By Steven Muhlberger
The Hundred Years War, one of the largest conflicts of the Middle Ages, provides us with many interesting examples of how war was fought in that era, how warriors organized war and how they interpreted their social role. We have the choice of chronicles, biographies, archival documents and military and moral treatises. These various sources also illustrated the value given to “chivalry,” which among other things, constituted the distinctive and evolving style of warfare in the 14th and 15th centuries.
Chivalry was particularly characteristic of the high nobles and other aristocrats, who were seen and saw themselves as a distinctive “order” whose role in society was justified by their ability to wage war, whether defensive or aggressive. Kings, princes, dukes and so forth were seen as the natural military leaders while knights and other gentlemen were regarded as the necessary core troops for any substantial army.
Of course the more valuable leaders were actual warriors of noble descent and they set the tone not only only for warriors but courtiers, poets and moralists. High-ranking aristocrats who were also talented soldiers were the examples for the men they led.
One of the best known princely leaders of the Hundred Years War was Duke Louis of Bourbon (1337- 1410), the “Good Duke.” The great-grandson of King Louis IX (St. Louis), and one of the most important political leaders of the late 14th century, he was the subject of a lively and almost worshipful biography, one commissioned by his grandson, Duke Charles. The Chronicle of the Good Duke Louis II of Bourbon gave a multifaceted portrait of the Good Duke as a defender of the Valois dynasty, a Crusader, a pious layman, and a devoted son, and more. But perhaps the most interesting aspect of the Chronicle is how it depicts the love of his soldiers for him, and his love for them. It shows his friends observing him in action. The Chronicle is as much a portrait of Louis’ circle of friends as it is of Louis himself.
The ability of Louis to win over and keep the loyalty of his men emerged early in his military career. Louis’s first leadership role was as successor to his father, Duke Pierre, who had died at the Battle of Poitiers in 1356. The new Duke Louis had been captured and like many French nobles owed a hefty ransom. He was not able to pay until 1363, when he returned to his Duchy of Bourbon as a virtual stranger.
The Order of the Golden Shield
He found Bourbon in sad condition. Disbanded English soldiers and other foreigners controlled various castles and strongholds and exploited the countryside. The resident French nobles were disorganized and had done little to expel these bandits; they had even neglected to ransom their young duke. Indeed, one ranking Bourbonnais bureaucrat was so angry with the performance of the fighting nobility that he had compiled a dossier that which recorded their faults, and attempted to get the Good Duke to use the dossier to punish the slackers.
When the time came for the Good Duke to meet his followers, however, Louis used a different strategy. He summoned the nobles to Poitou, where he made a speech emphasizing the traditional ties between the dukes and their followers, and asked for their help:
“I hope to be guided by you, and your good counsel, in things that relate to my lands and the welfare of this kingdom…I request your affirmation that you will help me to make up the time I have lost…, I have the heart and will to act forcefully, and because of this, I pray that …you will help me in this. For I want to live and die with you, and I suspect that you feel the same towards me.” At the end of this beautiful speech, the baronage present, and knights and squires, wept with joy saying “God be blessed! For we have our lord and master.”
It may seem that Louis was humbling himself before his followers. But it was they who wept at the signs that he was going to be a good master. If he said they were “brothers in arms” who shared some essential “chivalric” values, it was so. And he did: Duke Louis followed his “beautiful speech” by creating a heraldic order, the Order of the Golden Shield, a brotherhood that would, under the duke’s leadership, serve God, defend the country, and honor ladies. Quite the claim of virtue! This Order was one of the earliest sponsored not by a king, but by a prince with ambitions.
