While Coucy was still in Avignon, his diplomatic talents were assigned the delicate task of informing Pope Clement of the proposed marital alliance of the King of France to a house on the other side of the schism. The prospective bride was Elizabeth of Bavaria—or Isabeau, as she became known by the French equivalent of her name—a member of the Wittelsbach dynasty and a granddaughter to Bernabò Visconti. Bavaria, like all the German states, had remained in obedience to Urban, to the bitter disappointment of Charles V. A German marriage was nevertheless important to give weight against England, especially since Richard II was negotiating to marry Anne of Bohemia, daughter of the late Emperor.
Bavaria was the most powerful and flourishing of the German states, and the Wittelsbachs the wealthiest of the three families—the others being the Hapsburgs and the Luxemburgs—which at different times occupied the imperial throne. A Wittelsbach alliance was so desirable that Bernabò Visconti married no fewer than four of his children to scions of that house. Taddea, the second of these, bringing a dowry of 100,000 gold ducats, married Duke Stephen III of Bavaria, who, though he ruled jointly with two brothers, possessed every quality of the autocrat to excess. Reckless, prodigal, ostentatious, amorous, restless without a tournament or a war, he was well suited to a Visconti daughter, and when she died after twelve years of marriage, her sister Maddalena, with another dowry of 100,000 ducats, took her place. Isabeau, product of the first union, was in 1385 a pretty, plump fifteen-year-old German maiden destined for a lurid career.
Her marriage to Charles VI was first broached when her uncle, Duke Frederick, came to share in the pleasures of French chivalry at the siege of Bourbourg. He learned that a condition of betrothal to the King of France was that the prospective bride be examined in the nude by ladies of the court to determine if she were properly formed for bearing children. Conveyed to his excitable brother, the proposal was indignantly rejected. What if she should be sent back? Duke Stephen demanded, and instantly tossed aside the offered crown. The alliance, however, was tactfully pursued by his uncle, Albert of Bavaria, ruler of Hainault-Holland, and by the Duke of Burgundy on the occasion of the famed double wedding of their sons and daughters. Stephen’s consent was obtained by arranging that Isabeau should be sent to France on pretext of a pilgrimage, although Stephen warned his brother, who was to escort her, that if he brought her back, “You will have no more bitter enemy than I.”
Rumors of the planned marriage, on reaching Milan, provoked the most sensational coup of the age—the ousting of Bernabò by his supposedly quiet and retiring nephew Gian Galeazzo. Bernabò’s marriage policy had for some time been cutting into Gian Galeazzo’s sovereignty, owing to Bernabò’s habit of giving away, as dowries, Visconti territories or their revenues to which the nephew had equal title—and without consulting him. The prospect of Bernabò’s granddaughter on the throne of France, and a renewed prospect of Bernabò’s daughter Lucia on the throne of Naples, threatened to cut into Gian Galeazzo’s French support. Lucia reappeared when the Duchesse d’Anjou, who had never ceased nagging her French relatives to try once more for Naples, succeeded in obtaining a tentative promise “in favor” of the attempt, and accordingly sent for Lucia to complete the proxy marriage to her son. This combination of circumstances propelled Gian Galeazzo to action.
In May 1385 he sent a message to his uncle saying that he was about to make a pilgrimage to the Madonna del Monte near Lago Maggiore and would be glad to meet with him outside Milan. His proposal seemed natural enough because Gian Galeazzo, though “subtle in intellect and wise in the ways of the world,” was very devout, carrying a rosary and accompanied by monks wherever he went, and greatly concerned with penance and pilgrimage. He also relied on astrologers to select propitious moments for his decisions, and once refused to discuss a diplomatic matter at a particular time because, as he wrote his correspondent, “I observe astrology in all my affairs.” These tastes and his apparent fear of his uncle, shown by doubling his guard and having all his food tasted, caused Bernabò to regard him with contempt. When a courtier, suspicious of Gian Galeazzo’s message, warned of a possible plot, Bernabò scoffed. “You have little sense. I tell you I know my nephew.” At age 76, after a lifetime of bullying, he was both overconfident and careless. Gian Galeazzo’s plan depended on just that.
With two of his sons, but otherwise unprotected, Bernabò rode to the rendezvous outside the gates. Gian Galeazzo, accompanied by a large bodyguard, dismounted, embraced his uncle and, while holding him tightly, called out an order in German, upon which one of his generals, thecondottiero Jacopo del Verme, cut Bernabo’s sword belt while another, crying “You are a prisoner!”, seized his baton of office and took him in custody. Immediately Gian Galeazzo’s forces galloped through Milan and occupied its strong points. Because of his reasonable government of Pavia, the populace was ready to welcome him as a deliverer, and greeted him with cries of “Viva il Conte!” followed by their first thought on removal of the tyrant, “Down with taxes!” To smooth the transition, Gian Galeazzo allowed the mob to sack Bernabò’s palace and burn the tax registers. He reduced taxes as one of his first measures and made up the difference from Bernabò’s hoard of gold. Legitimacy or its appearance was supplied by summoning a Grand Council to endow him with formal dominion and by sending a legal transcript of Bernabò’s crimes to all states and rulers.
The Milanese state was now controlled by a single ruler who was to loom ever larger as time went on. Bernabò’s sons were neutralized, in the case of one by life imprisonment, in the case of the second by his own worthlessness, and by a lifetime pension for the third and youngest. The towns of Lombardy submitted uneventfully, and the tyrant himself was locked up in the fortress of Trezzo, where in December of the same year he died, supposedly poisoned by order of the usurper. Bernabò was buried in Milan with honors although without the baton of office, and his equestrian statue, already made at his design, was erected as he had planned.
The fall of the modern Tarquin amazed the world, with echoes reaching into the Canterbury Tales, where it is related in the “Monk’s Tale” how “Thy brother’s son … within his prison made thee to dye.” Not the least of the consequences was to implant in the shallow if implacable heart of Isabeau of Bavaria a relentless desire for revenge upon Gian Galeazzo who had deposed, if not murdered the grandfather she had doubtless never known. Since the usurper was to emerge as one of the major figures of Europe and she as Queen of France, the results were grave and far-reaching.
