It was about eight o’clock in the evening of 23 November 1407. In her rented rooms upstairs in the rue Vieille du Temple in Paris, the thirty-four-year-old Jacquette Griffart was putting her young child to bed. She was anxious because her husband, Jean, a shoemaker, had not returned home. She went to the window to see if he was coming but the narrow street outside was too dark. Some of her child’s clean bedclothes had been drying on a pole outside the window, so she lifted the pole and began to draw it back into the room. In the darkness she noticed two or three torches coming down the narrow street, carried by footmen; and by their light she briefly saw their master. He was playing with his gloves as he rode, singing to himself. With him were three or four other men on horseback. Thinking nothing more about it, she turned back into the room, crossed over to the cot, and lifted her child.
‘Kill him!’ shouted a voice in the street; ‘kill him!’.
Jacquette stepped back anxiously to the window, holding her child in her arms. She saw the singing nobleman on the ground below, on his knees, desperately holding on to his saddle. He had been dragged from his horse by seven or eight armed men. His companions had fled. The attackers were gathered around him, some of them holding torches while others brought their swords down on his shoulders. He tried to fend them off with a flailing arm. ‘What is this?’ he yelled, clinging with one hand to the saddle of his horse. ‘Who does it come from?’ Not one of his assailants spoke. An axe severed the hand holding the saddle and he fell. The horse bolted. The men immediately stepped forward to beat down on his body with their weapons, stabbing him repeatedly.
To Jacquette it looked as if they were beating a mattress, so hard were their blows. Shocked, she found the word ‘Murder!’ and screamed it across the dark street.
‘Shut up, you damned woman,’ shouted back one of the men, just below her. ‘Shut up!’
One of the assailants lifted his axe and cleaved the head of the dying lord in two. His brains spilled out on to the ground. Seeing this, a large man wearing a red hood stepped out from the shadows of the house opposite.
‘Put out the lights,’ he ordered, looking down. ‘He’s dead. Let’s go. Take heart.’ The men immediately followed him around the corner into the rue des Blancs-Manteaux.
When they had gone Jacquette noticed another man on the ground beside the dead lord, one of the man’s valets. He too had been attacked. Dying, he crawled to his master’s corpse. ‘My master!’ he called out before he too succumbed to his wounds.
Then there was quiet. A single torch burnt on the ground near the corner of the street, one of the attackers having failed to extinguish it in his haste.
Jacquette yelled out ‘Murder!’ again, several times. Another woman who lived in the rue des Rosiers arrived on the scene and took up the cry. It was not long before people gathered to view the appalling spectacle, and to see who was lying in the pool of blood.
It was Louis, duke of Orléans, the only brother of Charles VI, king of France. The king himself was suffering from an illness that left him often deranged. To all intents and purposes, the man who lay dead in the street was the ruler of France.
The late duke of Orléans was no saint. He had assumed control of his brother’s government shortly after the death of their uncle, Philip the Bold, duke of Burgundy, in 1404. His taxes were unpopular with the people of Paris. So too were his morals. Not only was he believed to have fathered several children by the queen, had also seduced or raped several knights’ wives, humiliating their husbands in the process. It was said he had a gallery of pictures of all the wives he had slept with. One cuckold, Albert de Chauny, not only had to suffer the indignity of all Paris knowing his wife had lain beneath the duke, but was rumoured also to have been forced to describe the beauty of her body when the duke had paraded her naked before an assembly, with her face covered. For this reason suspicions fell upon de Chauny as the murderer. But it soon emerged that he had not been in Paris for many months.
Other lines of enquiry were pursued. One of the Parisian water-carriers told the investigators that a man who had supplied water to the house where the killers had been waiting was being sheltered by John the Fearless, duke of Burgundy, the son of Philip the Bold. The investigators could not arrest him without the duke’s permission. So on 26 November they sent word to John the Fearless, who was at the duke of Berry’s house, the hôtel de Nesle.
When he was asked for, John’s guilt showed in his face.
Seeing his expression, the duke of Anjou asked him directly what he knew of the murder. John confessed. He had paid the man in the red hood, Raoul d’Anquetonville, to organise the assassination of the duke of Orléans.
