Category Archives: Burgundy

1453: The garrison of Poucques, Jacques de Lalaing’s cannonball killers

On or about this date* in 1453, the Burgundians captured the fortress of Poucques (Poeke) during the revolt of Ghent, and put its entire garrison to summary death.

It was merely one of the appetizers the Burgundians had to chew off en route to devouring the main course at the Battle of Gavere, where the revolt was decisively crushed.**

While the battle itself was a footnote — sorry, slaughtered garrison! — it’s remembered for claiming the life of the Burgundian lord Jacques de Lalaing (English Wikipedia entry | French) — the Michael Jordan of 15th century tournament combat, “le chevalier sans reproche.”

About 32 at his death, the “Bon Chevalier” was a member of the prestigious (and still-extant) Order of the Golden Fleece on the strength of a remarkable 1440s ramble around European where he would theatrically stage combats with local knights and never fail to win them. Celebrity and emoluments followed in their turn.

“Above all else, he knew the business of arms,” sighs a chronicle detailing his feats, and on its evidence it would be difficult to disagree.

He achieved his fame besting great champions in Aragon, Castile, Scotland, and Flanders, then set up a pas d’armes — the Monty Python-esque open challenge/invitation to battle all comers who dared him at a set location. In Jacques’s case the challenge lasted a full year at a statue of a weeping woman from which our pugilist derived the brand the Passage of the Fountain of Tears.

These were not intended to be fatal bouts but they featured expert fighters with real weapons so life and limb certainly stood in peril; occasionally our protagonist even deliberately courted danger by suiting up in only partial armor. Some challengers managed to emerge with a satisfying draw, but none could defeat him. At his last tournament in 1452, he even jousted the young future Duke of Burgundy, Charles the Bold. (There’s an enjoyable detailed recap of Jacques’s career here.)

As this warrior par excellence was simultaneously noted for the perfection of his outside-of-armor knightly conduct — fidelity, generosity, piety, swooning ladies — Jacques de Lalaing had a fair claim on his contemporaries’ admiration as the very apex of the age of chivalry.

And his own fate poignantly embodied that of his era.

Studying the Burgundian court to which our Walloon nobleman adhered when not doing his gladiator road show, Dutch historian Johan Huizinga reckoned this 15th century the “autumn of the middle ages” — a decadence flowering in decay.

“This hero-worship of the declining Middle Ages finds its literary expression in the biography of the perfect knight,” Huizinga wrote — like our Jacques de Lalaing, “that anachronistic knight-errant” of “fantastic and useless projects.”

The realities of court life or a military career offered too little opportunity for the fine make-belief of heroism and love, which filled the soul. So they had to be acted. The staging of the tournament, therefore, had to be that of romance; that is to say, the imaginary world of Arthur,† where the fancy of a fairy-tale was enhanced by the sentimentality of courtly love.

A Passage of Arms of the fifteenth century is based on a fictitious case of chivalrous adventure, connected with an artificial scene called by a romantic name, as, for instance, the Fountain of Tears or the Tree of Charlemagne. [the latter was another famous pas d’armes defended in 1443 by another Burgundian knight, Pierre de Bauffremont -ed.] … There is an unmistakable connection between these primitive forms of warlike and erotic sport and the children’s play of forfeits. One of the rules of the “Chapters” of the Fountain of Tears runs thus: he who, in a combat, is unhorsed, will during a year wear a gold bracelet, until he finds the lady who holds the key to it and who can free him, on condition that he shall serve her.

Jacques de Lalaing and his ritual delights came to a savage end at the siege of Poucques when he had the apt misfortune to be struck by a ball from a defending veuglaire. The romantic master of the lists thereby became one of the first European elites slain by a cannon: for a junction to modernity one could do a lot worse than this moment.‡

The untimely end of Jacques happens to have hit the news in recent months when the Getty Museum acquired a precious Renaissance manuscript illustration of the event by Simon Bening, never previously exhibited.

In this extraordinarily bright and detailed miniature, our courteous doomed glances upward at the citadel, forming a sharp compositional diagonal with the fatal cannonball speeding towards him … and the fiery plume belched by the chivalry-smashing device that has hurled it.


Detail view (click for the full image) of the Bening miniature.