At seventeen, Charles VI was an ardent, inconstant youth who rode nine courses in the lists at the tournaments in honor of the Burgundydouble wedding. His martial appetite had been encouraged by his uncles for the sake of war in their own interests. Physically, “nature seemed to have been prodigal in her gifts” to him. Above average height, robust in figure, wearing his blond hair to his shoulder, he was frank, energetic, gracious, carelessly and excessively generous, giving to anyone and everyone regardless of what was in his Treasury, lacking in steadiness or seriousness. During a hunt when he was thirteen, a deer was reportedly taken wearing a golden collar inscribed in “ancient characters”: Caesar hoc mihi donavit. Told that the deer must have been in the forest since the days of Julius Caesar “or some other emperor,” the boy King was so enchanted that he ordered all the royal plate and other furnishings to be engraved with a deer wearing a collar in the form of a crown. No less easily inflamed in amours, he was the victim, according to the Monk of St. Denis, of “carnal appetites,” and was equally quickly disenchanted. Instability trembled beneath outward health. His mother, Queen Jeanne, had suffered a phase of insanity in 1373, his heritage was a web of intermarriage, all his sisters but one had died before maturity.
The charm of Isabeau and the delights of marriage were suitably dwelt upon by his various aunts and uncles at the resplendent double wedding of Burgundy’s son and daughter at Cambrai in April 1385. As a prince of great pretensions, Philip intended the ceremony to outshine any that had gone before. He borrowed the crown jewels from Charles VI, transported extra tapestries and special jousting horses from Paris, ordered special liveries made for the occasion of red and green velvet (the two most expensive colors), furnished all the ladies with gowns of cloth of gold, and supplied a thousand jousting lances for the tournament. Papal dispensations of consanguinity were obtained in duplicate, one from each Pope because the marriages spanned the schism. Gifts were distributed throughout festivities that lasted five days, and their cost was twice that of the clothes. The total cost was 112,000 livres, equal to one quarter the revenues of the Flemish-Burgundian state in a time of deep social anger and want.
Isabeau reached France in July after being tutored for four weeks, at the court of her Wittelsbach relatives in Hainault, in French dress, etiquette, and flirtation. The meeting with Charles took place at Amiens, where the French court had moved owing to renewed war in Flanders. The King, in a fever of excitement, arrived on July 13, the same day that Coucy arrived from Avignon “in great haste with news of the Pope,” although what news is not recorded. Sleepless and agitated, Charles kept asking, “When will I see her?” and when he did, fell instantly enamored, gazing at the German girl with admiration and ardor. Asked if she was to become Queen of France, he replied forcefully, “By my faith, yes!”
Isabeau understood nothing of what was being said because her lessons had apparently left her innocent of the French language except for a few words spoken in a thick German accent. Her manner, however, was alluring, and Charles’s impatience was such that the wedding followed hastily on July 17 to the accompaniment of numerous jokes about the hot young couple. “And if,” concluded Froissart, “they passed that night together in great delight, one can well believe it.” No such eager marriage was ever to sink to a sadder end, in madness, debauchery, and hate.
After Venus, Mars. Even before the truce with England was due to expire in October, the Scots had sent envoys to ask for a French force to join them “and make so great a hole in England that it should never be recovered.” The pride of France welcomed the chance to show themselves not only strong enough to repel attack but ready to take the offensive. The English should be shown that they could not always be the aggressor but must “get accustomed themselves to being attacked”—in their own land, as Coucy had suggested to Charles V. Philip the Bold, who effectively controlled the government, arranged for Admiral de Vienne, “a knight of proven valor and a passion for glory,” to take an expeditionary force to Scotland and prepare the way for a larger force to follow, which would be led by Clisson, Sancerre, and Coucy. Then, together with the Scots, they would “boldly penetrate” over the border.
Commanding eighty knights and a total force of 1,500 fully paid for six months in advance, Vienne crossed in the early summer of 1385, bringing a “free gift” of 50,000 gold francs to the King of Scotland and fifty suits of armor, including lances and shields, to his nobles. The Scottish envoys had indeed asked the French to bring equipment to arm a thousand Scots, which should have been a warning, but the realities of Scotland proved an unpleasant surprise. Castles were bare and gloomy with primitive conditions and few comforts in a miserable climate. The damp stone huts of clan chieftains were worse, lacking windows or chimneys, filled with peat smoke and the smell of manure. Their inhabitants engaged in prolonged vendettas of organized cattle-raiding, wife-stealing, betrayal, and murder. They had no iron to shoe their horses nor leather for saddles and bridles, which previously had been imported ready-made from Flanders.
Accustomed to “tapestried halls, goodly castles, and soft beds,” the French asked themselves, “Why have we come hither? We never knew what poverty meant until now.” Their hosts were no better pleased with the visitors. They resented the luxury-loving French knights and welcomed them coldly. Instead of marching toward pitched battle with banners flying, they withdrew their forces when they learned that a large English army was advancing.
Diverted by a new outbreak in Flanders, the French army of reinforcement did not come. During enforced idleness, Admiral de Vienne’s frustrated martial ardor turned to love; he engaged in a guilty amour with a cousin of the Scottish King which enraged his hosts “so that the Admiral was in danger of death.” Whether the final quarrel was over this issue or because the Scots insisted that the French should pay the cost of their visit, the Admiral in any case undertook to bear the cost personally, hurriedly hired a number of ships, and departed.
Meanwhile, the party of Ghent, led by Artevelde’s successor Francis Ackerman, had seized Damme, the port of Bruges at the mouth of the Scheldt where the French reinforcements for Scotland were to have been launched. The attack was prompted by the English, who were suffering the usual terrors spread by rumors of a French invasion. A French army, bringing the King fresh from his marriage bed, marched north to besiege Damme and, though suffering much from the heat, from English archers, and from an outbreak of plague, recaptured it after a siege of six weeks.
Punishment was savage, chiefly by the Burgundians, who burned and destroyed up to the gates of Ghent. Many prisoners, taken for ransom, were put to death to serve as an example. One of them at the block warned his executioners that “the King can kill men of strong heart, but though he exterminates all Flemings their dry bones will rise up to fight him again.” The point was borne in upon the Duke of Burgundy that alienation of his own subjects was not in his best interests. A peace settlement without further penalties or fines was concluded in December at Tournai and efforts made afterward to restore Flanders’ damaged commerce. But the harm done by decades of strife could not be undone; the great age of Flemish prosperity had passed.
