All France fell into chaos after the disaster at Poitiers. The dishonesty and incompetence of the government, the depreciation of the currency, the costly ransoms of King and knights, the desolations of war and plague, and the discouraging taxes laid upon agriculture, industry, and trade, brought the nation to desperate revolt. A States-General of the northern provinces, summoned to Paris by the nineteen-year-old Dauphin,* Charles of Valois, to raise new taxes, undertook to establish a parliamentary government in France. Paris and other cities had long had parlements, but these were small appointive bodies, usually of jurists, normally limited to giving legal advice to the local ruler or the king, and registering his decrees as part of French law. This States-General, controlled by a transient coalition of clergy and bourgeoisie, demanded of the royal council why the vast sums raised for war had produced only undisciplined troops and shameful defeats; it ordered the arrest of twenty-two governmental agents, and commanded the administrators of the treasury to return the sums they were accused of embezzling; it imposed restrictions on the royal prerogative; it thought even of deposing John the Good, barring his sons from the succession, and giving the throne of France to King Charles the Bad of Navarre, a lineal descendant of Hugh Capet. Appeased by the prudent humility of the Dauphin, it recognized him as regent, and voted him funds for 30,000 men-at-arms; but it bade him dismiss corrupt or ignorant officials, warned him against tampering with the coinage, and appointed a committee of thirty-six men to keep an eye on the operations and expenditures of the government. Judges were condemned for their extravagant equipage, their dilatory idleness, their calendars twenty years behind; hereafter they were to begin their sessions at sunrise, at the same hour when honest citizens went to their shops or their fields. This “Great Ordinance” of 1357 also forbade nobles to leave France or to wage private war, and instructed the local authorities of the towns to arrest any noble violating this edict. In effect the aristocracy was to be subject to the communes, the nobles to the business class; king, prince, and barons were to obey the chosen representatives of the people. France was to have a constitutional government four centuries before the revolution.21

The Dauphin signed the ordinance in March, and began to evade it in April. The English were demanding a ruinous ransom for his father, and were threatening an advance upon Paris. The people were slow in paying taxes, on the novel ground that these could properly be levied only by the States-General. Hard pressed for cash, Charles called this body to reassemble on February 1, 1358; meanwhile he further debased the currency to increase his funds. On February 2 Étienne Marcel, a rich merchant who, as head of the merchant guilds, had played a leading part in formulating the “Great Ordinance,” and had been governing Paris for a year, led an armed band of citizens—all wearing hoods of the city’s official colors, blue and red—into the royal palace. He rebuked Charles for disobeying the instructions of the States-General; and when the Prince would not pledge obedience Marcel had his men kill two chamberlains who guarded the Dauphin, so that their blood spurted upon the royal robe.22

The new States-General was horrified by this audacious violence; nevertheless it advanced the revolution by decreeing (May 1358) that thereafter only the States-General should enact laws for France, and that in all important matters the king was to act only with the approval of the Estates.23 Many members of the nobility and clergy fled from Paris; many administrative officials abandoned their posts in fear of their lives. Marcel replaced them with burgesses, and for a time the merchants of Paris attempted to rule France. The Dauphin took refuge with nobles in Picardy, raised an army, and called upon the people of Paris to surrender to him the leaders of the revolt. Marcel organized the capital for defense, ringed it with new walls, and occupied the Louvre, then the seat and symbol of sovereignty.

While revolution captured Paris the peasants of the countryside thought it an opportune time to revenge themselves on their masters. Still mostly serf,24 taxed to equip their lords, taxed to ransom them, pillaged by soldiers and brigands, tortured to disclose their laborious savings, decimated by plague and starved by war, they rose in uncalculating fury, forced their way into feudal castles, cut all the noble throats their knives could reach, and relieved their hunger and thirst in baronial hoards and cellars. The nobles had traditionally given the typically good-natured peasant the nickname of Jacques Bonhomme—James Goodman; now thousands of such Jacques, their patience spent, plunged into ferocious jacqueries, slew their lords, violated the ladies, murdered the heirs, and dressed their own wives in the finery of the dead.25

Hoping that this rural revolution would divert the Dauphin from attacking Paris, Marcel sent 800 of his men to aid the peasants. So reinforced, they marched upon Meaux. The Duchesses of Orléans and Normandy, and many other women of lofty pedigree, had sought refuge there; now they saw a mob of serfs and tenants pouring into the town, and gave themselves up as lost in both virtue and life. Then, miraculously, as in some Arthurian romance, a knightly band returning from a crusade galloped into Meaux, fell upon the peasants, killed thousands of them, and flung them by heaps into neighboring streams. The nobles came out of hiding, laid punitive fines upon the villages, and went through the countryside massacring 20,000 rustics, rebel or innocent (June 1358).26

The forces of the Dauphin approached Paris, and cut off its food supply.

