Front Matter Gauls Defeat Romans Vercingetorix Saints of France Attila, Scourge of God Story of Clovis Sons of Clovis Mayors of the Palace Charles the Hammer Pepin the Short Charlemagne in Lombardy Defeat at Roncesvalles Emperor of the West Louis the Pious War of Three Brothers Louis the Stammerer Paris defies the Sea Kings Rollo the Viking Hugh Capet Becomes King Bishop Betrays the Duke Robert the Pious The Peace of God Harold Visits Duke William William Sails to England The Battle of Hastings Peter the Hermit First War of the Cross Louis the Fat and Laon King Fights his Vassal Second War of the Cross French Queen of England How Normandy Was Lost Albigenses War Battle of Bouvines Story of Hugh de La Marche Reign of St. Louis St. Louis's last Crusade Peter the Barber Knights vs. Weavers Pope vs. Philip the Fair Sons of Philip the Fair Philip VI vs. Flanders Battle and Plague King vs. Charles the Bad The Jacquerie Stephen Marcel Betrays Paris Charles V and du Guesclin Du Guesclin Fights for France The Madness of Charles VI The Battle of Agincourt The Maid of Orleans End of Hundred Years' War King vs. Charles the Bold Troubles of Duchess Mary Charles the Affable Knight Without Reproach Battle of the Spurs Francis I, Gentleman King King Taken Prisoner Duke of Guise Defends Metz Calais Returns to France The Riot of Amboise Huguenot and Catholic St. Bartholomew Massacre War of the Three Henries The Protestant King Edict of Nantes Reign of Favorites Taking of La Rochelle Power of the Cardinal-King Reign of Louis XIV The Man in the Iron Mask The Height of Power Edict of Nantes Revoked War of Spanish Succession

History of France - H. E. Marshall

How the People of Laon Fought for Freedom
Louis VI (the Fat) [1108-1137]

Philip I took little interest in the Crusade or in anything else. He died in 1108 and was succeeded by his son, Louis VI.

Philip was the last of the Do-nothing Kings of the Capetian line. Louis who came after him was young and gay, a soldier and a ruler. When he was young he was called Louis the Fighter, or Louis the Wide awake. But as he grew older he became very stout and so was called Louis le gros, or the Fat, and by that name he is best known in history.

When Louis came to the throne, many of the great barons were lawless and turbulent. They rode about the country fighting and robbing at will. They attacked merchants on the roads and held them prisoner until they paid large sums of money. They ground down the peasants, making them pay whatever they liked. They knew no law but their own will; they obeyed no ruler.

Louis spent the first years of his reign in quelling these lawless barons. And it was by the help of the people that he succeeded. The Crusades had given many of them new ideas of freedom, and taught them to use sword and spear. Many of them, too, had grown rich. It was they who suffered most from the lawlessness of the nobles, and so they willingly helped Louis against their oppressors. This union of the King and peasants against the nobles is one of the wonderful things of Louis the Fat's reign.

The people soon began to find out their power and they bound themselves together into communes or brotherhoods. "Commune," says a writer of the time, "is a new and very bad word. And this is the meaning of the word—men shall not pay the rent they owe to their lords more than once a year. If they commit any fault they shall be free on paying a fine fixed by law. And as for other taxes which custom lays upon slaves they shall go free."

When once a town had won the right of commune the people in it were no longer the slaves or serfs of the lord. Sometimes a town won the right easily, for many nobles had returned from Palestine poor. So they were glad to sell these liberties to their vassals for gold. But sometimes the people fought for them. Sometimes, in return for the help the people gave him, Louis granted charters of freedom to their towns.

Louis did not found the communes. They founded themselves. It was the people themselves who rose against oppression, and it is to Louis's skillful that he did not crush them. And therefore he lives in the hearts of Frenchmen as the soldier King who protected the poor and curbed the cruel oppression of the nobles.

The city of Laon was one which fought for its freedom. The lord of the city was a Bishop, and he ruled very badly. He was more a soldier than a priest, and both greedy and cruel. He loaded the people with taxes and tortured or killed any who opposed him.

The people grew more and more weary of his rule. At length, once when he was away, they begged the nobles who governed for him to sell to them for a large sum of money the rights of commune. This the nobles did, thinking it an easy way of growing rich.

The joy in the city of Laon was great. But when the Bishop returned he was very angry. However, when the people offered him still more money, he allowed his anger to cool and promised to give up all his rights over the town. Then, so that nothing should be lacking to make sure their freedom, the people sent messengers to Paris with rich presents for the King, begging him to sign their charter of freedom.

This he did and everything seemed well with the commune of Laon. But soon the Bishop and nobles had spent all the money given them by the people, and they began to repent of their bargain. They resolved at length to persuade the King to take away the charter he had given. So the Bishop invited the King to come to spend Easter at Laon.

