Most have heard of the early demise of prospective monarchs such as Arthur Tudor, Prince of Wales, Juan, Prince of Asturias or Henry Frederick, Prince of Wales. These young men displayed potential as kings and died too young. But have you heard of Louis, Duke of Guyenne? He happened to be in line to inherit the throne of France and was just beginning to show his exceptional abilities when tragedy struck.
By all accounts the reign of King Charles VI of France was a disaster. His reign started out well but in the summer of 1392, he suffered an agonizing incident of madness, attacking four knights and almost killing his brother Louis, duke of Orléans. He recovered but was never the same and would drift in and out of bouts of insanity for the rest of his life. This state of affairs lead to a vacuum in the royal government causing outright civil war between various factions with a vested interest in gaining financial and political power, all of which would affect the life of Louis.
Charles VI was married to Isabeau of Bavaria. The queen gave birth to many children including four sons who survived. Louis, the queen’s eighth child, was born on January 22, 1397 at the Hôtel de St. Pol in Paris. Initially he was not the dauphin as he had an older brother Charles who was born in 1392. However, Charles died in January of 1401. The king vested Louis with the duchy of Guyenne and he inherited the Dauphiné, raising his status to the peerage.
Louis’ early years were spent in the care of his mother and in the company of his many brothers and sisters. He was given an education commensurate with his rank. In April of 1403, the king decreed that if Louis inherited the throne while still a minor, he would not be under a traditional regency. Instead, the queen, the king’s brother the duke of Orléans along with the dukes of Berry, Bourbon and Burgundy would be his ruling council, an arrangement guaranteed to create conflict.
An agreement was made for Louis to marry the daughter of John, Count of Nevers, grand-daughter of the duke of Burgundy. Margaret had previously been betrothed to Louis’ elder brother Charles. This marriage dashed the hopes of the duke of Orléans who wanted Louis to marry one of his relatives. In January of 1404, the king established a household and treasury for Louis, separate from his mother.
Louis and Margaret of Nevers were married on August 30, 1404 in the cathedral of Notre-Dame de Paris. They were just children and Margaret was put in the care of Queen Isabeau until the couple were old enough to consummate the marriage. Margaret’s grandfather died that same year and her father became the duke of Burgundy and would be known as John the Fearless. As the king became more erratic in his behavior, the control over Louis as dauphin became increasingly important to those who sought control of the royal government. The queen, the duke of Burgundy and the duke of Orléans all jockeyed for position.
In the summer of 1405, the royal government was under the domination of the duke of Orléans. The king was functioning and interested in pursuing government reform which was being proposed by the duke of Burgundy. The king summoned the council to Paris, including John the Fearless. John came with nearly two thousand men and was going to join his brother Anthony who had another thousand troops. Orléans and the queen suspected John the Fearless would get the king to empower Louis to replace him during his mental health absences. Louis was underage and John could control the government through him.
Orléans and the queen were going to pre-empt John and his army by leaving Paris under the pretext of going hunting so as not appear weak. They didn’t take Louis or the other royal children because Louis was bedridden with a nosebleed and it wouldn’t make sense to take a sick child hunting. Instructions were left with trusted servants to bring the children later.
The queen and Orléans left Paris and headed for Melun. On August 18, against the advice of his doctors, the servants took Louis out of bed and started out for Melun in a bad storm. Louis and all his siblings went down the river Seine by boat. Louis was then transported in a litter to Juvisy to spend the night. The children were intercepted by the lord of Saint-George who was a vassal of John the Fearless. The duke was informed and departed to pursue the children.
Determined to bring Louis back to Paris, the duke wanted to keep up appearances and asked Louis if he wished to return to Paris to his father. Louis said yes. Due to the troops surrounding the children, their guardians abandoned any effort to resist. John the Fearless took the children back to Paris and their escorts hastened to tell the queen what happened.
Historians argue to this day if the duke engaged in kidnapping or not. But the fact remains, Louis was legally under the guardianship of the king and queen and only an order from one of them could have legalized his return to Paris. John the Fearless justified his position and his profession of good faith was accepted. Peace was made in October. Louis was lodged in the Louvre and was given a new chancellor and new maître d’hôtel who were both loyal to the duke of Burgundy. The other officers of his household were appointed by the duke of Orléans.
By 1407, relations between Orléans and Burgundy had deteriorated to the point where John the Fearless felt compelled to have Orléans murdered. This was considered a horrific crime but John once again justified his position and never did pay for this misdeed. However, the king issued ordonnances in late 1407 and early 1408 stating that the duke of Burgundy was barred from the government. The son of the duke of Orléans, Charles, became of the head of a faction known as the Armagnacs, named after his wife’s family.
