Unfit to rule: the merry captivity of King Jean II of France after the 1356 Poitiers catastrophe

King Jean II of France, called the Good (le Bon), was the second Valois monarch, and, as some historians say, ‘The shame of France’.  How could the ruler who also has the nickname ‘the Good’ deserve such an epithet?  The clue to the understanding of this reasoning is in the Battle of Poitiers, which happened on the 19th of September 1356, and its catastrophic outcome for France.  Ignoring the warnings of his generals about the English longbow, Jean II attacked the English forces commanded by Edward the Black Prince, Prince of Wales and King Edward III of England’s eldest son.  As a result, Jean was surrounded and captured with his son – Philippe the Bold, who would later become the founder of the Burgundian branch of the House of Valois.

 Jean II of France, and his first wife, Bonne de Luxembourg

King Jean spent one third of his reign (1350-1364) in captivity.  He was not the only ruler of France to be taken prisoner in battle:  Louis IX of France, known as Saint Louis, was captured at Fariskur during the Seventh Crusade in 1250, and King François I at Pavia in 1525.  King Richard I of England the Lionheart was taken near Vienna by Duke Leopold of Austria, and his ransom, raised by Eleanor of Aquitaine, bleed England out like a horde of leeches.  The English captivity of Jean II (1356-1360) had the appalling consequences for French taxpayers, the realm, the prestige of the young Valois dynasty, turning the tide of the Hundred Years’ War in favor of the English.

The French historian Georges Minois commented on the matter of Jean’s capture:

“It is permissible to think that it would have been better for King Jean the Second to have been killed at Poitiers rather than taken prisoner”. 

The capture of King Jean II of France at Poitiers, illustration from des Chroniques de Jean Froissart

My opinion is that it would have been better for Jean II to perish in that battle with honor like a true knight, not causing his country so many woes.  Jean was known for his hot temper and was prone to violence, which alienated many government officials from him before his capture.  One or two of his generals remembered the reason of the French defeat at Crécy – the English longbow that fired a volleys of arrows striking French knights like a thunder from heaven.  Influenced by his intemperance and presumptuousness, Jean refused to listen and devised his own plan.  Before the battle, Jean and 17 knights dressed themselves identically so that the monarch would not be recognized.  However, the winds of fate blew in unfavorable direction for Jean: his helmet was knocked off, he was identified quickly, and none of his warriors could defend him from an aggressive attack of the enemy.

Transforming from a hot-blooded lion of rather fragile health into a humble lamb, Jean ordered his son, Philippe, to prepare for surrendering.  His eldest son, Dauphin Charles (future King Charles V) escaped capture by a miracle and left the battlefield together with other Valois forces.  Later it would become clear what a real fortune it was that young Charles remained free.  Among Prince Edward’s troops there were some French exiles who fought for England, including Denis de Morbecque, who recognized the tall, fair-haired Jean and approached him, enjoining his men to encircle Jean.

Denis de Morbecque briefly bowed and told the French monarch:

“Sire, I am a knight of Artois.  Yield yourself to me, and I will lead you to the Prince of Wales.”

With all pomp and arrogance, King Jean answered,

“To whom shall I yield me?  Where is my cousin the Prince of Wales? If I might see him, I would speak with him.” 

As if nothing had happened at all, King Jean spent the evening in the sumptuous of Prince Edward.  A small feast was served for them; Edward was polite and courteous.  Inwardly Edward celebrated his victory, satisfied that they had both Jean of France and young Philippe in his hands.  From Poitiers, the Black Prince took his two prisoners to Bordeaux, Aquitaine.  While Jean continued dining with his foe who wanted to conquer his kingdom, France was moaning and weeping with bloody tears of shock, discontent, and political unrest.  Jean’s afflictions triggered a series of events that destabilized the French realm, as though it had lost its foot or part of a leg.  Jean sent some commands to his son, Dauphin Charles, but for the most part he did not quite care about the dreadful situation in France.  One may say in the king’s defense that Jean could not rule France from captivity, but could he at least not fraternize with the English and behave in an aloof, princely manner befitting a ruler?

