On the 10th of September 1419 the Duke of Burgundy was murdered on a bridge at Montereau, about 40 miles upriver from Paris.
France was in turmoil. The king, Charles VI, was known as “Charles the Mad” for good reason. Being unable to provide firm rule, he was largely under the control of the powerful House of Burgundy, but opposing this influence was the equally powerful House of Armagnac. The two families controlled huge resources in terms of wealth, land and armed men, and fought what amounted to a civil war that continued, with varying degrees of animosity, from 1407 to 1435.
While all this in-fighting was going on, the English were able to take advantage by capturing large swathes of northern France. King Henry V had achieved an overwhelming victory at Agincourt in 1415 and was ready and willing to make further gains.
The Duke of Burgundy was known as John the Fearless for his bravery. He had captured Paris in 1418 and was therefore the virtual overlord of King Charles. However, the King’s son and heir (known in French parlance as the Dauphin) had escaped and was in the hands of the Armagnacs.
There were therefore three powerful forces at large in France, the Burgundians, the Armagnacs and the English. The English could only be kept at bay if the Burgundians and Armagnacs could make common cause, and it was to that end that a meeting was arranged on the bridge at Montereau.
The Dauphin, with his Armagnac bodyguards, was already on the bridge when Duke John arrived. He knelt to show respect to the 16-year-old Dauphin, but as he rose his hand touched the hilt of his sword in a way that alarmed one of the bodyguards, in that it appeared as though the Duke was about to draw his sword. He said to the Duke: “Would you put your hand on your sword in the presence of the Dauphin of France?”
It is almost certain that nothing was further from the Duke’s mind, and the touch of his hand on the sword was purely accidental, but that did not stop another of the Armagnacs, named Tanneguy, from lunging forward and hitting the Duke in the face with an axe, thus killing him.
The murder served nobody’s purpose apart from the English. As their revenge, the Burgundians signed an alliance with King Henry which was the forerunner to the 1420 Treaty of Troyes by which the French throne was to be ceded to Henry on the death of King Charles, with the Dauphin being disinherited. Henry was also given Charles’s daughter, Catherine, as his wife and queen. The only reason why Henry V did not become the King of France was that he died in August 1422, two months before Charles. Henry’s son, who was only nine months old when his father died, therefore became the infant King of France before his first birthday.
A prior from Dijon summed up the situation well when he said that “The English entered France through the hole in the Duke of Burgundy’s head”.
© John Welford