Catherine of France, Countess of Charolais

catherine-france-countess-charolais

In 1435, the Treaty of Arras was signed between the duchy of Burgundy and the Kingdom of France. This treaty would be the end of an extended existing alliance between Burgundy and England. Duke Philip the Good of Burgundy had held a grudge for sixteen years against the French ever since the murder of his father, Duke John the Fearless at the instigation of King Charles VII when he was Dauphin in 1419. This treaty greatly enhanced Philip’s personal importance and gave him enormous monetary and territorial gains.

Among the terms of the treaty, King Charles declared he was not responsible for the death of Philip’s father and agreed to punish all those designated by Philip as being accountable. The king also relinquished various revenues in Burgundy which the crown had retained since 1364 when the junior Valois family branch had been invested with the duchy of Burgundy. Charles ceded the counties of Boulogne, Artois and the seigneuries belonging to the French sovereign on both banks of the Somme although there was a clause stating Charles could redeem these territories for the sum of four hundred thousand gold crowns under certain conditions. Philip was exempted from acts of homage to the king, swore to make every effort to keep the French king on the throne and promised to assist Charles if he was attacked by England.

The treaty was to be cemented by an alliance in the form of a marriage between one of Charles’ daughters and Philip’s son Charles, Count of Charolais, the future Charles the Bold. In 1438, when Charles Count of Charolais was five years old, the Seigneur of Crevecoeur was dispatched to the French court on several missions, one of which was to negotiate for Charles’ marriage. King Charles and his Queen Marie of Anjou gave the envoy a joyous reception and his proposal was accepted on behalf of Catherine. Catherine, the fourth child and second daughter of the king was ten years old at the time of her betrothal.

A year later, on June 11, a formal betrothal took place at St. Omer. Catherine traveled there in the company of the archbishops of Reims and Narbonne, the chancellor of France Regnault de Chartres, the counts of Vendôme, Tonnerre and Dunois, and the son of the Duke of Bourbon the Lord of Beaujeu. Duchess Isabel of Burgundy’s lady of honor the Duchess of Namur accompanied her along with other distinguished nobles, dames and demoiselles as well as an escort of three hundred horse.

Along the way, as the party stopped in various cities, they were graciously received and Catherine was given all the honors due a Daughter of France. At Cambrai, she was met by the duke’s envoys and she continued to be welcomed as she made her way to St. Omer where the Duke himself awaited her. As her approach was being announced, the Duke rode out in person with a brilliant escort to greet her. The betrothal was officiated by the chancellor of France. After the ceremony there were many festivals, tourneys and jousts, all paid for by Duke Philip. During the festivities, the bride and groom, from time to time were led to separate rooms to engage in pastimes more agreeable to children. Catherine was placed under the guidance and care of her husband’s mother Duchess Isabel.

The young couple were married on May 19, 1440 at Blois when she was twelve and Charles was seven. Catherine and Charles laid the foundation stone for the new town hall in Brussels that same year. Catherine spent most of her time with the Duchess Isabel, traveling from one city to another in the Low Countries. She was very close to Isabel and was often seen by her side, holding her hand or whispering in her ear. Catherine was a very poised and mature young lady. Isabel returned her affection as she had no daughters of her own.

Courtiers considered Catherine to be charming, kind and intelligent. The demands on Catherine to attend lavish entertainments, observe the strict Burgundian etiquette and travel extensively were very challenging, especially during the cold months of winter. She was used to the sunny climate of the Loire valley and all this took a toll on her health.

In the winter of 1446, Duchess Isabel was worried about the state of Catherine’s health. In February she was confined to her bed with a high fever and a stubborn cough that showed no signs of getting better. Isabel was hoping by spring Catherine would get some sunshine and regain her color. But in March she was still listless and pale with no appetite. In April, Catherine accompanied the ducal court from Princehof to the large and uncomfortable castle of Ten Waele in Ghent. The Duke ordered his son and Catherine to join him in traveling to Arras to witness a jousting tournament for Charles education.

Charles, Count of Charolais, later Duke of Burgundy.

Charles, Count of Charolais, later Duke of Burgundy.

Charles and Catherine had become good friends and he was very concerned about her illness. But he also loved armaments and the challenge of battle and he was anxious to please his father. He put aside his concerns for his wife and began to anticipate the display of gallantry by the knights. Duchess Isabel had encouraged Charles in his love of chivalry but she was apprehensive about his desire to participate in the tournament.

Catherine and Isabel rode together to Arras in a carriage. They wanted to witness the joust and make sure the Duke didn’t allow Charles to be put in harm’s way. Catherine was wrapped up warmly to prevent her from succumbing to a fainting spell due to coughing. A raised tower had been erected for the spectators of the joust. It was surrounded on three sides to shelter Catherine and the Duchess from any chill and breezes. The match began at three o’clock in the afternoon. By then the wind had picked up and Catherine was seized by a coughing fit. She had to leave the tower shortly after the joust started. As soon as Isabel confirmed that Charles was barred from participating in the melee, she left with Catherine to return to Ten Waele.

They stayed in Ghent until Catherine was well enough to travel to Isabel’s favorite castle of Coudenberg at Brussels. Since the onset of Catherine’s illness in February, Charles had spent as much time with her as possible. Catherine’s father had sent two doctors to attend to her, urging them to do everything in their power to help cure her. Charles visited Catherine’s bedside often and played a harp for her which she had brought him as a gift from France.

Unfortunately nothing could be done. Catherine died on July 30, 1446, probably of tuberculosis. Her death was genuinely mourned by the entire court. Catherine did not live long enough to become Duchess of Burgundy or to temper the feud between her husband and her brother King Louis XI of France. While the family personally mourned the death of the amiable princess, her death was a political matter. Duke Philip scrambled to maintain good relations with the King of France and to find a French bride of his son. Duchess Isabel plotted to marry Charles to an English princess. Duke Philip would prevail and Charles married Isabella of Bourbon in October of 1454. When Isabella died in September of 1465, Duchess of Isabel would broker a deal for Charles to marry Margaret of York.

Further reading: “Charles the Bold” by Ruth Putnam, “Isabel of Burgundy: The Duchess Who Played Politics in the Age of Joan of Arc, 1397-1471” by Aline S. Taylor

Mimi Matthews

Mimi Matthews

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