King Charles II of Navarre  the Bad

France evolved into a human being without one of her limbs, thanks be to God not legs.  The country no longer had her sovereign, incompetent or not, and Dauphin Charles, who assumed the role of regent for his parent, dealt with the furious Estates General, the release from the prison of King Charles II of Navarre known as the Bad, and the peasant revolt Jacquerie.  The liberation of Charles the Bad created numerous problems.  The eldest son of Jeanne II de France (the only surviving child of King Louis X of France) and, hence, a grandson of Philippe IV the Fair (le Bel), Charles the Bad was also a son of Philippe III of Navarre called the Noble, who was the son of Louis, Count d’Évreux, a younger son of Philippe III of France by his second spouse, Marie de Brabant.  Due to intermarriages within the Capetian family, Charles the Bad was a Capet on both maternal and paternal sides, which made him believe that he was the rightful King of France.  Charles the Bad did his best to discredit the Valois kings and used the situation of the monarch’s capture to his benefit.

Liberated from prison under the pressure from his partisans in the Estates General, Charles the Bad openly proclaimed himself an enemy of King Jean and Dauphin Charles.  Possessing skills of an effective orator, Charles addressed both the people of Paris and the Estates General, bemoaning that he was mistreated and demanding that Dauphin Charles compensate him for all the damage done to his “honorable” person during his incarceration.  It goes without saying that Charles the Bad insisted that all his crimes are pardoned: Charles had murdered the Constable of France, Charles de La Cerda, who had once been King Jean’s favorite.  Charles also demanded that the dauphin transfer the Duchy of Normandy – his own duchy – to him together with the County of Champagne.  Étienne Marcel, who represented the mercantile leaders of the Estates General, threw his lot with Charles the Bad.

Dauphin Charles (later Charles V of France), by François Louis De Juinne, 1836-7

The catastrophe at Poitiers caused the prestige of the French aristocracy to plummet literally lower than the ground.  Countless nobles had perished in that battle, but many also ran away, having abandoned infantry and their family heraldry signs.  This was considered shameful, going against the code of medieval chivalry.  The Estates General forgot about the imprisoned King Jean and passed a law aimed at securing their own rights.  According to this document, the peasantry had to pay huge taxes and repair the properties, ruined or damaged by military confrontations, without compensation – financing all works from their own meagre purses.  This led to the infamous peasant revolt known as the Jacquerie in northern France in 1358.  Furthermore, bands of English, Gascon, German, Italian, and Spanish routiers – mercenaries who became unemployed after the English raids into France were temporarily over – flooded the country and pillaged cities, towns, and villages.

The feudal France needed a strong leadership in the days of internal instability, but Jean could not come.  The revolt was surreptitiously supported by Charles the Bad, who intended to usurp the Valois throne.  France gained her leadership in the face of Dauphin Charles who was able to suppress it when Guillaume Cale, one of the leaders of the uprising, was captured and executed.  Now relying upon somewhat perplexed Charles the Bad and Étienne Marcel, they declared to be acting in the name of the jailed monarch and soon plundered the town of Meaux.  Those who still believed in the royal cause perpetrated several massacres of the peasants and gentry in July and August 1358.  France would have drowned in an ocean of chaos if Dauphin Charles had not issued the declaration of amnesty in August 1358, and then the revolt was squashed by the royal forces.

Acting on behalf of Charles the Bad, a disappointed Étienne Marcel instigated the populace of Paris to invade the royal palace and murder the marshals of Champagne and of Normandy in front of Dauphin Charles.  The prince then seized the opportunity to make the divided Estates General hostile towards both Étienne Marcel and Charles the Bad.  In spite of not possessing an outstanding public speaking talent, the naturally shy dauphin condemned Marcel in the most vivid and ebullient way before the Estates General and entirely discredited the man in the eyes of the aristocracy.  This speech and the murder of two marshals, both of them nobles, made the clergy and the nobility support him and the Valois.  As usual, Marcel aided the Navarrese armed bands to infiltrate into the neighborhood of Paris, but he was assassinated by the guards at the Porte Saint-Antoine.  France now had her legs: Dauphin Charles.