The duke of Anjou was astonished. John was a member of the royal family. He was the king’s first cousin, and thus the dead man’s first cousin. He had attended the memorial service the very day after the murder. How could he have done such a thing? The duke of Berry, who was also present, wept at the enormity of the deed. Both men were left speechless, unable to act. John the Fearless simply got up, left the room, went downstairs, and rode out of Paris with a handful of retainers.1
The realisation that John the Fearless had murdered his cousin came as a profound shock to the whole kingdom of France. When the king of England, Henry IV, had secretly murdered his cousin and rival Richard II seven years earlier, the French had condemned him in the most uncompromising language. Now they had seen a member of their own royal family commit the same crime. But the repercussions of the French royal murder were far more serious. The English one had been perpetrated by the anointed and crowned monarch, who was technically above the law. In contrast, the duke of Burgundy was a vassal of the king of France, and in no way above the law. Richard II’s murder had largely been a precaution, in case he was restored to his throne as the result of a treasonable plot. The greater purpose was the stability of the kingdom. There was no comparable ‘greater purpose’ with regard to the killing of the duke of Orléans; it could only destabilise the kingdom. From its brazen manner to its political implications, the assassination of the duke of Orléans was more horrifying to contemporaries than any other murder in living memory.
There is another reason why the French royal murder was more serious than the English one, and it is the reason why a book about Henry V in the year 1415 has to begin with a description of this event. England was a kingdom in which the king reigned supreme: it was, in many respects, like a modern nation. Only at the margins of his realm – in Wales, Ireland, and the Marches of Scotland – could the king’s authority be questioned with impunity. If a great lord committed a crime, then the king summoned an army and punished him. Edward II had done so several times in the early fourteenth century and Henry IV had done likewise several times in the early fifteenth. But the kingdom of France was different. A far larger and richer country, the principle members of the French royal family ruled semi-autonomous dukedoms that were primarily loyal to their duke, not the king. Hence, when John the Fearless fled from Paris after being found out, he went to Burgundy and then to Flanders. Here he met his brothers, Anthony, duke of Brabant, and Philip, count of Nevers, and his brother-in-law, William, duke of Holland. This coalition was very strong – no king of France could have simply marched an army into Burgundy or Flanders and brought the duke to heel. It would have resulted in a civil war. In addition, King Charles VI was mentally unstable and incapable of leading an army against anyone, let alone John the Fearless, who was an experienced battlefield commander. The king and his council had no option but to negotiate with John. This they did, reluctantly, at Amiens in January 1408.
If both sides had genuinely wanted peace, things might have ended there. But high-profile murders tend to be the start of things, not the end, and this was no exception. Having secured his position at the end of February 1408, John the Fearless rode back into Paris in triumph. He was feted as a hero by the Parisians, who had despised the interfering, philandering, high-taxing duke of Orléans. On 8 March a manifesto commissioned by John the Fearless was read out by its author, Jean Petit, declaring that the duke of Orléans had been a tyrant and that, because it was ‘permissible and meritorious to kill a tyrant’, John had done a good deed in butchering him. Jean Petit read this in the presence of King Charles himself – the dead man’s brother – and the rest of the assembled royal family. This was shocking, distressing, unforgettable and unforgivable.
Petit outlined the basis of the late duke’s tyranny. The duke had resorted to black magic to try to kill the king, having his sword, dagger and a ring consecrated by two devils. He had ‘acquired a cherry branch that had been dipped in the blood of a red cockerel and a white chicken, which possessed such magic powers that no woman could resist the advances of its owner’. He had plotted with the duke of Milan to kill the king, and had tried to poison the late dauphin, Charles, with an apple thrown into the chamber where he had been playing. He had wilfully set fire to the king’s clothes at a fancy-dress ball in 1393. He had made a pact with Henry of Lancaster – before he became Henry IV of England – that they should help each other usurp their respective thrones. He had tried to persuade the queen to leave France with him in order to control her. He had plotted with Pope Benedict XIII to declare the king and his children unfit to hold the throne, so he might become king himself. Finally he had taken control of the government by stationing his men in strategic castles, and had levied punitive taxes – supposedly to defend the kingdom against England but in reality to further his own ambitions. In his final summing-up, Jean Petit declared that ‘my lord of Burgundy is not deserving of any blame whatever for what has happened to the criminal duke of Orléans. Nor ought the king our lord to be dissatisfied with him but, on the contrary, he should be pleased with what he has done, and requite him for it in three ways: in love, honour and riches.’2
European politics has rarely seen such a great insult thrust on to such a devastating injury. If the assassination itself had strained relations between the lords, Jean Petit’s Justification of the duke of Burgundy gave further attempts at peaceable dialogue the character of a series of diplomatic manoeuvres prior to an outright declaration of war. The widowed duchess of Orléans looked on in disgust as her brother-in-law the French king absolved John the Fearless of any blame and forgave him the assassination of her husband. It was more than she or her sons could bear. Lawyers were summoned to refute Jean Petit’s Justification. A defence was drawn up against the charges of treason and necromancy, and a long list of demands was read out before the court in September 1408. A meeting and reconciliation between John the Fearless and the new duke of Orléans, Charles, took place at Chartres in March 1409, but this was merely a plaster over a very deep wound. It only allowed John the Fearless to secure his position and to make the rest of the French royal family resent him even more bitterly.
