Philip the Bold’s political aspirations and the tapestries he gave to Giangaleazzo Visconti

In 1403 Philip the Bold, a French prince and duke of Burgundy, distributed badges to sixty nobles at the royal court in Paris as a New Year’s gift. None of these badges have survived. But we know that their mysterious insignia included an eagle, a lion and a golden tree. Written below was the inscription ‘en loyaute’.[1]

What did these badges mean for Philip and their recipients? Loyalty to what or to whom? Speculative responses to this question consider Philip’s ongoing rivalry with his brothers and nephews for access and control over the king and the royal finances. Carol Chattaway claims that the obscurity of the ‘Golden Tree’ badges reflected the machiavellian complexities of such court alliances.[2] Their iconography was left intentionally elusive in order to allow it to adapt to changing political circumstances.

Although plausible, this argument nevertheless leaves open the question on why Philip felt the need to establish such a network of obligations and allies with this gift. Chattaway had mooted that it is possible that Philip sought the French crown for his own line, though for another scholar this suggestion is not believable.[3] But this debate itself indicates one major problem researchers encounter when studying the motivations and aspirations of medieval princes and princesses. If such men and women kept their cards close to their chests, their strategies are at least as obscure to present-day historians as they were to their contemporary rivals.

However, there is an instance when Philip used artworks to communicate his aspirations more openly than when he did with the Golden Tree badge. In 1386 Philip commissioned two tapestries. They have not survived, but the duke’s financial accounts describe them as follows:

‘To Jacquet Dourdin, tapestry-maker residing in Paris, for two high-warp tapestries made of thread from Arras and worked with gold from the isle of Cyprus, one of which is the story of Guy of Burgundy who was nominated king of France and given the crown in the absence of King Charlemagne whilst he was conquering the lands of the Saracens up to Spain, this [drape] taking 170 square ells (of the ells of Arras), and at the price of 1000 francs. And for another drape of the story of a king who while on a hunt with great company became separated in a wood from his men and horses, and there he finds a marvellous encounter with fairies who condemn him to become a stag as it is written in the Bible, comprising 80 square ells (of the ells of Arras) at the price of 400 francs. The said drapes the said Lord [Philip] has had taken and bought from the said Jacquet and given to the Count of Vertus, by quittance given the fifth day of August, [13]80 and 6. (my translation)‘[4]

Philip and his wife Margaret together owned more than two-hundred tapestries, and would often give them as gifts to powerful lords.[5] These particular tapestries were gifts made to ‘the Count of Vertus’. Vertus is a town in the region of Champagne-Ardenne.  The title of Count of Vertus was made by Philip the Bold’s father, John II of France, and the title of Count and Countess of Vertus was given to John’s youngest daughter, Isabelle, and her husband, Giangaleazzo Visconti, upon their marriage in 1360.[6] Philip the Bold and Giangaleazzo were thus brothers-in-law.

Philip’s sister died in 1373. Maybe he still felt enough fraternal obligation to Giangaleazzo to send him expensive tapestries in 1386. Giangaleazzo provided Philip with gifts, most notably a leopard for his menagerie.[7] But Giangaleazzo would also prove to be an ally. Philip visited him in Milan in 1391 to draft a treaty for what was an aborted French invasion of Italy in support of the Avignon Pope.[8] Giangaleazzo would also lend Philip fifty-thousand francs in 1395 for the disastrous crusade of Nicopolis.[9]  It is likely, therefore, that Philip had political motives for his gift of tapestries. In 1385, Giangaleazzo had become the Lord of Milan after deposing his uncle, Bernarbò. By sending Giangaleazzo tapestries a year after this event, Philip was performing a gesture of good will towards a newly powerful lord in Western Europe.