Duke Louis was not just a manipulator of symbols dear to his highest ranking followers. We also see him as a man who could talk to men on the battlefield or on campaign. Jean Cabaret, the author of the Chronicle, presents Louis as a man who understood the common soldier. When Louis – rather unwillingly – agreed to take the English stronghold, he had to motivate his men. He turned the assignment from a dangerous chore to a task that could be done with a light-hearted remark:
“My dear companions, brothers and friends, since we are not far from there, I pray you, accompany me there, and you will see what we will do. For, with God’s blessing, we will have at them, lads, and if the sun can get in [to the castle], so can we.” At these words the companions laughed and said that they would accompany him with a good heart.
In this incident, we see a great duke, cousin to the King, speaking like a companion to other companions ( = men-at-arms), acting as a man who has a practical appreciation of war and what it means to the warriors he commands.
Chivalric Deeds of Arms
There are many examples in the Chronicle that show how powerful the connection between lord and man could be. Of particular interest are the anecdotes concerning Jean de Chateaumorand, a member of a family long in service to the lords of Bourbon (he was very likely the source for many of Cabaret’s military anecdotes). The way the Duke’s fighting men identified with him is well illustrated by an account of how they, riding a wave of high morale, finally took La Roche Senadoire, an English stronghold that had long irritated the French. The duke was not present at the fighting front, but he had entrusted his best men to, who saw this as a terrific honor. Chateaumorand was now “the pennon [heraldic battle flag] of the Duke of Bourbon” a figure that struck fear into the English garrison. Thanks to the flag he carried, Chateaumorand became something of a superman, in some sense becoming both that symbol and an unbeatable warrior:
During this melee, the pennon of the Duke of Bourbon continually carried by Jean de Châteaumorand passed through the breach in the palisade,…Then the English who saw this did not know what to do, and while they retreated the pennon rushed forward with the valiant men; ….the pennon of the Duke of Bourbon and the people of his household charged them so close that as they entered the tower, the pennon of the Duke of Bourbon rushed among them very well accompanied, so that those Englishman were not able to close the door of the tower, and so they surrendered to the one who carried the pennon of the Duke of Bourbon. …
This anecdote and others tell us how the people who followed Duke Louis saw him, and how in the late 1300s he emerged as a striking symbol of chivalry, a key figure in the turbulent politics of France, and an organizer of crusading expeditions to the Baltic and Tunisia. He was a skilled politician (says the Chronicle), but he surely gained the greater renown by his personal participation in hand-to-hand combat. One of the best stories concerns the French siege of Verteuil, where the French and English were conducting lackadaisical operations against each other. The two sides each had a mine under the castle walls, but there was little activity. When Duke Louis and his fighting household came to Vertueil, Louis was unhappy with what he saw and decided to challenge the commander of the English to single combat. The castle commander was a man-at-arms of low rank, but the duke proceeded to the mine anyway.
As the fight began, Duke Louis’s men cheered him on, shouting “Bourbon, Bourbon, Notre Dame.” His opponent was flabbergasted. No doubt he felt that he was in a dangerous situation – low soldiers like himself were sometimes executed as bandits by men like Louis. So he made a daring offer – he would surrender the castle if Duke Louis would knight him. Louis agreed, and turned the siege into a chivalric deed of arms. Louis gained the castle at little cost, the garrison commander gained respectability, and Louis’s men, at the request of the duke, were given the opportunity to fight willing members of the garrison in the mine. Men on both sides gained considerable reputation, since fighting in a mine was a rather unusual activity.
Duke Louis was famous for many accomplishments, but the Chronicle was largely a set of stories about fighting men who remembered their “good old days,” and the prince who made their reputation as warriors. We also benefit from seeing the love that the Good Duke inspired in them.
Loyalty and even love preserved for them, for the patron who commissioned the Chronicle, and for us the stories and values of one fighting household. That collection deserves a wider audience than it has had to date.
Steven Muhlberger, before his recent retirement from Nipissing University, studied and taught Late Antiquity, the history of democracy, Islamic history, and chivalry. His most recent scholarly works include the “Deeds of Arms Series” published by Freelance Academy Press. He hopes to soon publish an English translation of The Chronicle of the Good Duke Louis II of Bourbon.