The King came, and as soon as he arrived the Bishop began to talk to him and persuade him to take away the charter. But at first the King refused. For the towns people had been warned of the Bishop's wicked plans, and they offered to give the King four hundred pounds in silver if he would refuse to do what the Bishop asked.

When the Bishop learned this, however, he offered the King seven hundred pounds in silver. He did not possess the money, but he made up his mind to grind it out of the townsfolk as soon as the King had taken away their charter, and he could once more tax them as he liked.

The King wanted money, and he yielded. The Bishop absolved him from his oath, and also absolved himself with solemn ceremony. Then heralds were sent out into the market-place to declare to all the people that their charter with the great royal seal of which they were so proud was of no more use; that their magistrates must cease from office; that they must give up the seal and banner of the town, and no longer sound the bell in the belfry.

When the people heard the proclamation they were filled with fear and anger. They crowded into the streets uttering cries of rage and vows of vengeance. There arose such a tumult that when the King heard the noise he was afraid of what he had done. He took refuge that night in the Bishop's palace, which was very strongly fortified. The next morning before the day dawned he fled away without waiting to keep the feast of Easter for which he had come.

All that day a stillness as of death rested upon the town. The streets remained empty. Inns, shops, and workshops were closed and silent. It was as if the people mourned the death of some great and loved friend.

Then the news went forth that they were to be taxed, taxed to the uttermost so that the King might have the money promised to him. With cruel laughter the Bishop said, "You paid great sums to have your commune set up. You shall pay as great to have it destroyed."

Anger and fear drove the people mad. Forty of them banded themselves together and swore to put the Bishop to death. The Bishop was warned of the plot, but he laughed scornfully. "Fie then!" he cried, "shall I perish by the hands of such people?" Yet he ordered his servants to wear arms under their robes.

For three days the town was in a state of riot and disorder. Several houses were attacked and plundered. But when the Bishop heard of it he laughed.

"What do you suppose these good people will do with their riots? If my black man John pulled the nose of the bravest of them he would not dare to grumble. I have forced them to give up their commune. I have no fear but I shall be able to rule them."

Next day, however, as the Bishop sat in his palace he heard great cries of "The commune, the commune!" It was the signal of revolt. Bands of townsfolk, armed with swords, lances, hatchets, and all kinds of weapons, rushed into the cathedral and from there to the Bishop's palace.

At the first sound of the revolt the nobles hurried to help the Bishop. But they were slaughtered by the angry people, who soon spread all over the palace seeking the Bishop. "Where is the traitor, the villain?" they shouted.

The Bishop meanwhile, having changed clothes with one of his servants, ran to the cellar and hid himself in a barrel.

But no place was safe from the fury of the mob. He was found, dragged from the barrel by the hair of the head, and hurled out into the street, while the townsfolk beat him pitilessly. He fell upon his knees crying aloud for mercy, promising them money, freedom, everything.

But there was no pity or mercy in those angry hearts. "You would keep your promise as you kept it before," they answered, and blow after blow fell upon him till he died. Then, despoiled of his jewels and stripped of his clothes, his body was cast aside into a street corner. And all who went by flung mud and stones, insults and curses, at the mangled remains of what was once their Bishop.

But as soon as the townspeople had satisfied their vengeance they began to be afraid of the King's anger. Panic seized them. In their fear they begged one of the nobles of the neighborhood called Thomas of Marle to protect them.

This Thomas was a fierce and brutal knight. Horrible stories were told of the deeds he did in his castle, of how he attacked and tortured travelers and merchants. But the townsfolk felt they must have some protection against the King, and Thomas seemed the best man from whom to ask it. For it was well known he had no love for Louis the Fat, who tried to curb the power of all unruly barons.

So the townsfolk went to Thomas of Marie.

"I cannot hold your town against the King," said he; "but if you will come to my castle I will defend you there as best I may."

These words struck terror to the hearts of the people of Laon. How was it possible to trust themselves in that fearful castle, full of dark and horrible dungeons of which they had heard such awful stories? But there seemed no help for it, so they went.

As soon as it was known that the people of Laon had left their city unprotected, all the people from the towns round about came in bands and began to plunder it, so that the state of the city was more miserable than ever. Many of the leaders of the revolt were hanged, others were banished, the whole countryside was in arms. At length the King, whose broken word had been the cause of all the misery, came with an army. He attacked Thomas in his castle, and after long resistance it was taken. A new Bishop was appointed and Laon sank once more into a state of slavery. But the people still kept the memory of the freedom they had once possessed, and sixteen years later they received a new charter, which again the King sealed with his great seal.