Warring royal princes would tear France apart

Posted in Famous battles, Historical articles, History, Royalty, War on Friday, 1 March 2013

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This edited article about France originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 168 published on 3 April 1965.

Charles VI, picture, image, illustration

Charles VI had gone mad, yelling “Treason” and lunging at his followers as they rode to do battle with his uncle, the Duke of Burgundy, by John Millar Watt

The four royal dukes eyed each other up and down like starving men with a single bone to share between them. The old King was dead; the new one was twelve years old. For the next few years a royal duke would have to rule this kingdom of France.

And in that year of 1380, when the four dukes were eyeing each other, they were not, so to speak, seeing eye to eye.

Three of the dukes were the brothers of the old King: Anjou, Burgundy and Berri. The fourth was the Queen’s brother, Bourbon. All that they had done until the time of the King’s death marked them as greedy, rapacious men, and all that they were to do henceforward was to confirm that judgement of them.

Anjou, by virtue of his seniority, became the Regent, and celebrated by seizing the treasure of France. Then, when he had raised more funds by taxing the citizens of Paris to the point where they rioted, he set off to claim the crown of the kingdom of Naples – a trip from which he never returned.

Burgundy became the next Regent and his first task was to march into Flanders, which, you remember, belonged to France, where the Flemings were in open rebellion against their Count. They were brave men, these Flemings, but they were woefully deficient in military skill. Before they marched against the knights of France at the Battle of Roosebeke they foolishly tied themselves to each other. The idea was to stop any chance of retreat; what it did in fact was to stop any chance of preventing their mass slaughter as the army of France cut through their helmets with well-sharpened battle-axes.

Watching this battle was the boy King of France, Charles the Sixth. He was pleased with the victory, for power and making war appealed to him. A few years later, when he was seventeen, he decided that the time had come for an invasion of England. To achieve this he ordered his people to collect together fourteen hundred ships – enough to build a bridge from Calais to Dover!

As if this rare feat were not enough Charles then ordered them to build at huge cost an enormous portable wooden town to be carried across in segments in the ships and set up as a fortress in England.

The end of this vast project was like the end of a comic opera. Everyone was so busy a-building that they let the proper time for crossing the Channel pass. When the armada finally got to sea a storm blew it apart, whereupon the English navy sailed down upon it and sank without trace the wooden town that never was.

The boy King had been one of the few Frenchmen with any faith in this madcap undertaking and now, undismayed by failure, he resolved to assume complete control of his kingdom. The furious royal dukes were sent back to their respective dominions and the King ruled with his chosen advisers, many of whom were of bourgeois birth, including the most important of them, the Constable, Oliver Clisson.

Like the ugly sisters in Cinderella, the royal dukes sulked at a distance and thought up schemes for revenge against these ill-bred advisers, whom they called marmousets, meaning monkeys. So, four years after the King had taken full power, they commissioned a well-known scoundrel named Peter de Craon to murder Constable Clisson in the street.

De Craon and his men set upon Clisson as he was going home one night, but, unfortunately for them, when they left him for dead he was still very much alive. News of the attack was brought to King Charles within an hour, and filled with anxiety for his friend he hurried to see Clisson, finding him with a sore head but wits enough to identify his attacker as de Craon.

“He shall be hunted out!” cried the King. “We shall not rest until we find and punish him!”

By now de Craon had fled, seeking the protection of the Duke of Burgundy, who refused to deliver him to the King. So Charles gathered an army and set off during the fateful month of August, 1392, to fight his uncle.

The sun streamed down on the marching column, slowing the heat-tortured soldiers and making the King restless and uneasy in his saddle. No sound came from the army save the dull trudging of hooves, the dragging of tired feet in the dust and the creak of wooden carts.

Suddenly an old man dressed all in white stepped from behind a tree as the army was crossing a wood, seized the King’s bridle and cried: “Go no farther, good King of France, for they have betrayed you!”

The King, although somewhat startled, ignored the incident, and the column moved on. Not long afterwards a page let his lance fall and before it hit the ground it struck a shield with a loud noise.

At this the King drew his sword and cried, “Treason! Treason! Catch the traitors!” and lunged at those around him.

At the age of twenty-four, Charles the Sixth, worn out by an excess of power and pleasure, had gone utterly mad.

His men pulled him from his horse and led him shouting back to Paris. Within hours the royal dukes were back, seizing the power for which they had so long schemed.

Berri and Burgundy in fact emerged as the new rulers of France. One of the more difficult problems they soon had to contend with was the King’s occasional returns to sanity and in one of these moments Charles decided that his younger brother, Louis, Duke of Orleans, should be the Regent, which was, indeed, Louis’s right.

The crafty Burgundy quickly gained the upper hand over young Orleans, but the struggle for power between the two had caused a deep rift in their relations. Then Burgundy died and his son, John the Fearless, became Duke. John now turned his dead father’s dislike of young Orleans into deep personal hatred.

Soon feelings were so strained that the old Duke of Berri decided that peace must be made between the two relatives and accordingly on November 20, 1407, Orleans and Duke John of Burgundy were brought together and agreed to be friends.

Three days later Orleans was riding home from the King’s palace in the evening. The shops were shut and the streets were deserted, and the Duke was humming a tune to himself as he rode behind his torchbearers. Suddenly, on a corner, a dark huddle of men sprang out of the shadows, raining blows on him and shouting, “Die! Die!”

