Beautiful, clever and determined, Yolande of Aragon was at the heart of the diplomatic and military campaigns that united 15th-century France. Margaret L. Kekewich charts her career.
Traditionally the turning point in the reconquest of France from the English is believed to have coincided with the career of Joan of Arc. The relief of Orleans in May 1429 and the subsequent coronation of the Dauphin as Charles VII of France at Reims in July were principally the achievements of this devout peasant maiden. She inspired the indecisive Charles, uncertain of his own legitimacy, to embark on a series of campaigns that led to the capture of Paris and parts of Normandy. But an alternative account sees Queen Yolande of Aragon (1380-1442), mother-in-law of the Dauphin, as a more important and longer-term source of emotional, financial and diplomatic support. She was beautiful, clever and determined to defend the interests of her own Angevin family, interests, which she saw as synonymous with those of France.
In 1425 Yolande of Aragon almost certainly received an anonymous treatise addressed to her in which she was urged to recall the Dauphin (by then actually Charles VII) to his duty to save France from ruin. The treatise declared that he should obey the Church, consider the ‘common good’, avoid lowly born advisers and excessive taxation. His parlement(supreme court) should promote religious and economic rule by ensuring that justice was maintained. All this was to be achieved by the King but the fact that it was sent to his mother-in-law shows where the real power was thought to lie.
How did a Spanish princess, already widowed with five young children, achieve such a position? Yolande was the daughter and sister to the last in a line of kings of Aragon, her mother was a French princess from the duchy of Bar. In 1400 Yolande, described by the chronicler Jean Juvenal des Ursins as ‘one of the most beautiful creatures that one could see’, married Louis II of Anjou, the cousin of Charles VI of France. Louis held the duchy of Anjou and county of Maine and took precedence over the other princes of the royal blood because he also claimed the kingdom of Naples. He possessed the northern part, the county of Provence, and from time to time, both before and after his marriage, ruled much of southern Italy (apart from Sicily, although the Angevins used the title ‘King of Sicily’). The defence of this realm was one great conflict in which Yolande became involved. The other was the fierce rivalry for influence at court between the factions of Burgundy and Armagnac that raged, filling the power vacuum left by the periodic fits of insanity suffered by Charles VI.
The absences left by Louis II while he was fighting in Italy initially preserved the house of Anjou from commitment to either side but they were gradually drawn in. The house of Orleans and the Count of Armagnac led the faction that bore the latter’s name, the Armagnacs. John the Fearless, Duke of Burgundy, the richest and most powerful of the princes of royal blood, wished to dominate the political destinies of France. Louis of Anjou, the eldest son of Louis II and Yolande, was betrothed to Duke John’s daughter Catherine; as they were also friendly with Orleans they hoped to mediate between the factions. In 1413, however, the Angevins became alarmed by the way in which Duke John (who had already murdered the previous Duke of Orleans) dominated the royal government and they broke off the engagement between Louis of Anjou and John’s daughter, thereby making John a bitter enemy.
In the same year the Queen of France, Isabeau of Bavaria, who took most decisions on behalf of her sick husband, agreed to betroth their third son, Charles, Count of Ponthieu, to Marie, the eldest daughter of Louis II and Yolande. Charles had been born while the queen was thought to be having an affair with the Duke of Orleans, so his legitimacy as heir to the throne could be questioned by his enemies.
The accession of the vigorous king Henry V in England led to the revival of his family’s claim to Normandy, Anjou and Maine; it was derived from his Norman and Plantagenet forebears. His victory at Agincourt in 1415 introduced England as a player in the vicious power struggle that was raging round Charles VI and his self-seeking queen. Their two eldest sons died, leaving Charles of Ponthieu as Dauphin. In 1417 Yolande’s husband, Louis II, also died, worn out by disease contracted on his last Italian campaign. On his deathbed he advised Charles and his own sons not to trust the Duke of Burgundy but to avoid his enmity.
Yolande was faced with a choice; she could either ally with the Armagnac faction (its natural leader, the Duke of Orleans, remained in captivity in England for twenty-five years after Agincourt) or throw in her lot with the Duke of Burgundy, who dominated Paris, Charles VI and Isabeau. Yolande, always preferring diplomacy to violence, tried to temporise and made a truce with Henry V. But when it became clear that, with the support of Burgundy and Isabeau, he wished to disinherit the Dauphin and eventually make himself King of France, Yolande made an irrevocable decision to assist the Dauphin. In 1418 the Dauphin escaped from Paris with the assistance of several Angevin servants, including one Tanneguy du Chastel. Charles set up an alternative government in Poitiers, well away from the Anglo-Burgundian sphere of influence and close to his mother-in-law Yolande in Anjou. He effectively became the leader of the Armagnac faction. For nearly twenty years from his base in the Loire valley, known as the kingdom of Bourges, he was to resist the English occupation of France.