If one considers the images upon those tapestries, one can see how Philip intended to communicate how he himself was an important and valuable ally. The first and largest tapestry represents Guy of Burgundy being crowned. This event is from the chanson de geste known as Fierabras, which tells the story of how Charlemagne conquered Spain from the ‘Saracen’ King Balan and his fifteen-foot tall son, Fierabras.[10] Guy of Burgundy is one of the twelve peers, the greatest warriors of Charlemagne’s court. He and the sister of Fierabras, Floripas, fall in love, and after Balan is finally defeated, Charlemagne gives them half of Balan’s kingdom (the other half going to Fierebras, who has converted to Christianity).[11] However, this is not how the story on Philip the Bold’s tapestry is described. Instead, Guy is made the Regent of France in the absence of Charlemagne. Maybe the accountant got the details wrong, and the original tapestry was faithful to the actual story.[12] But even if so, it is nevertheless interesting that this man read the tapestry in these terms. There would have been a clear reason to do so. Philip was himself a regent of France until 1388, and the most powerful one amongst his co-ruling brothers, while the king was still a minor. It is possible that Guy was represented in this tapestry with Philip’s own likeness, for in 1391 Philip commissioned another tapestry of Charlemagne’s twelve peers including likenesses of the current lords of France who had the titles of ‘peer’ (which would have included himself).[13] Philip also seems to have had such a crypto-portrait of himself imposed on the Jeremiah figure on the famous and extant base of the Well of Moses in Dijon.[14] But even if Philip’s likeness was not in the image, the tapestry was surely a means through which he fashioned himself as the rightful and most esteemed ruler during the King’s minority, and thus it communicated to his brother-in-law what an important and valuable ally he could be.

The second tapestry is more elusive in its themes, and my reading of is, unfortunately, quite speculative. Nevertheless, it indicates that Philip may also have had ambitions to rule France during Charles VI’s majority. The account entry claims that this tapestry depicts a biblical king who has become estranged from his men in a wood, wherein he is transmogrified into a stag by fairies. Patrick M. de Winter has claimed that the clerk writing this entry misread the image.[15] Rather than represent a biblical king, De Winter claims this is actually a representation of Diana and Acteon, a tale from Ovid in which the hapless Acteon is turned into a stag for looking upon the naked and bathing Diana, and thereafter killed by his own hounds. De Winter admits, however, that this was not a story used elsewhere in the Burgundian court.[16] Another possibility is that the tapestry was an adaptation of King Nebuchadnezzar’s transformation into a beast as recounted in Daniel 4:33. Nubuchadnezzar ‘was driven from men, and did eat grass as oxen, and his body was wet with the dew of heaven, till his hairs were grown like eagles‘ feathers, and his nails like birds‘ claws (King James version).’ If so, or if the tapestry represented Acteon but as a king, one can imagine why Philip the Bold would wish his brother-in-law to consider such a story next to the image of Burgundian regency represented in the other tapestry. Philip would have wanted to assert that his own rule over France would be valid if the king was incapacitated. Furthermore, if the tapestry represented an estranged king, one as either Acteon or Nebuchadnezzar turned into a beast, did Philip, in 1386, have some inkling of Charles VI’s mental illness that would affect him from 1392, and which would lead to further long periods of regency?

These images are not clear windows into Philip’s mind. They are gifts, and can only be read in the context of the relations that Philip was intending to establish or develop with Giangaleazzo. Nevertheless, they provide clues to the problem considered by Chattaway in her study on the Golden Tree badge concerning the extent of Philip’s personal political ambition at the French court. Even if one considers only my more reliable reading of the first tapestry, it is evident that Philip was displaying his potential influence at court and position as a regent to impress Giangaleazzo. And although there is no evidence that he sought the Crown for his own house, as Chattaway suggests, he would appeal to his own seniority and the prestige of his titles to claim that he would govern France should the king be absent, as he would often turn out to be.


(Thanks to my colleagues Lukas Huppertz and Nina Reiss for their comments on the first draft of this post).




[1] On these badges see Carol Chattaway, The Order of the Golden Tree: The Gift-Giving Objectives of Duke Philip the Bold of Burgundy, Turnhout, Belgium, 2006.

[2] Ibid., p.108. See also idem, ‘Looking a medieval gift horse in the mouth. The role of the giving of gift objects in the definition and maintenance of the power networks of Philip the Bold’, Bijdragen en Mededelingen betreffende de Geschiedenis der Nederlanden, vol.114, no.1, 1999, 1-15, pp.12-14; and idem, ‚The Heroes of Philip the Bold‘, Publications du Centre Europeen d’Etudes Bourguignonnes, vol.41, 2001, 27-37, pp.36-37.

[3] Graeme Small, ‘For a Long Century of Burgundy: The Court, Female Power and Ideology’, BMGN- Low Countries Historical Review, vol.126, no.1, 2011, 54-69, p.57.

