Charles V of France: kingship based on clever governance and education

Born on the 21st of January 1338, King Charles V of France, known as the Wise (le Sage), died on the 16th of September 1380 at the age of 42 at Beauté-sur-Marne, France.  He was the eldest son of King Jean II of France, called the Good (le Bon), and his first wife, Bonne de Luxembourg.  A grandson of Philippe VI of France (the first Valois monarch), Charles V is notable for his effective management of the French nobility, his prudent fiscal reforms, and his ability to turn the tide of the devastating Hundred Years’ War in favor of France with the aid of the talented general Bertrand du Guesclin, called ‘The Eagle of Brittany’.  Du Guesclin recovered the overwhelming majority of the French lands lost to the English because of the Treaty of Brétigny of 1360, which fixed the terms of Jean II’s release from captivity after the disastrous Battle of Poitiers of 1356.

Portrait of Charles V of France, by François Louis De Juinne, 1836-7

Charles V was well-educated, immensely intelligent, and also courageous enough to participate in one of his few battles – the Battle of Poitiers, when he avoided capture by a miracle.  Let’s focus not on battles and reforms during the reign of this highly capable monarch, but on the new model of Charles V’s kingship.  After the catastrophes at Crécy and Poitiers, Charles inherited a country deprived of a third of her territory, whereas the early Valois monarchs had lost their esteem in the eyes of people.  Ruling during the period of political turbulence while Du Guesclin was gradually recovering the lost territories, Charles focused on the government matters and on the creation of a new Valois kingship model that had to strengthen the legitimacy of the Valois royalty.

Statue of Charles V of France

One of the facets of this new model was a patronage of intellectuals, mostly philosophers and jurists, whose works endorsed and hailed the royal authority.  Charles was a generous and enthusiastic literary patron, whose commissions for translations or the composition of new books and manuscripts reflected his sagacity.  Upon becoming King of France, Charles ordered a continuation of the Grandes Chroniques de France (a vernacular royal compilation of the history of France), where accounts about the reigns of Philippe VI, Jean II, and his own reign were added.  This was a smart political move to cultivate the knowledge about the Valois monarchy, for the traditional history accounts written by the monks at Saint-Denis were primarily about the Merovingians, Carolingians, and Capetians, but not about the Valois kings.  Therefore, Charles V needed a detailed book that would chronicle the reigns of his dynasty, making the House of Valois the center of the narration line.

Henri de Trévou, the first scribe, composed a two-volume chronicle covering the life of Philippe VI de Valois.  Sometime later, Raoulet d’Orléans, the second scribe, wrote about the life of Jean II and that of Charles V up to 1375.  Next, Charles commissioned that Raoulet d’Orléans record events that happened in his realm from the end of 1375 to spring 1379.  If Charles had not passed away in 1380, he would have ordered another scribe to add something else.  This manuscript allows to observe the genesis and evolution of the Valois monarchy and Charles V’s program.   Beautifully illuminated miniatures were added to the Chronicle, which would later be continued by his successors.  The creation of this manuscript, which influenced a generation of royal and courtly books, was one of the best ways to spread the awareness of and to reinforce the legitimacy of the Valois monarchy.  This measure might be called bureaucratic, but it was very effective in practice.

Château du Louvre, shown in this early 15th century illumination, as it was rebuilt during the reign of Charles V

The artistic patronage of Charles V consisted not only of political writing. Guillaume de Machaut (a medieval French poet and composer) had strong ties to the Valois dynasty.  They started from his early service as secretary to Jean de Luxembourg, King of Bohemia, Charles V’s maternal grandfather, and then to the monarch himself.  Machaut composed numerous works, and Charles’ late mother inspired some of his fictional female characters.  Although Eustache Deschamps was often dispatched by Charles on foreign diplomatic missions, he also wrote many ballades for his liege lord, being credited with inventing the form.  Very young Christine de Pisan (born Cristina da Pizzano), who would later become a prominent poet at the court of King Charles VI of France known as the Mad (le Fou), started her literary career under Charles V’s patronage.   Some French historians view Charles V as a medieval paragon of literary sponsorship, who transformed the patronage of writers from gifting books to special commissions directly given to them.

