Duc Charles d’Orleans

(1394 - 1465)

What do you do when at the age of 20, buried under a pile of corpses in a major battle, you are taken prisoner by the foreign invader and spend the next 25 years in captivity? If you are Charles d’Orleans, you become a major poet in your language and the language of your captors and write 500 poems still in circulation 600 years later. Granted, the conditions of the captivity are not those of a Gulag, but rather such to which someone of a royal blood is accustomed. However, no hope of freedom dawns on the horizon until the very end of the imprisonment. The prisoner is too valuable and deemed too likely to become the leader of the adversaries, and hence must not be ransomed. It is still 15 years even to the Joan of Arc’s time (whom his illegitimate half-brother Dunois would help to lift the siege of their eponymous Orleans). Only when generations of rulers change is he finally freed, and with the help of none other than the son of his father’s assassin, Philip of Burgundy (who had also handed Joan of Arc to the English).


Now free, Charles marries the much younger niece of Philip, settles in Blois, and after a brief interlude trying unsuccessfully to recover Asti, his mother’s (a Visconti) inheritance, drops power plays and becomes a great patron of arts. That is another inheritance from Valentina Visconti, daughter of the first duke of Milan, a brilliantly educated patroness of poets including Christine de Pisan. Charles hosts literary luminaries, conducts poetry tournaments, where participants compete treating topics like dying of thirst by the spring. He himself, as already noted, is no slouch at versification. In 1458 among his guests is François Villon, who writes there his famous Ballade of Contradictions (known also as Ballade of the Competition of Blois or by its first line about dying of thirst by a spring), as well as a celebratory piece on the birth of the duke’s first child Marie. Charles also has famous descendants and relatives. Besides having a hero half-brother (Dunois), he is the father of a king, Louis XII (who wasted his life on failed wars of conquest), and a great-uncle of his successor. That successor, François I, is a quintessential renaissance monarch and patron of arts, who entices the quintessential renaissance man Leonardo to spend the last years of his life in Amboise. Leonardo dies and is buried in Amboise. And that’s where half a century earlier dies also Charles d’Orléans.


In 1982, touring the resplendent string of châteaux de Loire  (while staying in one) we came to Amboise to see the royal castle, but even more so Clos Lucé, Leonardo’s home, now of course a museum. We had no knowledge then of the grand-uncle of the illustrious royal owner of the place. Nor would I for several decades to come. But when I got involved in a play about the life of François Villon, among several roles I performed was that of the Duc d’Orleans. The prince reminisces about his trying past and uneasy present. As an old man to a young one and as a poet to a poet he gives Villon a piece of his wisdom. The two men agree that the young one cannot stay and needs to move on to be true to himself. In real life, the men had a falling out and the vagabond had to leave. A few short years later, Villon disappears without a trace, and how or when his life ended remains a mystery. Charles orders creation of a manuscript containing his extensive poetic output as well as works produced by other poets, visiting and resident at the chateau, including those of Villon. He dies soon thereafter on the way home from a conclave of the princes of blood in nearby Tours.


And just as I was rehearsing for the production, I accidentally pulled from a bookshelf “Antologie de textes français du IXe au XVe siècle” – a collection of poetry in Old and Middle French. It had of course Villon, Cristine de Pisan, Eustache Deschamps (another prominent poet supported by Valentina Visconti), and my Charles! There was, among other texts, one of his most famous rondels “Le temps a laissié son manteau.” The ancient form was so cool, I was compelled to translate it. 



Charles d’Orléans



Clos Lucé