[4] ‘A Jacquet Dourdin, tapissier demourant a Paris pour II draps de hauteliche fait du file d’Arraz et ouvrez en or de Chippre, desquelz l’un est l’istorie de Guy de Bourgoingne comme il fu esleu roy de France en absence du roy Charlemaine et depuis s’en ala conquestant au pais de Rarrasins jusques en Espaigne lui rendre la couronne ; tenant ycellui viiixx et x qunes quarrées a l’aune d’Arraz du pris de mille frans ; et pour un autre drap d’istoire d’un roy qui s’en ala chacier a grant compaignie et perdit en un bois ses gens et ses chevaux et y trouva une merveilleuse aventure de fées qui le jugerent devenir cerf comme il est contenu en la Bible, contient iiiixx aulnes quarrees a l’aulne d’Arras du pris de iiiic frans, lesquelz draps le dit monseigneur a fait prenre (sic.) et acheter dudit  Jaquet et donner au conte de Vertuz, par quittance donnée le ve jour d’aoust, IIIIxx et VI, xiiiic frans.’ The Accounts of Pierre du Celier, receiver general of finances of the Duke of Burgundy, Archives départementales de la Côte-d’Or; B4431, fol. 43r. Transcription from Chrétien Dehaisnes, Documents et extraits divers concernant l’histoire de l’art dans la Flandre, l’Artois et le Hainaut avant le XVe siècle, two volumes, Lille, 1886, vol. 2, p. 646.

[5] Philip gave tapestries to Richard II of England, the Dukes of Gloucester, Lancaster and York, the King of Aragon; the Sultan Bayezid II, the Grand Master of the Teutonic Order and his own chancellor, Jean Canard. See Patrick M; de Winter, ‘The Patronage of Philippe le Hardi, Duke of Burgundy (1364-1404)’, Doctoral Thesis, Ann Arbor, Michigan, 1977, pp.155-156. Tapestries are often discussed in terms of their political function as gifts. For a bibliography and discussion Katherine Anne Wilson, ‘Political Tapestries of Philip the Bold and John the Fearless’, Visible Exports / Imports: New Research on Medieval and Renaissance Art and Culture, Emily Jane Anderson, Jill Farquhar and John Richards (eds.), Newcastle, 2012, 145-158, pp.145-147.

[6] D. M. Bueno de Mesquita, Giangaleazzo Visconti, Duke of Milan (1351-1402): A study in the political career of an Italisn despot, Cambridge, 1941, p.124-125.

[7] Ibid., p.124-125; Richard Vaughan, Philip the Bold: The Formation of the Burgundian State, Woodbridge, 2002, p.189.

[8] Ibid., p.55.

[9] Ibid., p.64.

[10] See Auguste Kroeber, Gustave Marie Joseph Servois (eds.): Fierabras: chanson de geste, Paris, 1860. A fourteenth-century version is edited and transcribed in Jean Miquet, ed. Fierabras: roman en prose de la fin du XIVe siècle. Ottawa, 1983. A modern translation is Marc Le Person (ed. and trans.), Fierabras, chanson de geste du XIIe siècle, Paris, 2012.

[11] Kroeber and Servois (eds.), p.182.

[12] See, for instance, the multiple misreading of Philip the Good’s tapestries by various courtiers in Wilson, p.153. See also the potential misreadings of the “Diane and Acteon” tapestry discussed below.

[13] This is known because, for this tapestry, Philip paid a weaver to replace the head of his father-in-law, Louis of Male, with one ‘more richly worked’. See De Winter, pp.154-155; Dehaisnes, vol. 2, pp.707, 779.

[14] Sylvaine Bertrand, ‘Contribution à l’étude de la sculpture au XVe siècle: l’elaboration des oeuvres dans les ateliers bourguignons’, four volumes, Doctoral Thesis, University of Burgundy, 1997, vol.1, pp.180-181; Susie Nash, ‘Claus Sluter’s ‚Well of Moses‘ for the Chartreuse de Champmol Reconsidered: Part III’, Burlington Magazine, vol.150, 2008, 724-741, pp.737-741.

[15] De Winter, p.157. This interpretation is repeated in Wolfgang Brassat, Tapisserien und Politik: Funktionen, Kontexte und Rezeption eines repräsentativen Mediums, Berlin, 1992, pp.90-91.

[16] Ibid., p.157.

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