Defeat of the Jacquerie in June 1358, illuminated page from Grandes Chroniques de France

What did the captive King Jean do while his country was shuddering in the throes of agony?  The Black Prince and the Valois monarch landed at Plymouth on the 3rd of May 1357.  Clad in splendid robes, Jean was taken on a progress through southern England, where the prince made grand entrées into towns such as Salisbury and Winchester.  Before England, Jean had participated in similar public parades in Gascony and Bordeaux.  From the beginning, Jean had been treated with a toxic blend of hospitality and humiliation, and the worst is that Jean seemed to have accepted it not with resignation, but with a semblance of joy that he had been part of such festivities.  The Black Prince had sent King Jean’s helmet and mantle to his royal father well in advance.

King Jean II of France, unknown painter

In London, Jean rode in an enclosed litter through the city’s streets.  At the same time, he was shown opulent theatrical displays, emphasizing England’s political and economic power.  When the prisoner reached Cheapside, 2 maids (they symbolized the city’s identity) spread gold and silver leaves over Jean’s head from a wooden cage fastened to a goldsmith’s shop.  It appears that Jean thought that it was a parade in his honor, while in reality it was a military triumph marking the Black Prince’s victory in France.  The grand entrée incorporated elements of a Roman triumph.  This must have been a spectacular event, obviously distracting any prisoner: in these moments Jean’s relaxing conscience began to dissociate itself from the trials and tribulations which befell the whole of France.  Edward III of England and the Black Prince, winners of the Battle of Poitiers, invented a vast range of ceremonies and feasts such as ceremonial entrées, tournaments, and other festivities, in which Jean of France was publically showed to the English aristocrats and commoners.

This was an intelligent strategy to highlight the power of the Plantagenet monarchy and to stress that the English ruler had his French rival, whom King Edward viewed more as a contender for the French throne than a real monarch.  Edward III ensured that Jean would enjoy luxury and relative freedom to showcase his chivalry and magnanimity, contrasting them with the actions of some previous French rulers such as King Philippe II Augustus, who had showed to the Parisians his high-ranked captives in chains during his victorious parade after the Battle of Bouvines of 1214.  Jean and Philippe, his youngest son, attended all these events, dressed in rich clothes and jewels.  Together with Jean and Philippe, there were other French nobles who had been taken prisoner at Poitiers, and English chronicles praised Edward III and the Black Prince immensely.

In letters, which the Prince of Wales sent to several bishops, he referred to Jean not as the King of France, but simply ‘John de Valoys’ as this name appeared at the top of the list of French prisoners.  The English society was focused on the imprisonment of the Valois monarch, and Edward III must have felt that it was the beginning of their further success in the quest to regain the former Plantagenet holdings on the continent.  The principal advantage of having Jean in the English custody was of a political nature.  Jean’s evident eagerness to participate in feasts and festivities, organized for him to demonstrate the captive to Edward’s subjects of all classes, allowed the King of England to embark on the campaign of effective propaganda of the Plantagenet power and might, and of the Valois weakness.  Edward III and the Black Prince acted cleverly and calculatingly while being nice to Jean II, who was flattered by their attitude to him.

How could Jean II of France tolerate the insult of being displayed, like a trophy, to hundreds of people?  Why did he participate willingly and, worst of all, with apparent enthusiasm in Edward’s smart spectacle?  One might say that Jean was a prisoner and had no choice but become part of such ceremonies.  The same person might say that Jean was a monarch in his own right, so he had to show off his kingly status and himself to France’s ancient enemy.  The question is why it was done with such eagerness and Jean’s almost affable attitude towards Edward III and the Black Prince, as if in gratitude for the excellent treatment of him in London.  Where were Jean’s sense of royal dignity and his hubris, which had earned him foes among his French councilors, when the captive ruler not only dined with the Plantagenets, but also exchanged lavish gifts with them, for which was paid by Dauphin Charles and the French populace?  The two Edwards intentionally stressed their chivalrous qualities, and maybe Jean strove not to be less chivalrous.  But why this almost friendly attitude?