Despairing of successful resistance by other means, Marcel offered the crown to Charles the Bad and prepared to admit his forces into the city. Rejecting this plan as treason, Marcel’s aide and friend, Jean Maillart, made a secret agreement with the Dauphin, and on July 31 Jean and others slew Marcel with an ax. The Dauphin entered Paris at the head of the armed nobility. He behaved with moderation and caution, and set himself to ransom his father and to restore the morale and economy of France. The men who had tried to create a sovereign parliament retreated into obscurity and silence; the grateful nobles rallied around the throne; and the States-General became the obedient instrument of a strengthened monarchy.

In November 1359, Edward III landed with a fresh army at Calais. He avoided Paris, respecting the walls recently raised by Marcel, but he subjected the surrounding country, from Reims to Chartres, to so systematic a destruction of crops that Paris again starved. Charles pleaded for peace on abject terms. France would yield Gascony and Guienne to England, free from all feudal bond to the French king; it would also cede Poitou, Périgord, Quercy, Saintonge, Rouergue, Calais, Ponthieu, Aunis, Angoumois, Agenois, Limousin, and Bigorre; and it would pay 3,000,000 crowns for the return of its king. In return Edward renounced, for himself and his descendants, all claim to the throne of France. This Peace of Brétigny was signed on May 8, 1360, and one third of France fretted and fumed under English rule. Two sons of King John—the Dukes of Anjou and Berry—were sent to England as hostages for French fidelity to the treaty; John returned to Paris amid the ringing of bells and the joy of the noble and the simple. When the Duke of Anjou broke parole and escaped to join his wife, King John returned to England to replace his son as hostage, and in the hope of negotiating a milder peace. Edward received him as a guest, and feted him daily as the flower of chivalry. John died in London in 1364, and was buried in St. Paul’s, captive in death. The Dauphin, aged twenty-six, became Charles V of France.

He deserved the name le Sage, the Wise, which his people gave him, if only because he knew how to win battles without raising a hand. His right hand was perpetually swollen and his arm was limp, so that he could not lift a lance; it was said that he had been poisoned by Charles the Bad. Half forced to a sedentary life, he gathered about him prudent councilors, reorganized every department of the government, reformed the judiciary, rebuilt the army, encouraged industry, stabilized the currency, supported literature and art, and collected in the Louvre the royal library that provided classic texts and translations for the French Renaissance, and formed the nucleus of the Bibliothèque Nationale. He yielded to the nobles in restoring feudal tolls, but he went over their heads to appoint as constable—commander-in-chief of all French armies—a swarthy, flat-nosed, thick-necked, massive-headed Breton, Bertrand Du Guesclin. Faith in the superiority of this “Eagle of Brittany” to all English generals shared in determining Charles to undertake the redemption of France from English rule. In 1369 he sent Edward III a formal declaration of war.

The Black Prince responded by subduing Limoges and massacring 3,000 men, women, and children; this was his conception of political education. It proved inadequate; every city in his path fortified, garrisoned, and provisioned itself to successful defense, and the Prince was reduced to laying waste the open country, burning the crops, and razing the deserted homes of the peasantry. Du Guesclin refrained from giving battle, but harassed the princely rear, captured foragers, and waited for the English troops to starve. They did, and retreated; Du Guesclin advanced; one by one the ceded provinces were reclaimed; and after two years of remarkable generalship, and the mutual loyalty of commander and King, the English were driven from all of France except Bordeaux, Brest, Cherbourg, and Calais; France for the first time reached to the Pyrenees. Charles and his great constable could die with honors in the same year (1380) on the crest of victory.

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at admin@erenow.org. Thank you!