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When the English ruled the Bastille….!

Historical reconstruction showing the moat below the walls of Paris (left), the Bastille and the Porte Saint-Antoine (right) in 1420

Historical reconstruction showing the moat below the walls of Paris (left), the Bastille and the Porte Saint-Antoine (right) in 1420

We all know about the storming of the Bastille on 14th July, 1789, resulting in the continued annual celebration of the occasion throughout France. But the Bastille was a medieval fortress, and we, the English, had a hand in its history. In fact, we were the reason it was built in the first place.

During the Hundred Years’ War, there was a perceived threat to Paris, especially from the east, where it was vulnerable to English attack. After France was defeated at the Battle of Poitiers, and King John II was captured and imprisoned in England, it was decided by the Provost of Parish, Étienne Marcel, that the Paris defences had to be considerably strengthened.

Among these new defences were two fortified gates, each flanked by high stone towers. These gateways were of a type known as a “bastille”. But the capital’s defences were still deemed unsatisfactory, and it was decided that a much larger fortification should be built to protect the city’s eastern flank at the Porte Saint-Antoine. “Work began in 1370 with another pair of towers being built behind the first bastille, followed by two towers to the north, and finally two towers to the south. The fortress was probably not finished by the time Charles V died in 1380, and was completed by his son, Charles VI. The resulting structure became known simply as the Bastille, with the eight irregularly built towers and linking curtain walls.” The whole was encircled by ditches that were syphoned from the Seine.

View of the porte Saint-Antoine and the Bastille (detail from Turgot's 1739 map of Paris)

View of the porte Saint-Antoine and the Bastille (detail from Turgot’s 1739 map of Paris)

The 15th century saw more danger from the English, culminating in the capture of Paris by Henry V of England in 1420, and the garrisoning of the Bastille. This was the state of affairs for sixteen years. The Bastille had already been used as a prison by the French, and the English continued to use it this way.

Henry V

Henry V

Paris was eventually retaken by Charles VII in 1436, but was then seized by the Burgundians in 1464. Which leads to the obvious conclusion that for all its power and strength, it was less a defender of Paris than a stronghold for its enemies!

Its eventual downfall came during the French Revolution, and it is for this that the great fortress is really known now. Of course, the sneaky English might say the French burned the place down before it was lost again to the Rostbifs across La Manche! No, no, my French friends, I’m only joking…. Happy Bastille Day!

The Storming of the Bastille - de Launay 1740-1789

The Storming of the Bastille – de Launay 1740-1789

The Tantalising Childhood of Richard, Duke of York

In 1416, Richard, Duke of York was just four and a half years old when, in March, he was placed into the care of Robert Waterton. Richard’s mother, Anne Mortimer, had died shortly after he was born and his father, Richard of Conisburgh, had been executed a year earlier for his part in the Southampton Plot. Richard became something of a problem for Henry V’s government when his uncle, Edward, Duke of York was killed at Agincourt. As he had no children, Richard was Edward’s heir. The son of a traitor had suddenly become one of the most important figures in England.

Robert Waterton was a stalwart of the Lancastrian government having been keeper of the king’s horses and dogs but it was in his role as keeper of problem people that he is most interesting. After the Battle of Agincourt, Henry V returned to England with a long line of prominent French prisoners in tow. Waterton acted as gaoler for many of these prisoners, though in reality their confinement was a comfortable affair with a degree of freedom.

A mandate for payment of Waterton’s expenses in 1423 noted that he was responsible for Richard, Duke of York but also listed the French prisoners still under his care. The list included Charles, Count of Eu, Arthur de Richmont, son of the Duke of Brittany, Perrin de Luppe, Guichard de Sesse and, most notably of all, Jean le Maingre, better known as Marshal Boucicaut.

Boucicaut had passed away in Yorkshire in 1421, but he was one of the most famous knights in Europe and was a tower of chivalry. He was Marshal of France at the time of Agincourt and travelled to England as a prisoner following the battle. Robert Waterton was responsible for some of the most important figures captured in France alongside his young English ward.

Whilst no evidence of any fraternising remains, it is tantalising to consider whether a young Richard, Duke of York might have met and spent time with some of France’s finest knights, representing the pinnacle of French chivalry. What would the boy have made of these famous and accomplished knights who had ended up as English prisoners? If they did spend any time in each other’s company it may well have been an experience that helped to shape the man that this young boy would become.

Charles d’Orleans was possibly the most notable of Waterton’s charges. He was a grandson of Charles V of France and lived until 1465 after his years as a prisoner. He was a senior figure in French politics and although only in his early twenties when he entered Waterton’s care, he had seen first-hand the devastation caused to a proud kingdom by the rule of a weak and incapable king. He was a prisoner in a foreign land, snatched from his dukedom and all but ruined in the prime of life because his king was not a strong leader capable of governing. His experience was almost prophetic of Richard’s later life. It is tempting to wonder what lessons Richard, even as a young boy, saw in the fate of these men and what words of wisdom they may have offered him.

Richard, Duke of York: King By Right is released on Friday 15th April 2016 by Amberley Publishing. It is a fresh examination of a figure who towers over fifteenth century history but who frequently appears in his later years at the outbreak of the Wars of the Roses. By looking at his formative years and the world around him as he grew up a very different man emerges who was not the ambitious, war-mongering man history remembers him as. Richard as a very real man will emerge from this book to demand a fresh look at his actions throughout the 1450s.

You can buy Richard, Duke of York: King By Right from Amazon now.

Doubts about Edward IV’s marriage – in the age of Henry VIII!

While browsing Royal Blood by Bertram Fields I noticed the following remarkable passage, (pages 116-117):

“…during the reign of Henry VIII, Charles V’s ambassador to England reported that people ‘say’ that Charles had a better claim to the English throne than did Henry VIII, since Henry could only claim through his mother and she ‘was declared by sentence of the Bishop of Bath [Stillington] a bastard, because Edward had espoused another wife before he married the mother of Elizabeth of York.”

This demonstrates that despite the suppression of Titulus Regius at least some people of England were still aware of the true basis of Richard III’s claim. Moreover, far from thinking it spurious, they were sufficiently impressed by its truth to pass the story to the Spanish Ambassador, despite the obvious risks associated with doing so. I think we can also assume that the informants were persons of some weight – not mere gossips in the London street – or the ambassador would scarcely have wasted his master’s time with such a report.

Royal Blood is an interesting and useful book, although not without its occasional faults of misunderstanding. I recently read a criticism of it that stated that the author spent too much time ‘attacking’ Alison Weir. In a sense, this is actually praise of Weir, as it demonstrates how influential her book has been in forming opinion, in that points made in it need to be addressed by those who take a contrary view. However, it is scarcely an ‘attack’ to rebut errors, as Royal Blood does on several occasions. It is indeed the very nature of historical debate.

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