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date: 27 November 2021

Charles [Charles d' Orléans], duke of Orléansfree


Charles [Charles d' Orléans], duke of Orléansfree

  • Mary-Jo Arn

Charles [Charles d' Orléans], duke of Orléans (1394–1465), prince and poet, was born on 24 November 1394 at the royal Hôtel St Pol in Paris, the fourth but first surviving son of Louis (1372–1407), second son of the French king Charles V and duke of Orléans, and his wife, Valentina Visconti (c.1366–1408), daughter of Giangaleazzo Visconti, duke of Milan, and Isabelle of France.

Early life

In 1396 Duchess Valentina was banished from court because of jealousy over her ability to soothe the spirits of her intermittently mad brother-in-law, Charles VI. As a result her children were brought up in various of their father's châteaux along the Loire; Charles, who as heir to the duchy bore the title count of Angoulême during his father's lifetime, had two younger brothers, Philippe and Jean, two sisters, Marie and Marguerite, and a half-brother, Jean, who became count of Dunois and was known as the Bastard of Orléans. Both Charles's parents were lettered book-owners—Duke Louis was a significant collector—and he himself became an excellent Latinist and a serious reader and writer, having been tutored from an early age by Nicolas Garbet, his father's learned secretary. In 1402 he and Philippe received their first illuminated books.

On 23 November 1407 John the Fearless, duke of Burgundy, having long been at odds with his cousin the duke of Orléans, had the latter assassinated in Paris and then denounced before the king and court for a variety of imagined sins and crimes. John's own misdeed soon led to civil war in France. Supported by her children Valentina worked tirelessly to obtain justice from the king for the murder of her husband, and when she died in 1408 it fell to Charles, now head of the house of Orléans, to seek justice and avenge his father's death. To that end he forged alliances against Burgundy with a large group of noblemen led by Bernard (VII), count of Armagnac and constable of France. On 29 June 1406, aged eleven, Charles had married Isabella (1389–1409), widow of Richard II of England and daughter of Charles VI. But on 14 September 1409 Isabella died in childbed, giving birth to a daughter, Jeanne, and a year later, on 15 August 1410, the young duke married Bonne (b. 1399), daughter of Bernard d'Armagnac and Bonne de Berry. The marriage proved childless.

The ensuing manoeuvres of the Orleanist (or Armagnac) and Burgundian factions and their shifting alliances with the English are part of the history of the Hundred Years' War. In November 1411 an English force helped the Burgundians to defeat the Armagnacs at St Cloud, but in the following year a change of sides brought an army led by Thomas, duke of Clarence, Henry IV's second son, to France in support of the Armagnacs. To reinforce their alliance Clarence and Duke Charles became brothers-in-arms, but this did not prevent a further volte-face, with the French nobility uniting to buy off the invaders. As part of the arrangements Charles was obliged to send his brother Jean, count of Angoulême, as a hostage to England, where he remained for thirty-three years. Internal dissension continued, however, until in the following year, at enormous cost to himself, Charles succeeded in joining forces with the queen and the dauphin against Burgundy, and in having the accusations of 1407 against his father repudiated. On 23 September 1414 Charles VI celebrated the obsequies of his dead brother Louis in Notre Dame de Paris; the learned theologian Jean Gerson presided.

Prisoner in England

The peace that followed was soon shattered by a further English invasion, culminating in the catastrophic defeat suffered by the French at Agincourt on 25 October 1415. Knighted on the eve of the battle, Charles was discovered afterwards beneath a pile of corpses, his armour having probably saved him from being suffocated or crushed to death. Taken back to England to be paraded with other noble prisoners in Henry V's triumphant entry into London a month later, Charles was at first housed in the Tower, where he was treated like a royal guest and received frequent visits from members of his hôtel. For the next two years he was shuttled between London and Windsor, but in June 1417, when Henry V was preparing to return to France, he had Charles sent north, presumably to discourage any attempts at rescue or escape, after which he was moved from one noble warder to another. The first of these was Robert Waterton at Pontefract in the West Riding of Yorkshire, where the duke was allowed to go hunting, until King Henry, hearing reports that Charles had been in touch with the duke of Albany, the governor of Scotland, and fearing 'that ther schold be founden weys to the havyng awey specialy of the Duc of Orlians', ordered that he be confined to the castle, 'for it is bettr he lak his disport then we were disceyved' (Ellis, 1.1–2). In 1419 Charles was transferred to the keeping of Sir Nicholas Montgomery at Tutbury, Staffordshire, and in the following year to that of Sir Thomas Burton at Fotheringhay, Northamptonshire. In 1422 he passed into the custody of Sir Thomas Comberworth, mostly at Bolingbroke Castle in Lincolnshire, where he remained until 1429, when he became the responsibility of Sir John Cornewall, Baron Fanhope, at Ampthill in Bedfordshire. In August 1432 he was entrusted to William de la Pole, earl of Suffolk, and his wife Alice Chaucer, until in 1436 he was transferred to Sir Reynold Cobham at Starborough in Surrey. His final keeper, from 1438, was John, first Baron Stourton, at Stourton in Wiltshire.

