A Fly on the Wall in the Last Days of Chivalry

Since my 'Anjou Trilogy' takes place at the French court in the first half of the 15th century, I thought I would try and describe what you might see, were you a fly on the wall.

Despite continual small skirmishes between two opposing royal factions from within the Charles VI and then Charles VII's family, and the English constantly invading France from their territory of Normandy, surprisingly this was also a time of tremendous artistic and cultural flowering in France due to the wealth of great connoisseurs and collectors within the royal family and aristocracy. Both the courts of Burgundy and Berry, headed by their royal dukes, first cousins of the king, excelled in luxurious and sophisticated living.

In architecture, a new vertical style emerged, later called Gothic, but not at the time. The Roman arch was replaced by the tall pointed arch resembling hands vertically clasped in prayer, and "flying buttresses" of stone pulled the walls from the outside to prevent them falling in. The aim was to build larger covered areas for a greater number of people to listen indoors to preachers speaking from the pulpit, their voices and those of the choir filling the great space. This "flamboyant" style was not really used for private houses but a number of palaces and castles did soar vertically as can be seen in the Duke of Berry's illuminated manuscript "Les Tres Riches Heures". This duke's collection of tapestries, goldsmith's work and objects d'art, manuscripts, precious stones - one ruby of 240 carats -- and even exotic animals -- was spread throughout his seventeen or more palaces and grand mansions in his vast sovereign territories.

The extravagance of the court of the Duke of Burgundy was also a by-word of the day - descriptions of the spectacular tournaments held there alone passed into popular folklore.
Did the tall towers of the churches inspire the ladies' headdresses or was it the other way around? Ladies wore incredibly tall conical caps on their heads from which fluttered soft chiffons in rainbow colours. These were called a "henin" and were worn perched on a high forehead from which the hair had been plucked back, creating a "high-brow". Walt Disney used these "henins" to great effect in his cartoon films featuring princesses in towers! On their forehead on the edge of the "henin", ladies would often attach a small flower shape or patch of black velvet to accentuate the whiteness of their skin. There were many different shapes of headdress for ladies; some looked like a pair of horns, or a bee-hive, but all covered most of the hair once a lady was married. Only a virgin wore her hair open and long hanging over her shoulders.

A lady's dress at court functions would be made of wonderful soft silks in every shade of the rainbow and have very long sleeves almost touching the ground. She would wear her waist very high and tie under her dress a head-sized cushion of down feathers to sit on her tummy, thus creating that fashionable "rounded look". When a lady at court was pregnant and it began to show, she could remove her pillow and still remain sometimes with no one the wiser until her last month, when she would absent herself, give birth and return shortly afterwards, her child left in the care of a wet nurse. Babies or children were never accommodated at court!

Even royal children were brought up at one of the king's castles and rarely saw their parents until able to play their part. Other aristocratic children in their teens might be brought to court as a page to their father or a great lord. As always, there were exceptions, and some grand ladies, like Yolande the heroine of "The Queen of Four Kingdoms", volume 1 of my current trilogy, spent a great deal of her time with her children at one or other of her many châteaux and took a very active role in their education.

Courtiers' fashions were also unusual. For a time gentlemen wore the "houpplande" or long flared coat which reached below the knees and with long trailing, pointed sleeves spreading down from the elbow. These sleeves and the neck and hem were often edged or even lined with soft fur. But for the dashing young courtier, the fashion was to wear tight hose, each leg often in a different colour, and with a tight, short jacket, with a short, flared frill coming from the waist. Each leg of his stockings would be pulled up front and back with tags to tie above the opposite hip at the waist on either side. Between their stockings, young gentlemen would wear a small triangular "nappy" -- or not -- but it was often said that they left little to the imagination when bending down. It was also the custom for some young courtiers to use hot wax to remove any pubic hair which might show, often burning themselves in the process. It was only in the next century that the "cod piece" solved this awkward problem. Courtiers and men of the bourgeoisie covered their heads with a variety of draped arrangements or at times wore berets, often of velvet, an elegant feather attached with a valuable brooch. Their shoes were of soft leather and seemed an extension of their hose with very long soft pointed toes. I have often wondered how they were able to walk!

It was the custom to stand at court, only royalty sat. At mealtimes, trestles would be brought in and wooden planks laid on top. Then a great sheet of damask would be brought as a table cloth. Benches and chairs would be brought then for seating. Thereafter, the gathering would move around until a dance was suggested by the king or queen. There was always music played by minstrels and the partner's hand was held at head height or higher for the formal dances - also when processing through rooms or to or from church services.

Outside entertainment consisted of the hunt or tournaments. Wild boar or stags were the prey of a hunt on horseback with hounds and sometimes with a hawk or falcon on the left arm to catch other birds or hares. An organised hunt on horseback always caused great excitement; hounds barking; horses jingling their tack, fretting to be off. Ladies rarely sat astride, but sideways in a kind of chair attached to the horse's back. Those who did ride astride wore a divided long skirt over men's tight trousers. When Joan of Arc appeared at court during this time she was seen wearing a long divided skirt over her thigh-high leather breeches, but she also wore a lady's court dress of gold lace or wonderful velvets, gifts from the king. With the army she always dressed as a man to avoid being raped if captured -- neither the French nor the Burgundians would rape a young soldier, but a woman... Cross-dressing was forbidden by the Church and considered a grievous sin since it was known that young courtesans would sometimes wear hose under their skirts which they could remove easily to appear more like a boy to certain customers....

Tournaments were fantastic occasions, usually held to celebrate a great marriage or a treaty. The most famous organiser of tournaments in France and who also wrote books on the subject was one of the principle characters in my trilogy called René d'Anjou, also known as "Good King René". He was the son of the heroine of the first volume, Yolande, "The Queen of Four Kingdoms".

After losing his kingdom of Naples and Sicily, on his return to France he held a number of dazzling tournaments, most notably for the wedding of his daughter Marguerite to King Henry VI of England. Famous knights came from all over the country to appear and joust at his tourneys, their horses caparisoned to the ground in cloth of gold or quilted velvet, some with tiny bells sewn on that tinkled with every movement. Tall exotic feathers were attached to helmets and also to the brow-band of a horse's bridle, and knights wore a scarf on their arm in the family colours of the lady in whose honour they rode. Lances were blunt and apart from the odd broken bone from a fall, little damage was done to the contestants.

These were the final days of the age of chivalry, and honour was still preserved - for a while longer.

Princess Michael is the author of several non-fiction histories and the acclaimed 'Anjou Trilogy', whose second Volume - 'Agnes Sorel, Mistress of Beauty' - is available now on Amazon and in all good bookshops.

For more information on Princess Michael, her lectures and essays, and The Anjoy Trilogy, see www.princessmichael.com