Bal des Ardents (Ball of the Burning Men)

13177478_266845490324207_3923559504670732961_nIn a previous post, we had discussed how Charles VI of France was crazy.  Soon after his ascension to the throne, he had a breakdown and never got his feet back under him.  He married and attempted to rule, but the bouts of madness got worse.  At varying times, he thought he was made of glass,  forgot his wife and children and tried to murder his brother.  One of the worst scandals of his reign, was the Ball of the Burning Men.

On 28 January 1393, Queen Isabeau, Charles’ wife, held a masquerade at the Hotel Saint-Pol to celebrate the third marriage of her lady-in-waiting, Catherine de Fastaverin.  Historian Barbara Tuchman explains in her book A Distant Mirror:  The Calamitous 14th Century, that the remarriage of a widow was celebrated with “all sorts of licence, disguises, disorders, and loud blaring of discordant music and clanging of cymbals”.  Joining in the wild atmosphere, Charles and several six high ranking knights decided to dress as “wild men”.  Their costumes were sewn onto the men and made of linen soaked in resin with flax streamers attached as hair.  Some reports said that the men were chained together.  The audience did not realize the king was among the players, but had been instructed to not bring any torches or flames into the ballroom because the costumes were highly flammable.

Historian Jan Veenstra described the men as dancing in a “diabolical” frenzy howling and swearing at the guests.  In the midst of the performance, the king’s brother, Louis Orléans, and Phillipe de Bar arrived late and drunk.  Not having got the memo about fire, they came into the ballroom carrying lit torches.  Again, reports differ as to what happened. Some say that Orléans lifted the torch to reveal his presence and a spark hit one of the “wild men”.  Other accounts say a torch was thrown at the dancers.  Whatever the case, the flammable costumes went up like tinder.

Queen Isabeau knew her husband was among the dancers and fainted when the fire started.  However, he was lucky enough to be far enough away from the others that he missed the fire.  His 15 year old aunt, Joan, Duchess of Berry, shielded the king with her skirts from the sparks.  The other “wild men” were not as lucky.  They screamed in pain as the fire devoured their costumes and they could not get them off.  One man jumped into a vat of wine to try to put out the fire.  The others burned to death, taking some of the audience members with them.  The events were described by the monk of St. Denis as “four men were burned alive, their flaming genitals dropping to the floor … releasing a stream of blood”.

As the story of the Bal des Ardents spread, the people’s confidence in the monarchy was severely shaken.  Riots spread through Paris as the people threatened to kill the depraved courtiers around the king.  To try to head off a revolt, the entire court did penance at Notre Dame and a shame walk around the city.  Froissart, however, put the blame on the king’s brother, Orléans, saying “And thus the feast and marriage celebrations ended with such great sorrow … [Charles] and [Isabeau] could do nothing to remedy it. We must accept that it was no fault of theirs but of the duke of Orléans.”  Orléans was also fighting rumors that he was a sorcerer and that the Bal des Ardents was revenge for the attempt on his life by the king in one of his fits.

In any case, the reputation of the duke of Orléans was in tatters.


Sources available on request


King John at the Battle of Crecy by Josef Mathauser (1846-1917)
King John at the Battle of Crecy by Josef Mathauser (1846-1917)

Today the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg is best known as a financial, judicial and administrative centre of the European Union but during the Middle Ages the Counts of Luxembourg competed with the German Wittlesbachs and the Austrian Hapsburgs for control of the vast Holy Roman Empire. In 1312 Henry VII became the first Count of Luxembourg to wear the imperial crown and the marriage of his young son played an important part in Henry’s election.

In 1310, the 14 year old John of Luxembourg wed the 18 year old Elizabeth of Bohemia and by these diplomatic nuptials, Henry succeeded in depriving his rivals of vital territory at the heart of Europe. However, Henry had to take control of his daughter-in-law’s kingdom by force and the marriage was a disaster. Despite providing her husband with seven children (including the future Emperor Charles IV) they lived almost separate lives and in 1323 rumours of Elizabeth’s involvement in a plot against her husband began to circulate. Fearful for his crown, John kidnapped his three eldest children (Margaret, Bonne and Charles) and sent them to France. They never saw their mother again.

