Philippe de Commines

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Philippe de Commynes
Diedc. 1511
Occupationwriter, diplomat, politician

Philippe de Commines (or de Commynes or "Philippe de Comines"; Latin: Philippus Cominaeus; 1447 18 October 1511) was a writer and diplomat in the courts of Burgundy and France. [1] He has been called "the first truly modern writer" (Charles Augustin Sainte-Beuve) and "the first critical and philosophical historian since classical times" ( Oxford Companion to English Literature ). Neither a chronicler nor a historian in the usual sense of the word, his analyses of the contemporary political scene are what made him virtually unique in his own time.

Latin Indo-European language of the Italic family

Latin is a classical language belonging to the Italic branch of the Indo-European languages. The Latin alphabet is derived from the Etruscan and Greek alphabets and ultimately from the Phoenician alphabet.

Duchy of Burgundy historic principality

The Duchy of Burgundy emerged in the 9th century as one of the successors of the ancient Kingdom of the Burgundians, which after its conquest in 532 had formed a constituent part of the Frankish Empire. Upon the 9th-century partitions, the French remnants of the Burgundian kingdom were reduced to a ducal rank by King Robert II of France in 1004, and in 1032 were awarded to his younger son Robert per Salic law – other portions had passed to the Imperial Kingdom of Arles and the County of Burgundy (Franche-Comté).

Charles Augustin Sainte-Beuve French literary critic

Charles Augustin Sainte-Beuve was a literary critic of French literature.



Early life

Coat of arms of Philippe de Commines. Coat of arms of Philippe de Commines.jpg
Coat of arms of Philippe de Commines.

Commines was born at Renescure (in what was then the county of Flanders), to an outwardly wealthy family. His parents were Colard van den Clyte (or de La Clyte) and Marguerite d'Armuyden. [2] In addition to being seigneur of Renescure, Watten and Saint-Venant, Clyte became bailiff of Flanders for the Duke of Burgundy in 1436, and had been taken prisoner at the Battle of Agincourt. Philippe took his surname from a seigneurie on the Lys which had belonged to the family of his paternal grandmother, Jeanne de Waziers. [2] His paternal grandfather, also named Colard van den Clyte (d. 1404), had been governor first of Cassel and then of Lille. However, the death of Commines' father in 1453 left him the orphaned owner of an estate saddled with enormous debts. In his teens he was taken into the care of Philip the Good (1419–1467), Duke of Burgundy, who was his godfather. He fought at the Battle of Montlhéry in 1465 and the Battle of Brusthem in 1467 but in general seems to have kept a low profile.

Renescure Commune in Hauts-de-France, France

Renescure is a commune in the Nord department in northern France.

County of Flanders French fiefdom and historic territory in the Low Countries

The County of Flanders was a historic territory in the Low Countries.

Lord of the manor title from the feudal system of manorialism

Lord of the manor is a title given to a person holding the lordship of a manor in the Anglo-Saxon system of manorialism which emanated from feudalism in English and Irish history. In modern England and Wales, it is recognised as a form of property, one of three elements of a manor that may exist separately or be combined, and may be held in moieties:

  1. the title ;
  2. the manorial, comprising the manor and/or its land; and
  3. the seignory, rights granted to the titular holder of the manor.


In 1468, he became a knight in the household of Charles the Bold, Philip's son who succeeded to the dukedom in 1467, and thereafter he moved in the most exalted circles, being party to many important decisions and present at history-making events. A key event in Commines's life seems to have been the meeting between Charles and Louis XI of France at Péronne in October 1468. Although Commines's own account skates over the details, it is apparent from other contemporary sources that Louis believed Commines had saved his life. This may explain Louis's later enthusiasm in wooing him away from the Burgundians.

Louis XI of France king

Louis XI, called "Louis the Prudent", was King of France from 1461 to 1483, the sixth from the House of Valois. He succeeded his father Charles VII.

Péronne, Somme Subprefecture and commune in Hauts-de-France, France

Péronne is a commune of the Somme department in Hauts-de-France in northern France.

In 1470 Commines was sent on an embassy to Calais, then an English possession. It is unlikely that he ever visited England itself, what he knew of its politics and personalities coming mostly from meetings with exiles, both Yorkist and Lancastrian; these included Henry Tudor and Warwick the Kingmaker. He also met King Edward IV of England during the latter's continental exile and later wrote a description of his appearance and character.

