Post-classical history

Part Four



Chapter Seventy-Three


The Will to War

Between 1349 and 1369, Charles of Navarre tries to seize the throne of France, the king of Castile makes himself unpopular, the peasants of France revolt, and France and England find new excuses to fight

BETWEEN OCTOBER 1349 AND AUGUST 1350, three monarchs died of plague.

The first royal victim was Joan, queen of Navarre. Thirty-two years before, she had been denied the French throne by her uncle’s invocation of the Salic Law. That same law had led to the ending of the Capetian dynasty and to the installation of her distant relative, Philip VI of Valois, on the French throne.

Ten months after Joan’s death, on August 22, 1350, Philip VI of France—fifty-two years old, newly married to Joan’s nineteen-year-old daughter—also died of plague.*

The plague had already killed King Alfonso XI of León-Castile; he had succumbed on March 27, in a campaign tent near Gibraltar. By now, the Christian kingdoms of Portugal, León-Castile, and Aragon had pushed all the way down to the Mediterranean. But the sole Muslim kingdom of Granada, ruled by Yusuf I, still clung to the southern coast; Alfonso was fighting against it when he died.

The throne of León-Castile (more often now simply referred to as “Castile”) went to Alfonso’s sixteen-year-old son Pedro. But rather than continuing to fight against Granada, Pedro of Castile began a war for territory with the king of neighboring Aragon, Pedro IV.

Meanwhile, Philip VI’s oldest son was crowned King John II of France, inheriting a country that was “in a very unsatisfactory state,” as Froissart writes. “The English were in possession of many places, especially of Calais, which caused the French considerable annoyance; moreover, their treasury was well-nigh exhausted.” The famine and drought a few decades before had already weakened France; unending war and bubonic plague had carved still more strength away.1

The king of Navarre chose this moment to launch a bid for the French throne.

Charles of Navarre, Joan’s son and heir, had long thought of himself as a Frenchman. From his father, the Count of Évreux, he had inherited substantial family lands in the north of France. He had married King John II’s daughter, and had lived in France for much of his life. Even after his coronation, he used Navarre mostly as a source for income and soldiers.

In some ways, Charles’s claim to the French crown was even stronger than Edward III’s. Both hinged on the untimely death of Louis X, in 1316, at the age of twenty-seven, without a male heir. For both Edward and Charles, the passing of the crown to the Valois house was an injustice, one that disregarded the living Capetian heirs. But Edward was only Louis X’s nephew; Charles was his grandson.

For the first five years of his reign, Charles of Navarre contented himself with raising supporters for his bid. The triple assembly of French nobility, clergy, and leading townsmen, first called by Philip the Fair in 1302, had been called several more times by Philip’s successors, mostly to approve new taxes. Each time the three groups, or “estates,” had acted as a single body: the “Estates-General,” the first representative gathering of the French people. But the Estates-General had no power to pass laws, or to force the king to do anything; it merely offered counsel and advice. Across all three of the Estates, a healthy scattering of thoughtful men believed that the Estates should have a say in the king’s decisions, particularly when it came to taxes or the reissuing of French currency (reissues inevitably sent prices either soaring or into freefall).

The disorder that followed the plague made reform even more attractive, and Charles of Navarre, making complicated and careful alliances, presented himself as a possible “reform king,” willing (should he gain the throne) to give more authority to the Estates. “A small man with a lively wit, a penetrating eye, and an easy, unaffected eloquence,” one of his contemporaries wrote; “his astonishing shrewdness and extraordinary charm enabled him to find supporters as no other prince of the blood could do, not just among the common people but among men of substance and power.”2

At the same time, Edward of England and John of France finished negotiating a complicated peace deal. Plague had hit the armies of both men hard; neither was in good position to launch new attacks, and in April 1354, John agreed to hand over to Edward all of the western French lands south of Normandy (except for Brittany), and to yield Calais. In exchange, Edward III would give up his claim to the French crown.3

A year later, Edward—feeling a little stronger—repudiated the treaty. But by then, John II had already gained a reputation for weakness (“By the blood of Christ, this King is a worthless man and a bad ruler,” one of his counts snapped), and Charles of Navarre’s campaign gained strength. His crowning achievement was to convince John’s son and heir, the Dauphin Charles,* to plot with him the overthow of John himself.4

Seventeen-year-old Charles, intelligent but sickly, was easily swayed by his silver-tongued brother-in-law. In April of 1356, the two men were throwing a banquet for some thirty potential allies at Rouen Castle in Normandy (the Dauphin also bore the title Duke of Normandy) when John II unexpectedly arrived, fully armed, at the head of a band of soldiers. He had heard a rumor that Charles of Navarre was planning to kidnap and kill him, and he had decided to rid himself of Charles’s ongoing schemes.