Though John succeeded in pacifying Bohemia, and even enlarged its boundaries, his treatment of Elizabeth did not endear him to his subjects. Always considered a foreigner by the Bohemian nobility, John wisely let viceroys govern his kingdom whilst he fought numerous campaigns in Denmark, Prussia, Poland, Hungary, Lithuania and even Italy. For ten years John of Bohemia was celebrated as the perfect example of a chivalrous knight errant but in 1336, whilst crusading in the Baltic with the German Teutonic Order, he contracted the ophthalmia which left him blind.

There were many who whispered that John’s blindness must be a punishment from God but on the outbreak of The Hundred Years War in 1337 he ignored these rumours, as well as his affliction, and declared that he’d fight for France. In the tenth year of the war the ageing king, together with his son Charles, joined the French army marching to meet the English invaders at Crecy but the subsequent battle ended in humiliating defeat for the French and among the dead was John the Blind. The medieval chronicler Froissart, writing around 1370, described his gloriously chivalric end:

“… when he [John] understood the order of the battle, he said to them about him: ‘Where is the lord Charles my son?’ His men said: ‘Sir, we cannot tell, we think he be fighting.’ Then he said: ‘Sirs, ye are my men, my companions and friends in this journey: I require you bring me so far forward, that I may strike one stroke with my sword.’ They said they would do his commandment, and to the intent that they should not lose him in the press, they tied all their reins of their bridles each to other and set the king before to accomplish his desire…”

The Chronicle of Prague [written slightly earlier in 1368] also quotes John as saying:

“Far be it that the King of Bohemia should run away. Instead, take me to the place where the noise of the battle is the loudest. The Lord will be with us. Nothing to fear. Just take good care of my son!”

Despite being totally blind for almost a decade, John of Bohemia charged the English archers and men-at-arms with predictable results. After the battle, his lifeless corpse was found surrounded by the bodies of his men and their horses – whose bridles were still tied together.

Always a restless soul, even after death John of Bohemia refused to lie peacefully in his tomb. At first the king’s mortal remains were interred in Luxembourg city’s ‘Old Abbey’ and after this monastery was destroyed in 1543, his bones were moved to the ‘New Abbey’ built nearby. During the French Revolution, the relics were entrusted to the Boch family, of Villeroy & Boch fame, who hid them in an attic. When, in 1833, the Prussian king Frederick William III visited the Rhineland (which had been awarded to Prussia after the Napoleonic Wars) Jean-Francois Boch presented him with the relics.

Frederick William, who claimed descent from John, took the bones to Kastel-Staadt, which lies on the German side of the border with Luxembourg, and had a chapel specially built to house them but still the old king could not rest in peace. In 1945, with Hitler’s Germany on the verge of defeat, the government of Luxembourg quietly liberated John of Bohemia and brought his remains to Luxembourg city’s Notre Dame Cathedral where they now lie.


Sources available on request

Death of Louis d’Orleans- Medieval Murder Mystery

Portrait of Louis I, Duke of Orleans Photo Credit- Oxxo
Portrait of Louis I, Duke of Orleans Photo Credit- Oxxo

Charles VI of France was, to put it politely, nuts. At various points he forgot he had a wife and children, nearly murdered his brother, and thought he was made of glass. During that spell, Charles forbade anyone to touch him in case he shattered and had rods sewn into his clothes to protect him. It’s never a good time for the leader of a country to be insane, but this was a particularly bad one. France was embroiled in the Hundred Years War with England.

Charles came to the throne as an eleven year old child. While he was in his minority, the duchies of Burgundy, Anjou and Berry functioned as separate countries with nominal allegiance to the crown. Burgundy’s heir was John the Fearless, so nicknamed during a battle with the Turks in 1396. Burgundy contained Flanders, which was rich from the wool and weaving trade, and had more money than the crown. John was also Charles’ first cousin, so John took the initiative to help his younger cousin by practically running the government. He thought he had it made. Not so.

When Charles came of age at fourteen, he attempted to take over management of the kingdom. However, he was crippled by his first attack of madness. More and more the reins of government were falling to his brother, Louis d’Orleans. Duties and privileges that once went to John were going to Louis. That could not stand.

