These week we’re continuing with our look at aspects of the life of Geoffroi de Charny. Like most of his contemporaries, de Charny was very pious. In the 1340s he started planning the building of a church on his estate at Lirey. He wanted to have five clerics in the chapel who would pray and say masses for himself, his family, the king and the royal family. It was in relation to this church that the Shroud of Turin was first mentioned and De Charny was probably its first owner, if not the person the commissioned its creation. He’s certainly the first verifiable owner.
The first mention of it being in his possession was in a papal letter written not long after his death, when de Charny’s son had inherited the shroud. De Charny junior gave exhibitions of it to the public to no little scandal, since he gained financially from it. It’s possible that de Charny himself exhibited it around 1355 to 1356. The exhibitions were subject to an episcopal investigation at the time, led by Henri de Poitiers, the bishop of Troyes. It seems that the church was worried that the shroud was being passed off as a relic of Christ. Following the episcopal investigation, the family were told that they had to announce that the shroud was not a relic whenever they exhibited it. This doesn’t mean that it was created with the intention of deceiving people, but that people can convince themselves that something is a relic, even when it clearly isn’t.
A pilgrim badge has been found showing the shroud with the arms of de Charny and his second wife. They might, of course, be the arms of de Charny’s son, but the badge certainly shows that there were sufficient pilgrims wanting to see the shroud around the middle of the fourteenth century that it was worthwhile to have lead badges manufactured to sell to them as souvenirs.
This sounds trite, but in the days before photography, a badge was proof that someone had arrived at and returned from a recognised site of pilgrimage. This might be particularly useful if the pilgrimage was being carried out as an act of penance. It was also a way of recognising another pilgrim.
It’s possible that de Charny purchased the shroud while he was on crusade in 1345 to 1346, although unlikely due to the way in which the linen thread was spun. It’s more likely that it was made and painted at his or his wife’s request by an artist local to Lirey for an Easter service, in which a linen sheet representing Christ’s shroud was carried to the altar and laid on it ready for mass. This was a recorded part of the Easter liturgy in some places. Most scientific tests have dated the shroud to between 1260 and 1390. The width of the cloth is certainly standard for the fourteenth century loom. It would have been created as an icon, an aid to devotion, rather than a false relic, something deserving reverence of itself. It was only later that it was considered to be a relic.
I said last week that we’d look at Geoffroi de Charny’s attempt to take back Calais two years after it had surrendered to Edward III. Before we get to the story I wanted to set the scene a bit. There are four main characters in this story: de Charny, Edward III, Edward of Woodstock and Aimeric of Pavia. At the time de Charny was at least 43 years old, Edward III was 37 and Edward of Woodstock, his oldest son and heir, was 19. I have no idea how old Aimeric was. I include this detail to show what was expected of young heirs to kingdoms in the Middle Ages. Edward of Woodstock had already proved himself in battle at the age of 16 and was about to prove himself again.
The other important point is that in 1349 Europe was still in the grip of the Black Death. I can’t emphasise enough how little what we’ve gone through in the last few months has resembled the Black Death. I know that people have made the comparison, but even the number of deaths in the First World War combined with deaths from Spanish flu a hundred years ago don’t come close. During the three years of the Black Death, somewhere between a third and a half of the population of Europe died and they died horribly. Despite that and the fear in which people must have lived, life seems to have gone on fairly normally, as we shall see.
After a long siege, the French town of Calais had surrendered to the English in 1347. Most of those who lived in the town and survived the siege were allowed to leave and Edward III filled the town with English merchants and soldiers. It was incredibly useful for a king who was expecting to continue to wage war on French soil to have a port in France just over 30 miles from the English coast. This, of course, presented a huge problem to the French king. Fortunately, de Charny had a plan for getting Calais back which didn’t involve besieging it.
There are different versions of the story, mainly told by people who weren’t there, but we’ll look at the story as told by Geoffrey le Baker, an English chronicler. According to him, Aimeric Pavia, a Lombard mercenary, was the governor of Calais. De Charny bribed him to open the gates to let in some French soldiers. Aimeric was greedy, but not stupid, and he wrote to Edward III, explaining about the plot, obviously hoping to be in good standing with both sides.
