Joan of Arc - Maid of Heaven

Joan of Arc Appendix A

THE CHARACTER OF CHARLES VII

THE character of Charles VII. has proved a puzzle to most historians. A prediction, made at almost any time in the first twelve years of his reign, that he would die deservedly surnamed the Victorious, would have seemed quite as absurd as a like prediction made in 1895 concerning the Chinese emperor. The disposition to attribute to the character of a mediæval monarch the success or failure which attended his reign is so strong that all sorts of theories have been formed to account for the change in Charles's fortunes. The theory accepted for centuries gave the credit of the change to Agnes Sorel, who was supposed to have roused the energies of an indolent but able king. Recent investigation has shown, however, that this Sorel legend is pure fiction, that Agnes did not become the king's mistress until he was about forty years old and had reigned twenty years, that the letters attributed to her are modern forgeries, that she had no political influence whatever, and differed from the other royal mistresses only in possessing rather uncommon beauty. If Agnes Sorel's meeting with Charles be too late to account for his regeneration, Joan's appearance is too early, since Charles was undoubtedly sunk in torpor for several years after Joan's capture.

The latest historian of Charles VII., the Marquis de Beaucourt, who has finally disposed of the Sorel legend, has developed a theory of Charles's character which differs somewhat from any before suggested. According to him, Charles was a man of exceptional ability and excellent intentions, who showed much vigor as a boy of eighteen, later yielded himself to the influence of bad favorites, whose control he threw off from time to time, until at the age of thirty-two or thereabouts he asserted him self as a great ruler, and continued to direct the affairs of France for more than twenty years, when illness and a weak constitution made an indolent invalid of him for a few years before his death.

M. de Beaucourt is a historian always to be mentioned with high respect. His learning is very great, his industry untiring, and, though the plan of his work is at times a little confusing, his style is always clear and readable. More valuable than any of these qualities is his absolute candor in stating the facts he has discovered. However much any one of these may conflict with his theories, M. de Beaucourt always gives it in full, before trying to explain it away. His theories are those of a strong supporter of the monarchy and of the Roman Catholic church, and they color deeply his opinions of the men and events of the fifteenth century. Had Charles VII. been only a duke, it is clear that he would have received very different treatment at M. de Beaucourt's hands. The divinity that hedges a king, and especially a king of France, has so affected the historian's judgment that he is always finding excuses for his hero. Two examples of his partiality will suffice.

Charles VII. was an unfaithful husband. It was not his infidelity that made him a bad ruler; indeed, as has just been observed, a popular legend has long given to one of his lapses the credit of having aroused him from a life of unkingly sloth to a sense of his royal duties. M. de Beaucourt is so desirous of saving as much as possible of Charles's reputation that he tries to show that his early married life was exemplary, and that his excesses were confined to his later years. To establish this, he proves conclusively that Charles issued edicts against profane swearing and was observant of the rites of the church; that he heard three masses a day, recited the canonical hours and the office for the dead, confessed himself daily, and communicated on all feast days. In common life, M. de Beaucourt knows very well that all this, however praiseworthy, is worthless as evidence of marital fidelity, and in his zeal to eulogize the king he so far forgets logic, that he produces excellent evidence of Charles's continued habits of devotion at a time when his debauchery is admitted.

Again, M. de Beaucourt, like the brave gentleman he is, feels keenly Charles's betrayal of Joan. Many of the excuses he offers for the king he would consider deadly insults if applied to himself in like case; one excuse is of surpassing ingenuity. As evidence that the king "remained constantly faithful to the memory of Joan of Arc," he tells us that in 1441, at the head of his army, he passed through the village of Greux near Dom- remy, and that a few years afterward he actually slept one night in the place.

The illustrations given show the strength of M. de Beaucourt's prejudices; it would be very unfair to imply that he does not give much stronger reasons for his opinion of Charles's character and abilities. As he is Charles's strongest champion, his arguments deserve careful consideration. M. de Beaucourt quotes a phrase of Lacordaire: "It belongs to those of a given age to judge its affairs and its men," and he cites as evidence of Charles's reputation the compliments paid him by foreign embassies, and the eulogies of him written by the court poet and the court chroniclers. Such evidence, of course, is worthless, but that of two independent historians, Thomas Basin, bishop of Lisieux, and George Chastellain, the Burgundian, deserves fuller consideration. At the first reading, Basin does certainly seem to speak of Charles with great respect, not only in the passage quoted by M. de Beaucourt, but in many other places as well. Closer examination shows the singular reason of his admiration. The principal motive of Basin's history was hatred of Louis XI., and he used praise of the father simply as a foil to abuse of the son. Thus he lays great stress upon Charles's faith in keeping his promises in order that he may emphasize the utter faithlessness of Louis. Whenever, which is seldom, he forgets for a moment his hatred of Louis, his real opinion of Charles appears, as when, for example, he describes him as "drenching his passions in drunkenness and debauchery, stupid in sloth and self-indulgence."