Over the Dauphin’s loud protests, John arrested four of the Norman leaders and ordered them executed. They were immediately taken outside the city and beheaded by the only executioner available, a prisoner in the Rouen jail who offered to do it in exchange for a pardon. He had never tried to behead anyone before, and made a bloody and extensive business of it.5

John II spared his son-in-law, but the king of Navarre was taken off in chains and moved from secure prison to secure prison until he ended up in the Fort of Arles, surrounded by a swamp. This brought the English back into the fight. Charles of Navarre’s twenty-two-year-old brother Philip recruited the English prince John of Gaunt, third son of Edward III, to help him attack John II’s Norman holdings in revenge; Edward III himself furnished twenty-seven ships for the attack.6

Edward the Black Prince—aged twenty-six, a ten-year veteran of the war with the French—was in his father’s territory of Gascony; from there, he had been leading raids into Languedoc, raiding and killing, burning French towns and villages, Toulouse among them. In August 1356, while John was in Normandy fighting the Navarrese and English, Edward marched out of Gascony, towards the Loire river, with eight thousand men.7

The march was another large-scale raid, not necessarily meant to force John II into a showdown: “It was our purpose to ride forth against the enemies in the parts of France,” the Black Prince himself wrote, “. . . harrying and wasting the country.” But John II turned to meet Edward, and the two armies came face-to-face at Poitiers. The French, better rested and better organized, had every reason to expect victory.

On September 19, the English army drove back the French, a pattern that was rapidly becoming embarrassing for the French cause. Thomas Gray accuses the French generals of failing to act together because they “were at variance because of bitter words”; other accounts suggest that John II’s decision to have his knights dismount and fight on foot after the initial charge—an attempt to avoid the English archers who had been so deadly in the past—caused the disaster.8


73.1 French Defeats

Whatever the reason, the defeat was particularly embarrassing because King John of France was taken prisoner, along with his fourteen-year-old son Philip. The Black Prince treated the royals with respect, but took them both prisoner to England.9

King John was not kept in a dungeon. Prisoner taking, in the fourteenth century, was largely a matter of ransom collection, and the possibility of succeeding was one of the major motivations for knights with more honor than cash to go to war. Taking a wealthy opponent captive and holding him until a sizable payment was made offered a quick way to refill an empty treasury.

In fact, a few months after John II was taken to Windsor, David of Scotland—now thirty-three years old, in the eleventh year of his imprisonment in England—finally managed to negotiate his own release, in exchange for 100,000 marks (to be paid out in installments over the next ten years; Edward was not unreasonable). One hundred thousand Scottish marks was a lot of money: a knight of middling rank might spend 100 marks in a year maintaining his lifestyle; a servant or farmer might earn 10.

Edward III of England had spent a great deal of money on war in the past decade, tax revenues had dropped off along with the population, and John II’s capture afforded the English king the chance to make some of it back. He suggested a ransom of 3 million crowns, which in the United States of 2012 would mean that the king of France was worth 500 million dollars; David of Scotland, 65 million.*

As a valuable prisoner, John was kept in comfort while Edward III tried to convince the Estates-General to cough up the proposed ransom; he had his own staff, private chambers, and an occasional chance to go hawking and hunting. Meanwhile, back in Paris, there were “many conferences held, and much discontent appeared.” The king’s sons were generally thought too young and incompetent to run the country, and the English and Navarrese were romping through the west and south, creating havoc. Finally, each of the Estates agreed to nominate twelve “of the wisest from among themselves, to consider and determine what would be most advisable.” This council of thirty-six took control of the country, with the young Dauphin Charles “styled Regent” but not granted much in the way of actual power.10

But France, war-weary, plague-thinned, overtaxed, did not settle comfortably into parliamentary rule. Charles of Navarre escaped from his swampland fortress in November of 1357 and made his way to Paris, where a complicated power struggle began between his supporters (a considerable number of Parisians were convinced that he did indeed have a right to the throne), the Estates-General (led by the powerful Parisian merchant Etienne Marcel), and the Dauphin.

