Charles d'Orléans Biography


(Literary Essentials: Great Poems of the World)

Charles d’Orléans was born in Paris on November 24, 1391; his father was Louis, Duke of Orléans, whose brother was King Charles VI. In 1406, a marriage was arranged between Charles and his cousin Isabelle of France. The following year (in November, 1407), his father was assassinated by Jean-sans-Peur, Duke of Burgundy, and Charles himself became Duke of Orléans. Isabelle died in 1409, and the next year, following an alliance with the Count of Armagnac, he married eleven-year-old Bonne d’Armagnac. He spent several years trying to avenge his father’s death, doing battle with the Burgundians, concluding more than one unsuccessful treaty, and occasionally seeking the aid of the English.

France’s troubles were not limited to the regional struggles which occupied much of Charles’s early life; he had, in fact, been born at the midpoint of the Hundred Years’ War, and before his twenty-fifth birthday he was taken prisoner by the English in the Battle of Agincourt (October 25, 1415). He spent the next twenty-five years as a prisoner in England. It was a curious kind of imprisonment; although he was frequently moved from place to place, he was never held behind bars. He was allowed to receive visitors, money, and servants from France, and he had access to various amenities and pleasures, which (according to some reports) may have included female companionship. It was hardly a difficult existence, but Charles was nevertheless separated from his homeland and family, and many of his poems from the period bitterly lament his plight.

Changes in the political and military situation (along with the payment of a substantial ransom and a promise never again to take up arms against the English) secured Charles’s release in November, 1440, and, his second wife having died five years earlier, he soon married Marie de Clèves, niece of the Duke of Burgundy. For the remainder of his life, he dabbled occasionally in military and political affairs but was largely content to devote his time to poetic pursuits, especially at his castles in Blois and Tours.

During the night of January 4, 1465, he died at Amboise, at the age of seventy-three.

Early Life

(Encyclopedia of Biography: Middle Ages)

The parents of Charles d’Orléans were Louis, Duke of Orléans and brother of King Charles VI, and Valentina, daughter of the Duke of Milan. Louis had powerful influence in French politics but was a man of dissolute habits; Valentina was a gentle, cultured lady. On June 29, 1406, at age fourteen, Charles married Isabelle, who was five years older than he, daughter of Charles VI and child-widow of England’s Richard II. Isabelle died September 13, 1409, after giving birth to a daughter.

In 1407, two years before Charles lost his wife, his father was murdered by hired assassins of John the Fearless, Duke of Burgundy, whose interest was in destroying rivals for control over Charles VI, who was often mentally unstable. Charles’s mother, apparently exhausted by the combination of sorrow, appeals for justice, and burdens in administering the estate, died a year later.

With support from friends of his father, Charles assumed the title Duke of Orléans himself and in 1410 married Bonne, the daughter of Bernard d’Armagnac. With this alliance, Charles tried for years to avenge Burgundy’s crime, coming closest in 1415 by gaining support from the king and receiving consolation in memorial masses clearing his father’s name and condemning the murder; he could not, however, punish Burgundy.

Later that same year, Charles was the most important of many French nobles captured in the astonishing defeat of the massive French army at Agincourt by the much smaller English forces led by King Henry V. He was kept prisoner in England for twenty-five years, from 1415 to 1440.

Life’s Work

(Encyclopedia of Biography: Middle Ages)

The English considered the Duke of Orléans their most important political prisoner because of his high rank and the antagonism between England and France in these last decades of the Hundred Years’ War. Henry V insisted on strong security to prevent escape and never asked ransom for Charles’s deliverance. In later years, the brother of Henry V, Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, continued this strong opposition to Charles’s release. Charles probably never was actually in what most people would consider a jail; he was, however, moved every few years from such castles as Windsor to Pontefract in 1417, Fotheringhay in 1421, Bolingbroke in 1422, London in 1425, Canterbury in 1427, Peterborough in 1428, Amthill in 1430, Dover and London in 1433, Wingfield in 1434, Calais in 1435, and London in 1437 until 1440. These frequent movements may have been to prevent him from ingratiating himself with his primary guardians.

During most of this time he was permitted to keep servants and to receive money and household goods, including wine from France. Charles was able to send messengers to oversee affairs on his estates in France and to make political appointments. He was clearly on friendly terms with at least one of his guardians, William de la Pole, Earl of Suffolk, a minor poet in English himself. In fact, when Suffolk was later accused of treason and then assassinated in 1450, one of the charges against him was that he supported release of the Duke of Orléans for ransom.

For posterity, Charles’s most important activity while in captivity was writing poetry, principally love lyrics. His most characteristic verse form in these years was the ballade (sometimes called ballad), an intricate verse form requiring at least three stanzas of equal length and a refrain at the end of each stanza. Charles used twenty-one stanzaic patterns and wrote in both eight-syllable and ten-syllable lines, preferring the eight-syllable line.

During his lifetime, Charles was respected for his poetry in French. Some of his correspondence included an occasional lyric, often with a request for a poem in response, especially in letters to the later Duke of Burgundy, Philip the Good. While in captivity, however, he seems also to have written in English. A large collection of ballades, rondels, and occasional verses (6,531 lines) survive in the manuscript Harleian 682....

(The entire section is 967 words.)


(Encyclopedia of Biography: Middle Ages)

The status of Charles d’Orléans as a major French medieval poet seems secure and even improving; he ranks alongside François Villon and above Guillaume de Machaut and Eustache Deschamps when measured by comparable representation in selective anthologies. He does not refer to historic events or draw extensively from classical or European literature for allusions. Thus, in his poetry, he is not scholarly or intellectual by Renaissance and later standards. No one can deny, however, the elegance and concision of his best poems, especially the rondels.

The question of evaluating his English poetry remains open partly as a result of uncertainty about his authorship but also as a result of insufficient attention by Middle English specialists to fifteenth century lyrics. Charles’s English poetry may in fact surpass that of any English poet of his era while still falling short of his own standard in French.

In review of his achievements as a government leader, one must credit him with good intentions, as he battled for many worthwhile causes, but he is most famous for defeat. He never truly avenged his father’s murder, though John the Fearless was assassinated early in Charles’s captivity; the Battle of Agincourt stands as one of the most astonishing defeats in history; his attempts to gain release from captivity meant many years of frustration; and he failed to regain his property in Italy. Nevertheless, he always earned respect from his captors and loyal followers; Joan of Arc even spoke of freeing the Duke of Orléans as one of her objectives. His enforced leisure as prisoner probably led to his finding consolation in writing poetry. He was a man who achieved much in the midst of great adversity.