Calais Subprefecture and commune in Hauts-de-France, France

Calais is a city and major ferry port in northern France in the department of Pas-de-Calais, of which it is a sub-prefecture. Although Calais is by far the largest city in Pas-de-Calais, the department's prefecture is its third-largest city of Arras. The population of the metropolitan area at the 2010 census was 126,395. Calais overlooks the Strait of Dover, the narrowest point in the English Channel, which is only 34 km (21 mi) wide here, and is the closest French town to England. The White Cliffs of Dover can easily be seen on a clear day from Calais. Calais is a major port for ferries between France and England, and since 1994, the Channel Tunnel has linked nearby Coquelles to Folkestone by rail.

Henry VII of England King of England, 1485–1509

Henry VII was the King of England and Lord of Ireland from his seizure of the crown on 22 August 1485 to his death on 21 April 1509. He was the first monarch of the House of Tudor.

Edward IV of England 15th-century King of England

Edward IV was the King of England from 4 March 1461 to 3 October 1470, and again from 11 April 1471 until his death. He was the first Yorkist King of England. The first half of his rule was marred by the violence associated with the Wars of the Roses, but he overcame the Lancastrian challenge to the throne at Tewkesbury in 1471 to reign in peace until his sudden death. Before becoming king, he was Duke of York, Earl of March, Earl of Cambridge and Earl of Ulster.

Commines was a great favorite with Duke Charles for seven years (going back to when he had still been Count of Charolais). The 19th-century scholar Isaac D'Israeli, recounts that one day, when they came home from hunting and were joking around as was their wont within the "family", Commines "ordered" the prince to remove Commines's boots as if he were a servant; laughing, the prince did so but then tossed the boot at Commines, and it bloodied his nose. Everyone in the Burgundian court started calling Commines "booted head". D'Israeli, in his 1824 Curiosities of Literature, suggests that Commines's hatred for the duke of Burgundy poisoned everything he wrote about him, but comments:

Isaac DIsraeli British writer

Isaac D'Israeli was a British writer, scholar and man of letters. He is best known for his essays, his associations with other men of letters, and as the father of British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli.

"When we are versed in the history of the times, we often discover that memoir-writers have some secret poison in their hearts. Many, like Comines, have had the boot dashed on their nose. Personal rancour wonderfully enlivens the style... Memoirs are often dictated by its fiercest spirit; and then histories are composed from memoirs. Where is TRUTH? Not always in histories and memoirs!"

Service of Louis XI

Commines at prayer Philippe de Commynes Louvre LP 47.jpg
Commines at prayer

D'Israeli says Commines so resented his nickname that it was the reason he suddenly left Burgundy and went into the service of the French king, but the financial incentives offered by Louis provide a more than adequate explanation: Commines was still heavily burdened with his father's debts. He fled by night from Normandy on 7 August 1472, and joined Louis near Angers. On the following morning, when Duke Charles discovered his servant and god-brother missing, he confiscated all of Commines' property. These were later given to Philip I of Croÿ-Chimay.

Normandy Administrative region of France

Normandy is the northwesternmost of the 18 regions of France, roughly referring to the historical Duchy of Normandy.

Angers Prefecture and commune in Pays de la Loire, France

Angers is a city in western France, about 300 km (190 mi) southwest of Paris. It is chef-lieu of the Maine-et-Loire department and was the capital of the province of Anjou until the French Revolution. The inhabitants of both the city and the province are called Angevins. Not including the metropolitan area, Angers is the third most populous commune in northwestern France after Nantes and Rennes and the 17th in France.

Philip I of Croÿ-Chimay Belgian noble

Philip I of Croÿ-Chimay, count of Chimay, Lord of Quiévrain, was a noble from the House of Croÿ, in the service of the Dukes of Burgundy.

Engraving of Philippe de Commines Philippe-de-Commynes-sieur-d'Argenton-et-al-Memoires-de-messire-Philippe-de-Comines MG 1110.tif
Engraving of Philippe de Commines

Louis was generous in making up for those losses. On 27 January 1473 the king wed him to a Poitevin heiress, Hélène de Chambes (d.1532), dame of the seigneuries of Argenton, Varennes, and Maison-Rouge. [2] When Hélène's sister, Colette de Chambes, was believed to have been poisoned by her aged husband Louis d'Amboise, Viscount of Thouars, in a fit of jealousy over her affair with Charles de Valois, Louis XI's brother, the king had confiscated most of his properties. Some of these he later gave to Commines for life, including the Princedom of Talmond in Poitou, and the seigneuries of Berrie, Sables, and Olonne. [3] Despite later reverses in the family's fortunes, on 13 August 1504 their only child, Jeanne de Commines (d.1513), made a splendid marriage to the heir of Brittany's most powerful family, René de Brosse comte de Penthièvre (d.1524). Through her descendants, Commines would become the ancestor of Jean, duc de Chevreuse, of the Gouffier ducs de Roannais , and of Louis XV, [4] while Jeanne herself became the mother-in-law of Anne, duchesse d'Étampes, maîtresse-en-titre to King Francis I of France.

