September 10

1419 The Assassination of John the Fearless

Pity France in the early 1400s. Off and on, King Charles VI was (as the English say) barking mad — he believed he was made of glass and that his court was out to shatter him and ran howling like a wolf down the corridors of his palace. His wife was suspected of adultery and made wildly extravagant purchases. When the king was mad, the country was run by one of the great princes, John the Fearless of Burgundy, a nasty, greedy little fellow who poured the national treasury into his own. When the king had moments of lucidity, he was controlled by Charles of Orléans, just as much a bloodsucker as Burgundy and one suspected of sorcery.

In 1407, Burgundy solved the problem of rival dukes by ordering Orléans to be assassinated on a dark Paris street. He wept at his cousin’s funeral but soon blurted out that he was guilty – “I did it; the Devil tempted me”, he cried –  and fled the capital. In an amazing trial, his lawyer successfully argued that Burgundy had killed a tyrant, a deed applauded throughout history, and this won him a pardon from the king. France however was torn asunder by this conflict. When Henry V of England invaded the country in 1415, he made easy progress in a nation on the brink of civil war and succeeded in winning Burgundy’s support for his claim to the French throne.

Charles the Dauphin, the son of the mad king and heir to the French crown, relied on the support of the Orleanist (or Armagnac) faction, and tried to woo John the Fearless away from the English alliance. Or so it seemed. In fact Charles was out for revenge. On September 10 at a meeting on a bridge, as Burgundy knelt before Charles, the Dauphin gave a signal and the duke was hacked to pieces. A century later a Carthusian monk, who was showing François I the mausoleum of the Dukes of Burgundy, picked up John’s broken skull and commented, “This is the hole through which the English entered France.”

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