Another great method of reinforcing the legitimacy of the young royal dynasty was to assert the continuity between the Capetian monarchs and the Valois rulers of France.  Everyone knew that Philippe VI descended from Charles de Valois, a younger brother of Philippe IV the Fair (le Bel), but the Valois family were still a cadet branch of the Capetians.  To accomplish this, the monarch made the old Capetian Château de Louvre his crucial manifesto in stone.  In 1368, Charles began converting the ancient fortress of the Louvre into a modern royal palace, and he established there a royal library, which laid foundations for the Bibliothèque nationale de France centuries later.  The Louvre’s grand renovation, which started only months after Charles’ coronation and continued until his death, served as a symbol of national revival and unification of the country, which was especially important due to the Hundred Years’ War, rebellions, conspiracies, and budgetary crises throughout his reign.

Charles invested colossal resources into this rebuilding, including the addition of 2 new wings, a massive and ceremonial stairway, a 3-story library, and vast gardens, with both splendid interior and exterior.  He was cleverly drawing parallels with the glorious past of his realm: Philippe II Augustus, the Louvre’s original builder and one of the most revered French monarchs, had started his projects to protect and expand the kingdom in Paris, so Charles continued doing the same on a larger scale.  The renovation of the Louvre was a metaphor for the formation of the solid foundations upon which the new monarchy rested: it signaled the connection of the House of Capet and Valois, and formulated the concept of the veneration of both dynasties by the French.  The renovated Louvre symbolized a new relationship between the king and the capital, for Charles preferred to reside in Paris or just outside of the city in one of his residences such as Hôtel Saint-Pol, which was constructed for him and his cousin-wife, Jeanne de Bourbon.  Charles can be called a builder king: he created the Bastille and rebuilt not only Château du Louvre, but also Château de Vincennes and Château de Saint-Germain-en-Laye.

Jean de Vaudetar, chamberlain of Charles V of France, presents his gift of a manuscript to his liege lord

All these construction projects, especially one of the Château de Louvre, embodied the monarch’s intent to use his humanity, wisdom, and the arts to restore the nation to glory, partly in imitation of his illustrious forefathers.  Again, there were parallels with the past: Philippe Augustus had fortified the capital, Louis IX known as Saint Louis had constructed the Sainte-Chapelle, while Philip IV called the Fair (le Bel) had renovated the Palais de la Cité.  Christine de Pizan, who assessed the reign and personality of Charles V as exceptional, wrote in her ‘Le Livre des fais et bonnes meurs du sage roy Charles V’ (1404), or ‘The History of the Wise King Charles V’, that the monarch was a “vray architecteur” (a true architect) and a “veritable maître dans les sept arts libéraux, comme dans les arts mécaniques’, which means ‘a true master in the seven liberal arts, as in the mechanical arts’.

Unlike his predecessors, Charles V was a bibliophile and highly political ruler.  He loved books and old manuscripts madly, but he also knew how to apply his passion for them in a political aspect.  Despite his father Jean’s incompetence as a monarch, Charles inherited from him a collection of manuscripts and transferred them to the Louvre from the Palais de la Cité.  Charles realized that the possession of a large library and the commissioning of manuscripts could be progressive tools for governance and a profound way to reinforce the legitimacy of the Valois dynasty.  His vast collection of manuscripts included books from the 13th to the 15th centuries.  He acquired a huge number of manuscripts covering nearly all topics, including religious, classical, chivalrous, and literary texts.  The monarch employed Nicholas Oresme, Raoul de Presle, and others to transcribe ancient texts.  Being Bishop of Lisieux and a councilor of King Charles V, Nicole Oresme wrote works on economics, mathematics, physics, astrology, astronomy, philosophy, and theology.  Raoul de Presles (a famous theologian, humanist, and a royal advisor) translated the Bible into French in 1377, which he dedicated to Charles V, and he then translated ‘the City of God’  written by St Augustine of Hippo in the early 5th century.