As a long-time enemy of Burgundy, Louis no doubt valued the inside information Commines was able to provide, and Commines quickly became one of the king's most trusted advisers. Jean Dufournet's 1966 study of Commines has shown that the next five years, up to 1477, were the most prosperous from Commines's point of view, and the only ones when he truly had Louis's confidence. After Charles the Bold's death in 1477, the two men openly disagreed about how best to take political advantage of the situation. Commines himself admitted associating with some of the king's most prominent opponents and referred to another incident, in May 1478, when Louis reprimanded him for allegedly being open to bribery. Thereafter, much of his diplomatic work was done in the Italian arena, and he came into contact with Lorenzo de Medici on several occasions.

When Louis began to suffer ill-health, Commines was apparently welcomed back into the fold and performed personal services for the king. Many of his activities during the period seem to have involved a degree of secrecy; he was effectively acting as a kind of undercover agent. However, he never regained the level of intimacy with the king that he had previously enjoyed, and Louis's death in 1483, when Commines was still only in his thirties, left him without many friends at court. Nevertheless, he retained a place on the royal council until 1485. Then, having been implicated in the Orleanist rebellion, he was taken prisoner and kept in confinement for over two years, from January 1487 until March 1489. For some of that period, he was kept in an iron cage.


After his release, Commines was exiled to his estate at Dreux, where he began to write his Mémoires. (This title was not used until an edition of 1552.) By 1490, however, he was recovering his position at court and was in the service of King Charles VIII of France. Charles never allowed him the privileged position he had held under Louis, and he was once again used as an envoy to the Italian states. However, his personal affairs were still problematic, and his right to some of the possessions given him by Louis was subject to legal challenges.

In 1498 (fifteen years after the death of Louis XI of France), Commines's work was completed (first published in 1524 in Paris), and is considered a historical record of immense importance, largely because of its author's cynical and forthright attitude to the events and machinations he had witnessed. His writings reveal many of the less savory aspects of the reign of Louis XI, and Commines related them without apology, insisting that the late king's virtues outweighed his vices. He is regarded as a major primary source for 15th century European history.

The Mémoires are divided into "books", the first six of which were written between 1488 and 1494, and relate the course of events from the beginning of Commines' career (1464) up to the death of King Louis. The remaining two books were written between 1497 and 1501 (printed in 1528), and deal with the Italian wars, ending in the death of King Charles VIII of France.

The deathbed of Philippe de Commines. The deathbed of Philippes de Commines.jpg
The deathbed of Philippe de Commines.

Commines' scepticism is summed up in his own words: Car ceux qui gagnent en ont toujours l'honneur ("For the honours always go to the winners"). Some have disputed whether his candid phrases disguise a deeper dishonesty. Yet at no time does he attempt to present himself as a hero, even when recounting his military career. His attitude to politics is one of pragmatism, and his ideas are practical and progressive. His reflections on the events he has witnessed are profound by comparison with those of Froissart, who lived a century earlier. His psychological insights into the behaviour of kings are ahead of their time, reminiscent in some ways of the contemporaneous writings of Niccolò Machiavelli. Like Machiavelli, Commines aims to instruct the reader in statecraft, though from a slightly different viewpoint. In particular, he notes how Louis repeatedly got the better of the English, not by military might, but by political machination.


  1. Wikisource-logo.svg Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Commines, Philippe de"  . Encyclopædia Britannica . 6 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. p. 774.
  2. 1 2 3 Bréhier, Louis. "Philippe de Commines." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 4. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1908. 8 July 2008
  3. "Seigneurs d'Amboise" (PDF). Racines et histoire. Etienne Pattou. 26 February 2008. Retrieved 8 July 2008.
  4. "Jeanne de Commines". Genealogical database. Gene Web. Retrieved 8 July 2008.

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