While the wealthy and well-born jousted with each other in Paris, a sudden explosion of violence at the little northern town of Saint-Leu-d’Esserent, on the banks of the Oise river, startled them all.

It came from the bottom of French society; from the peasants, scornfully nicknamed Jacques Bonhomme, “Silly Jack,” by the elite. Struggling to raise their crops and tend their livestock in a countryside constantly trampled by the armed forces of English, French, and Navarrese, buffeted by sudden arbitrary taxes imposed by the Crown and collected by force, thinned by plague and mourning their dead, the French countrymen had reached boiling point. The last straw was probably the Dauphin’s decision to give his army captains permission to pillage the countryside in order to supplement their skimpy wages. “We were afflicted not only by the sword of our English enemies,” complained the contemporary writer Philippe de Mézières, “but by our own lords too.”11

In May 1358, the misery organized itself into an armed revolt. “Some of the inhabitants of the towns assembled together . . . without any leader,” says Froissart, “. . . [and] said that the nobles of the kingdom of France, knights and squires, were a disgrace to it, and that it would be a very meritorious act to destroy them all.” For two weeks, bands of armed peasants and craftsmen—blacksmiths, quarrymen, coopers, masons, and even rural priests and minor officials—rampaged through the north of France, armed with pikes and plow pieces, burning castles, murdering knights, and massacring noble households and families. (Froissart describes even more creative cruelties, including the roasting of a knight on a spit, but he also gets the year of the revolt and the numbers involved wrong.)12

The uprising, nicknamed the Jacquerie, barely lasted three weeks before the Dauphin and Charles of Navarre, fighting separately, brought it to an end by wiping out the major roving bands of Jacques Bonhomme insurgents. Just a few weeks later, Etienne Marcel was assassinated in Paris.

While his country was disintegrating, John II had been negotiating with his captor. The two kings had finally agreed on a treaty; John II could buy his freedom by handing over, by treaty, Aquitaine, Normandy, Poitou, Touraine—almost half of his country. He would also have to raise the three million crowns of his ransom, although Edward III graciously allowed him six years to pay the debt off. (As surety for the debt, John’s second son, Charles’s younger brother Louis of Anjou, was sent to Calais to be a hostage of the English until the full amount was paid.) In return, Edward III gave up his claim to Normandy and also agreed (for the second time) to surrender any claim to the French throne, a concession that also extended to his son the Black Prince.13

The compromise, signed at Bretigny on May 8, 1360, allowed John to return home. He entered Paris, after four years of imprisonment, to the sentimental relief of his people. This brought Charles of Navarre’s hopes to a sharp end; seeing his supporters melt away, he retreated to Navarre.14

But the return of John II was not joyful. His second wife had died just before his arrival home. Paris was shabby and divided against itself. The countryside was infested with bandits. The treasury was empty, with three million crowns left to be found. The Dauphin Charles had lost his two daughters to illness within weeks of each other, and himself was suffering from a mysterious sickness that was causing his hair to fall out and his fingernails to shed.

John II was completely unable to talk the Estates-General into raising taxes for the payment of the ransom, and young Louis of Anjou, seeing no end to his captivity, escaped from Calais and made his way home. So in January of 1364, John himself announced that he would journey back to England to renegotiate the terms. He left the Dauphin Charles as regent in Paris; to his favorite son, the youngest, Philip the Bold, he gave Burgundy along with the title Duke of Burgundy. Louis of Anjou got nothing.

Edward welcomed the king of France in style and put him up at the Savoy Palace in London, the home of Prince John of Gaunt. But deliberations, says the contemporary Chronicle of Canterbury, “were delayed from day to day; and meanwhile the king of France remained at the Savoy without any final decision.” Early in March, John came down with a severe and obscure ailment. On April 8, three months after his returned to London, he died at the Savoy Palace. He was forty-five years old.15

At this, Charles of Navarre “had hope,” says Froissart. He sent a Navarrese army, under joint Navarrese and English command, into Normandy; Charles’s biographer, the extraordinary Christine de Pisan, says that “three thousand men-at-arms” also began a march towards the Seine, intending to intercept Charles on the way to his coronation and prevent it. But the French royal army, pressing rapidly forward, met the invaders near the village of Cocherel, north of Paris. “There was much hacking and cutting with lances and battle-axes,” remarks Froissart, “. . . [and] of the Navarrois but few escaped being slain or taken.” Three days later, the Dauphin was crowned King Charles V of France.16

