Patrick Boniface on the deaths in battle of regal warriors.
According to a popular Czech tradition, before he committed himself to combat in a battle already lost, King John the Blind said, ‘God forbid that a Bohemian king should ever flee from a fight.’
Jang de Blannen (John the Blind) was born on 10 August 1296 and became the Count of Luxembourg in 1309. The following year he was crowned King of Bohemia. He also had a claim to be King of Poland.
The eldest son of the Holy Roman Emperor Henry VII, his life was dominated by a struggle to maintain control over his territory, despite being without his sight for well over a decade.
John was brought up in the environs of Paris and taught by French clergy in the classic style; yet, despite the French upbringing, John’s destiny would see him deeply involved in the politics of Germany.
Aged 14, his father arranged a marriage between his son and Elizabeth, sister of the deceased King Wenceslaus III of Bohemia.
The wedding was a glittering affair staged in Speyer, after which the two teenagers made their way to Prague, accompanied by the Archbishop of Mainz. He was to guide the newlyweds on purely Czech issues.
WAR AND DIPLOMACY
Henry VII’s plan had always been to depose the reigning King Henry of Carinthia and, by sending imperial regiments to accompany John and Elizabeth, this task was easily achieved: the invaders gained control of Prague on 3 December 1310.
Together with his team of advisers, John got to grips with the troubles affecting the Czech state and in short order he had stabilised them. In so doing, he became one of the seven prince electors of the Holy Roman Empire, and, in succession of Wenceslaus III, a claimant to the Polish and Hungarian thrones. (The prince-electors had, since the 13th century, had the privilege of electing the King of the Romans, who would then be crowned by the Pope as the Holy Roman Emperor.)
John, however, was deeply disliked and mistrusted by much of the Czech nobility, as he was considered an ‘alien’. His marriage was not a success either, and he soon gave up the administration of Bohemia for a life of travel across Europe.
His military campaigns saw him, as a rival of King Wladyslaw I for the Polish crown, lend his support to the Teutonic Knights, who raised a crusade against the pagan Lithuanians during the Polish-Teutonic War of 1326-1332.
In 1326, John the Blind marched against Kraków. In doing so, he vassalised many of the Duchies of Silesia. Further military campaigns were waged against Russia, Hungary, England, and Austria, as well as in northern Italy in the Tyrol region.
His Bohemian empire expanded northwards throughout his lifetime, incorporating the regions of Upper Lusatia and much of Lombardy. These campaigns across Europe cost him popularity back at home, with his lavish expenditure and heavy taxation impoverishing his country.
John lost his sight around the age of 39, in 1336, due to ophthalmia contracted during a crusade in Lithuania. Despite his blindness, John still saw himself as a statesman of power and influence; and in 1337, with the outbreak of the Hundred Years War, he allied himself with King Philip VI of France.
FIGHTING AGAINST THE ODDS
King John the Blind joined the forces of the French at the battlefield of Crécy in 1346. On 26 August, he was part of the Genoese van, commanded by Antonio Doria and Carlo Grimaldi.
The Duke d’Alençon led the knights on horses, including the blind King John. His horse was strapped on either side to two of his most trusted knights, also on horseback. King John was not the only king to ride into battle that day: his son, the King of the Romans, and the displaced King of Majorca were also in the force, while King Philip led the rearguard.
The assault started at 4pm, when the French marched towards the English position. Above them, the sky was filled with foreboding rainclouds. The bowmen remained where they were and, seeing the advancing French forces, fired volley after volley.
The air was filled with arrows, with one witness saying, ‘The English archers each stepped forth one pace, drew the bowstring to his ear, and let their arrows fly; so wholly and so thick that it seemed as snow.’
After such an onslaught, the French retreated into the advancing second wave of French forces. Attempted advance after attempted advance was held back by deadly accurate archery. It was during one of these volleys that King John the Blind was struck down, alongside his two attendant knights, as he charged forward into the fray.
Following his death, John’s body was taken to Kloster Altmünster in Luxembourg. The Abbey was destroyed in 1543, and John the Blind’s remains were moved to Kloster Neumünster.
Later, during the French Revolution, John’s remains were salvaged by the Boch industrial family and hidden in an attic room in Meltlach on the Saar River at the behest of the Abbey’s monks.
Pierre-Joseph Boch met Prince Frederick William of Prussia on a visit to the Rhineland in 1833, and offered the remains as a gift to the Prince, who accepted them and had a funeral chapel built to house them near Kastel-Staadt, on a rock above the town.
The bones of John the Blind had one further journey to make. In 1945, the Luxembourg Government took a chance to possess the remains and, in a cloak-and-dagger operation, took them to the Notre-Dame Cathedral in Luxembourg, where they rest to this day.
This is an extract from the February issue of Military History Matters.
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