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.
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