“I am the Duke of Orleans!” shouted the Duke, trying vainly to defend himself.

“You are the man we want!” shouted back the assassins. Then, remembering the way in which Constable Clisson had survived his “assassination,” they tore the Duke to pieces.

Next morning few of the royal family had much doubt about who was the master-mind behind Orleans’s murder. And in a very short time Burgundy confessed to his Uncle Berri that he was indeed the guilty man.

Duke John of Burgundy rode off then to his own territories, fearful that revenge might be taken upon him. But when he realized that no one in Paris regretted the death of the unpopular Duke of Orleans, and that the King was in any case still too mad to understand properly that his own cousin had murdered his own brother, he came back to the capital.

No one regretted Orleans’s death? Well: that is not quite true. For hate was welling up in the heart of another young Charles – the son of the murdered Duke and therefore himself now Duke of Orleans.

This Charles of Orleans had recently married the daughter of the Count of Armagnac, a man of great power and influence in the south of France.

This Count, together with Orleans, Berri and other lords, now began a bitter struggle against the Duke of Burgundy and his followers. Those of you who have read something of the deeds of Joan of Arc will recognize the two names that emerge from this struggle: the Armagnacs, so called from their leader the Count of Armagnac, whose territories were mostly in the south, and the Burgundians, the land-owning party of the north.

A mad King, warring princes of the blood, murder in the streets: these then were the preludes to the great civil war into which France now plunged.

The first successes went to the Armagnacs. Their violent activities forced the Duke of Burgundy to flee to his Flemish possessions while his followers continued a desultory war in France.

In England the new monarch, young King Henry the Fifth, looked across at troubled, weakened France and decided that it was time that the claims of his ancestor Edward the Third to the French throne were renewed.

When the Dauphin, who had so far done nothing to prevent the civil war, heard that Henry was preparing to invade, he just laughed and sent the English King a gift of tennis balls. “Stay at home and play with these, an activity for which you are much better suited,” ran the accompanying message.

Replied Henry: “I’ll send them back with a greater racket than he imagines.” And he did.

In August, 1415, Henry landed in France and began that rampage across the country which two months later was to end in one of the greatest English victories in history, at Agincourt on St. Crispin’s Day, October 25.

By the end of that famous day a depleted English force facing a vastly superior French army had annihilated the flower of the French nobility. The English lost 1,600 of their men; the French 10,000, among them a list of nobles that would have filled a volume.

The history books of England follow Henry back to London in triumph with his gains; the history books of France record that even the utter disaster of Agincourt did not end the kingdom’s misery. The Dauphin died and his younger brother Charles became Dauphin in his stead: the King, as mad as ever, was powerless to intervene as his own son now imprisoned Queen Isabella for conduct that was harmful to the nation.

But the Queen escaped with Burgundy’s help and thereupon joined the Burgundians, while the Dauphin chose to side with the Armagnacs. So the civil war split even the heads of the royal family.

Despairing of the harshness of Armagnac rule, the citizens of Paris opened their gates and let in the Burgundians. That party, jubilant at this new-found success, poured into the city and brutally massacred every Armagnac in sight. In a single weekend’s butchery 1,600 bodies of men, women and children were left in the streets of Paris.

The Duke of Burgundy, now holding the slippery reins of office, had scarcely a moment to draw breath before news came that Henry the Fifth of England was back again, laying siege to Rouen. When that city fell Henry began another rampage across France: this time his objective was Paris and the throne.

“We must forget our differences,” Burgundy wrote urgently to the Dauphin. “We must put aside this feud and stand united against the common foe.”

Claim to the Throne

The Dauphin agreed to meet the Duke and the place chosen was inside a wooden gallery erected on a bridge across the Seine at Montereau.

No two people present at that meeting seemed afterwards to agree about what actually happened. What is known for sure is that Burgundy’s supporters saw their leader enter the gallery, and that he never came out alive. Thus was avenged the murder of the young Duke of Orleans, who had died in the streets of Paris at the command of the wicked Burgundy.

The new Duke was Burgundy’s son Philip. Determined to avenge his father’s murder, Duke Philip renewed the civil war as never before. The desperate citizens of Paris now prayed for peace, and by this time Henry of England was there to answer their prayers.

When Henry put his signature to the important Treaty of Troyes in May, 1420, he came nearer than any English king to fulfilling the claim of Edward the Third to the throne of France. For by that treaty Henry was to be King of France as soon as the mad King Charles the Sixth died, and in fact for the next two years he set up his court in Paris and maintained some sort of order in that divided land.

The trouble with absolute rulers, however, is that they are not immortal. Henry died two years after the Treaty of Troyes, leaving an heir who was nine months old. Two months later the mad King of France died too.

Two kings died – two kings lived. For the baby Henry the Sixth the English Parliament claimed the throne of France and appointed the Duke of Bedford as the Regent in that country. The north, ruled by the English and the Burgundians, accepted this claim.

But for the Dauphin Charles, son of the mad King, the Armagnacs in the south also claimed the throne. This was the precarious state of the kingdom when the young peasant girl Jeanne d’Arc, or Joan of Arc as we call her, believed that she heard voices calling upon her in her village of Domremy to save her country.

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