Today, I’d like to introduce you to a colourful if unsavoury gentleman. Well: gentleman he was not, no matter he was born under the fleur de lys on both sides, i.e. both his mother and his father were close relatives to the French king. Just goes to show that there is no correlation between royal blood and an upstanding character…
I give you Charles of Navarre, born in 1332 to Jeanne and Philippe, Queen and King of Navarre. Both Jeanne and Philippe were more French than anything, and accordingly their son was born in France and spent most of his childhood and youth there, in one or other of his parents’ substantial French domains. Philippe of Evreux was the grandson of Philip III, from said king’s second marriage, and Jeanne was the eldest daughter of Philippe IV’s eldest son. Seeing as none of Philippe IV’s sons had sons, Jeanne could therefore have been considered the rightful heir to the throne, but her paternal uncle managed to convince everyone that a girl could not inherit the throne, this by dragging up the ancient Salic Laws and breathing life into them. So instead of France, Jeanne got Navarre, where the Salic Law apparently did not apply.
Charles likely grew up hearing his parents mutter that they had as good a claim to the throne as did the present incumbent, Philippe of Valois. Charles seems to have agreed with them, growing up to consider himself kingly material all the way from the top of his head to his pinky toe. Not all that many others agreed. In fact, one of the other claimants, Edward III of England, would have laughed himself silly at the thought, likely pointing out that Charles was a great-grandson of Philippe IV, while he, Edward, was a grandson. Even louder the Valois dynasty would have laughed, drily pointing out that both these claims came through the female line, and seriously, who would ever consider a woman a capable ruler? (Not the point, Edward would have answered. His right came through his Maman, but any ruling he intended to do himself)
Charles was a child when Edward III of England formally claimed the French throne, thereby launching the debacle that we know as The Hundred Years’ War. Over the coming decades, France was to become a battlefield, with French and English soldiers pitted repeatedly against each other. For an ambitious and capable young man, wars always offer the opportunity of further advancement, and our young King of Navarre (he succeeded his father in 1349) was all for showing the world just how brave a knight he was—assuming there was something to be gained from it for him personally.
In 1350, Jean II became king of France. One of the first things he did was appoint a certain Charles de la Cerda as his High Constable.
“What???” Charles of Navarre croaked. “A half-Castilian upstart to be given the highest office in the land?” In one fell swoop, Charles de la Cerda had become Charles of Navarre’s Enemy Numero Uno.
So who was this Charles de la Cerda? Well, he was descended from Alfonso X of Castile through Alfonso’s eldest son Fernando de la Cerda, who died before his father. Fernando had already fathered two little boys named (unsurprisingly) Alfonso and Fernando but Castile was constantly at war which was why Fernando’s brother, Sancho, insisted he be proclaimed heir instead. Alfonso X refused, but his son was adamant, the nobles supported him, Alfonso wavered, recanted, and in all this mess he upped and died. The end result of all this was that Sancho became king of Castile, his two little nephews carried off to Aragón by their grandmother, Violant.
Now, little Alfonso de la Cerda was not only the grandson of the king of Castile and his queen, but also of St Louis of France and his wife, Margaret of Provence. Obviously, the French protested loudly when he was disinherited, but Castile (well, Sancho ) would not budge and instead of a crown and ermine, Alfonso had to settle for various manors and lands distributed piece-meal throughout Castile’s territory (so as not to make him too powerful a force anywhere) as well as the lands in France that came with his wife, Matilda of Brienne. Matilda gave her husband several children. The eldest son was named…taa-daa…Alfonso and in the fullness of time he had a son, Charles de la Cerda, born in 1327.
Initially, Charles de la Cerda was no major player in France. The title he inherited was more of a honorific than anything else, he was not exactly the richest guy around, but he had one thing working for him: the future king of France, Jean, took a shine to him during their youth, this despite Charles being several years Jean’s junior.
The years passed, the war between England exploded, and throughout, Charles de la Cerda proved himself a loyal companion to Jean. So loyal, in fact, that some (well, Charles of Navarre) insinuated the relationship between Charles de la Cerda and Jean was of an intimate character. Seeing as Jean fathered eleven children over as many years with his first wife, I am a tad doubtful, but on the other hand just because the future king did his duty in the royal bedroom this does not mean he didn’t prefer dear Charles de la Cerda to his lady wife.
Whatever the case, when Jean became king, Charles de la Cerda was hastily rewarded as described above. He was the king’s constant shadow, accompanied him everywhere, and the king showered him with favours. Charles of Navarre went puce. He gnashed his teeth but settled down somewhat when Jean gave him one of his daughters, Jeanne, in marriage in 1351. At the time, Charles of Navarre was 19. The bride was eight.
Soon enough, Navarre was back to being resentful and when the French king made Charles de la Cerda Count of Angouleme, Charles of Navarre almost had an apoplectic fit. “That’s my land!” he screeched. “It was my mother’s land, land the damned Valois forced her to cede to them for a pittance! And now that idiot of a king gives it to that piece of s*** de la Cerda? No, I won’t have it.”
At Christmas in 1353, Charles and Charles had a major quarrel. Invectives, foodstuffs, goblets flew through the air – or so I imagine. Charles of Navarre hissed that enough was enough and stalked off, determined to rid the world of this half-Spanish upstart once and for all. In January of 1354, Charles de la Cerda was brutally assassinated in an inn by Charles of Navarre’s men.
I bet you’re all wondering how Charles of Navarre was punished for this heinous deed. Short answer: he wasn’t.
Yes, King Jean was devastated. Charles of Navarre didn’t even try to pretend he hadn’t ordered the murder. Jean was determined to punish his evil son-in-law which was when Charles of Navarre smirked and said “Ah, ah: Think carefully, dear papa-in-law. You attack me and I will join forces with Edward of England, and then what will happen to your precious France, hein?”
