Jean sans Peur/John the Fearless
Valois Duc de Bourgogne (1404-19)

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Jean sans Peur (John the Fearless) (1404-1419)

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 AR grand blanc, 25mm, 2.84gr. Obv: +IOHANES:DUX:BVRGNDIE, central quartered shield. Rev: +SIT:NOME:DNI:BENEDICTV, central cross with opposing lis and lions. R7821; Boud 1224; PdA 5723. (In a delightful instance of physio-temporal asynchroneity this coin was in my pocket when I visited the ducal palace in Dijon where he was born.)

John won his sobriquet at the battle of Nicopolis. John led a French force to help the king of Hungary who was being pressed by Turkish forces under Bajazet (the Thunderbolt). The Turkish and European armies met September 26, 1396 at Nicopolis. Initially the Europeans had the upper hand but were unable to maintain their advantage and the tide turned against them. The day ended with a Turkish victory and a field littered with French dead. John and a number of others were taken prisoner and released on the payment of a 200,000 florin ransom. While this ended as a French defeat, John distinguished himself on the field and was celebrated for his bravery on his return to France. It was his valor that triggered his father to found the Order of the Golden Fleece. The portrait is from Bourgogne 117 and battle of Nicopolis Bourgogne 113.

This image is John and the comte de Nevers being captured at Nicopolis. When John became duke, he found himself in conflict with his father’s brothers, particularly Louis of Orleans. While Philip had been able to maintain some control over his brothers, this influence did not transfer to John. Louis was interested in reigniting the war with England. Burgundian interests, with their commercial holdings in Flanders, ran in the other direction. The prosperity of their northern lands depended on trade with England, and war was antithetical to those interests. John entered into a treaty with England in 1406/7 cementing trade relations.

John also set himself up as a protector of the common citizen, against the taxing interests of Louis of Orleans, who was looking for funds to take the fight to the English. This won him popularity among the commoners and it was a new departure for a feudal lord to look for support in this direction. John also sought to portray himself as protector of the king against the avarice and influence of his uncle. John entered Paris with a force in 1405 that caused the king to flee. John gave chase and brough them back to Paris. Tensions mounted between Burgundy and Orleans and armed conflict seemed imminent. John took the initiative and planned the assassination of Louis. He arranged an ambush in Paris on November 25, 1407. When Louis was on his way to an imagined meeting with the king, he was set upon by a gang and murdered. John admitted his role in this and under the pretext of business in Flanders left Paris. This initiated a period where both sides sought to portray themselves as the wronged party; the Orleans faction clearly due to the death of their leader and John claiming he was acting in the interest of the state.

 Thisgrew into a civil war, with John aligned against an Orleans/Armagnac alliance that grew out of the marriage of Charles of Orleans, son of the murdered Louis of Orleans, to Bonne of Armagnac. In 1411 John seized Paris. John prevailed in the first rounds of fighting, strengthened his alliances with the workers and intellectuals in Paris to maintain their support and made a fateful alliance with the English for military support. The creation of the Anglo-Burgundian alliance gave his side the upper hand for this phase of what was, from the English perspective, a war for the throne of France (the Hundred Years War).

This was a confusing time as France was making the transition from a feudal state to a national state. This conflict became not just a fight among French nobles, but fostered a sense of emerging nationalism in France. Over these years France suffered. The king came to rely on the Armagnacs and was reduced to a kingdom centered in Bourges. Paris was in constant turmoil as the Armagnacs and Burgundians contested for control. French and English armies pillaged the countryside. In 1413 John left Paris and the Armagnacs arrived and took revenge on Burgundian allies.  Burgundy was driven to an unfavorable treaty, the Dauphin committed to the Armagnacs and Henry V invaded again, accelerating the conflict and reigniting the Hundred Years War. This was a precipitating moment for French nationalism.

Two of John’s younger brothers, Philip of Nevers and Anthony of Brabant, fought and died on the French side in the battles for Normandy, trying, as Calmette says, “to restore the honor of the Burgundian dynasty.” John, meanwhile, entered a secret alliance with Henry V to not be involved in the fighting. From Calmette (117): “Thus unofficially, and secretly, he made a pact by which he became a collaborator, an accomplice and an associate of the Lancastrian venture.”

The turmoil in France triggered an attempt at reconciliation between the John and the Dauphin (who would reign as Charles VII). A first meeting at Pouilly on July 11, 1419 established a preliminary agreement. Given the uncertainty of the wording of the agreement, a second meeting was arranged. Fearing assassination, they agreed to meet in the middle of a bridge over the Yvonne on September 11 at Montereau. From Calmette (124): “A small group of lords accompanied each of the participants. It was not long before tempers became frayed. … The Dauphin, disheartened, climbed down from the bridge and a confused scuffle took place. … According to a highly questionable version that was quickly spread abroad, Tanguy of Chatel struck John the Fearless on the head with an axe.” The assassin was assassinated. This image is from Bourgogne, 123.

John’slegacy was mixed. His alliance with the English reflects a greater interest in expedience over any sense of national/French interest. He missed the growing sense of national awareness that was developing in his world. From the ducal point of view, he extended and strengthened his inheritance and was well served by a competent group of managers who oversaw his lands. He was another duke who actually spent little time in Burgundy. When not in Paris, his time was spent in the Low Countries.

His tomb is as glorious as his father’s. He was succeeded by Philip the Good.

The building to the left is the Tour de Jean sans Peur and dates from the 15th century. It is located on the street that became rue Etienne Marcel.  John took refuge here after the assassination of the duc de Orleans. The tower is one of the few medieval structures to survive in Paris today. This picture dates from 1865. Charles Marville is the photographer, and is from the book, Le Nouveau Paris edited by Philippe Mellot. The right image is sketch of the tower, showing more detail. It is from Poisson, Paris Buildings and Monuments.

Here are several more views of the Tour. Top left is a mid 19th century view and next to it is a model of the palace. The model is in the tower, today a museum. Below that, left, is a straight on view of the tower and next to it is the interior of the tower roof.




Calmette, The Golden Age of Burgundy

Marseille, Journal de la Bourgogne