Louis was under the guardianship of his mother and the queen began preparing Louis to take over during the king’s illnesses. Through royal ordonnances, the king and queen expanded his role in the government. The king stipulated that once Louis was crowned, he was to be king no matter how young he was, bypassing any type of regency. In the event both the king and queen were incapacitated, Louis was to be totally in charge. On March 9, 1408, John the Fearless and the son of the murdered duke of Orléans were reconciled in a ceremony in Chartres Cathedral. Louis participated in this rite with his parents.
In June of 1409, Louis and Margaret consummated their marriage. The king had appointed his councilor Jean de Montaigu to oversee Louis’ finances. The duke of Burgundy sought total control of the government and in the interest of ridding the administration of corruption, had Montaigu arrested and executed in October. The king confiscated Montaigu’s property and fortune and gave it to Louis, including the castle of Marcoussis.
By December 1409, the duke of Burgundy had positioned his supporters in in all the high offices of Louis’ household. In early 1411, Louis reached the age of fourteen, considered the majority year for a monarch in France. His mother had realized her main objective of setting her son up as the replacement for the king when he was ill. In this manner, she could stay in the background and maintain her governmental power within the royal family.
The queen’s plan proved to be extremely successful. Many in the government hoped Louis would bring about the end of the Burgundian-Armagnac feud, resulting in the achievement of governmental independence and the affirmation of his own leadership. Louis dressed himself in fine clothes. He loved organ music and became a connoisseur of art. He was an enthusiastic participant in the court of love which had been founded at the beginning of the century and was known for his romantic nature. He was beginning to show promise as a leader and gathered round him a moderate party in the hopes of neutralizing the Burgundian and Armagnac factions. Louis demonstrated his self-determination by presiding over council meetings and issuing letters. People began to listen to him and sought to cultivate his favor.
In the summer of 1411, the peace of Chartres was denounced by the duke of Orléans and his brothers. Civil war once again broke out and lasted a year. In October of 1412, Louis’ great-uncle, the duke of Berry was identified as a partisan of the outlaw duke of Orléans and declared a rebel. Louis was sent on a successful expedition to Étampes and Dourdan, both of which belonged to Berry. More fighting ensued and Bourges was under siege.
The royal camp succumbed to an epidemic and King Charles was incapacitated with mental illness. Louis asserted himself and negotiated a preliminary treaty with Berry and then a formal peace was finalized at Auxerre on August 22, 1412. In the last week of September, Louis entered into celebrations of the peace, accompanied by his cousin the Count of Vertus, son of the murdered duke of Orléans and the dukes of Burgundy and Bourbon. But the lack of an enforcement mechanism in this treaty kept the peace from surviving. The Armagnacs and the duke of Burgundy were stronger than Louis. John the Fearless ended up in control of Paris and was at the height of his power.
During a council meeting in 1412, the chancellor of France and Jean de Nielles, a close associate of John the Fearless got into a heated argument and hurled insults at each other. Louis became incensed, grabbed Nielles by the shoulders and threw him out of the room, telling him he was fired from his job. John the Fearless perceived that Louis wanted to remove him from the government.
As a countermeasure and an effort to bring Louis back to his side, John the Fearless began to incite and encourage discontent in Paris. In February 1413, the Estates General of Northern France met in Burgundian controlled Paris and mandated governmental reforms. John incited the butchers to rise up under their leader Simon Caboche. The butchers captured control of the city and Caboche became the bailiff. By April a full revolt broke out and lasted through the summer.
On May 26, the king regained his sanity and issued the Ordonnance cabochienne in response to the demands of the rebels. The document proposed changes to the government in two hundred and fifty-eight articles. All the gifts and pensions granted by the king, queen and Louis were revoked and many royal offices were abolished.
The butchers attracted some unsavory elements and things got out of hand. Even John the Fearless lost control. On July 9, the rebels sent an emissary to Louis to chastise him about his behavior and they broke into Louis’ hôtel. It was a Sunday night between eleven and midnight and Louis was hosting a ball. They demanded an audience with Louis. The prince agreed and spoke to them through a window.
The captain of Paris acted as the rebel spokesman. He rebuked Louis for what he considered bad behavior, accusing him of keeping indecent hours and leading a dissolute life under the influence of certain members of his household. The spokesman denounced and maligned his servants, particularly blaming the lord of Trémoille for corrupting the prince and shamelessly stating that even Louis’ mother the queen feared that when he was older he would be incapable of ruling.