Possibly stimulated by all the weddings, Coucy’s remarriage at the age of 46 to a girl some thirty years his junior took place in February 1386. The bride was Isabelle, daughter of the Duc de Lorraine, “a very beautiful demoiselle of the noble and great generation of the house of Blois.” She had been considered as a bride for the King during the interval when Stephen of Bavaria was recalcitrant, and was described as “of the King’s age or very close,” which would have made her sixteen to eighteen. Charles had been “near agreed” to the match until the Bavarian proposal was revived.
Little is known of the second Isabelle de Coucy except that after the marriage Enguerrand undertook a vast renovation of the castle from which it is possible (though not obligatory) to deduce that he did it to please a young and beautiful bride.
Following the marriage, a new northwest wing almost as grandiose in scale as the renowned donjon was added to the castle, along with many domestic improvements.* The new wing housed a grand banquet hall measuring 50 by 200 feet, called the Salle des Preux or Hall of the Nine Worthies, the heroes of history most admired in the Middle Ages. They were three ancients—Hector of Troy, Alexander the Great, and Julius Caesar; three Biblical Jews—Joshua, King David, and Judas Maccabeus; three Christians—King Arthur, Charlemagne, and the crusader Godfrey of Bouillon. An adjoining hall 30 by 60 feet, was dedicated to the feminine worthies, Hippolyta, Semiramis, Penthisilea, and other legendary queens. Each hall had an immense mantled chimney at either end, a high vaulted ceiling, and wide arched windows which let in broad bands of sunlight, unlike the narrow slits in the older walls. A raised tribune from which great personages and their ladies, separated from the crowd, could view the dances and entertainments was built into the Salle des Preux. Behind it stood the row of Nine Worthies in bas-relief, “carved by a hand so fine,” wrote an admirer, “that if my eyes had not been witness I would never have believed that leaves and fruits and grapes and other delicate things could have been so perfectly fashioned in hard stone.”
Among other additions were a fireplace and chimney for the lady’s boudoir, now tucked into an angle between the new wing and the old; an indoor tennis court with carved wooden ceiling; a new stable in the lower court; parapets extended the length of the terraces; a double-arched space beneath the terrace to keep wood for fuel; a kennel with latrines “to make room for Bonniface and Guedon to lie”; a water tank six feet by eight and sixteen feet deep to supply water by four large stone conduits to the kitchens. New wooden ceilings were installed in the donjon, roofs throughout the castle were re-covered, gargoyles and gutters cleaned, and the windows of the upper chamber “which the Dame de Coucy’s monkey had damaged” repaired.
Craftsmen of every specialty were hired—a carriage-maker to cut down the carriage brought from Lorraine by the new Dame de Coucy, which was too wide for the gates and had to be reduced by a foot; wood-carvers to panel the ceilings of the Eagle Chamber and the oratory and dressing room of the Sire de Coucy, and to make two extension leaves for the banquet table for the new hall; iron-workers to replace old keys, locks, bolts, and hinges, in particular to make a new lock for the casket in the oratory of the Seigneur; plumbers to weld the kitchen sinks and drainage pipes; painters from Paris to decorate the walls and “to redress the white-and-red hoods of the Coucy livery with new quilting.”
Much of the non-rented land, it appears from the accounts, was in vineyards, requiring considerable expense in planting, cultivating, and harvesting, and producing considerable income for the Seigneur. Other expenses went for the wages of bailiffs and tax-collectors, offerings to the chaplains of two chapels, charges for curing fish, replenishing livestock, cutting wood, mowing and haying the fields, providing the clothes and equipment of the Seigneur and his retinue. Coucy’s journeys to Soissons and other places show him generally accompanied by about eighty mounted knights, squires, and servants, and an astronomer, Maître Guillaume de Verdun, to carry out “certain necessities for him.”
The second marriage like the first was not very prolific, which may reflect something about Enguerrand’s marital relations or merely his prolonged absences. No son to carry on the dynasty and maintain the great barony was born, and only one daughter. Named Isabelle for her mother, she ultimately married the second son of the Duke of Burgundy. At an unknown date, probably some years later, the much desired son was finally born to Enguerrand—out of wedlock. Named Perceval and known as the Bastard of Coucy, he married in 1419 which suggests that he was the product of a late liaison. The identity of his mother is a blank. She may have been a rival of Coucy’s wife or a substitute during his later tenure in the south as Lieutenant-General of Guienne. Evidently she was of some importance in Coucy’s life, or he felt pride in a son, or both, because he acknowledged paternity and endowed Perceval with the seigneurie of Aubermont, a fief of the lordship of La Fère. The Bastard could thereafter call himself Sieur de Coucy and Seigneur d’Aubermont.
In the year of marriages, 1385–86, Coucy attended the wedding at Dijon of his Hapsburg relative and recent enemy, Duke Albert III, to a daughter of Philip the Bold. This was the year of the historic victory at Sempach when Swiss pikemen defeated the Hapsburgs, and it maybe that Coucy’s presence at Dijon for the wedding was connected with the Hapsburgs’ desire for his support. In any event, his quarrel with his mother’s family was apparently made up. “They ended always by accommodating,” in the words of the discoverer of the document.
The Scottish fiasco failed to discourage French designs for the offensive. On the contrary, the design was now enlarged to a full-scale invasion of England, a true penetration, perhaps a second Norman Conquest. There was a strong body of sentiment which held that only a military victory by the French could finish off the war and assure the supremacy of the French Pope. Besides, England was known to be in great discord, and the nobility no longer united in support of the King but deeply disaffected. The Duke of Burgundy was initially the sponsor of the invasion plan, but when the decision was taken in April 1386, the Royal Council voted for it unanimously. Many were the same men who had served Charles V, but his controlling sense of the art of the possible was gone. Out of the “heap of ruins” after Poitiers, Charles had learned the discipline of adjusting ambitions to possibilities; his son’s reign was to be spent unlearning it as fast as possible. A folie de grandeur, or just such “fantasies of omnipotence” as define megalomania, overtook the French as a distraught century was drawing to its close.