In 1419, once Charles was in the relative security of the Loire, Yolande could consider the needs of her two eldest sons, Louis III (1403-34), and René, Count of Guise (1409-80). She made an excellent settlement for the ten-year-old René by persuading her uncle, the elderly cardinal and Duke of Bar, to make him his heir. René was also married in 1420 to Isabelle, the daughter and heiress of the neighbouring Charles, Duke of Lorraine; eventually the couple would inherit that duchy as well. These arrangements gave the house of Anjou, already a formidable power in France and Italy, influence in the Holy Roman Empire. Lorraine was to be weaned away from the Burgundian sphere of influence, a step that would lead to further conflict for the Angevins.
In 1419 Yolande travelled with her eldest son Louis III to Provence to negotiate with Joanna, the childless queen of Naples, and her nobles for Louis’s recognition as her heir. The Dauphin was engaged in peace talks with the Duke of Burgundy and Yolande believed that she could safely leave him. Charles and John arranged to meet on the bridge at Montereau on September 10th but, instead of making an agreement, some of the Dauphin’s followers, including Tanneguy du Chastel, murdered the duke. This was the worst thing that could have happened; it shocked European opinion and John was succeeded by an able, adult son, Duke Philip the Good. He immediately broke off relations with Charles and allied with the English and Queen Isabeau in Paris. The following year, 1420, the treaty of Troyes recognised Henry V as the heir to Charles VI and sealed the agreement with the marriage of Charles’ daughter Catherine to the English king. The Dauphin, disgraced, disinherited and bereft of good advice, was confined to the Loire valley, Dauphiné and Languedoc with only the unreliable support of the Duke of Brittany and a few other nobles.
Yolande of Aragon was probably horrified by the news from the north of France. She reached an agreement in 1419-20 with the Neapolitans, prudently taking hostages for the safety of Louis III, and dispatched him to Italy with a small company. Anjou was attacked by the English and saved by forces loyal to the Dauphin, led by Scots mercenaries, at the battle of Baugé on March 21st, 1421.
The Dauphin became King of France theoretically in October 1422 when his father died, although Henry VI, the infant son of Henry V (who had also died in 1422), was proclaimed king in Paris and recognised there, as well as in Normandy, Calais and Guyenne.
Yolande returned to the Loire from Provence in 1423 to be welcomed by Charles with the title of Duchess of Touraine. She seldom let him out of her sight in the following years: many of his edicts, assemblies and parlements bore the joint names of Charles and his mother-in-law ‘the Queen of Sicily’. She was mostly based in her dower town of Saumur and in Angers, the main city of Anjou. Charles sometimes ventured away from her to his castles near Tours and Bourges and his wife’s residence at Chinon.
Throughout the remainder of the decade Charles managed to hold most of his territory although the Angevins lost Maine to the English in 1425. Both sides were roughly equal in strength and Yolande realised that diplomacy would be the most effective way of gaining an advantage. Her first target was Brittany, historically an Angevin ally. She achieved a double coup in attracting Arthur of Richemont, the younger brother of its duke, away from his alliance with Burgundy and betrothing her eldest son Louis III to the duke’s daughter Isabelle of Brittany. Richemont, however, had first to be persuaded to change sides, which he would not do until those responsible for the murder of Duke John at Montereau and other acts distasteful to Brittany were disgraced. Tanneguy and another Angevin, Jean Louvet, were therefore sent from court to a comfortable exile ‘by the means and with the support of the high and mighty Queen of Sicily’.
Richemont changed sides and became Constable, the most senior commander in France. He, together with military leaders such as Count Dunois, bastard of Orleans, and Pierre de Brézé, Lord of La Varenne – Yolande’s men – started to turn the tide against the English.
Yolande and her daughter Marie (who had given birth to a son, Louis, in 1423) led the Angevin faction at court. The other major faction was led by Georges, Lord of La Tremoïlle, Charles’s favourite and a former companion of his mother Queen Isabeau. Initially Yolande and Richemont thought that La Tremoïlle would be useful since he had Burgundian connections and shared their aim of opening negotiations with Philip the Good. But La Tremoïlle turned Charles against Richemont and concentrated on lining his own pockets rather than placating Burgundy. He probably changed the king’s mind about the union of Louis III (absent in Italy) with Isabelle of Brittany. Instead she married Guy, Count of Laval, a noble from Maine. Yolande was furious, for this was a sign that her influence was waning.
