The political situation in France in the early fifteenth century was precarious to say the least. King Charles VI began suffering intermittent bouts of mental illness since an incident of violence in the summer of 1392. He had made arrangements during one of his lucid moments for the government of the realm to be handled by his wife Queen Isabeau and a select group of councilors. But some of Charles’ relatives felt they could manage the government better, mostly for their own self-serving ambitions. The two men who stood to gain the most were the king’s brother Louis I, Duke of Orleans and their cousin John the Fearless, son of Philip the Bold, Duke of Burgundy.
At first Louis had the advantage due to being the brother of the king rather than the cousin. John the Fearless remained out of French politics until his formidable father Philip died in the spring of 1404. He then began to insert himself. Louis’ government was unpopular due to his policy of raising taxes and taking money from the state for his own enrichment and on religious grounds due to his support of the anti-pope Benedict XIII. John tried to cultivate popular esteem by being against the taxation.
John had his own axe to grind against his cousin. His father Philip the Bold had been receiving generous amounts of money from the King in the form of gifts, grants and reimbursement of expenses. During the regency of Louis, these gifts had come to a virtual halt and had flowed into Louis’ coffers. Louis had also encroached into John’s territories in north-eastern France in the area of the Rhine and Moselle. In 1404, he had persuaded Waleran of Luxembourg, Count of St. Pol, the marquis du Pont and the cities of Toul and Liège to become his allies and vassals.
Both sides had managed to, for all intents and purposes, kidnap various members of the royal family, including the Dauphin, the Queen and her daughters. By the summer of 1405, John managed to gain possession of the guardianship of the Dauphin giving him the upper hand. However, Louis was still working to undermine John and armies were raised. War was averted only by the efforts of their uncle the Duke of Berry.
The two Dukes then managed an uneasy truce until a planned expedition against the continental possessions of the English in Calais and Bordeaux in 1406 was cancelled for unknown reasons. John had been promised a salary for the expedition and assembled his troops in Saint Omer. But they never left the city and John never received his pension or his expenses to pay the troops. John was furious.
The murder of the Duke of Orleans was pre-meditated and John had personal and political reasons for doing away with his cousin. The events were carefully planned. As early as June 1407, real estate agents in Paris were looking for a place to rent to house the assassins near the hôtel de St. Pol. John recruited a gang of assassins who were led by a Norman knight, Raoul d’Anquetonville. The murder occurred about eight o’clock in the evening on Wednesday, November 23. There was an inquest the next day and the panel spoke to the only eye witness.
Jaquette, the thirty-four year old wife of shoemaker Jehan Griffart, was living in rented rooms in the hôtel of the marshal of Rieux in the Vielle rue du Temple. On the evening in question, between seven and eight o’clock, Jaquette went to her window overlooking the street to see if her husband was coming and to take in some of her child’s bedclothes which she had put out to dry on a pole. She saw a nobleman on horseback accompanied by five or six mounted men and three or four on foot. There were two or three torches carried in front and the party came from the direction of the queen’s hôtel, that is to say from the Porte Barbette. The nobleman was bare headed and was playing with a glove or muffle and appeared to Jaquette to be singing. She watched the men for a moment and then left the window to put her child to bed.
Immediately she heard someone shout “Kill him! Kill him!” She returned to the window, still holding her child and saw the nobleman on his knees in the middle of the street in front of the entrance to the hôtel of the marshal of Rieux, still bareheaded. There were seven or eight masked men around him who were armed with swords or axes. She did not see any horses. The men were striking the nobleman and she witnessed him one or twice warding off the blows of the men with his arm. She heard him exclaim “What’s this? Who does it come from?” No one replied.
Jaquette saw the nobleman fall, all stretched out in the middle of the street while the men continued to lay about him with all their might…as if they were beating a mattress. While they were doing this, Jaquette yelled ‘Murder!’ as loud as she could; on which one of the men in the street which she couldn’t see called out ‘Shut up, you damned woman! Shut up!’
While all this was happening, two or three torches were being held up to provide illumination for the attackers. When they had struck down the nobleman, Jaquette noticed coming out of the house ‘at the sign of Our Lady’ which was opposite the scene, a big man wearing a large red hood concealing his face. He approached the attackers and said ‘Put out the lights! Let’s go! He’s dead! Take heart!’ Immediately they left the nobleman, who was no longer moving at all, with a burning torch lying on the ground near him and fled at once, accompanied by the big man in the red hood, into the rue des Blancs-Manteaux, at the entrance to which Jaquette saw them extinguish the other torches in the roadside mud.
When the culprits had gone, Jaquette noticed someone lying on the ground next to the nobleman. This man, as soon as the attackers had gone, raised his head and cried ‘Haro! My master!’ Jaquette repeatedly called out ‘Murder!’ and so did another woman, whose name Jaquette did not know, who lived in the rue des Rosiers and who happened to come along. Upon their cries, several people arrived on the spot and Jaquette heard them say that the dead man was my lord of Orleans and that the other person on the ground with him as his valet.
While the depositions were being taken, members of the Duke of Orleans household found the severed hand and scattered brains of their master and placed them in a lead box in his coffin. The Dukes remains were accompanied to the church of the Celestins by the dukes of Anjou, Berry, Bourbon and none other than John the Fearless, Duke of Burgundy himself and buried there.
Wild rumors regarding who the culprits were began to spread. The interrogators followed a line of questioning that included the water carriers of Paris. It was revealed that one of the carriers who supplied the house of ‘the sign of Our Lady’ was staying at the house of John the Fearless and he couldn’t be arrested without the Duke’s permission. On Saturday, November 26, the panel sent to the Duke to ask for permission to question the water carrier. The Duke was found in meetings at the hôtel of the Duke of Berry along with the other noble princes. John must have sensed he had been discovered. The Duke of Anjou pulled him aside to ask him if he knew of the ghastly deed. John confessed that he was the perpetrator.
The Duke of Berry broke down in tears. John coolly left the room. He brushed aside the Duke of Bourbon on his way out, saying he was headed to the lavatory. He mounted his horse and left Paris with a handful of men. He rode one hundred miles to Bapaume in one day and only stopped to destroy the bridge behind him over the Oise river at Pont Ste. Maxence.
John the Fearless would never be formally punished for this terrible deed. Needless to say, the family of the Duke of Orleans wanted vengeance. Thus began the conflict known as the Armagnac-Burgundian War which last until 1435. However, John the Fearless would not live that long.
When King Charles’ son Louis died, his younger son Charles became the new Dauphin. John the Fearless had gained the upper hand of the government of France and was negotiating with the English to recognize King Henry V of England’s claim to the French throne. The Dauphin Charles was eager to avoid being overthrown as heir to the French throne and pursued a Burgundian alliance. John the Fearless’ finances were in shreds and so he was willing to talk to the Dauphin and make peace. On September 10, 1419, the Dauphin met the Duke of Burgundy on the bridge at Montereau-Fault-Yonne. During the meeting, a scuffle broke out and Armagnac men who were close counsellors of the Dauphin killed John the Fearless. John’s son Philip the Good would continue the fight.
Further reading: “John the Fearless” by Richard Vaughan, “Royal Intrigue: Crisis at the Court of Charles VI 1392-1420” by R.C. Famiglietti