The praise given by Chastellain to Charles VII. is largely of the same sort. Sometimes he, too, wished to express his disapproval of Louis; sometimes his praise was written directly for Charles's consumption. 1 His real opinion of the king probably finds its best expression in "La mort du roy Charles Vll." a Mystery in which France thanks Charles for her deliverance, and the king modestly refers the thanks to his lords and captains. Their replies occupy more than three quarters of the poem, and are nearly as modest as the king's. Doubtless Chastellain was affected by the traditional respect which attended a king, but he knew that Charles's success was due to his lieutenants and ministers.

Any real knowledge of the character of Charles VII. must be derived, of course, not from a balancing of the opinions of his contemporaries, but from a study of the events of his life. He was born in 1403, of a father who had been intermittently insane for more than ten years, and of a mother whose character made Charles's doubts concerning his paternity quite reasonable, though they were probably unjust. The court in which he was brought up was violent and corrupt; from this court he was literally carried off in his night-clothes by a bravo, himself violent and corrupt, whose only virtue was his courage. Because Tanneguy du Chbtel and others like him transported the Dauphin rapidly from place to place during several years, M. de Beaucourt thinks the boy showed energy and capacity, but there is no evidence of his real intervention in war or in politics, and he is easily acquitted of the guilt of the murder at Montereau, because, though he probably knew the plot, he could not have prevented its execution. At nineteen years of age, in 1422, he became king. From 1422 to 1429 he was under the control of a succession of worthless favorites and made hardly a pretense of ruling. He is said to have borne a personal grudge against Richemont because the constable slaughtered one or two of these favorites almost in the king's own sight. Whether this grudge was real, or merely attributed to Charles by a later favorite, cannot certainly be known, so feeble was Charles's will. Probably it was real. During all this time his crown and the national existence of France were at stake, yet he never took the field, his conduct in this respect being, I believe, without a parallel in the history of his age. How he acted during Joan's attempts to raise his fortunes is set forth in this book. After her capture he remained for about three years longer in the control of La Trémollie, as inactive as he had been before his coronation. In 1433 Charles was thirty years old, an age at which nearly all the princes of his time, Henry IV., Henry V., Louis XI., Philip the Good, Bedford, the Bastard of Orleans, Alençon, had made their mark on the world for good or evil. Charles VII., like Charles VI. and Henry VI., had of himself accomplished nothing.

At this time Charles of Anjou, the king's brother-in-law, seized La Trémoille as the favorite slept at Chinon, and drove him from court. The king slept near by, and at first was disturbed at the noise made by the conspirators, but was soon quieted by the queen, who was probably a party to the plot. The princes and noblemen who thus got the control of his person were distinctly more patriotic than La Trémoille, and France gained by the change; but Charles was as inert under one master as under the other. The treaty of Arras was made by his ministers.

In the year and a half which followed the treaty of Arras, Charles VII. showed himself as little concerned in the affairs of state as he had been during the thirteen years of his reign which preceded it. One minister intrigued against another, but the king was indifferent. Doubtless the government of France was considerably improved, but this was because Y olande and Charles of Anjou, the constable and his supporters, were better rulers than La Trémoille, and were willing to heed the just representations of the bureaucracy and trained civil servants of the crown. In the latter part of 1437, however, Charles not only took the field in person for the first time since the campaign of 1429, but at the storming of Montereau he is said to have shown distinguished personal bravery. How his conduct is to be accounted for, we do not precisely know. The story rests principally upon the testimony of one chronicler, who may have exaggerated Charles's prowess from a desire to please him. Charles was very moody and may have had moments of exaltation as well as months of depression, in any case his conduct at Montereau had no precedent and at most but one copy; the war went on, Charles stayed at home. In 1439 the people of Paris, partly from distrust of the constable's military administration, partly disgusted at Charles's indifference, complained that the king paid no more attention to the affairs of state than if he had been a prisoner of the Saracens. Loud were the complaints of the States General, that is, of the respectable middle classes.