These tensions at the court of Bourges were the context for the emergence of a new force in the power game with England, Burgundy and the court of Queen Isabeau. Joan of Arc came from a prosperous peasant family in Domrémy in the marches of Lorraine so she was a subject of its duke and his heirs, René and Isabelle. Joan went first to the old Duke of Lorraine’s court at Nancy early in 1429 to proclaim her holy mission to liberate France from the English. The Duke was more concerned to discover whether or not she could cure his gout and was brusquely told by the Maid that he should seek God’s pardon by putting away his mistress and returning to his wife. Joan asked him to send Duke René with her to the Dauphin but had to be content with a few knights and squires. Yet she was sheltered and encouraged by a number of Angevin servants on her way to Chinon where she encountered Charles. He and Yolande were fearful that Orleans would be captured by the English besiegers and that the Loire valley, including Touraine and Anjou, would be opened to them. Philippe Contamine, a great authority on the period, doubts that Joan received much support from the Angevins. It is certain, however, that Yolande headed the ladies who examined the Maid and confirmed that she was truly a virgin and therefore a credible conduit for God’s will. Yolande also gathered together the supply convoy for the relief of Orleans that Joan accompanied to gain her great victory over the English on May 8th.
The coronation of Charles VII took place shortly afterwards at Reims on July 17th, 1429. An Angevin servant sent an enthusiastic account of the occasion to the queens Yolande and Marie. The latter was absent perhaps because she was pregnant. Yolande’s son, Duke René, was one of the lords who wished to press the attack on Paris. When Joan was wounded he sheltered her in his hotel in the suburbs. This stage in the campaign appears to have been opposed by La Tremoïlle, who was still the King’s favourite, and it came to a halt for lack of finance. The next spring, Joan was captured by the Burgundians who sold her to the English. No attempt was made by King Charles or the Angevins to rescue or ransom her and she was burnt at Rouen in May 1431. It has been suggested that the King and the Angevins saw her trial as an attempt to discredit the resurgent monarchy through charges of witchcraft and heresy and wished to distance themselves from her. In a devout age, Joan’s defeat and capture had called into question her credentials as God’s messenger. Queen Yolande was not responsible for the phenomenon of Joan but, recognising her purity and charismatic quality, she was prepared to use her as a tool in the reconquest of France and against her rival La Tremoïlle. When Joan failed, Yolande and the King did not hesitate to abandon her.
Yolande’s hopes for one branch of her family were shattered when her second son, René, was defeated at Bulgnéville in 1431, soon after he and his wife had inherited Lorraine. The rival candidate for the duchy, Antoine, Count of Vaudemont, was supported by a force of English and Burgundians. René began a period of captivity in Burgundy, which lasted a number of years. Meanwhile Louis III died in Italy without heirs. The claim to the kingdom of Naples devolved onto René but it fell to his wife Isabelle to make it good. By 1435 she had confirmed the loyalty of Lorraine and was able to leave it to go to Naples. She ruled effectively there as René’s lieutenant for two-and-a-half-years, managing to keep the rival claimant, the formidable Alfonso of Aragon, at bay.
In 1433, La Tremolile was attacked in his bedroom in Chinon by a group of young nobles led by Pierre de Brézé. The favourite was wounded in several places but his extreme girth saved him from the potentially fatal result of a blow to his stomach. He was driven into exile while Queen Marie calmed her husband's indignation. She and her mother had adroitly introduced Yolande's youngest son, Charles of Anjou, into the King's company. The latter was charmed: 'A brave prince, a true man of war endowed with a remarkable beauty', he enthused of the young Anjou, whom he showered with titles and gifts. They were to remain almost inseparable, at court and on campaign, for the rest of the reign. Yolande, supreme again, supported by her daughter and youngest son, could concentrate on the major goal of her diplomacy, a settlement with Burgundy. Another of her thwarted ambitions had also been fulfilled by the marriage of her remaining daughter, Yolande, to the son of the Duke of Brittany.
The English position in France was dealt a double blow in 1435. The Duke of Bedford, a friend of Burgundy who had proved a successful regent and war leader for his nephew, Henry VI, died. Yolande had been making overtures to Philip the Good for years but, while the English prospered, he had no incentive to respond positively. Now, with increasingly aggressive French campaigns ravaging up to the gates of Paris, Philip could see no future for his alliance with England.