“You are the greatest King living with the greatest number of subjects,” Burgundy told his nephew, “and it has occurred to me many times why we do not make this passage to England to crush the great pride of these English … and make this great enterprise one of eternal memory.” When shortly after Easter the Duke of Lancaster left England with a large force in 200 ships to conquer the throne of Castile, the French opportunity was at hand. Information about each other’s movements was known through French and English fishermen, who, ignoring hostilities, came to each other’s aid at sea and exchanged catches, keeping trans-Channel communication open.
The French invasion fleet was planned to be the greatest “since God created the world.” The original army that Clisson and Coucy were to have led to Scotland was to be the invasion force, swollen to awesome proportions. Chroniclers write in terms of 40,000 knights and squires, 50,000 horses, 60,000 foot soldiers, figures which were meant to be more impressive than precise. Preparations for Scotland had been well under way before the Flemish interruption and were now renewed in a colossal burst of activity. Money, as always, came first. A sales tax of 5 percent plus 25 percent on beverages had already been levied throughout the kingdom for the Scottish campaign, bringing in 202,000 livres. It was now renewed, as it was to be repeatedly, never bringing in enough.
Ships were hired or purchased from every part of Europe from Prussia to Castile, while French shipyards worked day and night. The 600 ships assembled in the previous year were more than doubled and the sight they made in the mouth of the Scheldt was “the greatest of its kind ever seen.” Buonaccorso Pitti, the ubiquitous Florentine, saw 1,200 ships of which 600 were combat vessels mounted with the “castle” for archers. The French nobles, counting on recouping expenses from booty and ransoms in England, spared nothing in competitive splendor of gilded prows and silvered masts and sails striped with cloth of gold and silk. Admiral de Vienne commissioned a Flemish artist, Pierre de Lis, to paint his flagship red, adorned with his arms. Philip of Burgundy’s black ship was decorated with the coats of arms of all his possessions, and flew silken banners bearing his bold device “Il me tarde,” meaning approximately “I don’t wait,” repeated in gold on the mainsail. Coucy’s ship, “one of the most sumptuous of the fleet … very large and richly decorated,” met an unfortunate fate in the Seine, where it was moored. It was seized with two other ships in a daring raid up the river by a Portuguese admiral acting as an ally of the Duke of Lancaster.
Coucy was not immune to the hubris of the hour. His seal, attached to a receipt of October 1386 for payments connected with the invasion fleet, bears his arms combined with the royal leopard of England. Evidently he felt endowed with some permanent claim, perhaps in relation to his daughter Philippa, first cousin of the King of England. Coucy’s personal contingent in the invasion army numbered 5 knights, 64 squires, and 30 archers.
The wide bays and estuaries of the Scheldt provided a huge, sheltered gathering place for the armada, with communication by land and sea and by inland canals to Bruges. Day after day the parade of supplies came in—2,000 barrels to hold biscuit, timber to make carts, portable handmills to grind wheat, cannonballs of iron and stone from Reims, ropes, candles, lanterns, mattresses and straw pallets, urinals, shaving basins, laundry tubs, gangplanks for horses, shovels, pickaxes, and hammers. Clerks wrote a ceaseless stream of orders, purchasing agents scoured Normandy and Picardy, Holland and Zeeland, and as far as Germany and Spain for provisions—for wheat to make 2,000 tons of biscuit, for salt pork and bacon, smoked mackerel, salmon, eels, and dried herring, dried peas and beans, onions, salt, 1,000 barrels (or four million liters) of French wine, and 857 barrels of wine from Greece, Portugal, Lepanto, and Rumania. The Duke of Burgundy ordered 101 beef cattle, 447 sheep, 224 hams, 500 fat hens, capons, and geese, containers of ginger, pepper, saffron, cinnamon, and cloves, 900 pounds of almonds, 200 of sugar, 400 of rice, 300 of barley, 94 casks of olive oil, 400 cheeses from Brie and 144 from Chauny.
Swords, lances, halberds, suits of armor, helmets “visored in the new fashion,” shields, banners, pennants, 200,000 arrows, 1,000 pounds of gunpowder, 138 stone cannonballs, 500 ramming prows for the ships, catapults, and flame-throwers were collected. Armorers hammered and polished, embroiderers worked on banners, bakers made ship’s biscuit, supplies were counted on delivery, packed, stored, and loaded into the holds. The roadsteads filled with cargo vessels, car-racks, barges, galleys, and galleons.
Of all the preparations, the most stupendous was the portable wooden town to protect and house the invaders upon landing. A huge camp enclosing a place for each captain and his company, it was virtually an artificial Calais to be towed across the Channel. Its dimensions epitomized the fantasy of omnipotence. It was to have a circumference of nine miles and an area of 1,000 acres surrounded by a wooden wall 20 feet high reinforced by towers at intervals of 12 and 22 yards. Houses, barracks, stables, and markets where the companies would come for their provisions were to be laid out along prearranged streets and squares. William the Conqueror had brought a dismountable wooden fort to England in aid of his landing 300 years before, and similar devices had been used many times since, but nothing so daring in concept and size as this had ever before been attempted. Pre-fabricated in Normandy by the work of 5,000 wood-cutters and carpenters, supervised by a team of architects, it was to be packed and shipped in numbered sections, so designed that assembly at the beachhead could allegedly be accomplished in an unbelievable three hours. For belligerent purposes, the 14th century, like the 20th, commanded a technology more sophisticated than the mental and moral capacity that guided its use.
At the Scheldt the port overflowed with nobles, functionaries, craftsmen, and servants of every degree, all of whom had to be housed and paid. The missing brilliance of the Count of Savoy was made up by his son Amadeus VII, called the Red Count, who entertained everyone, whether humble, middle, or great, and turned away no one from his table without a meal. Eustache Deschamps, too, was on hand as laureate for the occasion, writing confidently,
Yours will be the land of England;
Where once there was a Norman Conquest,
Valiant heart will make war once more.
All the notable lords of France were present except the Duc de Berry, whose delayed arrival caused misgiving.