The two kept uneasy peace with the help of Charles’ queen, Isabeau of Bavaria. The peace held until John’s father died and John became Duke of Burgundy in his own right in 1404. Then things started to get dirty. Rumors started to pop up that Louis and Isabeau were closer than brother and sister-in-law, and that her last child was Louis’ not the king’s. The rumors continued saying this was only to be expected from a man who kept nude portraits of all of his conquests locked in a room. Rumor also accused Louis of making a pass at John’s beautiful wife and when she said no he tried to rape her.

Then Louis raised taxes to arm the garrisons to defend against the English because the Hundred Years War was still going on. People threw back their heads and howled. It took little to convince them Louis was lining his own pockets. More whispers insinuated everyone would be better off under a tried and true war hero. Where could we get one of those? Say…John the Fearless?

Matters came to a head on November 23, 1407. Louis went to dine with the queen at her private residence. His valet came and told him the king had recovered from his latest spell of madness and wished to speak to him. Louis left at once for the palace. This was a lie.

On the way to the palace, Louis and his attendants were attacked by twenty masked men screaming, “Kill him! Kill him!” They attacked Louis and cut his hand he put up to fend off a blow then cleaved his head in twain. The assailants then beat his head until the brains were all over the cobblestones. Ouch.

Louis's assassination on the rue Vieille du Temple. Photo Credit- Wikipedia
Louis’s assassination on the rue Vieille du Temple. Photo Credit- Wikipedia

Someone scooped up the carnage and Louis d’Orleans was buried church of the Celestin with John the Fearless ostentatiously mourning. No one bought it. He was suspect number one. Three days later, he admitted he hired Raoul d’Anquetonville to do the deed and fled Paris. Raoul was then given a handsome payday.

You would think vengeance would rain down on the killer of the king’s beloved brother. Well, you would be wrong. In a move that would make Machiavelli blush, he accused Louis of trying to kill the king by black magic. So really John was the hero here. John’s biographer Richard Vaughan called this “one of the most insolent pieces of political chicanery” in history.

But the king bought it. I mentioned he was crazy, right? A full pardon was issued and John and Louis’ heir were formally reconciled at Chartres Cathedral. Advisers were afraid to charge John would court civil war. However, ten years later Charles’ son would kill John. It’s the circle of life in the game of thrones.


Sources available on request

Joan of Arc – Peasant to Warrior

12119050_175546626120761_5027288050201290460_n In 1412, a daughter Jeanne was born to Jacques d’Arc a wealthy peasant farmer with around fifty acres of land, and his wife in Domremy, in the Lorraine/Champagne border region of France. Popular legend has the family being poor, but the records of their frequent assistance to the needy in the area tell a different tale, that they were quite rich by the standards of the day for their class.

At the age of 13, Joan’s family were forced to flee their home to the neighbouring town of Neufchateau when the Anglo-Burgundian army entered Domremy to pillage, and laid waste to the homes of the residents. To stay would have meant certain rape at the very least, for Joan and her mother, and death for the family. The village was destroyed, the cattle taken and the church burned.

During her exile in Neufchateau, Joan famously heard the voices, later attributed by her to Saints Margaret, Catherin and Michael, which told her that she must be the one to rid France of the English and put the ousted Dauphin Charles back on to the throne of France. After three years of hearing these commands from God, she told her parents she was going to visit her cousin who was about to give birth, and Joan and her brother set off to see a wealthy Nobleman Robert de Baudricourt, who not surprisingly thought Joan was quite mad and ordered his servants to get rid of her.

Local legend was luckily on Joan’s side. There had been a prophecy made by one Marie D’Avignon circulating for some time that a ‘virgin from the borders of Lorraine’ would deliver France from the enemy. Joan most certainly would have known of this prophecy, most other people did and took this as the sign they had been waiting for.12193698_175546676120756_4407206232215415216_n

Bowing to the pressure of so many of the people, de Baudricourt reluctantly raised an armed escort to accompany Joan to Chinon, 500 kilometres away, where the Dauphin was exiled. As Joan and her escort made their way there, her entourage grew, expanded by jubilant citizens and soldiers wanting to join her cause. The Dauphin, son of Charles VI ‘The Mad’ received word that his saviour was on her way, and possibly mistrustful of anyone who claimed to be driven by voices in their head, holed himself up in the Chateau and forced Joan and her followers to remain outside for two days.