Edward III wasn’t stupid either and he decided to go to Calais himself. He took his oldest son and a few other men. (Other versions say that the news reached the king on Christmas Eve and he took his household knights and the retinues of some of the lords who were celebrating Christmas with him.) Le Baker says that they entered the town secretly, which they might have done, but he also says that they managed to build a false wall behind which they hid and they also sawed through parts of the drawbridge so that it would collapse if a heavy stone were thrown down on it, all without anyone noticing, which seems unlikely.
On 31st December, De Charny went with fourteen men into the castle, through the gate opened by Aimeric, on the day before the raid was to take place. Their task was to check that everything was as it should be and to pay Aimeric part of his money. Despite checking the castle thoroughly, they noticed nothing wrong. Again, I’m not sure how fifteen Frenchmen could stroll around a castle held by an English garrison without someone noticing, but apparently they did.
The next morning they raised French standards around the castle and opened the gates. The English garrison attacked them, despite the efforts of those who were in on the plan to trap the French inside the castle.
By this point the king and his men had been in hiding for three days. One of them was hiding near the drawbridge and he dropped the huge stone onto it, trapping the soldiers inside the castle. They were swiftly defeated by the king and his men when they emerged from their hiding place.
The French forces who had remained outside retreated, realising that the plan had failed. The king took 16 of the men he had brought with him and 16 archers from Calais, who didn’t know him, and chased after the French.
He attacked a force of 800 men. When the French realised how few men were pursuing them, they turned and fought. The king revealed his identity to the archers and le Baker points out that he positioned his meagre forces wisely. He doesn’t say, for obvious reasons, how lacking in wisdom the king was to chase after the French with so few men.
The king and his men managed to kill or capture many of the French soldiers, but they were facing overwhelming odds and it was obvious that they were going to lose. In true Boys’ OwnAdventure style, however, Edward of Woodstock arrived with reinforcements just in time and rescued his father.
Le Baker tells us that 1,000 French knights with 600 men-at-arms and 3,000 foot soldiers had tried to take the castle. It would certainly have needed a large force, so perhaps it’s not an exaggeration. More than 200 French men-at-arms were killed and about 30 men were captured for ransom, Geoffroi de Charny and his son among them. Many French soldiers drowned in the marsh.
There are some incorrect details in le Baker’s account. Aimeric wasn’t the governor of Calais. During the siege of Calais he had been employed by the French. After the siege he changed sides and became master of the royal galleys and crossbowmen. In 1349 he was part of the English garrison at Calais and was in command of one of the gate-towers, which was why it was easy for him to let the French in.
As we learned last week, Aimeric enjoyed his bribe and the pension given to him by the king for a very short time before de Charny tortured and killed him. This whole episode wasn’t de Charny’s finest hour. Not only was he captured, but he was also wounded in his failed attempt to retake the town. Fortunately for him, the king who had provided soldiers to support his plan died while de Charny was a captive in England. The new king paid part of de Charny’s ransom. De Charny even managed to put a good gloss on the murder of Aimeric, since he made it clear that he was avenging an act of personal betrayal.
Next week we’ll have a look at another aspect of de Charny’s life.
I don’t very often write posts about famous or important people in the Middle Ages these days, but Geoffroi de Charny is worth looking at for many reasons, not least because he wrote a book about chivalry: Le Livre de Chevalerie. He also had the responsibility of carrying the Oriflamme, the King of France’s personal standard, and was the first owner that can be verified of the Shroud of Turin.
De Charny’s date of birth is not known, but his mother died in 1306. He was, therefore, probably born in the first few years of the fourteenth century. Although strictly speaking noble, he came from a junior branch of a junior branch of a great family. He had no land, no money and knew no one of any influence to help him. His first wife died after 1341 and his second wife was Jeanne de Vergy with whom he had two children. She brought him land and money, but, by that time, he had already come a long way by his own efforts.
The first major campaign he fought in was in 1337, at the beginning of the Hundred Years War. He fought first in Aquitaine, where Edward III was the duke. Later, when Edward III began creating alliances in the Low Countries, de Charny went to the north east of France, where he helped defend Tournai against the English and their allies. In 1341 Edward’s military interest moved to Brittany and de Charny was sent there, only to be captured and taken to England as a prisoner. He was released and allowed to return to France to find his ransom, which he did. By the following year he had been knighted.