Letter of King Jean II during his captivity in Windsor, to his son, Dauphin Charles

From his gilded prison of Windsor and his other palaces, where Jean was transferred from time to time, he watched France’s misfortunes with a sort of listless indifference, as it can be inferred from his behavior in England.  Still a relatively young man in his mid-thirties, Jean was finally free from the burdens of ruling the war-battered Valois realm under the constant threat of English invasions.  Carefree and insouciant spirits seized Jean’s soul, fatigued from the personal battle to be a competent monarch that he could not win due to the lack of necessary monarchial qualities in this unreasonable, weak-willed, and short-tempered man of very average intellect.  Edward III called John ‘my cousin’ or ‘my French adversary’, stimulating Jean’s mental divorce from the troubles of his kingdom.

The period of King Jean II’s captivity in England is well documented because a set of household accounts, running for over 18 months (from 1359 to 1360), provides us with a detailed view of the workings of the French monarch’s household.  The accounts were compiled by Jean’s secretary, Denis de Collors, who used them to keep a record of all expenditures in England.  During the years of his stay in England, Jean dedicated a great deal of time to festivities, tournaments, banquets, hunting trips,  and other celebrations, which were financed by Edward.  However, it was obvious that England would receive tremendous benefits for Jean’s release: continental territories ceded by the French crown and ransom that Edward planned to make very high.

Some bourgeois chronicler from Valenciennes recorded that the St George’s day tournament of 1358 was held ‘in the name of King John of France’.  The reason for this event was to celebrate the establishment of friendship between the rulers of England and France after months of negotiations.  How could Edward III negotiate with Jean anything while being aware of the political unrest in France, of the peasant insurrections, and of the conflict between Charles II of Navarre and Dauphin Charles?  Edward waited who would prevail in France while entertaining Jean with feasts and so on.  Or with whom could Edward discuss the terms and conditions of his priceless prisoner’s release?  Edward was fortunate that Jean was far less intelligent and less firm than him.

Portrait of King Jean II of France, by Jean Léonard Lugardon, 1837

It is true that the medieval rulers flaunted their status with the help of their day-to-day activities, their court’s splendor, and their fineries.  Jean had no court in England, but had an abundance of free time.  Jean actively engaged in hunting, hawking, feasting, and celebrating.  Always suffering from rather poor health, Jean suddenly filled his time with constant hunting.  Jean’s chaplain and falconer, Gace de la Buigne, recorded how the enormous expenses of hawking and hunting nearly crippled his finances.  Moreover, Jean demanded in his letters to his son that French greyhounds and falcons be delivered to England across the Channel for his use.  This portrays him as a monarch whose brain was completely disassociated from the harsh reality in his realm.  Jean kept a pack of greyhounds in England, but we don’t know how large it was, and he bought falcons for hunting, using his son’s money.  The dutiful Dauphin Charles sent greyhounds to England.

Philippe II the Bold, Duke of Burgundy, Jean II’s youngest son

Moreover, Jean’s son, Philippe, indulged himself considerably in such activities.  Jean ensured that Philippe was trained in these sports.  It was part of a royal upbringing, but it was all funded by French nobles and common people in the time of horrors they were experiencing.  Some historians, who try to whitewash Jean II, argue that Jean’s numerous hunting and hawking excursions manifested his kingship during his time in England.  It would have sounded credible if the Valois realm had not been on the very brink of ruin, and if Jean had not sent letters to Dauphin Charles asking for greyhounds and constant inflow of funds.  Also, what about frequent exchange of gifts with Edward III?  It is understandable that part of these things were done by Jean for political purposes, but it is also apparent that Jean, who did not lose his hubris and arrogance in captivity, wished to find ways to express his sovereignty and his “importance” in ways other than ruling his people.

Imagining himself as Saint Louis, King Jean went on pilgrimages across England, guarded by the English.  His accounts suggest that there was substantial almsgiving to priories, abbeys, friars, and monks.  Perhaps missing his position of authority, Jean began receiving petitions for support as he voyaged, which speaks volumes about his attempts to emulate Saint Louis by his almsgiving.  It is indeed benevolent on his part to donate money to the poor and downtrodden, as well as pilgrims.  Jean also established the patronage of religious recluses, which was part of royal charity during the Middle Ages.  Arrogance, stupidity, his noble desire to help the poor, and cravings for extravagance vied in this contradictory man, who perhaps did not want to rule at all.

