A Woman’s Justice During the Reign of Charles the Bold

medieval town

While doing some research on Charles the Bold (sometimes called Charles the Rash), I found an anecdote that was recorded by a chronicler of the time about an ordinary woman.  The story may or may not be true but it is indicative of the perils women had to endure in that era. Charles the Bold was Duke of Burgundy in the fifteenth century. Burgundy was an amalgam of counties, municipalities and provinces. Much of the dukedom included the Low Countries or what is now Holland.

Duke Charles had been at war with King Louis XI of France for many years but in 1469, there was a truce and the Duke was traveling around his realm. His intention was to prove his excellence as a paternal ruler to his subjects. Wherever he stayed, he allowed easy access to his presence and gave generous amounts of his time to receiving petitions from the humblest plaintiffs. The Duke made his way to the city of Middelburg in Zeeland.

Shortly before his visit to Middelburg, the governor, a nobleman and knight, fell in love with a married woman. She indignantly spurned his advances. The governor took revenge against the woman by having her husband arrested and imprisoned on a charge of high treason. The wife was left without a protector but she still repudiated the governor’s advances. Eventually the governor offered the woman two choices. If she would surrender to his advances, he would reward her by releasing her husband from prison. If not, he would have the husband executed as her penalty. She chose to redeem her husband. After she paid the price for the deal, she went to see her husband in prison only to find him dead and in his coffin!

When the Duke arrived, the injured woman hastened to throw herself at his feet, demanding justice. Charles heard her complaint and then promptly sent for the governor. The accused admitted the crime but blamed it on his adoration of the woman. He reminded the Duke of his long standing devotion and loyalty to the Duke’s father and himself and offered any possible reparation for his crime. The Duke ordered the governor to marry his victim. The woman was appalled at the suggestion but her family convinced her to accept the Duke’s decision.

After the nuptials were concluded, the governor again appeared before Charles to declare that the woman was satisfied. The Duke replied frostily “She, yes, but not I”. Charles had the bridegroom sent to prison, shriven and executed within an hour. The bride was summoned to appear at the same prison where she saw her first husband dead and was shown her second husband in his coffin. The chronicler says the woman died from the double shock. Duke Charles, very satisfied with his rigor in administering justice, moved on to Holland.

Further reading: “Commentarii sive annals rerum Flandricarum”, (Antwerp, 1561) by J. Meyer, “Charles the Bold” by Ruth Putnam

15 thoughts on “A Woman’s Justice During the Reign of Charles the Bold

  1. It’s also interesting to note how in all the earliest retelling of the story she does NOT die of shock, but inherits the governor’s money and lives happily hereafter, and the Duke’s justice is praised. It’s only in the later versions that some of the details are added (for instance that the husband was framed of high treasons, and the death of the lady because of the shock).


  2. Hi Susan, the story is probably apocryphal, and actually based on a different anecdote, reported by Gaillard in his “Histoire de Marie de Bourgogne, fille de Charles le Temeraire” : the woman was the wife of an already convicted criminal, and the “governor” had made her advances promising to spare her husband. She refused and the husband was executed. She asked justice to Charles, and the duke had the “governor” first marry the woman, then him executed, so she could inherit. It’s an often repeated story, but there’s no evidence it ever happened. Charles was often a very cruel man, but not a sadist or unjust


  3. There is still cruelty in this world. The freedom of the modern age does not extend to everyone. Think of ethnic cleansing and rape as a tool of war. I am just reading Nadeem Aslam, Maps for Lost Lovers about the life of quite normal Moslem women, even in the west.


  4. Good grief. ‘Charles the Bold’ doesn’t sound like an adequate description! How bitterly cruel – and the sad fact is that kings were remembered only for the glory of the wars they won. We are so lucky to live in the freedom of the modern age.


  5. Not what you might call a happy ending then? It never ceases to amaze me how routinely cruel people could be in the past. I have just finished reading about a maidservant who was boiled at Smithfield for poisoning a couple of families ….and no one blinked an eye.


    • I’m guessing there was a huge crowd to watch the Smithfield execution too. I read about some of these leaders and am amazed like you. I’m thinking life was a lot more cruel in those days than we will ever know. Thanks for reading Julia.


  6. What a ridiculous chain of events! Not much freedom then for women! And, obviously, for some men! Was that a H. Bosch painting at the beginning of the blog?


    • It is ridiculous Nancy! And Charles thought he was being benevolent. This painting is “Scenes from the Passion of Christ” by Hans Memling, Brussels, 1470. I was looking for something that looked like the 15th C. city of Middelburg. Thanks for reading my friend. 🙂


  7. Not fair, after every thing she has done, she dies of a shock, so hard to been a women in that era, very interesting story!!!!!


    • It isn’t fair Princess! And Charles thought he was being a fair and just man. That’s what makes it so infuriating!


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