John’s own tyranny soon followed. A key officer of the royal court, Jean de Montagu, Grand Master of the king’s household, was arrested, condemned to death and executed. His brother the archbishop of Sens was forced to flee for his life. Other royalists were thrown into prison or ousted from court. John the Fearless drew up a treaty with the king of Navarre, in which they agreed to support each other in the event of war with the duke of Orléans. John further secured his position by taking possession of the eleven-year-old dauphin, and establishing himself firmly in Paris, where his popularity could not be challenged. He built a strong tower for himself in his town house, the hôtel d’Artois, in which his strongly defended bedroom and a bathroom were at the very top, with nothing but huge stone supports beneath, so he could not be killed by the house being burnt.3 He took every precaution he could to ensure that the brutal assassination of his cousin would not be visited back on him.
The young duke of Orléans was not alone in hating his father’s killer. The duke of Berry, the king’s uncle, was of the same opinion. So too was the king’s maternal uncle, the duke of Bourbon. But both these men were old. The real political force supporting the young duke of Orléans was Bernard, count of Armagnac. When on 15 April 1410 the League of Gien came into existence, it consisted of all these lords, plus the counts of Alençon and Clermont, and the younger sons of the late duke of Orléans: Philip, count of Vertus, and John, count of Angoulême. The count of Armagnac and the duke of Orléans, in confirmation of their wholehearted support for the League, sealed the agreement with a marriage. The duke took as his wife Bonne, the count’s daughter. Thus the League collectively came to be known as the Armagnacs. Against them stood the Burgundians: John the Fearless, his two brothers, his brother-in-law who ruled the Low Countries, and the king of Navarre.
France stood on the very brink of civil war.
Any sensible leader, when facing the prospect of war, reaches out for allies. This is true of civil wars too, not only international conflicts. Thus it is meaningless to speculate on whether the events of 1415 would have turned out differently if neither the Burgundians nor the Armagnacs had sent ambassadors to England – there was never any doubt that one or both of them would do so. Technically speaking, England was still at war with France over the sovereignty of Gascony – as it had been for the last seventy years – and no peace was likely to prove acceptable in England until the French honoured the Treaty of Brétigny (1360), by which the whole of the ancient Angevin Empire was to return to English control. Thus both Burgundians and Armagnacs had to negotiate with the king of England just to ensure they were not attacked while settling their own domestic dispute. Obviously, if the English were a potential third force in the ensuing conflict, it made sense for both the Burgundians and the Armagnacs to try to secure the support – not the neutrality – of the English.
French ambassadors were regularly in negotiation with their English counterparts at this time, renewing the truce between the two countries for a year or so at each meeting. Burgundian negotiators also often dealt with English ambassadors to continue a separate truce operating in Flanders, England’s principal trading partner, which fell within the domains of John the Fearless. However, with civil war looming, John realised that any advantageous offer he elicited from the English could be wrested from him – if he were to lose his influence over the king, then he would lose his English alliance. There could be no ambiguity as to which side the English were supporting. So, in the summer of 1411 he sent his own Burgundian ambassadors to England.4 They were empowered to hand over four Flemish towns, as well as to agree for the duke’s daughter to marry the eldest son of Henry IV. This was Henry of Monmouth, prince of Wales, duke of Cornwall and earl of Chester – the future Henry V.
