficulties, as will all those who live under him, especially when he becomes an old man and his men and officers have no hope of him changing his ways.

When the marriage had been completed, their affairs hardly improved, for both were young. Duke Maximilian understood nothing, both because of his youth6 and also because he was in a foreign country. Besides he had also been brought up badly, at least for understanding important affairs, nor did he have sufficient men to make any great show. For this reason the country has been in great trouble up to the present and looks likely to be for some time to come. There is great inconvenience, as I have said, for a country when it is forced to seek a lord from abroad. God has greatly blessed the kingdom of France with the law, which I mentioned above, that daughters should not inherit. A small family could grow in that way, but a great kingdom like this one could only suffer all kinds of inconveniences.

A few days after the marriage the county of Artois was lost — or at least while the marriage was being negotiated. It is only necessary for me to get the point of substance right — if I am mistaken over the dates by a month, one way or the other, readers must excuse me if they will. The King’s position was improving all the time because there was no resistance. Every day he took another place, unless there was a truce or some peaceful overture, which never came to anything, because they were unreasonable; and so the war continued.

Duke Maximilian and my lady of Burgundy had a son in the first year of their marriage — Archduke Philip, who reigns at present.7 In the second year they had a daughter — our present Queen Margeurite.8 In the third year they had a son named Francis, after Duke Francis of Brittany.9 In the fourth year my lady died after falling from a horse — or of a fever — though it is true that she had a fall.10 Some said she was pregnant. It was a terrible blow to her subjects and they revered and feared her more than her husband. She was also the true heiress of the country. She loved her husband and was a lady of good reputation. Her death occurred in 1482.

In Hainaualt the King held the towns of Quesnoy-le Comte and Bohain, which he restored. Some were amazed by this, seeing that he had sought no agreement and that he appeared to want to take everything, leaving nothing to this family. And I truly believe that had he been able to dispose of it and give all away at leisure and completely destroy it, he would have done so, but two reasons made him deliver up these places in Hainault. First, it seemed to him that a king has more strength and importance in the kingdom where he was annointed and crowned than he does outside it, and these towns were outside his kingdom (and were restored in 1478). The other reason was that between the kings of France and the Emperors there had been solemn oaths and agreements for the former not to undertake anything against the Empire and the latter, likewise, nothing against this kingdom. These places I mentioned were in the Empire. For a similar reason he restored Cambrai or placed it in neutral hands, being content to lose it. The citizens, in fact, had first of all agreed to allow the King in on these conditions.

  •  Actually about eleven. Mary was twenty, being born on 13 February 1457.
  • Maximilian succeeded his father on 19 August 1493, although it was not until 1508 that he assumed the title ‘Emperor-elect’.
  • Jeanne de la Clite, lady of Hallwin (d. 11 April 1512) was a cousin of Commynes.
  • Charles d’Orléans, count of Angoulême (d. 1 January 1496), father of King Francis I of France.
  • He was eighteen, being born on 22 March 1459.
  • Born 22 June 1478.
  • Introduction Footnote 5 and Book Six, Chapter 6, Part ii, and Book Six, Chapter 11.
  • Born 2 September, died 26 December 1486.
  • Mary died on 27 March 1482.

Text copyright © [1972], Michael Jones. This edition is still a work in progress. We are grateful to Professor Jones for permission to place this edition online while he completes a review of the text, and will correct any errors found by Professor Jones on completion of this review.