Charles VII

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© Bob Denton 2014

Charles VII of France, 1422 – 1461

Charles VII had seen his father give away his inheritance to the English crown in 1420. When Charles VI died his country was occupied in the north by the English and by John the Fearless, the Duke of Burgundy. They also controlled Paris and Reims. Reims was the traditional location for the coronation of French kings.

Worse he was involved in a civil war being engaged between the Armagnacs and the Burgundians, two parts of the Valois family.

John the Fearless

The then Duke of Burgundy was ‘John the Fearless’ who had earned that sobriquet from his participation in the Battle of Nicopolis in 1396. Though he had been on the losing side of the battle and had been arrested. He was imprisoned for a year until his supporters raised a large ransom.

John had become Duke of Burgundy in 1404 and promptly clashed with Louis of Orléans, the younger brother of Charles VI. They both saw the king’s descent in to madness as an opportunity to seize power for themselves.

Louis is reputed to have taken the Queen as a lover in his attempts to take control of the throne. But John managed to get himself appointed as the guardian of the Dauphin and Charles VI’s other children. Their arguments became more voluble and more public.

A reconciliation was negotiated by a third party but then, in 1407, Louis was murdered in Paris. The obvious assumption being that this was at the order of John. He later admitted that he had issued the order and after further clashes with the Orléans factions he recovered his status with the king and was reappointed as the Dauphin’s guardian.

Louis’ son, Charles, was fourteen years old when his father was murdered, he become the new Duke of Orléans. He was tutored and assisted by his father-in-law Bernard VII, the Count of Armagnac. The political group that gathered around him, and in vehement opposition to the Burgundians, became known as the Armagnacs.

The two groups reached an accommodation in 1410, John moved back to Burgundy. Bernard was reported to have taken Louis’ place to enjoy the sexual favours of the Queen.

When Henry V of England invaded France in 1413 and approached Paris he met with John the Fearless and asked for his support in obtaining the throne. John wanted Charles VI gone, but was not keen that he be replaced by Henry so demurred and threw his lot in with the Armagnacs. However he and his Burgundians played no part in the Battle of Agincourt in 1415, though several of his brothers did participate and died there.

The disaster of the lost battle did nothing to unite the French, the Armagnac and Burgundians became more intense. John the Fearless marched on and took control of Paris in 1418, though the Dauphin had escaped from the city. John did not throw his lot in with the English but he did nothing to relieve their assault of Rouen in 1419.

With the English controlling much of the north of the country and the Burgundians occupying Paris, the Dauphin had little choice but to establish himself in the south, establishing his court in Bourges. In 1419 he reached out to John to discuss a reconciliation and they met near Melun on the bridge of Pouilly. When a second meeting was arranged on another bridge, Montereau, the Dauphin had his supporters kill John.

John’s son succeeded him as Phillip III, Philippe le Bon (Phillip the Good), Duke of Burgundy and the count of Flanders, Artois and Franche-Comté. He was brother-in-law to the Dauphin but of course in the circumstances he continued the civil war with the Armagnacs.

In 1420 he was enjoined in the Treaty of Troyes as an ally of the English and against Charles VI. In 1423 he cemented the relationship when his sister married the Duke of Bedford, who was then the Regent for Henry VI.

Joan of Arc

The Dauphin (Charles, the Duke of Orléans) insisted that he was king because the Treaty of Troyes had been signed under duress and was further invalidated by virtue of his father’s mental incapacity. But he raised no army to attack the English holdings though he succeeded in keeping his depleted realm secure.

His treasury was spent and the capital of his Duchy had been under siege since late in 1428. His own mother had dismissed his claim by saying he was illegitimate, the fruit of one of her many affairs. When the English Regent advanced towards Charles’ brother’s territories, his situation was looking ever more hopeless. But then hope for his cause sprung from an unusual direction.

A teenage girl living in Domrémy, located in today’s Lorraine département, approached a local commander at Vaucouleurs and reported that she had been receiving visions of angels and saints since she was twelve years old. They had more recently been telling her that God supported Charles’ claim to the throne and that she would assist him to rid the country of the English and Burgundians.

At the third time of asking Joan was awarded an escort of five old soldiers by the commander, they dressed her in men’s clothing for the journey. She had promised her visions that she would keep her virginity and called herself La Pucelle, (the maiden, the virgin). In this manner Jeanne d’Arc (Joan of Arc) travelled to meet with Charles of Orléans at Chinon, she arrived in the spring of 1429.

Somewhat dubious Charles decided to test her veracity by disguising himself as a courtier, but though she had never met him before she instantly picked him out and bowed before him. He later claimed that in subsequent conversations with her she revealed knowledge of his innermost thoughts, giving details of a private prayer of his during the previous year

He despatched her to Poitiers where a group of clergy examined her for three weeks to test her beliefs and her orthodoxy. The simple girl held her own against these learned theologians. Thus convinced of her divine appointment he was inspired to march north.