A congress was called at Arras attended by delegates from France, England and Burgundy. Yolande and Charles of Anjou were represented. Duke Philip’s terms were high, including demanding cringing acts of penance by King Charles for the murder of John the Fearless, but the price was worth paying. The English left Arras with nothing and Paris fell to Charles VII the following year. Philip at last released René who had to agree to a high ransom, the loss of towns in Flanders and the marriage of two of his children to Burgundian allies.
None of this seemed to trouble Yolande – one of her daughters was queen of a resurgent France and another would be Duchess of Brittany (though she died before her husband succeeded). René was free to go and make good his claim to be King of Naples and Yolande and her youngest son enjoyed influence and prestige at the court of Charles VII.
In 1440, King Charles and Queen Marie visited Yolande in Saumur, where she was living with her granddaughter, Margaret of Anjou, the second daughter of René. Now sixty, Yolande was deemed to be an old woman but she was aware of the potential of her attractive young granddaughter for a politically advantageous match. Two years later, when she was twelve, Margaret was bought rich fabrics and furs so that she could be displayed to visiting ambassadors from the German emperor. This was to be Yolande’s last act of diplomacy for she died at Saumur in November 1442.
In her will she left various precious objects, tapestries and jewels to René, Marie, Charles of Anjou (who also received her lands in Provence) and Margaret. She declared that she had no money to bequeath as she had spent it all in the service of the kings of France and Sicily. She was modestly interred in the Angevins’ traditional burial place, the church of St Maurice, Angers.
King Charles wrote her epitaph in 1443 when he gave Charles of Anjou various lordships:
The late Yolande, of good memory, Queen of Jerusalem and Sicily, in our youth did us great services in many ways that we hold in perpetual memory. Our said mother-in-law, after we were excluded from our city of Paris, received us generously in her lands of Anjou and Maine, and gave us much advice, support and many services using her goods, people and fortresses to help us against the attacks of our adversaries of England and others.
In 1445 Henry VI of England married Yolande’s granddaughter Margaret of Anjou. The only male in the direct Lancastrian line, he was in need of a wife and well disposed towards a peaceful settlement with France. Henry settled for a meagre dowry and a short truce in return for Margaret’s hand. The new queen and her advisers managed to persuade the malleable Henry that Maine should be surrendered, which was achieved in 1448.
Yolande had been at the heart of the military and diplomatic campaigns, governing France until death overtook her. She left a great legacy to France in two of her grandchildren: Margaret of Anjou promoted French interests both by her marriage and the subsequent weakening of the English government by her ill-judged policies. Louis XI, the son of Charles and Marie, was to preside over the demise of many of the great noble houses of France. By 1500, principally through marriage and the operation of the laws of succession rather than warfare, Brittany, Orleans, Anjou, Maine, Provence and the old duchy of Burgundy had all been united to the crown of France.
|1415||Battle of Agincourt and the rise of Henry V of England as a major power in France.|
|1418||Yolande rescues the Dauphin, Charles (VII), from Paris and the clutches of Burgundy, and sets him up in Poitiers/Bourges.|
John the Fearless, Duke of Burgundy, assassinated by Charles’s men.
|1420||Treaty of Troyes, recognises Henry V as heir to French king Charles VI; Louis III goes to Naples.|
|1421||Anjou saved from the English in the Battle of Baugé. Henry VI of England born in December.|
|1422||Charles VI dies; Henry V dies, succeeded by infant Henry VI.|
|1429||Joan of Arc defeats the English at Orleans in May; coronation of Charles VII in Reims in July.|
|1433||La Tremoille, King Charles’ favourite, overthrown by Yolande’s men.|
|1435||Treaty of Arras; Philip the Good of Burgundy makes peace with King Charles VII.|
|1436||Charles takes Paris.|
|1442||Yolande dies at Saumur.|
|1444-49||Truce of Tours gives Charles VII the upper hand over Henry VI of England.|
|Margaret of Anjou, Yolande’s granddaughter, marries Henry VI.|
|1449||King Charles invades Normandy, ending the truce. After the fall of Guyenne in 1453, the English hold only Calais.|
- Philippe Contamine, De Jeanne d’Arc aux Guerres d’Italie: figures, images et problèmes du xve siècle (Paradigme, 1994)
- Jeanne d’Orliac, Yolande d’Anjou: la reine des quatre royaumes (Librairie Plon, 1933)
- Margaret L.Kekewich, The Good King: René of Anjou and Fifteenth-Century Europe(Palgrave/Macmillan, 2008)
- Roger Little, The Parlement of Poitiers: War, Government and Politics in France, 1418-1436 (Royal Historical Society, 1984)
- Malcolm Vale, Charles VII (University of California Press, 1974)