Impatience for embarkation was rising. The nobles stayed at Bruges “to be more at their ease,” and every few days rode over to Sluys, where the King stayed, to learn if the day of departure had been decided. The answer was always tomorrow or next week or when the fog lifts or when the Duc de Berry comes. The mass of men crowded into the area was growing restless and disorderly. Many, including the poorer knights and squires, could not be paid, and the cost of living was going up as the local people raised prices. Knights complained that four francs could barely buy what formerly was worth one. The Flemings were sullen and quarrelsome, “for the common people bore a grudge in their minds for the battle of Roosebeke.” They said to each other, “Why the Devil does not the King of France pass over into England? Are we not in poverty enough?”—although they admitted that “the Frenchmen make us no poorer.”
All excuses for postponement now came to one—waiting for the Duc de Berry. His non-arrival was a sign that the invading spirit was not in fact unanimous, that doubts and conflicting interests were struggling behind the scenes, that a peace party represented by Berry was opposing itself to the war party.
Berry was too absorbed in acquisition and art to be interested in war. He lived for possessions, not glory. He owned two residences in Paris, the Hôtel de Nesle and another near the Temple, and built or acquired a total of seventeen castles in his duchies of Berry and Auvergne. He filled them with clocks, coins, enamels, mosaics, marquetry, illuminated books, musical instruments, tapestries, statues, triptychs painted in bright scenes on dazzling gold ground bordered with gems, gold vessels and spoons, jeweled crosses and reliquaries, relics, and curios. He owned one of Charlemagne’s teeth, a piece of Elijah’s mantle, Christ’s cup from the Last Supper, drops of the Virgin’s milk, enough of her hairs and teeth to distribute as gifts, soil from various Biblical sites, a narwhal’s teeth, porcupine’s quills, the molar tooth of a giant, and enough gold-fringed vestments to robe all the canons of three cathedrals at one time. Agents kept him apprised of curiosities, and when one reported a “giant’s bones” dug up near Lyon in 1378, he at once authorized purchase. He kept live swans and bears representing his chosen device, a menagerie with apes and dromedaries, and rare fruit trees in his garden. He ate strawberries with crystal picks mounted in silver and gold, and read by candlelight from six carved ivory candle-holders.
Like most affluent lords, he had a good library of classics and contemporary works; he commissioned translations from the Latin, bought romances from booksellers in Paris, and bound his books in precious bindings, some in red velvet with gold clasps. He commissioned from renowned illuminators at least twenty Books of Hours, among them two exquisite masterpieces, the Grandes Heures and Très Riches Heures. His pleasure was to see illustrated his favorite scenes and portraits, including his own. Delicate multiple-towered cities and castles, rural occupations, knights and ladies in garden, hunt, and banquet hall, clad in garments of surpassing elegance, ornamented the prayerbooks. The Duke himself usually appears robed in the pure sky blue, whose pigment was so precious that two pots of it were listed in an inventory of Berry’s “treasures.”
Berry introduced the newly invented pedal organ into his churches and bought a new jacket for four livres so that his cornettist who played so beautifully might perform a solo before Charles V. He had gold and pearls ground together for a laxative, and during enforced idleness when he was bled to relieve the effects of gluttony and an apoplectic tendency, he played at dice, his favorite pastime. In one game with knightly companions, he wagered his coral prayer beads for forty francs. Accompanied by his swans, bears, and tapestries, he moved continually from one of his castles to another, carrying half-finished works of art by artists at one place to be completed by those at another, taking part in local processions and pilgrimages, visiting monasteries, enjoying wine harvests in autumn, and sending home to the Duchess on one occasion in June new peas, cherries, and 78 ripe pears. He collected dogs, always searching for more, no matter how many he had, and when he heard of an unusual variety of greyhound in Scotland, obtained a safe-conduct from Richard II to allow four couriers on horseback to make the round trip to bring him back a pair.
The funds to gratify his tastes were wrung from the people of Auvergne, and of Languedoc when he was its governor, by the heaviest taxation in France of his time, sowing the hatred and misery that resulted in the insurrection of Montpellier and his own recall. Punishment of the Tuchin rising in 1383, when he was again governor in place of Anjou, was his most lucrative opportunity. Instead of death sentences on the leaders, he sold pardons and imposed on the communes an enormous fine of 800,000 gold francs, four times as much as the whole of Languedoc had been able to collect for the ransom of Jean II. It was to be paid for by an unprecedented tax of 24 francs per hearth. Unchastened and unchanged, Berry was to go on spending for thirty more years until he had ruined his lands to pay his expenses and died insolvent in 1416 at the age of 76.
At the time when he was waited for at the Scheldt, he was 46, vain, pleasure-loving, obstinate, a prey to parasites, mediocre in mind and spirit, redeemed from vulgarity only by his love and fostering of beauty. Perhaps that lifelong passion was a reaction to his own ugly, coarse-grained features, which he perversely emphasized; the pug-nosed face appears on plates, seals, cameos, tapestries, altar panels, stained-glass windows, Books of Hours. According to a popular verse, the Duke wished to surround himself “only with snub-noses at his court.”
Berry did not appear at the Scheldt until October 14. By that time the days were growing shorter and colder, the Channel rougher. Meantime in mid-September, disaster smote the portable town. Loaded aboard 72 ships, it was on the way from Rouen to the Scheldt when the convoy was attacked by an English squadron out of Calais and three of the French ships were captured, along with the master carpenter in charge of construction. Too big to enter Calais, two of the ships were towed to England and their sections of the town exhibited in London to the awe and rejoicing of the English. For the French the loss was a portent.
The Monk of St. Denis, never at a loss for omens, reported clouds of crows carrying lighted coals which they deposited on thatched barns, as well as one of the terrible storms which appear regularly at all dark moments of his chronicle and, in this case, tore up the tallest trees by their roots and destroyed a church by a thunderbolt. On the day after Berry finally arrived, the elements, “seemingly angered by the delay,” flung the sea into an uproar and raised waves “like mountains” that shattered the ships and were followed by such rains as seemed that God was sending a new Flood. Many supplies, not yet loaded, were ruined.