Joan was given a tailored suit of armour and given an eye-catching banner. She joined an army thirty miles away from Orléans and preached to them, expelling prostitutes, proposing they must make their confessions and refrain from cursing. Her approach led them to believe she was a saint and the army was now inspired and motivated. Supported by some adept military men she led the French there to lift the English siege of Orléans and so single-handedly had inspired a change of fortunes for Charles. This also inspired several of the French nobles to switch their allegiance to the English back to Charles.

The English Regent despatched a force from Paris on the news of the fall of Orléans to try to quell this French revival.

At a second meeting Joan convinced Charles to advance to Reims and have himself crowned. Joan’s approach in battle was to ride up on her horse with her banner and her presence would lift the spirits of the troops to greater effort. In this way she assisted in the capture of three bridges across the Loire River. This campaign culminated in the Battle of Patay.

The English were planning to use the same approach as they had so successfully at Crécy, Poitiers and Agincourt. That is an extensive use of longbowmen secured behind pointed stakes. But their position was discovered by the French and they were attacked before they had completed their defences. It was a rout, the mounted English fled, those on foot were massacred by mounted French men-at-arms; the English force lost half of its number, over 2,000 men.

Joan and Charles wrote to many nobles inviting them to attend Charles coronation at Reims Cathedral. On his way Troyes capitulated after threat of siege. Reims too succumbed to Joan’s messages and Charles was duly crowned in the cathedral, with Joan standing beside him with her banner.

Joan wrote to the Duke of Burgundy proposing a truce. In the meantime Charles’ force marched through the Ile-de-France gaining the fealty of each town he passed. Joan travelled with a troop towards Paris. They set siege on Compiègne where she was hit by a crossbow bolt and forced by her men to return to the king’s side.

The following year Joan was on campaign again and back in Compiègne where she was captured by the Burgundians. Charles offered to pay a ransom for her, but they handed her over to the English.

She was tried in Rouen led by a pro-Burgundian clergyman, their arguments vague, they were particularly incensed by her cross-dressing, they accused her of using magical powers with the implication that she was a witch. She was convicted of heresy and burned at the stake in 1431.

Once the Hundred Years’ War was reaching its end in the 1450s the process of reviewing Joan’s trial began and she was posthumously acquitted, in 1920 she was beatified.

Charles did use the momentum that Joan had afforded him to carry through a series of financial and military reforms that brought more stability to the French throne.  By a series of ordinances through the 1430s and 1440s he established a standing army and improved its recruitment and disciplinary approaches.

He wrested control from the Estates General so that he could raise and gather taxes as required, this gave him an important freedom of action that had rather stymied the throne’s decision making in the past. He was assisted by his court financial advisor, Jacques Coeur, who as a merchant expanded French commerce in the Mediterranean area. In 1438 his Pragmatic Sanction of Bourges constrained papal controls over the French church giving the king greater control over the allocation of revenues.

It was the successful work of Coeur that led to a second sobriquet for Charles, he was called Charles le Bien-Servi (the well-served).

End game

While Charles VII, King of France, was advancing against the English, Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy, was growing his territory by a variety of means. He had purchased Namur in 1429 from its Marquis. When his cousin died in 1430 he inherited Antwerp, Brabant and Limburg. In 1432 through conquest he added Hainault and Friesland.

By 1435 he was calling himself the Grand Duke of the West. His court regularly alternated between Bruges, Brussels and Lille, it adopted a grand style with lavish banquets and parties. It soon had the reputation of being the best court in Europe, leading the fashions of the time.

Philip became a leading patron of many arts, his court soon attracting the leading artisans (art, jewellery, music, tapestries…) from London and Paris. Philip also created his own chivalric order of knights, the Order of the Golden Fleece, weaving themes from the stories of Jason and the Argonauts and Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table.

Henry VI’s advisors were arguing what the English objectives should be to the point where their initiatives dried up and little progress towards a negotiated peace with the French; Henry’s demands being unreasonable given the state of play.

The Congress of Arras in 1435 was somewhat doomed. The English believed this was to be a peace conference between them and France, but Burgundy had been invited too. The talks stalled and the English negotiators briefly left the congress.

While the English were gone the two cousins, Charles VII and Philip of Burgundy, signed the Treaty of Arras to reconcile their differences. Philip agreed that he would no longer support Henry VI’s claim to the French throne. The English returned to the negotiating table to find they had lost their ally. Worse their key negotiator, the Regent of England, died during the proceedings.

The final Treaty of Arras resolved a future relationship between France and Burgundy, Philip was released from any vassal status so that Burgundy was now independent. Charles also agreed to pursue legal action against the murderers of Philip’s father. There was also an exchange of territory, Burgundy gaining even more land.

The Treaty also meant that England was becoming isolated, France now had both Burgundy and Scotland on its side. Charles continued to make steady progress against Henry VI over the next twenty years and had eventually reclaimed all of France from the English except for Calais and the Channel Islands.

The Treaty had an undesirable side-effect when lawless groups of mercenaries who were now unemployed decided to maraud around the countryside in a manner similar to the earlier English chevauchées. They became known as écorcheurs (skinners) for their habit of stripping their victims of everything.