On hearing that Joan had arrived, a guard was heard to salaciously call “A Virgin eh? God grant me one night with her and she will be a Virgin no more.” Joan remained calm and proclaimed the man ought not to be so ready to blaspheme the Lord when he was so close to death, at which he fell in the moat and drowned, (Rumours that he may have been “assisted” remain unconfirmed) which didn’t harm Joan’s claim that she was sent by God.

Reluctantly, Joan was eventually permitted entry by the Dauphin, and after vigorous questioning and an intimate inspection, was confirmed to be both virtuous and religiously pious. A test was conducted to assure that she was indeed divinely sent, whereby she was introduced into a room full of courtiers and a false ‘dauphin’ introduced to her as Charles. Joan promptly ignored this imposter, picked out the true Dauphin and fell to her knees, embracing his legs and proclaiming “Sweet King”.

After being given a suit of armour, and an army of 4000 men, Joan was given orders to lead them towards Orleans where the English had laid siege for six long months. But even now, there was mistrust, Joan was commanded to journey by the South Bank in order to accompany boats carrying provisions for the besieged residents and army. The English were encamped on the North Bank. Despite being unable to engage the enemy immediately, Joan made the mission a success and was marched in triumph through the streets, where her pennant accidentally caught fire. Joan doused the flames immediately, which only served to add to her divinity.

11215750_175547082787382_6161375359625462440_nThe English having heard the tale of this mythical angel warrior were completely shocked to finally be confronted by her, and fled. Similar successes occurred in three further sieged areas including that of Orleans. Joan was victorious, the English were retreating, and the Maid of Orleans commanded her rightful Sovereign to Reims where she intended to have him crowned as the rightful King of France. Although concerned about the circumstances surrounding his return to the throne, and the fear that it could come back to cause him political issues, the Dauphin reluctantly agreed, and his coronation took place on 17th July 1429 in Reims Cathedral.

Backed by public support and with his armies riding the wave of success brought about by Joan’s apparent triumphs, the English were losing ground fast, and France was slowly being liberated. The Dauphin was joyous. The one exception being the bug-bear of a virgin warrior angel, standing behind his throne in her white armour, as though she belonged there……



15th C depiction of Battle of Agincourt (miniature) showing the castle in the background
15th C depiction of Battle of Agincourt (miniature) showing the castle in the background

On this the anniversary of the Battle of Azincourt (Agincourt for all the English-speakers) I have no doubt the internet will be flooded with a million flavours of how the battle was won. So I thought I would endeavour to bring you something a little different.

Now we all know the story. The Hundred Years’ War consisted of a series of battles spread out over 116 years, between 1337 and 1453 between the houses of Plantagenet and Valois for control of France. So, even though it was erroneously named, it gave rise to more than one legend, and eclipsed the lives of several notable figures historically; Edward the Black Prince at Crecy, Joan of Arc, and Henry V himself all made unforgettable names for themselves.
I won’t bore you with the details of Agincourt, as no doubt there are other articles, each telling the story much better than I could, each saying the same thing. Instead a quick synopsis.

Following an arduous and over-long siege at Harfleur between August and the end of September, culminating in the capitulation and surrender of the French forces, Henry V marched his army for days, heading for Calais and home. His intent had only to have been to take advantage of the rift between Louis of Orleans and John the Fearless, brother and cousin respectively of the by now quite mad Charles VI, who were each fighting to gain control of France during Charles’ descent into mental infirmity, and had each appealed to England to assist their cause. Henry had only recently inherited the English throne following his father’s demise in 1413.

Using the rift, he demanded his territorial rights to France, and the hand of Catherine, Charles’ daughter. Refusal was the response, and off to France did Henry go. So anyway, success at Harfleur and head for home… except it didn’t happen as planned.