Three weeks of indecision passed without action. In November the captains of 150 of the invasion ships submitted a list of reasons why embarkation was by now impossible: “Truthfully, the sea is cursed: item, the nights are too long; item, too dark [and through a long string of “items”], too cold, too rainy, too fresques. Item, we need a full moon; item, we need wind. Item, the lands of England are perilous, the ports are perilous; we have too many old ships, too many small ships, we fear the small ships may be swamped by the great ships.…” The unrelieved negatives hint at justification for a decision already taken.
The whole immense enterprise with all its investment in ships, arms, men, money, and provisions was called off, at least for the winter. The grand army disintegrated and departed, perishable supplies were sold to the Flemings below cost, the remainder of the portable town was given by the King to the Duke of Burgundy, who used it for construction in his own domain. Across the Channel, the English celebrated.
That Berry had “no wish to go to England” himself and did not wish the expedition to go was recognized at the time. Sentiment for a negotiated peace was growing on both sides, though always opposed by a war party in each country. Especially the mercantile estate wanted to end this “useless war,” and many who recognized that it was getting nowhere argued for peace as a step toward ending the schism and uniting two great Christian kings against the Turks. Whether or not Berry thought in these terms, he was certainly concerned about the money absorbed by war, and he had been in communication with the Duke of Lancaster, who would have liked his country to be at peace with France in order to free him to pursue his ambitions in Castile. Under pretext of a peace parley, Berry and Lancaster had had a meeting earlier in the year from which both had emerged looking pleased, and a year later Berry, as a widower, negotiated to marry Lancaster’s daughter, although that came to nothing.
Philip the Bold, even at the risk of leaving the kingdom in control of his brother, could have sailed without him if his will had matched the bold motto flying from his masts. But he feared the risk of a rising in Flanders if he left. The banners proclaiming “I don’t wait” were hauled down and he waited after all. At the same time the Royal Council too developed doubts of military success. Long before the portents of barn-igniting crows and tree-uprooting storms, a report from Avignon mentioned “the great debate as to whether the King will invade or not.”
The true determinant was probably reluctance at the water’s edge. Crossing the Channel was an uncertain thing at best, and worse against “the terrible west wind” of the late season. Above all loomed a hostile beachhead on the other side. Facing that hazard, potential invaders, after making preparations as grandiose as those of 1386, have backed away—Napoleon for one, Hitler for another. Throughout the war in the 14th century the English had allied beachheads in Flanders, Normandy, or Brittany at their disposal, or their own ports at Calais and Bordeaux. Lacking that advantage, the French had never launched more than punitive raids with no attempt to hold land. In either direction no successful invasion of a hostile beachhead was ever carried out between 1066 and 1944.
If fear was a reason, it was not acknowledged. The invasion was considered only postponed until the following year, when a smaller version was to be launched under the command of the Constable and Coucy. In March 1387 Charles VI paid a ceremonial visit to Coucy-le-Château, partly to discuss plans, as indicated by a surviving document which refers to provisions for the “army” that the Sire de Coucy will take “for going to England.” Doubtless also the King’s visit was in furtherance of the crown’s interest in Coucy’s domain. This time no court poet documented the occasion, but a petty crime committed in the course of the visit elicited one of the royal letters of pardon which are windows on the life of the poor.
One Baudet Lefèvre, “a poor man with many children,” took from the castle two tin serving platters used for service of the King’s dinner, hid them under his tunic, and went to a hostel in the town, where he was seen by a sergeant of “our dear and beloved cousin, the Sire de Coucy,” who asked him, “What are you doing here?” Baudet replied, “I am warming myself.” As he was speaking, the sergeant saw the platters and arrested him. He was taken to prison in the castle, where he was also found to have taken a silver-gilt platter embossed with the royal mark. “In the prison he was like to have died, but that our pardon and grace was humbly begged, and since the said Baudet has always been a man of good life and honest speech with no other misdeeds on his record, we are pleased to grant him this grace and mercy,” and to quit, remit, and pardon the supplicant, now and in the future, by “our special grace and royal authority” of all offense, fines, civil and criminal punishment which he may have sustained, and restore him and his good wife to their goods, and to let this be known to all officers of justice of the region and their lieutenants or successors now or in the future.
That all this was required in the King’s name for the theft of three platters—and the word theft is not used in the document—suggests, beyond mere prolixity, the care taken to exhibit the King as protector of the poor.
In May, two months after the King’s visit, Coucy attended a meeting of the Royal Council with Admiral de Vienne, Guy de la Tremolile representing Burgundy, Jean le Mercier, the King’s minister, and others to confer on the renewed invasion of England. According to the Monk of St. Denis, the “shameful” departure of the King and nobles from the Scheldt had caused a painful impression upon all Frenchmen, with the result that it was felt necessary to erase the impression by striking a powerful blow at England, and to “commit there all the excesses of an enemy upon an enemy.” Clearly the plan for conquest had receded to something more in the nature of a raid.
The expedition was to be split into two parts: one, commanded by the Constable, to leave from Brittany, and the other, commanded by the Admiral, Coucy, and Count Waleran de St. Pol, to leave from Harfleur in Normandy. Their objective was Dover. They were to take 6,000 men-at-arms, 2,000 crossbowmen, 6,000 “other men of war,” enough food for three months including hay and oats for the horses, and armor in good condition. Intentions were certainly genuine, for in June a vessel of the Sire de Coucy was loaded at Soissons on the Aisne with foodstuffs, plate, cooking equipment, linens, arms, and tents to be delivered at Rouen. Coucy, Vienne, and the others were at Harfleur at this time. Coastal raids from Calais led by the fiery Sir Harry Percy, called “Hotspur,” failed to halt preparations because Percy attacked northward in the wrong direction. The day for departure was fixed, all provisions loaded, every man given his wages for fifteen days, and “the journey so far forward that it was thought it could not be broken.”
Contriving as best they could to interfere, the English found their cat’s-paw this time in the chronic conspirator Jean de Montfort, Duke of Brittany. To determine where Montfort stood at any given time, as he tried to hold his balance between England and France, would have required the arts of a sorcerer. As parties of opposing policy developed within each country, his problem became more complicated and his deals ever more entangled. It is no wonder that, according to repute, he was a sovereign given easily to tears.