For Henry IV the news of the arrival of the Burgundian ambassadors and the prospect of civil war in France was sadly ironic. Once he would have jumped at the opportunity of involving himself personally in a French war. It would have allowed him to pursue his dream of re-enacting the chivalric kingship of Edward III, his grandfather – the most successful form of kingship that anyone could remember. Edward III had demonstrated that, through successful overseas campaigning, a king could guarantee his kingdom domestic peace, national unity, strong government and foreign glory. Thus Henry IV had proclaimed his intention of leading an army into France on numerous occasions. But he had never done so. Within a few months of his coronation he had come under attack from friends of the late King Richard. From then on he was forced to confront a unique and hugely challenging series of political disasters which he endured magnificently but which cost him his health. The very nature of his accession meant that, far from Edward III’s glorious kingship, his reign had become a period of domestic unrest, national disunity, financial insecurity and foreign antipathy. Now he was a spent force – suffering from a disease that resulted in his baldness, festering of his flesh, dehydration of the eyes, and the rupture of his internal organs.5 He had fallen into a coma on at least one occasion. He was barely able to stand, let alone ride a horse. However much he might have longed to lead an army into France, he did not have the strength.
The irony did not end there, however. Such had been the decline in Henry IV’s health that even this political decision was not wholly within his control. In many respects he was king in name alone. Since the end of 1409 real power had lain with his eldest son, Prince Henry, and the royal council. Moreover, relations between the king and his son’s council were strained. The prince had assumed certain royal prerogatives that the king felt were prejudicial to his dignity. These included the enactment of a certain article in a statute that severely curtailed the king’s power. The prince’s council had also suspended the payment of annuities to the king’s supporters – a measure that smacked of failure in the king’s eyes. Another cause of the strained relations was the rivalry between Prince Henry and his brother, Thomas of Lancaster, the king’s favourite son. Prince Henry ruled the council with the close advice of his uncle, Henry Beaufort, who was a rival of both Thomas of Lancaster and the king’s closest confidant, Thomas Arundel, archbishop of Canterbury. So when the Burgundian messengers arrived, there were two sources of royal authority in England. On one hand there was the king, supported by his son Thomas of Lancaster and Archbishop Arundel; and on the other there was the prince of Wales, supported by Henry Beaufort and the rest of the council.
The Burgundian ambassadors initially approached the king but he refused to entertain them.6 Henry IV did not like John the Fearless. Nor did he trust him. In 1399 he had sealed a mutual defence agreement with the murdered duke of Orléans, which could have entailed him taking action against John the Fearless.7 Although Orléans turned against Henry IV in 1402, it seems the king of England was no fonder of the duke of Burgundy after this date than he had been before. John had attacked Calais on more than one occasion. Also, the duchess of Orléans was the daughter of the duke of Milan, a personal friend of Henry IV’s from the 1390s.8 And Henry IV had always been much closer to the old duke of Berry, now one of the Armagnac lords, than to the Burgundians.
Prince Henry had several reasons to listen to the Burgundians. The most obvious was that the safekeeping of Calais was his responsibility, and in that capacity his men already had experience of negotiating with John’s ambassadors. Indeed, they were engaged in negotiations regarding infractions of the truce throughout the first half of 1411.9 Henry could not easily agree to talk to them about a truce in one arena and refuse to entertain the idea of a truce in another. But he probably also had the long-term strategic implications in mind. To refuse to deal with the Burgundians over intervention in the French civil war meant having to deal with the Armagnacs (or losing the opportunity to capitalise on the civil war altogether). If he wanted to play one off against the other – in the hope of encouraging them to bid competitively for his friendship – then he had to parley with both sides.10 And if a full-scale civil war were to break out in France, then an alliance with John the Fearless was an effective way of destabilising the kingdom, forcing the French king to agree to his demands. The ultimate target was the implementation of a peace treaty favourable to England, along the lines of the Treaty of Brétigny, ‘The Great Peace’, agreed between the kings of England and France in 1360, but which the French had torn up in 1369.
