John the Fearless, the second Valois Duke of Burgundy, was born to Margaret of Male in Dijon on May 28, 1371. When his maternal grandfather, Louis, Count of Flanders died in 1384, John received the county of Nevers and up until the death of his father was known as John of Nevers. In 1385, Philip the Bold arranged a double marriage for two of his children in an effort to consolidate John’s position in the Low Countries. The sumptuous and costly wedding ceremonies took place in Cambrai in the spring. John married Margaret, daughter of the Bavarian Albert I, Count of Holland and John’s sister Margaret married Count Albert’s son William.
Upon the death of Philip the Bold, John inherited his father’s political position in France and the leadership of the Burgundian branch of the Valois family versus the Orléans branch. John the Fearless (historians gave him this sobriquet centuries later) tried to resume where his father left off, but he hadn’t cultivated the necessary contacts, wasn’t as close to his cousin King Charles VI and didn’t have as much experience with the inner workings of the French court as his father had.
Louis, Duke of Orléans had established himself as the chief representative in France of a policy of peace with England as well as a symbol of royal centralization and heavy fiscal burdens. John made clear he was an opponent to these policies and offered himself as a champion of social, fiscal and judicial reform, allowing him to appear as an attractive alternative to Louis of Orléans.
John contrived to gain control of the king and the young dauphin. In January 1406, he managed to regain his father’s place on the royal council. From 1406-07, John and Louis barely maintained a precarious balance of power. Both reluctantly pushed for military action against the English, but Louis retained complete control of the French treasury and reduced the number of Burgundian partisans in the king’s council, leaving only two with the Orléanist party numbering twenty.
Beginning in 1397, during the reign of Philip the Bold, Louis of Orléans tried to gain influence and interfere in the Low Countries, brokering several treaties with the duchies of Luxembourg and Guelders. The situation grew more acrimonious when it became clear Louis supported John the Fearless’ enemies in Liège. John could not tolerate this type of interference by competitors in his own domains and this would weigh profoundly in his decision to eliminate his rival.
On November 23, 1407, John’s hired assassins murdered Louis of Orléans in Paris. Public opinion, already critical of Louis, chose to view the assassination as a matter of personal rather than political hostility. John fled to Flanders to avoid retaliation and to strengthen his image in France. He explained his way out punishment for the affair by successfully disseminating favorable propaganda. A little over a year later, he returned to Paris. However, opposition to John had not vanished. The new Duke of Orléans, Charles, married the daughter of the anti-Burgundian Count of Armagnac, thus creating a new coalition against John.
By March 1409, a peace had been brokered between the Armagnacs and the Burgundians, mediated by John’s brother-in-law William VI of Hainault, and Holland-Zeeland, a blood relative of King Charles VI’s wife, Queen Isabeau. As part of the agreement, William’s daughter Jacqueline married Isabeau’s son, John, Duke of Touraine. John the Fearless purged the royal council of all anti-Burgundian elements and surrounded the dauphin with trusted partisans in addition to marrying his eldest daughter Margaret to the dauphin, Louis, Duke of Guyenne in 1412.
King Henry V of England took advantage of the conflict and instability of the government of France and reactivated the Hundred Years War in order to restore English authority on the Continent. On October 25, 1415, he won a resounding victory over the French at Agincourt. John the Fearless had promised his son-in-law the Dauphin he would support the French with a strong army, but somehow, his forces inexplicably failed to reach the battlefield. Clearly this did not represent Burgundian policy because John’s brother Anthony, Duke of Brabant had fought and died during the battle and his brother Philip, count of Nevers also participated in the clash. Most of the Armagnac chiefs fell during the battle.
Paris did not have any sympathy for John the Fearless’ failure to support the army and in December, the Dauphin Louis died. John chose military action in response. He won city after city from the Armagnac party around Paris. France was now divided into three territories: the English king controlled Guyenne and Normandy, the Armagnacs and the new Dauphin Charles (future Charles VII) controlled Paris and the south of the kingdom and John the Fearless controlled the north and east while maintaining a cordon around Paris itself.
Civil war and a vicious propaganda campaign ensued. John lacked the necessary resources to dominate both his Burgundian lands and Paris or to neutralize the Armagnacs as well as the English. Negotiations began to reduce the field from three rivals to a coalition of two against one, with John forming an Anglo-Burgundian joint rule, dividing France between Burgundians and Armagnacs. The Armagnacs and the Dauphin Charles produced an alternative solution and called for a conference to be held at Montereau on September 10, 1419. When John the Fearless arrived, assassins ambushed and stabbed him to death in tight quarters on a bridge, with the tacit approval of the dauphin.
The dauphin proclaimed himself regent for his incapacitated father, technically considered an act of treason. This compelled King Charles VI to reach a diplomatic settlement with the English and the Burgundians. The Treaty of Troyes of May 1420 disinherited the dauphin. Theu arranged a marriage between the king’s daughter Catherine and Henry V of England and recognized Henry V as regent of France and heir to the French throne.
In addition to his ambitions in France, John the Fearless would work diligently to increase centralization within his own empire, including administrative, financial, and political reforms. He effectively used the Burgundian army to seize several principalities, acquiring the French territories of Boulogne, Péronne, Roye and Montdidier in the north and Tonnerre and Mâcon in the south. Following his unfortunate demise, his son Philip, Count of Charolais inherited the Burgundian empire.
Further reading: “Before France & Germany: The creation and transformation of the Merovingian World” by Patrick J. Geary, “Philip the Bold” by Richard Vaughan, “John the Fearless” by Richard Vaughan, “Philip the Good” by Richard Vaughan, “Charles the Bold” by Richard Vaughan, “The Capetians: Kings of France 987-1328” by Jim Bradbury, “Vanished Kingdoms: The Rise and Fall of States and Nations” by Norman Davies, “The Rise of the Feudal Monarchies” by Sidney Painter, “The Golden Age of Burgundy” by Joseph Calmette, “Oxford Encyclopedia of Medieval Warfare and Military Technology” edited by Clifford J. Rogers, “The Promised Lands: The Low Countries Under Burgundian Rule 1369-1530” by Wim Blockmans and Walter Prevenier, “Valois Burgundy” by Richard Vaughan, “History of the Low Countries, Second Edition” by Paul Arblaster, “The Burgundians: A Vanished Empire – A History of 1111 Years and One Day” by Bart Van Loo