In the course of his captivity Charles travelled repeatedly to London with his keepers, several of whom had town houses in the city. This circumstance, together with the fact that most of his warders were book-owners, gave him ample opportunity to acquire or commission books, and he collected a large library in England, which he had inventoried in 1440, the year of his release. It included devotional and theological writings (he owned several copies of Boethius's Consolation of Philosophy), scientific and medical works, chronicles in both Latin and French, and books of poetry. He became friendly with the Franciscan Thomas Wynchelsey, and spent some time in the library of the London Greyfriars, which Wynchelsey had effectively refounded. Charles's own library (which included his father's books) formed the kernel of the French royal library after its earlier collections were largely removed by the duke of Bedford following the death of Charles VI in 1422. The duke also composed a large body of lyric poetry in the years of his captivity, in both French and English; the latter was to some extent influenced by Chaucer and other English poets of the late fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries. His French poetry survives in many texts, one of them demonstrably his own, written partly in his hand, to which he added lyrics throughout his life (Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris, MS fr. 25458). His English collection, which contains many ballades and roundels, some of them corresponding to individual French lyrics, and also some narrative verse, survives in a single manuscript (BL, Harley MS 682).

Charles's English captivity was long because as a prince of the French blood royal he was seen as a very valuable asset, both financially and diplomatically. Henry V recognized this in his will of 1421, in which he laid down that whereas other prisoners could be ransomed after his death, the duke of Orléans and the count of Eu were to remain in custody for as long as this was advantageous to the realms of England and France, that is, until the terms of the treaty of Troyes of 1420 were unreservedly accepted in France. It was later claimed that, as he lay dying, Henry also forbade the release of Orléans until his son and heir, then a nine-month-old infant, came of age. As the fighting continued, the prospect of deliverance was for several years remote. Charles's brother Philippe had died in November 1420, leaving only the Bastard Dunois to defend his half-brother's lands and interests in France against the English forces. He did so heroically, but as the war spread to the Loire, the devastation of the duke's estates (contrary to the law of arms) inevitably reduced their lord's ability to meet the demand for what was certain to be a very large ransom. But as the fortunes of war began to turn against the English during the 1430s, Charles's hopes of freedom began to improve.

Negotiating release

Starting in 1433—when he secretly undertook to uphold Henry VI's right as sole king of FranceOrléans was increasingly involved in Anglo-French diplomacy, both as a negotiator and as a subject for negotiation. In October that year he accompanied the earl of Suffolk, his former warder, to peace talks at Calais; in 1434 he was licensed to enter into negotiations with other French princes; in 1435 he was at Calais again. He did not go on from there to the congress of Arras (where his release was debated), but he did hold discussions with Isabella, duchess of Burgundy, which produced proposals for a truce. Plans for Charles to go to Vannes in 1438 for a peace conference arranged by the duke of Brittany came to nothing, but a year later he returned to Calais, again to play a supporting role in abortive negotiations. By this time, however, with the French ever more successful militarily, the duke was being seen increasingly as an important agent for peace. Accordingly a willingness to release him for a ransom of 100,000 marks was one of the explicit concessions offered by the English in 1439, while secret instructions from Henry VI to Cardinal Beaufort even raised the possibility of his being freed without any ransom at all.

The failure of the negotiations of 1439—in which both Charles and the duchess of Burgundy had again been involved—made it seem all the more important that Orléans should act as a peacemaker afterwards. His release, which had already given rise to much debate in England, was strenuously opposed by Humphrey, duke of Gloucester, upholding Henry V's will and last wishes, but Humphrey was overruled by Cardinal Beaufort and by Henry VI himself—it was subsequently made clear that the ultimate responsibility for the decision to free Orléans was the king's own. On 2 July 1440 it was agreed that the price of Charles's release should be 100,000 nobles, of which 40,000 were to be paid at once, and that the duke should exert all his influence to secure peace between England and France. The money was raised by contributions levied throughout France, and on 5 November Charles crossed to Calais. He was finally freed at Gravelines on the 12th, having solemnly sworn to observe the terms of his release.

Last years: assessment

Once delivered from captivity Duke Charles immediately took steps to strengthen his alliance with the house of Burgundy by marrying on 27 November 1440 Marie de Clèves (1426–1487), Duchess Isabella's fourteen-year-old niece. Duke Philip the Good inducted him into his order of the Golden Fleece, while Charles in turn presented Burgundy with the collar of his own order of the Porcupine. The French king, by contrast, was initially unwelcoming, perhaps because Charles seems to have taken seriously his mission as a peacemaker—in 1441–2 he and the other French princes tried to exert pressure on Charles VII to negotiate with England. In 1443, however, Orléans supported his monarch in the latter's own peace proposals, while a year later he took part in the ceremonies and negotiations that culminated in the marriage of Henry VI to Margaret of Anjou. He needed the support of his king as he endeavoured to raise both his own ransom and that of his brother Jean, at last released in 1445. In 1447 he was reportedly one of several French nobles anxious to avoid a renewal of hostilities.