Possibly bored by the lack of action once he was back in Brittany, de Charny joined a crusade against the Turks in Smyrna, arriving there in June 1346. He wasn’t terribly impressed by the experience, referring to it later as almost a martyrdom. He was probably back in France late in the summer of 1346 and was sent back to Aquitaine, thus missing the battle of Crécy in which much of the French army was killed in August. After they had defeated the French at Crécy, the English besieged Calais and Philippe VI sent for de Charny, who had a bit of a reputation for breaking sieges. De Charny went to Edward III, ostensibly to negotiate an end to the siege, but in reality to assess the English fortifications. What he saw made him advise Philippe VI against trying to break the siege, not that the king had any intention of throwing his newly-gathered army against the English. The French retreated and Calais eventually surrendered to the English.
The defeat of the French at Crécy and the loss of Calais led to changes in Philippe’s court and de Charny became a member of the king’s council. Since Philippe was not in a position to fight a war at the time (partly due to the unwillingness of the French to pay taxes for an army which had failed to protect them and partly to the Black Death) de Charny was entrusted with the task of negotiating truces. He was very successful in this diplomatic role. At the same time, however, he was behind an attempt to regain Calais by bribery at the end of 1349. He was betrayed and a small force led by Edward III and his son, Edward of Woodstock, defeated the men led by de Charny, who was taken prisoner again. Once more he found himself in England.
This time he couldn’t raise his own ransom, which would have been considerably higher than the sum he had paid in 1341. The new French king paid part of it, Philippe VI having died, and invited de Charny to be a member of the new order of chivalry that he founded in 1352. The Order of the Star was based on the Order of the Garter, created by Edward III in 1349 (or 1347 or 1348). There have only ever been 24 Garter knights at any one time and the order still exists today. Jean II originally intended to appoint over 500 knights and the Order of the Star fell apart after the French defeat at the battle of Poitiers in 1356, when 80 (possibly 90) of its members were killed and the king himself was taken prisoner by the English.
Once he had taken his revenge on the man who had betrayed him at Calais, decapitating him and quartering his body, de Charny wrote, probably at the request of the king, three books on chivalry. In 1347 and from 1355 until his death de Charny was the bearer of the Oriflamme, the personal standard of the King of France, which was a great honour. It was carried at the front of the French ranks in battle. Its bearer promised not to abandon it. It was an oath that de Charny kept. At the Battle of Poitiers he was killed and fell with the banner still in his hands.
Next week we’ll have a closer look at what happened in Calais in 1349, as it’s an interesting story.
Sources: The Book of Chivalry by Geoffroi de Charny trans. Richard W. Kaeuper and Elspeth Kennedy The Origins of the Shroud of Turin in History Today November 2014 by Charles Freeman
Last week we looked at the games that medieval people played, and where there are games there’s usually gambling. Most of the games played were games of skill, but dicing and coin tossing were won or lost by pure chance, and these were the games that came in for the most criticism.
It wasn’t just the risk of huge losses involved in gambling that caused it to be frowned on, but also the locations where it took place. Gambling during mass in church must have been fairly widespread, because it was something that had to be managed in several places. There were no pews or chairs in medieval churches and the parishioners stood whilst they were in church. This must have provided good cover for men who didn’t have anywhere else to meet without drawing attention to themselves.
Gambling was rife in inns, as innkeepers acted as bankers and pawnbrokers. They would hold a gambler’s property in exchange for money so that they could continue to gamble. Many men lost everything in this way, including their clothes. This is one of the reasons why dicing was banned in many towns. Men who had very little in the way of possessions could lose them all very quickly.
Great losses weren’t limited to the poor, however. The aristocracy also gambled and they could lose much larger sums of money. Edward III lost almost £4 in one day in 1333. Using our usual guide to the value of money – the 4 pennies that represented a day’s wage for a skilled labourer – the king’s losses represent 240 days of work.
Gambling wasn’t only considered a problem generally, but it was also recognised as a specific problem in armies. Richard I banned gambling in his army when he was in the Holy Land in 1192. If a soldier was discovered gambling, he was stripped naked and whipped for three days.
Problems with gambling weren’t limited to the English. Geoffrey de Charny, the standard-bearer of the Oriflamme (the French war flag), who was killed at the battle of Poitiers in 1356, wrote a book called The Book of Chivalry. It was a subject in which he was well-versed, although some of his actions seem less than chivalrous today. He was completely opposed to gambling, which afflicted the French aristocracy as much as it did the English. He also condemned tennis, because of the wagers made on the games.
Try as I might, I have no idea why this might be, but in 1343 playing with dice while wearing a mask was forbidden by a bye-law in London.