In 1440 he needed to act against a rebellion of nobles

Charles’ main problem towards the end of his reign became his sons, particularly Louis the Dauphin who was demanding more power as he approached his fortieth birthday. But he was constantly being thwarted by his father’s decisions. As a result he created a great deal of friction and worked up a number of plots to damage his father’s control.

In 1440 there was a reaction by his nobles when they saw lesser nobles and military men being promoted by Charles. This exploded into revolt initially in Poitou with the Dauphin swiftly lending his support, Philip of Burgundy also gave them his support. However the king quickly asserted himself against this rebellion and proved very forgiving to those who had participated, so the mood calmed.

The Hundred Years’ War entered into a five-year truce from 1444. This coincided with Charles’ mistress, Agnes Sorel, emerging in to public life, the first time a king’s mistress was recognised in this way. She was politically active in his life; she set something of a precedent for the nation.

In 1446 Charles had a new son, somewhat confusingly also named Charles, and celebrated this by expelling Louis to a province in the far south-east known as the Dauphiné (contained by today’s départements of Isère, Drôme, and Hautes-Alpes). The Dauphin operated completely independently in his territory and the father and son would never meet again.

By 1449 the French recovered Rouen, then managed to surprise an English army laying siege to Caen at the Battle of Formigny. The next year Cherbourg was retaken and Normandy was from then largely held by France.

In 1450 it was Charles VII who initiated a review of Joan of Arc’s trial that eventually led to her being judged as wronged.

The next year the French assailed Aquitaine, now the last remaining sizeable English possession. Bordeaux capitulated during the summer of 1451. But it was back in English hands the next year. In 1453 the Battle of Castillon, near Bordeaux was the final action of the Hundred Years’ War, a combined English and Aquitaine force was defeated when they pursued what they assumed was a French retreat, only to be led into a prepared position where they were slaughtered by French cannon.

Wars of the Roses   1455 – 1487

Though the war would be unfinished for a further twenty years the English became rather more interested in their internal issue. This squabble between two branches of the Plantagenet family became known as the War of the Roses. The white rose of the House of York, led by Richard Duke of York, versus the red rose of the House of Lancaster, led by Henry VI.

The two houses first faced off in spring 1455 when Richard of York marched south towards London and met with Henry at the First Battle of St Albans, Richard prevailed and a number of leading Lancastrians were killed. King Henry was injured and became indisposed with a bout of madness. Richard was re-elected as Protector.

The next year Henry recovered, he relieved Richard of his role and went on to remove Richard’s supporters from their appointments too. Richard and his prime advisor the Duke of Warwick, aka the Kingmaker, were more popular with English merchants. Warwick had been Captain of Calais and had fought regularly against the French pirates who were terrorising the south coast of England.

At the end of 1460 Richard was killed at the Battle of Wakefield, his eighteen year old, Edward, succeeded him. He changed the Yorkist objective from the removal of bad advisors to the king and sought to become king himself.

A decisive, and the largest, battle of the War of the Roses at Towton, near York, saw 20,000 dead. This was the greatest single-day loss of life in battle on English soil. Edward prevailed and many of the Lancastrian leaders were among the dead. Edward IV was crowned in 1461.


Charles VII of France died in 1461 still unreconciled with his son, Louis. Just prior to his death he descended in to madness convinced he was surrounded by enemies and that he had been poisoned by his son. Charles VII was buried in the Basilica de Saint-Denis. He had recovered France from English control and created the nation’s first standing army; this would prove significant in ensuing centuries.

An early ‘mail shot’ – In 1462 Edward IV of England issued a ‘Brief Treatise’. An unashamed work of propaganda it set out his Yorkist claims for the three thrones of England, France and Castile. It was intended to be short, simple and transportable so that it would get wide dissemination. It was carried by representative of Edward on the final campaign of the war in 1475.

Edward IV declared war on France in 1475, he landed 16,000 men in Calais and planned to march on Reims. He was expecting to meet with the support and armies of Brittany and Charles the Bold, then the Duke of Burgundy (Philip the Good had died in 1467). When this proved to be not forthcoming he instead negotiated peace with Louis XI of France and signed the Treaty of Picquigny, near Amiens. This formally ended the war.

The two kings agreed to mutually support the other in the case of either facing a rebellion at home. This would be administered and monitored by annual meetings between representatives of the two nations.

The treaty included a seven-year truce, free trade between the nations Edward received an immediate payment of 75,000 crowns and an annual payment of 50,000 crowns. A further 50,000 crowns was paid in ransom for Queen Margaret of Anjou who was being held by Edward. Finally pensions were agreed for many Anglo-French nobles.

These payments led to a great deal of negative reception around the two nations, it appeared like a mercenary and dishonourable conclusion.

Edward IV became ill and died in 1483, poison and pneumonia have been postulated as probable causes. He was succeeded by his twelve-year old son, as Edward V.

Forward to 5 – French Renaissance – Back to Henry V (of England)
Back to 1789 and all that!
© Bob Denton 2014