One constant in his sentiments was hatred of his fellow Breton and subject Olivier de Clisson, Constable of France. The feeling, which was mutual, did not preclude Montfort’s making a treaty with Clisson in 1381 by which, “in consideration of the perfect love and affinity we have for our dear and well-beloved cousin and vassal, Messire Olivier, Seigneur de Clisson, Constable of France … we promise to be a good, true, and beneficient lord to the said seigneur … and to guard well his honor and the state of his person.” Olivier promised reciprocal loyalties as vassal. Montfort’s love and affinity turned to seething rage when Clisson arranged a marriage between his daughter and Jean de Penthièvre, son of Montfort’s late rival Charles of Blois, and now heir to the duchy, since Montfort at that time had no sons.
Through various pressures and offers, England was working on Montfort to take action to frustrate the French invasion. At the same time he was involved with Burgundy and Berry. As a cousin of the Duchess of Burgundy, he was linked to her husband in that intense partisanship which automatically accompanied kinship through marriage in the Middle Ages. In May 1387 he had concluded a private treaty with the Duc de Berry. A common interest shared with both brothers was hostility to the Constable.
As Coucy had foreseen, the Constableship bred enemies, among whom the King’s uncles came naturally to the fore. Any occupant of the office was a figure whose power could threaten theirs, and Clisson’s personality stimulated the antagonism, the more so because of his wealth. He was making 24,000 francs a year from the Constableship, acquiring fiefs, building a palace in Paris, and lending money to everyone: to the King, the Duchesse d’Anjou, Berry, Bureau de la Rivière, and 7,500 florins in 1384 to the Pope. When debtors were late in repaying, as they usually were, he could afford to extend the loans and take a profit in larger securities and interest.
In June 1387 the one-eyed warrior was seized by Montfort in a coup as sensational as, and very similar to, the attack on Bernabò, though lacking its perfection. Montfort convoked a Parliament at Vannes which all Breton nobles were obliged to attend. During the proceedings he treated Clisson with the utmost amiability and afterward entertained him at dinner and invited him with his entourage to visit his new castle of Hermine near Vannes. Affably, Montfort conducted his guests on a tour of the building, visited the cellars to taste the wine, and on arriving at the entrance to the donjon, said, “Messire Olivier, I know no man this side of the sea who knows more about fortification than do you; wherefore I pray you mount up the stairs and give me your opinion of the construction of the tower, and if there are faults, I will have them corrected according to your advice.”
“Willingly, Monseigneur,” replied Clisson, “I will follow you.”
“Nay, sir, go your way alone,” the Duke answered, saying that while the Constable made his inspection he would converse with the Sire de Laval, Clisson’s brother-in-law. Although Clisson had no reason to trust his host, he relied on security as a guest. He mounted the stairs, and as he entered the hall at the first level, a waiting body of men-at-arms seized and imprisoned him, loading him with three heavy chains, while throughout the castle other men closed doors and gates with violent banging.
At the sound, Laval’s “blood trembled” and he stared at the Duke, who “became as green as a leaf.” “For God’s sake, Monseigneur,” Laval cried, “what are you doing? Do not harm my brother-in-law, the Constable!”
“Mount your horse and go from hence,” Montfort answered him. “I know what I have to do.” Laval refused to leave without the Constable. At that moment another of Clisson’s party, Jean de Beaumanoir, hurried up in anxiety. Montfort, who hated him too, pulled his dagger and, rushing upon him as if possessed, cried, “Beaumanoir, do you wish to be like your master?” Beaumanoir said that would honor him. “Do you wish, do you wish to be like him?” the Duke cried in a fury, and when Beaumanoir said yes, Montfort screamed, “Well then, I will put out your eye!” With shaking hand, he held the dagger before the man’s eyes, but could not plunge it in. “Go, go!” he cried hoarsely. “You shall have no better nor worse than him,” and ordered his men to drag Beaumanoir off to a prison chamber and load him, too, with chains.
Throughout the night Laval remained at the Duke’s side, staying him by pleas and persuasions from ordering Clisson to be put to death. Three times Montfort gave the order to cut off his head or tie him in a sack for drowning, and twice the guards unloaded Clisson’s chains preparatory to carrying out the order. Each time Laval, on his knees, managed at the last moment to dissuade the tortured Duke, reminding him how he and Clisson had been brought up together as boys, how Clisson had fought in his cause at Auray, how, if he killed him now, after inviting him to dinner and to his castle as a guest, “no prince shall be so dishonored as you … reproached and hated by all the world.” If instead he held Clisson to ransom, he could gain great sums and towns and castles, for which Laval promised himself as guarantor.
To this suggestion Montfort at last responded. He wanted no pledge nor guarantor, but 100,000 francs in cash and the handing over to his deputies of two towns and three castles, including Josselin, Clisson’s home, before the Constable would be released. Clisson had no choice but to sign the terms and remain incarcerated while Beaumanoir was sent to collect the money. “And if I should tell that such things happened and not tell openly the whole matter,” wrote Froissart, “it would be a chronicle but no history.”
As alarm at the Constable’s disappearance spread rapidly, it was widely believed that he had been put to death, and instantly assumed by all that the voyage to England was “lost and broken.” At Harfleur, Coucy, Vienne, and St. Pol had no thought of going ahead with the expedition without Clisson, even after it was known that he was alive. The Duke’s terrible deed absorbed all minds, and the insult to the King represented by the seizure of his Constable took precedence over an act of war against England. The expedition with all its ships, provisions, and men-at-arms was abandoned as before, so easily as to raise a question whether the interruption may not have been welcomed. If the coup was designed to frustrate the invasion, it was a total success, but not for Montfort, who lacked the granite will of Gian Galeazzo.
Like the schism in the Church, like the brigandage of knights, like the worldliness of friars, Montfort’s act was destructive of basic assumptions. It caused consternation. Knights and squires in anxious discussion said to each other, “Thereby no man should trust in any prince, since the Duke had deceived these noblemen.” What would the French King say? Surely there never was such a shameful case in Brittany or anywhere else. If a poor knight had done such a deed, he would be dishonored forever. “In whom should a man trust but in his lord? And that lord should maintain him and do him justice.”