The king’s and the prince’s respective points of view resulted in a compromise. The king would not deal with the Burgundians himself, but he authorised Prince Henry to do so. This was good enough for John the Fearless, who could see outright hostilities coming ever closer, following the capture and torture of one of his officers by the duke of Orléans in January 1411. Orléans wrote to the University of Paris in March that year demanding that Jean Petit’s Justification of the duke of Burgundy should be formally condemned.11 Finally, at the end of July, Orléans sent John a letter in which he declared he would do everything in his power to harm him. With that, the negotiations between the ambassadors of John the Fearless and Prince Henry shifted from being merely precautionary to preparations for war against the Armagnacs.
The year 1411 saw the nadir of Henry V’s relationship with his father. The exact nature of their mutual suspicions remains unclear, as the English royal family understandably did not want to publicise its own internal divisions. It is possible that problems arose from the prince’s favour to Burgundy. It is also possible that their differences were purely related to the royal finances. It is likely that there was a personality clash between the two men, for they were similar in character in many respects, not the least of which was a distinctly overwhelming pride. Whatever the cause, the plans for armed intervention on behalf of Burgundy were affected. Although the king announced on 14 August 1411 that he would be sailing to Calais on 23 September, and although he issued instructions to the ambassadors going to John the Fearless on 1 September, offering him military aid against the duke of Orléans, he opted out of the expedition with a couple of days to spare.12 On 21 September the king declared he would not be going to France. Instead he summoned a parliament to meet as soon as possible, in early November. So the fleet that sailed in late September was a private one, hired by the Burgundians from the prince of Wales as a mercenary force. It was led by Thomas Fitzalan, earl of Arundel, one of the prince’s closest friends.13
The reason for the king’s change of mind was not just because he supported the Armagnacs and Prince Henry supported the Burgundians. The king had been happy to issue orders for an army to sail to Calais in support of the Burgundian faction in August and early September, even though he had been in negotiations with the duke of Berry earlier that summer.14 The reason was the relationship between him and his son. The fundamental issue was whether the sick king or the healthy prince should exercise royal power in England. This went far beyond mere foreign policy; there was talk of the prince and Henry Beaufort forcing the king to abdicate.15 So, when Henry IV summoned parliament that autumn, his main objective was the resumption of royal power. This he effected on 30 November with a polite dismissal of the prince’s council.
In the meantime the earl of Arundel was demonstrating that English archers could still determine the outcome of battles on French soil, just as they had done in the reign of Edward III. On 9 November 1411 a thousand English archers helped John the Fearless win a battle for the bridge at St-Cloud, near Paris, some of them serving in John’s own bodyguard.16 In early 1412 both Armagnacs and Burgundians again sent ambassadors to secure the support of Henry IV, now wholly in charge of the government. John the Fearless’s ambassadors received their safe conducts on 11 January and arrived in England on 1 February. The Armagnac ambassadors were not far behind them, receiving their safe conducts on 6 February. But in reality the king’s resumption of power meant that John the Fearless’s representatives were always going to have a difficult job securing an agreement. In effect they were being used by Henry IV to encourage the Armagnacs to offer greater and greater concessions. The Armagnacs were now officially rebels, so they were in a desperate position. They agreed in principle to the main English objective in France: sovereignty over Gascony. They even agreed that they would fight their fellow Frenchmen to help Henry IV regain his inheritance. John the Fearless’s men realised they could not compete and withdrew from negotiations on 4 March.
One month later, on 6 April 1412, the agreement between Henry IV and the Armagnac lords was finalised in the Treaty of Bourges. Later that same month the king ordered the enlistment of mariners, again announcing his intention to sail to France in person. On 18 May the treaty was ratified by the Armagnac lords. The English intervention in France was on course once more, but this time it was to march in support of the duke of Orléans, not the duke of Burgundy. Henry IV eventually decided against leading the expedition himself, and passed command to his second son, Thomas of Lancaster, whom he now created duke of Clarence. Thomas would be supported by Edward, duke of York, and Thomas Beaufort, earl of Dorset, together with 1,500 men-at-arms and 4,500 archers.
The only problem was Prince Henry. A year earlier he had been the master of England, exercising royal power in his father’s name, presiding over the royal council and deciding on foreign policy. Now he had lost power, and with it he had lost face. He continued to oppose his father’s policy of intervention on the side of the Armagnacs, and was forced into swearing an oath with his three brothers to accept and abide by the terms of the Treaty of Bourges on 20 May. The retinue allocated to the prince to proceed into France under his father’s command was small – too small, he felt, for a man of his status and experience. When the king had decided not to lead the expedition in person, the prince had been passed over altogether, in favour of his younger brother. The message was clear: Prince Henry was not trusted by his father.