30 miles from Calais, Charles’ forces gathered to block his route to the sea, north of the Somme, forcing Henry’s tired, hungry troops to give battle. Many of them were suffering from dysentery, and they were allegedly heavily out-numbered, or not, depending on which historian’s camp you fall into. Around 5000 English long-bowmen backed up by small but enthusiastic cavalry and foot, took on the might of the French and trounced them soundly. Stuff of legends. Henry managed to decimate around 40% of the French nobility in the action, and unusually, ordered the execution of the French prisoners, who numbered quite substantially. The reasoning behind his order, being that they were vastly outnumbered by their prisoners, tired and the French had possible reinforcements at the rear.

Acclaimed Battlefield of Agincourt
Acclaimed Battlefield of Agincourt

Should the battle have continued, the English faced easy defeat, particularly with a high number of their men mixed in with the French, it would have been difficult for the archers to hit the French and miss their comrades. Arguably, Henry’s order was more of a threat to the remaining French, and the English troops found the task distasteful and unchivalrous, killing only a small number comparatively before the rest of the French fled. Henry succeeded on the day, historically a magnificent victory, although in the grand scheme of things, nothing much changed. He scored the hand of Catherine of Valois, and negotiated the Treaty of Troyes with Charles but a few years later, his tale of victory being a major part of the opening of Parliament for many years, undoubtedly embellished, before dying suddenly, leaving Catherine a widow after only two years of marriage, with an infant son, Henry VI…. And we all know what happened there!

So, Agincourt. What do we know of it aside from the legend? Well, despite the tales of thousands of dead, whose bodies appear to have vanished into the ether, no archaeological evidence has been uncovered in the area claimed as the battle site. Not a sausage. No artefacts save for one dubious arrow-head is all that has been unearthed. Many reasons have been given for this peculiar anomaly from the scouring of the battlefield by survivors for souvenirs, and anything worth recycling or selling to repeated ploughing in the following 600 years. The ugly question of whether the battle actually took place in the claimed spot has been raised on several occasions. I’m going to jump on this one and say “I highly doubt it” but I’m no expert.

According to the find-a-grave website, Henry allegedly piled all the bodies of the English dead in a barn and burned it to the ground. As for the French, the Count, Charles of Albret and around 13 other nobles were taken to a monastery at Hesdin and interred there, and subsequently this was destroyed in 1558. Several of the dead were taken away by families and retinue for private burial, and three mass graves were filled with 5800 dead on the eastern edge of the field and the ground walled in and consecrated. A memorial remains to this day. How true this is, we can only speculate. Digs have failed to unearth anything and I believe that access to the “graves” was either denied or failed to produce any remains.

The field in question nestles neatly between four villages, in the Pas-de-Calais; the two main ones being Azincourt and Tramecourt, but there appear to be other contenders, hints being given to the various alternative names given by the French in the aftermath, Ruisseauville, Rollencourt, Maisoncelle to name but a few. I looked up the history of Agincourt, prior to the battle. It didn’t take long, there doesn’t appear to be one. Apparently the place descended out of the heavens just in time for the battle, and remains its only claim to fame. There once was a castle in the vicinity, it was allegedly torn down in the 16th century. Not really much other information about that. So the village, the battlefield and the lovely little museum, architecturally designed to represent the long curved bows of the English archers, and the arrows as they are drawn back is all that we have. So on that basis I say, let them keep it. It’s probably just another legend, with little basis in fact, but until we find evidence to the contrary it may as well sit in the box marked “incorrectly placed battlefields”, alongside Bosworth and Hastings to give examples. Well done Agincourt.

Trivia time? Ok, there is the legend that Charles stated that he was going to remove the fingers of all the archers he captured, leading to the birth of the “flagging off” symbol, where the archers held up two fingers to the French to show they still had them… how much truth you place in that story again is entirely up to you. Another good story is that the end of the Battle of Loos, in the Great War took place on the 500th anniversary of Agincourt (true!) and as the British retreated, they were defended by the ghosts of long-dead English Archers against the chasing Germans (possibly not so true) leading to the further legend of the Angel of Mons. Awwwww

Oh and Agincourt is twinned with Middleham… home of the Nevilles, and Richard III.

That’s all I’ve got.