On his release, Clisson, with only two pages, galloped straight for Paris in such a fury to obtain satisfaction that he is said to have covered 150 miles a day and to have reached the capital in 48 hours. The King, feeling his honor bound up with his Constable’s, was eager for reprisal, but his uncles, who still governed for him, were markedly less so. They seemed indifferent to Clisson’s losses, told him he should have known better than to accept Montfort’s invitation, especially on the eve of embarking against England, and dampened any suggestion of martial action against the Duke. On this issue the division in the government opened between the uncles on the one hand, and the Constable—supported by Coucy, Vienne, Rivière, Mercier, and the King’s younger brother Louis—on the other. Coucy insisted that the King must take cognizance and require Montfort to make restitution. The uncles, already jealous of Clisson’s influence over the King and his close relations with Coucy and Rivière, wanted no major effort that would enhance his prestige. In the midst of the struggle, another crisis erupted.
A brash young exhibitionist, the Duke of Guelders, delivered by herald an astonishing and insolent challenge to Charles VI, announcing himself an ally of Richard II and therefore an enemy prepared to defy “you who call yourself King of France.” His letter was addressed simply to Charles de Valois. This swaggering gesture by a petty German prince, ruler of a narrow territory between the Meuse and the Rhine, dumbfounded the court, although it had an explanation. The Duke of Guelders had recently accepted payment for declaring himself a vassal of the King of England and his challenge to the French King was a piece of troublemaking doubtless inspired by the English.
Charles was enchanted by the chivalric opportunity. He showered the herald with gifts and looked forward to spreading the glory of his name in personal war and “seeing new and far countries.” Faced with two challenges at once, by Brittany on the west and Guelders on the east, the Council debated lengthily what to do. Some thought Guelders’ gesture should be treated as pure “fanfaronade” and ignored, but again Coucy made an issue of the dignity not so much of the crown but of the nobles. He argued strenuously in the Council that if the King suffered such insults to pass unrequited, foreign countries would hold the nobles of France very cheap since they were the King’s advisers and sworn to uphold his honor. He may have felt, too, that France had to do something after twice abandoning the attack on England. The fact that he clearly felt the issue personally impressed his listeners, and they agreed that he “understood the Germans better than anyone else because of his disputes with the Dukes of Austria.”
This time Coucy found himself an ally of Philip the Bold, who strongly favored a campaign against Guelders in his own interests. Between Flanders and Guelders lay the Duchy of Brabant, in whose affairs Philip, with an eye to expansion, was deeply involved. Encouraging the King’s enthusiasm, he committed France to war on Guelders, but the Council insisted on settling with Brittany first, for they said if the King and his nobles went off to fight Guelders, Montfort might open the way to the English.
Rivière and Admiral de Vienne, sent to treat with Montfort, met a sullen refusal to yield. The Duke would say only that he repented of nothing he had done to the Constable save for one thing: that he had let him escape alive. Nor would he excuse his seizure of a guest, “for a man ought to take his enemy wheresoever he can.” Several months followed of pulling and tugging by all parties while Coucy at each delay kept up pressure in the Council. The issue hung fire as the year ended, taking with it a once supreme troublemaker, the withered viper Charles of Navarre.
After a last attempted poisoning—this time of Burgundy and Berry—Navarre died in horrid circumstances. Sick and prematurely old at 56, he was tormented by chills and shivering and at doctor’s orders was wrapped at night in cloths soaked in brandy to warm his body and cause sweat. To keep them in place, the wrappings were sewn on each time like a shroud, and caught fire one night from the valet’s candle as he leaned over to cut a thread. To the King’s shrieks of pain, the brandy-soaked cloth flamed around his body; he lived for two weeks with doctors unable to relieve his agony before he expired.
In the new year the Council decided to send Coucy himself, as Montfort’s former brother-in-law, in another effort to bring him to terms. No one, it was felt, would be more agreeable to the Duke nor “of greater weight”; with him would go Rivière and Vienne, making a mission of “three very intelligent lords.” Informed of their coming, Montfort understood from Coucy’s presence how heavily the matter weighed. He greeted him affectionately, offered to take him hunting and hawking, escorted him to his chamber, “sporting and talking of many idle matters as lords do when they have not been together for a long time.” When it came to the issue, even Coucy’s famed persuasiveness and “fine, gentle words” could not at first move him. He stood at a window looking out for a long time in silence, then turned and said, “How may any love be nourished when there is nothing but hate?” and repeated that he repented only of letting Clisson live.
It took two visits and Coucy’s most reasoned and eloquent arguments and tactful hints of the weakness of Montfort’s position—for in fact he had little support among his own subjects—to accomplish his object. After first persuading Montfort to give up Clisson’s castles, he was sent back to get full restitution of the money and, most difficult of all, to push, wheedle, and drag the Duke to judgment in Paris. Desperately wanting to avoid Clisson, Montfort advanced a thousand excuses, but with added pressure from Burgundy, now anxious for a settlement, he was overborne. Against his alleged fear of assassination, Coucy persuaded him to go as far as Blois, where the King’s uncles would meet him. With a safe-conduct from the King, reinforced by his own escort of 1,200 men, Montfort ventured up the Loire in a flotilla of six ships and, in June 1388, ultimately arrived at the gates of the Louvre in Paris. Restitution of Clisson’s property and a formal pardon by the King were sealed by the usual formula of reconciliation in which the Duke and the Constable swore to be “good and loyal” sovereign and vassal respectively and, glaring at each other, drank from the same cup in token of “love and peace.”
From the King, in token of royal appreciation, Coucy received a French Bible, and from history, through Froissart, a more memorable tribute. “And I knew four lords who were the best entertainers of others of all that I knew: they were the Duke of Brabant, the Count of Foix, the Count of Savoy, and especially the Lord of Coucy; for he was the most gracious and persuasive lord in all Christendom … the most well-versed in all customs. That was the repute he bore among all lords and ladies in France, England, Germany, and Lombardy and in all places where he was known, for in his time he had traveled much and seen much of the world, and also he was naturally inclined to be polite.”
With these talents Coucy had brought to heel the most troublesome vassal since Charles of Navarre.
* By a fluke of survival, the domestic accounts of Coucy-le-Château for the year 1386–87 remained in existence long enough for a local antiquarian, Lucien Broche, to publish a report of them in 1905–09. The originals disappeared during the First World War, in which Picardy suffered great destruction.