The popular dissatisfaction seems to have been encouraged by some of the princes of the blood, who were dissatisfied with their share in the government, among them, Bourbon and Alençon. The conspirators wished to get possession of Charles's person, as the duke of Burgundy and the Armagnacs used to fight for the possession of his father. Knowing that it was of the utmost importance to be able to speak in the king's name, Richemont and Charles of Anjou anticipated their rivals and carried Charles VII. from place to place, making him declare himself in the strongest terms opposed to the conspirators. The constable's energy and military skill triumphed, aided, no doubt, by the good sense of the French people, who were pleased at his energetic measures against the brigands. Throughout the whole affair both parties were clearly persuaded that Charles could be made to do anything desired by those who controlled his person. The attempts of 1426 and 1433 were repeated, though with happily different results.

In 1440, at the time of the Praguerie, Charles VII. was thirtyseven years old, and had reigned eighteen years. He was feeble in person, and timid even apart from war. If it be true that during the first half of his reign he was the mere tool of others, it requires strong evidence to prove him a great constructive statesman in the later half. His new advisers, or masters, governed, on the whole, better and better, and they did not allow the king to pass the whole of his time in retirement. Very probably, Charles himself liked the change, and was not unwilling occasionally to show himself in public. In 1441 he again took the field, and published an account of his own personal bravery at the siege of Pontoise. In 1442 there was another attempt by the princes of the blood to get control of the government, the dukes of Burgundy and Orleans having joined the malcontents. The object of the new conspirators appears plainly by their memorial to the king; it was the overthrow of the new state of affairs, in which the house of Anjou, the constable, and the bureaucratic middle classes governed the country, and a return to the old régime of pension, plunder, and privilege. This time there was no war. In Charles's name the bishop of Clermont replied to the malcontents, and these recognized their weakness. It seems to me that I find in this reply indications that what I have called the bureaucracy, men like the Des Ursins, Brézé, and Jacques Coeur were gaining power even at the expense of Charles of Anjou and the constable, but all these were united to oppose the arrogant claims which Burgundy, Orleans, Bourbon, and Alençon were united in making. To suppose that the king, who was the puppet of the struggle of 1440, really directed the course of affairs in 1442, would be absurd.

In 1442 the reform of the administration was firmly established. In 1442-43 there was a successful campaign in the southwest; the constable directed its operations, the king accompanied them. While there is no reason to suppose that Charles had any larger share in the government of 1443 than in that of 1433 or 1423, he must have been pleased at his new prosperity, probably became less morose and liked to appear in public instead of shunning it. I see no reason to attribute any part of this not very considerable change to Agnes Sorel, who became one of the royal favorites at about this time.

In 1444 came the truce with England, and in 1444-45 was undertaken the expedition against Metz, possibly in order to employ the men at arms who would otherwise have been ravaging the country. Charles took no part in the direction of the war, but at Nancy and at Chblons kept a court which was splendid, as befitted his bettered fortunes. Unfortunately, its morals had not improved with its increased state. The king was still the puppet of any one who controlled his person, and when, in 1446, the Dauphin Louis intrigued against his ministers, he did not take into account the danger of opposition from his father's will, but only the awe which the royal person might strike into some of the conspirators. Philip of Burgundy said that Charles's true place was in a hermitage.

In 1449 the war with England broke out again, and Charles accompanied his army in its triumphal progress through Normandy. When that campaign of a few months was over, however, even M. de Beaucourt admits that for several years Charles gave himself to pleasure, debauchery, and unworthy favorites, and he urges, in extenuation, that these favorites no longer governed France. In truth, the government had now passed for the time into the hands of Brézé and men of his class, who kept Charles contented with money and mistresses, and ruled the kingdom, on the whole, pretty well. The guilt, if guilt there be, of destroying Jacques Coeur rests upon them, and not upon the king, whose name they used.

I have attempted to appreciate Charles's character, not to give an account of the events of his reign. The last six years of it, while reasonably prosperous for the kingdom, saw the king's health, never robust, give way altogether. His temper became constantly morose, he suspected all those about him, and at last is said to have hastened death by starving himself for fear of poison.

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