1902 Encyclopedia > Charles, Duke of Orléans

Charles, Duke of Orléans
(Charles d'Orléans; Charles of Valois)
French noble and poet

CHARLES, DUKE OF ORLEANS, (1391-1465), commonly called Charles d'Orléans, was the eldest son of Louis, duke of Orleans (brother of Charles VI. of France), and of Valentina Visconti, daughter of Galeaso of Milan. He was born on 26th May 1391. Although many minor details are preserved of his youth, nothing except his reception in 1403, from his uncle the king, of a pension of 12,000 livres d'or is worth noticing, until his marriage three years later (29th June 1406) with Isabella, his cousin, widow of Richard II. of England. The bride was two years older than her husband, and is thought to have married him unwillingly, but she brought him a great dowry,—it is said, 500,000 francs. She died three years later, leaving Charles a widower and father of a daughter at the age of eighteen. He was already duke of Orleans, for Louis had been assassinated by the Bur-gundians two years before (1407). He soon saw himself the most important person in France, except the dukes of Burgundy and Brittany, the king being a cipher. This position his natural temperament by no means qualified him to fill. His mother was eager for vengeance for her husband, and for years Charles did his best to carry out her wishes by filling France with intestine war. Of this, however, he was only nominally one of the leaders, the real guidance of his party resting with the great count of Armagnac, whose daughter, Bonne, he married, or at least formally espoused, in 1410. Five years of confused nego tiations, plots, and fightings passed before the English invasion and the battle of Agincourt, where Charles was joint commander-in-chief. According to one account he was dangerously wounded and narrowly escaped with his life. He was certainly taken prisoner and carried to England, which country was his residence thenceforward for a full quarter of a century. Windsor, Pontefract, Ampthill, Wingfield (Suffolk), and the Tower are named among other places as the scenes of his captivity, which, however, was anything but a rigorous one. He was main-tained in the state due not merely to one of the greatest nobles of France but to one who ranked high in the order of succession to the crown. He hunted and hawked and enjoyed society amply, though the very dignities which secured him these privileges made his ransom high, and his release difficult to arrange Above all, he had leisure to devote himself to literary work. But for this he would hardly be remembered as anything better than a more than usually amiable and less than usually able example of the higher feudal nobility, whose political position rather than their personal faults made government difficult or impossible in the later Middle Ages.

The work which secures a measure of immortality to Charles d'Orléans consists wholly of short poems in the peculiar artificial metres which had become fashionable in France about half a century or more before his birth, and which continued to be fashionable till nearly a century after his death. Besides these a certain number of English poems have been attributed to him. It is certain that he studied the language of his captors, but it is more than doubtful whether the extant English poems which bear his name are genuine, and in any case they are of no value. The ingenuity of a single English critic has striven to attribute to him a curious book in prose, called Le Debat des Herauts de France et d'Angleterre, but M. Paul Meyer, in his edition of the book in question, has com-pletely disposed of this theory. For all practical purposes, therefore, Charles's work consists of some hundreds of short poems, a few in various metres, but the majority either ballades or rondels. The chronology of these poems is not always clear, still less the identity of the persons to whom they are addressed, and it is certain that some, per-haps the greater part of them, belong to the later years of the poet's life. But many are expressly stated in the manuscripts to have been "composed in prison," others are obviously so composed, and, on the whole, there is in them a remarkable unity of literary flavour. Charles d'Orleans is not distinguished by any extraordinary strength of passion or originality of character; but he is only the more valuable as the last and not the least accomplished representative of the poetry of the middle of the Middle Ages, in which the form was almost every-thing, and the personality of the poet, save in rare instances, nothing. Yet Charles d'Orleans is not entirely without differentia. If he were he would hardly hold the place which at present he justly occupies. He is a capital example of the cultivated and refined—it may almost be called the lettered—chivalry of the last chivalrous age, expert to the utmost degree in carrying out the traditional details of a graceful convention in love and literature. But he is more than this; in a certain easy grace and truth of expression, as well as in a peculiar mixture of melancholy, which is not incompatible with the enjoyment of the pleasures, even the trifling pleasures, of life, with listlessness that is fully able to occupy itself about those trifles, he stands quite alone. He has the urbanity of the 18th century without its vicious and prosaic frivolity, the poetry of the Middle Ages without their tendency to tediousness. His best-known rondels—those on Spring, on the Harbingers of Summer, and others—rank second to nothing of their kind.

Poetry, however, could hardly be an entire consolation, and it is not surprising to find that Charles, during all the long years of his captivity, was perpetually scheming for liberty. But the English Government had too many reasons for keeping him, and it was not till his hereditary foe Philip the Good of Burgundy interested himself in him that the Government of Henry VI., which had by that time lost most of its hold on France, released him in return for an immediate payment of 80,000 saluts d'or, and an engagement on his part to pay 140,000 crowns at a future time. The agreement was concluded on 2d July 1440. He was actually released on 3d November following, and almost immediately cemented his friend-ship with Duke Philip by marrying his niece, Mary of Cleves, who brought him a considerable dowry to assist the payment of his ransom. He had, however, some difficulty in making up the balance, as well as the large sum required for his brother, Jean d'Angouleme, who also was an English prisoner. The last twenty-five years of his life (for, curiously enough, it divides itself into three almost exactly equal periods, each of that length) were spent partly in negotiating, with a little fighting intermixed, for the purpose of gaining the Italian county of Asti, on which ho had claims through his mother, partly in travelling about, but chiefly at his principal seat of Blois. Here he kept a miniature court which, from the literary point of view at least, was not devoid of brilliancy. At this most of the best-known French men-of-letters at the time—Villon, Olivier de la Marche, Chastelain, Meschinot, and others —were residents or visitors or correspondents. His son, afterwards Louis XII., was not born till 1462, three years before Charles's own death. He had become, notwith-standing his high position, something of a nullity in politics, and tradition ascribes his death to vexation at the harshness with which Louis XL rejected his attempt to mediate on behalf of the duke of Brittany. At any rate he died, on 4th January 1465, at Amboise. Many of his later poems are small occasional pieces addressed to his courtiers and companions, and in not a few cases answers to them by those to whom they were addressed exist. The best edition of Charles d'Orleans's poems, with a brief but sufficient account of his life, is that of C. d'Hericault in the Nouvelle Collection Jannet, Paris, 1874. (G. SA.)

The above article was written by: George Saintsbury.

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