* The precise date on which this minor siege concluded is elusive and perhaps ambiguous; I’m basing Executed Today‘s dating on the July 13, 1453 correspondence in this archive reporting that “Poucques est tombée en son pouvoir le 5 courant; qu’il a fait démanteler ce deux places fortes et livrer au dernier supplice leurs défenseurs.”

** Maybe so, but Ghent is still with us today whereas independent Burgundy would vanish within 30 years.

† The late 15th century also gives us the apotheosis of the Arthurian legend, Le Morte d’Arthur.

‡ Periodization fans should note that 1453 also marks the Ottoman capture of Constantinople.

1413: Pierre des Essarts

On this date in 1413, France’s treasurer Pierre des Essarts was beheaded and gibbeted on Montfaucon.

The backdrop for this disorderly drumhead execution is a popular rebellion of Parisian artisans and laborers. Known as the Cabochien Revolt after one of its leaders, the butcher Simon Caboche (“Simon the Skinner”), it dovetailed with an intra-French civil war pitting Armagnacs against Burgundians.


Armagnac vs. Burgundy. (Rimshot.)

With the mentally incapacitated Charles VI on the French throne, de facto executive power on the regency council that called the shots in his stead was violently contested by these rival factions.

The Burgundian Duke John the Fearless mounted a systematic push to nail down ultimate say-so in the French government. Were there electoral maps in Hundred Years’ War France — for this civil conflict took place even while English armies were ravaging the countryside — Paris would have been colored wine-red: mercantile Burgundy, whose territories ran up to the trade-happy Low Countries, espoused the more urban economic outlook and favored constraining the king’s own prerogatives — both going interests for Parisian burghers. John the Fearless won popularity proposing those old political chestnuts for the City of Light: tax abatement paid for by reeling in waste and corruption. By contrast, “Armagnac” branded the feudal and royalist party, led by Charles, Duke of Orleans.*

This volatile solution went bang when the Cabochiens rose in Paris a few days after Easter, trapping the king in the city. Though they had some sympatico with the Burgundians, John the Fearless’s attitude towards the Cabochiens is difficult to state with certainty — somewhere between outright conniving with them, and using his popular esteem to rein in the mob. Either way, backlash against the Cabochiens would redound to the favor of the Armagnacs — Backlash against things like hanging the provost on Montfaucon.

Pierre des Essarts had actually been elevated to his post by John the Fearless himself, after the latter took Paris in hand 1409 and executed a previous royal chamberlain, Jean de Montaigu. The Cabochiens, however, besieged him in the Bastille and finally drug him out to prison.

“Many Parisians, who in the previous year had shown great attachment to [Pierre des Essarts] … then changed their minds, which I do not understand,” one chronicler complained (Source). “One cannot explain this love of change, which always torments the capricious rabble. They became deeply resentful of him, harboured a mortal hatred of him, and demanded that another provost replace him.” (According to Karen Green’s introductory essay on the remarkable author Christine Pizan, an observer to these events, it was des Essarts’s willingness to cooperate with Armagnac factors charging peculation on the part of Burgundians that made him a target for his former allies.)

Though they amount to just a blip historically, the Cabochiens for a few months in 1413 stalked elites’ nightmares like the Jacobins would later do. That May, a mob barged into the royal palace of St. Paul and arrested the queen’s brother, adding him to several dozen crammed into prison on their say-so, and eventually having des Essarts’s head on a pike.

And just in time. By August, the wealthier part of the Cabochien movement had been bought off with some reforms, leaving the remnants ripe for smashing — and John the Fearless, popularity waning, ready to abandon Paris to the Armagnacs.

* The Armagnac name arrived via the Duke of Orleans’s marriage to the daughter of the Count of Armagnac. As Orleans was a mere strapling at this point (having inherited young because Burgundy assassinated his father), Armagnac guided the policy.

A few years on from the narrative in this post, Orleans would be captured at the Battle of Agincourt and spend a quarter-century as an English prisoner. Since he had plenty of time to kill, he made his name during his relaxed captivity as a poet. Whatever ravages he might have committed in service of civil strife in his youth, probably none lies heavier on his soul than launching the industry of Valentine’s Day schlock.