With the royal library, Charles cultivated the image of an educated monarch, establishing high standards of learning for his successors.  He not only modified the previous model of kingship based on military prowess and courage, but also stressed that no king could rule their realm successfully without proper education.  Moreover, the library provided Charles with other political advantage: it kind of compensated for the perception of him as sickly and less brave than his energetic and belligerent father had supposedly been.  Yet, it was so only on the surface: Jean II had suffered from fragile health and preferred not to participate in tournaments, although he had sired many children with his first wife, Bonne de Luxembourg.  The only reason why many contemporaries considered Jean courageous was his participation in the Battle of Poitiers when he had led his armies to their calamitous defeat that had been predicted by some of his generals in advance.  Charles V, who was thin, sickly, and inclined to contemplation, was not a perfect warrior – this role for him performed Du Guesclin, his chief commander.  Unable to be the perfect knight people wanted to see in their sovereign, Charles resolved to be a sage monarch, although his love for books was never false.

King Charles V in his study, illuminated manuscript, c 1372

The Louvre library served for the education and entertainment of the royal family.  Charles had books with him wherever he went, keeping permanent collections of them at all his residences, most famously at Château de Vincennes.  As Charles usually lived near Paris or in the city, all of his libraries stressed that the capital of France was a seat of learning and an administrative hub for the monarchy.  One of Charles’ accomplishments was the court’s centralization to better respond to the military threat posed by the English invaders, and to achieve that, the ruler promoted the use of the French language.  Precious manuscripts, including translations of ancient and medieval texts, were done in French.  His libraries were full not only of political books, but also of prose romances, medical books, manuscripts of ‘the Roman de la rose’, and other poems.  There were books in Latin, as well as manuscripts about theology, science, and astronomy.  In 1380, the library inside the Louvre contained over 900 manuscripts and 2500 texts in French.  Unfortunately, after his death, the monarch’s collections were dispersed during the reign of his insane son Charles VI: in 1424, John of Lancaster, Duke of Bedford, purchased this library for very little money and moved it to Rouen.

The opening page of the 2nd volume of a Bible historiale, France (Paris), 1356-1357, most likely Charles V’s Bible

Having the goal to reinforce the Valois monarchy, Charles surrounded himself with luxury.   Many expensive objects were commissioned to adorn his and his queen’s apartments at their various castles.  Such objects were created from costly materials and played a considerable role in courtly and ceremonious rituals that Charles established in order to develop the concept of the royal authority.  Charles and Jeanne, his consort, wore sumptuous clothes and jewels; the monarch was fond of cameos and intaglio gems.  He accepted merchants who presented to him all kinds of lovely and exotic objects, clothes, and jewels.  Charles and Jeanne were connoisseurs of such things and acquired them eagerly: partly because they adored luxury, partly because of the ruler’s aim to cultivate the image of his intellectual and rich court despite external threats.  According to his inventory entries, Charles’ collection of engraved gemstones served for him as seals, amulets, ornamenta, and personal signets.  Following the tradition established by Philippe VI, Charles had all of his signets furnished with ancient intaglios, mostly of jasper, ruby, topaz, or sapphire – that was also a way to emphasize the royal authority.

King Charles V formed the reputation of an exemplary Christian monarch.  Not a warrior, he was hailed by his people for the economic revival in the country, for the liberation of the lands from the English, and for his competent governance.  While Charles admired Saint Louis and Philippe Augustus, he formulated a new model of rulership based on prudent and clever governance, moderate piety, and early patronage of the arts.  Thanks to Charles V, the new model of kingship no longer followed the conventions of the Middle Ages: now the monarch had to be not only a pious pastor of his people and a warrior-king, but also a well-educated individual in morals, theology, science, literature, the arts, politics, and military area.  Books and manuscript collecting became the core of any monarch’s education.  The enlightened model of the Valois kingship was different from the old Capetian model, and it was first formed by Charles V of France, who truly deserved his sobriquet – ‘The Wise’ (le Sage), similar to the biblical king-sage – Solomon.

All images are in the public domain.

Text © 2020 Olivia Longueville