John II of Burgundy – John the Fearless as he is better known today — was famous in his day as a military hero. But he was infamous for arranging the assassination of the king’s brother, Louis of Orléans — and convincing the king it was justified.
The king was Charles VI of France, who ruled from 1380 to 1422. Charles suffered from what was most likely schizophrenia or severe bipolar disorder. During his recurrent episodes of madness, he had severe hallucinations and delusions. At one point, he even believed he was made out of glass. He forbade anyone to touch him, lest he break, and had his tailors sew rods into his clothing for additional protection.
John the Fearless was the king’s first cousin, the eldest son of Philip of Burgundy a/k/a Philip the Bold. Burgundy controlled the great weaving cities of Flanders (modern-day Belgium) and was wealthier than the crown. When Charles became king a month shy of his twelfth birthday, Burgundy became the real power in the kingdom. He exerted almost complete control, though he was content to exercise it from behind the scenes.
When Charles came of age, he took over the management of his kingdom. Four years later, however, he suffered his first attack of madness. When it became clear his insanity wasn’t a one-time occurrence, he entrusted his only brother, Louis, the Duke of Orléans, with many of the powers formerly assumed by Burgundy.
As Orléans gained power, it became inevitable he and Burgundy would clash. They both raised armies, and nearly plunged the kingdom into civil war. But Orléans and Burgundy were smart enough to realize that armed conflict wasn’t in either of their interests. With the help of Charles’ queen, Isabella of Bavaria, they negotiated a lasting — if uneasy – peace.
But Philip the Bold died in 1404, and John the Fearless became Duke of Burgundy. He was not, however, the level-headed businessman his father had been. Even the renowned biographer of the Dukes of Burgundy, Richard Vaughn, finds little likeable about John. However, John was skilled at propaganda and Orléans was an easy target.
Orléans had raised taxes in order to arm French garrisons against a threatened English invasion. But the 15th century French were no fonder of taxes than anyone else. It didn’t take much to convince them that Louis of Orléans was putting the money in his pocket. Life would be so much better, some suggested, under someone with the people’s interests at heart. Say, a war hero nicknamed John the Fearless.
Rumors about Orléans began to circulate. It was said he kept a private gallery full of portraits of the myriad women he had seduced, the wife of John the Fearless among them. Worse, according to gossip, he was having an affair with the queen, whose last child (the future Charles VII) had been conceived when the king was mad.
John the Fearless held himself out as a reformer who would reduce taxes and rid the realm of the corrupt government of Orléans. Though such arguments won much support in Paris, Orléans was still the king’s favorite. But, alas… the king was mad.
On November 23, 1407, the feast day of Saint-Clément, Orléans went dine with the queen at the private residence she maintained near the palace. At around 8 p.m., one of the king’s valets arrived and told Orléans (untruthfully) that the king had recovered from his most recent episode of madness. He said that the king wished to speak to Orléans right away about a matter of some urgency.
As Orléans and his small entourage were on the way to the palace, they were assaulted by 20 or so armed, masked men. Orléans identified himself by name, but the attackers replied “Kill him! Kill him!” When Orléans raised his arm to ward off a blow, someone sliced his hand off at the wrist. Orléans’ young page threw his body over his master to protect him from the attack. But the assailants pulled him off and killed both men before fleeing.
The murder was eventually traced back to John the Fearless, who confessed that he had hired the assailants. He argued, however, that he was not guilty of murder, because Orléans had been a tyrant. Not only was killing him justified, he said, but it was admirable. Orléans had not only profited wrongly from his position, he alleged, but had caused the king’s madness and tried to kill him by means of sorcery and poison.
Shockingly, Charles VI absolved John the Fearless and pardoned him for killing his brother. The king’s madness, no doubt, contributed to his decision. But his closet advisors were aware that if he didn’t pardon John the Fearless, there would almost certainly be a civil war — which there was ten years later, when Charles’ then-only living son (the future Charles VII) returned the favor and murdered John the Fearless.
But one nation’s civil war is another’s stroke of fortune. With the French busy killing each other, England’s Henry V smelled opportunity. The result was the English victory at the battle of Agincourt and the occupation of Paris by the English.
There’s no happy ending to this story. Charles gave his daughter, Catherine of Valois, in marriage to Henry V. Worse for France, he disinherited his son for murdering John the Fearless, and made Henry the heir to the French throne. But Henry died first, leaving a 10 month-old son in London. When Charles died just a few months later, the French crown was up for grabs. Charles VII eventually prevailed, but not without a fight (and the help of Joan of Arc).
The tale does, however, have an interesting twist. Charles VI’s direct line of male heirs died out after two more generations. When they did, Louis of Orléans’ grandson (Louis XII) acceded to the French throne. Meanwhile, however, Charles’ line lived on in England through his daughter, Catherine. Not only was she the mother of Henry VI, but through a subsequent and secret marriage to Owen Tudor, the grandmother of Henry VII.
So Charles VI, the mad king, was an ancestor of the Tudor monarchs, including Henry VIII and Elizabeth I. And all because of John the Fearless’ assassination of his brother.