Once re-established in France, Charles made his seat at Blois, where he drew around him a coterie of poets who included members of his household, his officers, and his friends and visitors; many of them, including his wife Marie, Duke René of Anjou, and François Villon, copied their own lyrics into his personal manuscript. He had three more children—Marie, Louis (later Louis XII), and Anne. Though very active as a diplomat, and also in the administration of his estates, Charles never again played a major role in French politics, though efforts were made to promote his claim to Milan after the death of its last Visconti duke in 1447, and he himself led an army to Italy in an unsuccessful attempt to reclaim his lands around Asti. Taken ill as he returned from an assembly at Tours, he died at Amboise on 4 January 1465, and was buried in the church of Saint Saveur in Blois. In 1504 Louis XII had his father's body removed to the Orléans chapel in the church of the Celestines in Paris (all the tombs were destroyed during the French Revolution).

Described by Henry VI as 'a grete and a felle-witted man' (Stevenson, 2.459), Charles of Orléans was intelligent, learned, and shrewd. His library shows him to have been devout, bordering at times on the monastic. When only ten he composed a Livre contre tout péché, a short devotional work, and during his captivity he wrote a longer religious work, in the Franciscan mould, entitled Canticum amoris. In his later years he shared with members of his entourage a close interest in the Observant Franciscan movement. But his poetry reveals Charles as a very sociable, playful man, and a witty companion. In France his lyric verses have always been highly regarded. His English poetry, which combines elements of lyric and narrative, circulated in England into the sixteenth century, but thereafter largely fell from sight until an edition by Robert Steele and Mabel Day was published by the Early English Text Society in 1941–6. Since then it has risen steadily in regard and is now widely considered as among the finest English vernacular poetry of the first half of the fifteenth century. A modern critical edition appeared in 1994.


  • Léon, marquis de Laborde, Les ducs de Bourgogne, 3 (1852)
  • M. Arn, ed., Charles d'Orléans in England, 1415–1440 (2000)
  • P. Champion, Vie de Charles d'Orléans (1394–1465) (Paris, 1911)
  • G. Ouy, ‘Recherches sur la librairie de Charles d'Orléans’, Comptes rendus de l'Académie des Inscriptions et Belles Lettres (1955), 272–88
  • G. Ouy, ‘Un poème mystique de Charles d'Orléans’, Studi Francesi, 3 (1959), 64–85
  • L. Mirot, ‘Isabelle de France’, Revue d'Histoire Diplomatique, 19 (1905), 35
  • É. Collas, Valentine de Milan, duchesse d'Orléans (Paris, 1911)
  • Rymer, Foedera, 1st edn, vol. 10
  • M. Arn, introduction, in Fortunes stabilnes: Charles of Orleans's English Book of love, ed. M. Arn (1994)
  • E. Gonzalez, Un prince en son hôtel: les serviteurs du duc d'Orléans au XVe siècle (Paris, 2004)
  • H. Ellis, ed., Original letters illustrative of English history, 1st ser., 1 (1824)
  • R. A. Griffiths, The reign of King Henry VI: the exercise of royal authority, 1422–1461 (1981)
  • G. L. Harriss, Cardinal Beaufort: a study of Lancastrian ascendancy and decline (1988)
  • J. Watts, Henry VI and the politics of kingship (1996)
  • J. Ferguson, English diplomacy, 1422–1461 (1972)
  • J. G. Dickinson, The Congress of Arras, 1435 (1955)
  • C. Allmand, Henry V (1992)
  • M. H. Keen, The laws of war in the late middle ages (1965)


  • Archives Municipales de Blois
  • Archives Nationales, Paris
  • BL, Add. MSS and Add. Ch.


  • manuscript illumination, 1500, BL, Royal MS 16 F.ii, fol. 73v
  • historiated initial, Archives Nationales, Paris, MS Q4 477, fol. 1
  • manuscript illustration, Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris, MS fr. 966, fol. 1
  • manuscript illustration, Hof- und Staatsbibliothek, Munich, codex gallicus 369
  • portrait, Château de Beauregard, Pomerol, France; copy, L.-F. Amiel, oils, c.1835, Musée National du Château de Versailles, France
  • portrait (Charles and Bonne), Musée Condé, Chantilly, France, Les très riches heures du duc de Berry (April), MS 65
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British Library, London
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T. Rymer & R. Sanderson, eds., , 20 vols. (1704–35); 2nd edn, 20 vols. (1726–35); 3rd edn, 10 vols. (1739–45); new edn, ed. A. Clarke, J. Caley, & F. Holbrooke, 4 vols., RC, 50 (1816–69); facs. of 3rd edn (1967)