The prince was bitterly angry, and left court shortly afterwards. On 17 June he sent a letter listing his grievances. He repeated accusations that he had tried to usurp his father’s throne, denying them outright but thereby drawing attention to their seriousness. Similarly he denied trying to obstruct his father’s campaign in France. That he had to deny such things publicly alerts us to the fact that they were already common knowledge. The rift between him and his father was not closed until a tender reconciliation at Westminster at the end of June 1412, during which the prince begged his father to kill him if he believed him disloyal, holding out a dagger whereby his father might perform the deed.17 The king, in tears, simply flung the dagger to one side and embraced his son. But even though their personal relationship was thereby restored, the prince remained in the political wilderness for the rest of his father’s life. His only role in government was that of standing by and waiting for the king to die.
The Treaty of Bourges was illegal. The Armagnac lords had no right to recognise English sovereignty in Gascony or anywhere else; far less could they agree to fight Frenchmen to secure that sovereignty. It amounted to treason on their part, and resulted in the genuine hostility of the king of France. It is hugely ironic that the cause for which they were fighting – revenge for the murder of King Charles’s brother – now led them into conflict with King Charles himself, and actually forced the king and his brother’s murderer into a closer compact.
John the Fearless acted extraordinarily swiftly. Within a month of the treaty being ratified, he had raised a royal army and led it to Bourges, taking the king with him. On 15 July the duke of Berry surrendered the city to King Charles in person, and on 21 July a royal letter was issued in the king’s name nullifying the treaty that the Armagnac lords had agreed with the king of England. The following day, at Auxerre, the dukes of Berry, Orléans and Bourbon all sealed a copy of this letter, which was sent to Henry IV. John the Fearless also affixed his seal to it. All the great lords promised to abide by the peace of Chartres of 1409.18 The French were again united – at least for the time being.
Thomas, duke of Clarence, had no way of knowing this before he set sail. He landed at St-Vaast-la-Hougue on 10 August, expecting to be greeted as the leader of an auxiliary force bringing relief to the Armagnacs. Instead he found himself in charge of an invading army. Undaunted, he chose to take on the mantle of aggressor, destroying Armagnac lands in Maine and Anjou as he made his way to Blois. There on 16 September he issued a letter to the French that was tantamount to a refusal to accept the peace. Only a humiliating and costly offer from the Armagnac lords prevented him from continuing to ravage the country. In November, with a safe conduct from the king of France in his possession, he ordered his army to march across France to Gascony. There he would wait, keeping his troops ready for the ‘defence’ of the English province.
A murder had given way to a civil war, which had resulted in English mercenaries fighting in France. Now a substantial English royal army was established on the borders of France. It was in every way an unstable situation. All it needed was the political will to attack the French, and the two kingdoms would once again be at war.
Henry IV no longer possessed that political will. On 20 November 1412, probably in accordance with a prophecy that he would die in the Holy Land, he ordered three galleys to be constructed to bear him to his deathbed. He summoned his last parliament, and spent his last Christmas at Eltham, his favourite palace, with his beloved wife, Queen Joan. In January the faithful William Loveney, who had served him since at least 1386, undertook to cut down sufficient trees to make the said galleys.19 But Henry IV never embarked. Parliament assembled in early February, and waited for the king to take the throne, but he was too sick to attend. At the end of the month he lapsed into unconsciousness in Westminster Abbey and was carried through to the Jerusalem Chamber, and laid on a bed in the abbot’s lodging. On waking and being told where he was, he realised that he was now in the place where it had been prophesied he would die. The end came on 20 March, with Queen Joan and his sons Henry and Humphrey at his bedside.
In France it was said that the prince took the crown from his father’s chamber before the king was dead, and tried it on, only to be told that he should not touch it until it was rightfully his. In a metaphorical sense this was correct; that is what Prince Henry had done in exercising royal power in 1410–11. But now the crown really had passed to him. In Gascony, on hearing the news, his brother Thomas immediately prepared to return to England. In the north of England, his brother John prepared to come south. In Henry V and his three brothers, the political will to fulfil their father’s ambitions – to see a king of England once more lead an English army into France – had arrived.