Jean had no choice. He signed a treaty with Charles who immediately began conspiring with the English anyway, and some years on Jean was yet again obliged to sign a new treaty with his despicable son-in-law to stop him from joining the English. Every such treaty saw more land settled on Charles, who found this double-dealing an excellent way to increase his fortune. As to his reputation, he doesn’t seem to have cared over much that he was despised by most of his contemporaries. In Charles’ opinion, he was a law unto himself, a much better man than anyone else around.
Over the coming years, Charles of Navarre was to be a constant burr up the French arse. He tried to claim the Duchy of Burgundy but King Jean took it for himself. At one point, King Jean had him arrested and imprisoned, but unfortunately for France, King Jean was subsequently captured by the English and Charles was sprung from his prison. He created havoc wherever he went, he supported rebellious peasants when it suited him, then decided rebellious peasants needed to be taught a lesson and executed them instead. He had supporters in Paris who were all for rebelling against the House of Valois and making Charles king – until they realised he wasn’t quite the knight in shining armour they thought he was. He made war on his king and tried to take Burgundy by force. He sided with the English when it suited him. He hurried back to join the French when that felt better. In brief, for over ten years Charles of Navarre caused havoc. Everywhere. Until his forces were roundly defeated in 1364 at the Battle of Cocherel. Not that Charles gave up immediately, but a year or so later he signed a treaty with the new French king and retired to spend most of his time in Navarre.
So, did our Charles devote the rest of his life raising his large family and becoming a reformed character? Nope. When the rightful—if rather vicious—king of Castile, Pedro, was ousted by his half-brother, Enrique de Trastamara, Charles went back to his double-crossing ways. You see, Pedro immediately appealed to his dear cousin, Edward the Black Prince for help. (And yes, they were cousins, but rather far removed) He couldn’t very well go to the French, because Pedro had permanently blackened his reputation with the French after his horrible treatment of Blanche of France, the young princess he married, discarded, locked up and killed (more of that here) some years previously.
Edward was all for supporting Pedro—partly because Pedro was the rightful king, but also because the French supported Enrique. So he decided to take his army south, to Castile. To do so, he needed to pass through Navarre. “Of course, of course,” said Charles. Until Enrique offered him a lot of money not to let them through, when he instead decided to close the passes. The Black Prince was NOT pleased, and so afraid was Charles of getting on his wrong side that he immediately went back to supporting Pedro by opening the passes through Navarre for the English. To ensure he wasn’t roped into fighting in the upcoming war, he arranged for someone to abduct him and hold him hostage until any fighting was safely over. Any aspirations to chivalric glory Charles may have had died with that little stunt…
Some years later, the war in France flared up again. Charles decided to make hay while he could and contacted both Charles V of France and Edward III, offering his support under certain conditions. Edward may not have liked or trusted Charles of Navarre, but he wanted the bridgehead offered, so Charles even popped over to England to visit with the English king. In the event, it didn’t avail either Edward or Charles much. The French managed to rout the English army that had landed in Normandy and Charles saw no other option but to make his peace (yet again…) with France.
Frustrated, he returned to Navarre and was soon enough in negotiations with John of Gaunt who was hoping to claim the Castilian crown. Enrique of Trastamera was not pleased and when John of Gaunt decided to abort his venture, Charles had to face the Castilian ire on his own. The long and the short of it was that Charles was obliged to enter a permanent pact with Castile, hand over twenty castles to Enrique and have his son marry Enrique’s daughter.
But Charles did not give up. In 1377 he came up with a new brilliant plan whereby he offered the English to place all his harbours and other domains in Normandy at their disposal if they would only agree to return his lost lands in Normandy and Burgundy to him. He himself was detained from riding to Normandy due to the tensions with Castile, but he sent off his eldest son and a substantial number of men who were, unfortunately, captured by the French. In their saddlebags the French found copies of the treaties with the English and in retribution, Charles V confiscated all of Charles of Navarre’s remaining French lands. The wannabe king of France was left with only Navarre, at best a tenuous position as Enrique of Castile decided the time was opportune to teach Charles a lesson and invaded Navarre, thereby ensuring Charles of Navarre finally learned his place: way down the line in the pecking order.
No matter his reduced circumstances, Charles continued to be as nasty and manipulative as ever, albeit now mostly directed at his subjects in Navarre. This was a man who loved no one but himself, and as usually is the case with such people, no one loved him much either. Not that Charles cared: as long as people feared him and toed the line, he couldn’t give a rat’s arse as to what they thought of him.
In 1387, Charles fell ill. His physician ordered that he be wrapped from head to toe in brandy-drenched linen, like a huge swaddled infant. The idea was that the alcohol would draw the illness out of the king’s body, and one of the king’s seamstresses was given the job to wrap him up and secure the lengths of linen. She sewed the whole thing together and having finished her task she had to snip the thread. Reluctant to use her shears for fear of harming the king, she reached for a lit candle to burn the thread off…Bad, bad decision, one could say. With a huge “whoosh!” the linen took fire and Charles screamed and writhed as the cloth enveloping him burned and burned. He did not die immediately, but lingered for days in extreme pain—a most just ending to such an evil man, according to the contemporary chroniclers.
So passed Charles the Bad of Navarre. One could say the fires of hell reached out and grabbed him even before he was properly dead. Did he deserve his gruesome death? Well, I bet Charles de la Cerda would have said he did, as would King Jean of France!
2 thoughts on “A bad, bad man and his fiery exit”
Now there’s an unusual death. One can’t help wondering if there was perhaps a bit of malice involved. But a fascinating article all in all. Thank you.
Ha! I’ve wondered that too – did someone slip the maid a gold coin or two to use the candle rather than the shears?