Initially held in the Savoy Palace, Jean then traveled between Windsor Castle, Somerton Castle, Hertford Castle, Berkhamsted Castle, and King John’s Lodge in Sussex.  That was a considerable degree of freedom!  In contrast to Jean II, the captivity of King François I of France, which followed his defeat at Pavia in 1525, was different.  François was held in an old and dilapidated castle in Madrid, Spain, for a long time on the orders of Emperor Carlos V from the House of Habsburg until François contracted a dangerous fever and almost died.  François was then moved to a better place, where he was nursed back to health by his sister – Marguerite d’Angoulême, later Queen Marguerite of Navarre.  Jean was a selfish and lucky man despite all his misfortunes: luck went to his head and utterly spoiled him.  Jean’s apartments in all the castles were adorned splendidly, which was crucial to his weak attempts at the projection of power in England, and enveloped him into a pleasant atmosphere of relaxation, stroking his selfish ego and caressing it.

While Jean entertained in England, Dauphin Charles finally had the Valois realm under his full control and contacted Edward III regarding his father’s release.  The dauphin succeeded in decreasing the amount of ransom, which the English ruler requested, from 4 to 3 million écus.  The awful Treaty of Brétigny, which deprived France from a third of her territories in favor of the English, was signed on the 25th of May 1360.  King Jean was released in exchange for 83 hostages, together with Jean’s another son – Prince Louis d’Anjou.  Edward III repudiated the Duchy of Touraine, the suzerainty of Brittany and of Flanders, the counties of Anjou and Maine, as well as his claims to the French throne.  Edward was not obliged to pay homage to the King of France as a vassal, like it had traditionally been centuries ago when English kings had had continental possessions.  Edward must have been happy, and he had reasons to feel so, although providence would prove his gladness to be premature.

France after the Treaty of Brétigny: French territory in green, English territory in pink
The funera procession of King Jean II of France

King Jean II of France was a man whose intemperate nature and foolish desire to fight a large battle nearly ruined France.  Jean was an irresponsible man who had first failed his father, Philippe VI of France, when due to his indiscipline, he had appeared with his army at Crécy a few days after the catastrophe of 1346.  It had been the beginning of his many failures as a prince and later as a monarch, which culminated in the Battle of Poitiers.  Jean was a selfish and carefree spendrift during his English captivity, where he transformed into a man disconnected from the afflictions of his realm, which strengthened his egotistical self-absorption only in his own needs and wishes, not in the needs of his countrymen.  Jean returned to France and continued ruling in his old style – without asking what his councilors, his people, and his subjects thought would be right for the realm.  When his son, Louis d’Anjou, escaped from the English custody, Jean willingly returned to England as a prisoner despite all the gargantuan efforts of Dauphin Charles to liberate him and despite the colossal ransom paid to the English.

Jean II of France should be known not as the Good, but as the Foolish (le Stupide) or the Troublemaker (le Fauteur de troubles), for he proved to be unfit for the role of a monarch.  In 1364, the odd Valois ruler was greeted with a series of festivities and pageants in London upon his return.  A surprised, yet satisfied, Edward III welcomed him.  In several months, Jean fell ill and died of unknown causes, and his body was returned to France to be buried at Saint Denis Basilica.  Jean’s eldest heir, the highly competent Charles V the Wise (le Sage), was crowned at Reims, and during his reign he would recover all of the lost lands.  Unfortunately, the troubles of France would continue for many decades because of the mental illness of Charles V’s son – King Charles VI of France known as the Mad (le Fou).  After a series of family betrayals, after an awful lot of carnage and bloodshed deluging the land of France, it would fall to King Charles VII to expel all the English invaders and finally end the Hundred Years’ War, earning sobriquet the Victorious (le Victorieux).

All images are in the public domain.

Text © 2020 Olivia Longueville