Louis calmly answered saying the crowd should return home quietly. His servants were unquestionably loyal and did not deserve to be attacked. Louis’ chancellor unadvisedly spoke up saying if the rebels knew of any offenders, they should be identified. The rebels took the opportunity to produce a list of fifty names. Louis took the paper and withdrew but the rebels would not wait and broke down the doors, swarmed into the hôtel and seized as many of the people on the list as they could find and took them into custody. A scuffle broke out and Louis stabbed the captain in the chest three times. The man was not hurt as he was wearing a cuirass.
Louis was concerned for the safety of his servants and made John the Fearless swear an oath on a golden cross in front of his daughter that no harm would come to them. The prisoners were taken to John’s Hôtel d’Artois. Some of them were executed. Louis was forced to go to the Hôtel St. Pol where his parents were staying and the gates were shut so he couldn’t escape. Louis was incensed with the chaos his father-in-law had created and vowed revenge.
Louis sent out an appeal to the Armagnacs to help him crush the revolt. Even the king, who was in a lucid state, added his support to the Armagnacs. They surrounded Paris and the Cabochiens fell on August 4th. The Ordonnance cabochienne was withdrawn. The king allowed Louis to take charge of releasing the prisoners from the revolt. It became evident Louis was now more determined than ever to revenge his treatment and was anxious to punish John the Fearless and his supporters. The duke was humiliated and fled to Flanders.
But now the Armagnacs became as unruly and unmanageable as the Burgundians had been. They refused to accept Louis as their leader and were unwilling to reconcile with the Burgundians. Charles of Orléans insisted on wearing mourning in recognition of the assassination of his father which Louis considered incendiary and requested he desist. Orléans refused and he convinced the king to bar Louis from attending council meetings.
The Armagnacs even went so far, for all intents and purposes, to lock up Louis and only allowed him to see Armagnac supporters. Louis did not take this treatment quietly. He summoned John the Fearless back to Paris in the hopes of intimidating the Armagnacs into listening to him. Louis even took part in a failed plot to arm the citizens of Paris in an uprising against the Armagnacs.
The queen intervened, viewing the feud between Armagnacs and Burgundians as dangerous. She dismissed all the accomplices in Louis’ household. John the Fearless continued to threaten Paris, making another attempt to return to power. The Armagnacs did all they could to neutralize John but were unsuccessful. Finally, the Peace of Arras was finalized on September 4, 1414.
Louis received lessons in how to joust. During the last year of his life, he was increasing the size of his household by almost two hundred members and these employees were not affiliated with the Armagnacs or the Burgundians. He was working on building a base with which to dislodge these factions from the government. He had his eye on a pretty lady who was a member of his mother’s court named Gérard Cassinel. Due to his wife’s relationship with John the Fearless and for personal reasons, he sent Margaret into exile at Marcoussis and at Saint-Germain-en-Laye, presumably to install his mistress in her place.
The chaos in France convinced King Henry V of England it was an opportune time to attack. In October 1415, Henry V invaded France and the crucial Battle of Agincourt was fought on the 25th. The flower of the French nobility was destroyed. Charles of Orléans was taken prisoner and remained in England for the next twenty-five years. Louis did not fight at Agincourt, remaining with his father at Rouen during the battle.
Just as Louis was at the height of his power and was getting ready to assert himself most strongly, he became ill. He had visited his mother on December 6, probably to seek her political advice on negotiations with John the Fearless. He returned to the Hôtel de Bourbon that night and on the next morning was too ill to get out of bed. He had a fever and succumbed to a violent case of diarrhea. The illness was indicative of possibly consumption or dysentery.
Not wanting to show weakness in the eyes of John the Fearless, he refused to listen to his physicians and continued to parley with the duke. On December 10, Louis presided over a meeting of the council. John was advancing on Paris with troops. Louis held another meeting on the 12th. On December 14, John arrived in Paris and sent his ambassadors to Louis but by now he was too sick to see them. Louis died on December 18 and the entire government went into shock.
Everything came to a standstill while the arrangements were made for his last rites. Louis’ body was carried to the Cathedral de Notre-Dame on December 22 and he was buried the next morning beside the high altar. Attending the service were his uncle the duke of Berry, his youngest brother Charles, count of Ponthieu, several prelates and members of Parlement. Louis’ tomb was opened on May 6, 1699. Inside the lead sarcophagus was a wooden coffin. When it was opened, there was nothing inside but ashes.
Further reading: “Royal Intrigue: Crisis at the Court of Charles VI 1392-1420” by R.C. Famiglietti, “John the Fearless” by Richard Vaughan, “The Life and Afterlife of Isabeau of Bavaria” by Tracy Adams, “Tales of the Royal Marriage Bed from Medieval France (1300-1500)” by R.C. Famiglietti