The Battle of Crécy is well know as a resounding English victory. Some great men survived the bloody battle, but the highest ranking person to ride off the battlefield at Crécy on 26th August 1346 was not Edward III of England, or even the French King Philip VI, but a man who is far less well known in England than he deserves to be – King Charles IV of Bohemia, Holy Roman Emperor.
Charles was born, with the given name of Václav, in Prague to John of Luxembourg and his Bohemian wife Eliška of the ruling Přemyslid dynasty of Bohemia. His father was close to the French court and sent his son there to be raised. Václav changed his name to Charles on his betrothal to Blanche, half sister to Philip de Valois, the future King Philip, to please his patron, Charles IV of France. He would have met young Edward of England that day, the same day that Charles of France, Edward’s uncle, married Marie of Luxembourg, Charles’ aunt.
Charles grew up in Paris under the tutelage of Pierre de Rosieres, who was to become Pope Clement VI, a life-long ally. He learnt the art of warfare at a young age in Italy fighting for his father’s possessions there. He led and won his first battle aged sixteen. Diplomacy was learned in bringing the Bohemian nobility to heel in the absence of the king, his father John, who preferred to roam Europe, and in his dealings with his own father who was suspicious of his successes. Aided by his friend the Pope he was elected king of the Romans and therefore king of Germany in June 1346 against rival claimant, Edward III’s ally Ludwig of Bavaria. Ludwig had seized that throne as John had been too young to fight for it on the death of his own father who was Holy Roman Emperor Henry VII.
Charles received the summons to France while he was still in Germany shortly after his election. He arrived in Paris after his father with few men, drawn from those around him from Luxembourg, the Rhineland and some from Bohemia. He rode north with Philip and John and was present as Philip watched King Edward escape his trap by fording the Somme at Saigneville. It was Bohemian knights who scouted the English positions at Crécy, Czech sources tell us, and it was John of Bohemia, along with Charles one presumes, who advised caution to Philip. The Bohemian pair were at the very centre of the French army and close to King Philip. Charles was at the forefront of the French attack, possibly even charging with the doomed count of Alençon, Philip’s impetuous brother. He received three injuries during the battle, at least two of which were arrows in the arm. Once his father was known to have fallen his knights dragged the reluctant Charles from the battlefield and took him to a place of safety. By now, of course, he was not only king of Germany but King of Bohemia also.
Charles was not badly wounded as he was able to fetch his father’s body, and the surcoats of those who died with him, from the abbey of Valloires just a few miles from Crécy. He returned to Luxembourg by 7th September 1346 and it was here that John was laid to rest.
Such was his standing with King Philip that it was he who Philip wished to go to Calais and negotiate on his behalf with Edward of England while the English king laid siege to the port, but Edward refused to see him. However, this appears not to be a personal snub towards Charles on Edward’s behalf as he offered his daughter’s hand in marriage to Charles in 1349.
Charles was one of life’s survivors, not only surviving Crécy when so many on the French side did not, but he also survived being thrown into a dungeon aged three by his own father, a poisoning attempt in Italy, fleeing from Bohemia and the unfounded wrath of his own father, an attack by pirates off the coast of Venice, a broken neck, travelling in disguise as a squire to avoid capture in Germany, his second wife’s attempt at a love potion, and an arson attack, again in Italy. He was certainly a worthy adversary for Edward III of England.
Sadly an in-depth study of Charles seems to be impossible if you don’t read Czech. However, he did leave an autobiography, available in English that describes his early life, his time in Italy and his experiences up to June 1346.