The Battle of Cocherel ended Charles of Navarre’s last serious attempt to claim the French throne; he would agitate for the next twenty years, doing an ill turn to the French throne whenever he could, but he would never again rule any country other than Navarre. In 1387, he would come to a particularly nasty end; accidentally set on fire while wrapped in a brandy-soaked sheet to treat a skin condition, he would linger for fifteen excruciatingly painful days before finally dying in agony.17

The Treaty of Bretigny, which had allowed John of France a last visit home, had guaranteed that neither Edward III of England nor the Black Prince would launch another challenge. England and France were, theoretically, at peace.* But the peace, fatally fragile, soon crumbled. The fighting restarted on the Spanish peninsula.

Pedro of Castile, inheriting the throne after his father’s untimely death of plague, had spent the first fifteen years of his reign in a territorial war with Pedro of Aragon. He was, says Froissart, “a cruel man . . . of such a horrid disposition, that all persons feared and suspected him.” He was, in fact, no worse than his brother kings in England and France; but fifteen years of war had not increased his popularity with his own people, any more than it had made John II more beloved by the French.18

Right after Charles V’s coronation, Pedro of Castile’s illegitimate half brother, Enrique of Trastámara, challenged his rule, and “the kings of France and Aragon undertook to place him on the throne.” This was a reasonable enough decision on the part of Charles V of France; an alliance with Aragon, plus a Castilian king who owed his throne to France, would certainly provide a useful wall against further armies marching in from Navarre. A joint French-Aragonese army assembled and invaded Castile. Pedro summoned his barons and knights, but they too were war-weary and thinned by plague, and “scarcely any came.”

Pedro was forced to flee from his country into Gascony, where he asked for an audience with Edward the Black Prince and (says the Canterbury Chronicle) “begged him most urgently to give him military assistance.” As justification, he pointed out that he and the Black Prince were blood kin. The Black Prince’s great-grandmother, wife of Edward I, was Eleanor of Castile, Pedro’s great-great-great-aunt, which made the two men cousins, three times removed.19

Most European royal families were at least cousins three times removed, but the Black Prince immediately agreed. The alliance would, after all, bring him face-to-face with the French again, and without breaching the Treaty of Bretigny.

In 1367, Pedro the Cruel marched back into Castile, accompanied by the Black Prince and an English army. The English-Castilian army defeated the French-Castilian army thoroughly at the border town of Navarette, and Enrique (in turn) fled from Castile, back to France. Charles V sent more reinforcements, and at the second encounter between the brothers, at the Battle of Campo de Montiel, the French-Castilian contingent won out. Pedro the Cruel was taken captive; Froissart says that when Enrique of Trastámara visited him in the tent where he was being held prisoner, “an angry altercation ensued, and the two brothers fought till King Enrique drew his poniard and plunged it into Don Pedro’s body.”20

Enrique was then crowned king of Castile. He owed his throne to the French; his coronation was a French victory over the English; and, emboldened by the triumph, Charles V declared that, since some of the terms of the Treaty of Bretigny had not yet been fulfilled by the English, the peace between the two countries was at an end. In the summer of 1369, he began to prepare an invasion force of ships and soldiers: “And the whole kingdom of England were much rejoiced at it,” Froissart concludes, “for they were quite prepared to give the French a good reception whenever they should land.” The will to war had outlived four kings, two treaties, and the bubonic plague; no matter how weary and impoverished both countries were, they would continue to fight.21


*Contemporary accounts merely note that he “departed this life,” but this is most likely a polite circumlocation for the Black Death—an undignified end for a monarch.

*The Dauphin took his title from the province of Dauphiné, which was his particular possession. Charles was the first heir to the French throne to hold this designation; after his accession, he decreed that all future heirs to the crown would receive it.

*Currency comparisons are always difficult. In the United States, in 2012, David of Scotland was worth the combined yearly income of the Kardashian family; John of France’s 500 million, in 2012 U.S. dollars, would pay the full four-year tuition for nearly three thousand Harvard undergrads, or (alternatively) buy one-fourth of the Dodgers baseball team, including the stadium.

*The treaty also set up an installment plan for the payment of the still-pending ransom debt; it is not clear how much of the money was actually paid out over the next decades.

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