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Crazy news of hidden sanity

What do you do on the first day of your long-awaited skiing holiday if your nose is running like Usain Bolt on a cocktail of steroids? *

Your head is nailed to the pillow, and an attentive group of medicines on the bedside table is listening to your snivel and sneezes, expecting you to need more of them with each sniff.

What do you do then?

I read the news.

It is universally acknowledged that clever people read news while wise people don’t. Wise people read clever books or meditate. Yet, when I’m sick, the parts of my brain that are responsible for emotions and thinking are stuffed with only one big feeling and that is Pity for Myself. Any book drowns in this pity without a hope for salvation, so there is no point in reading anything else, but news.

I usually go for art/culture news (well, I run an art blog, after all), and news from home.

Home being, in my case, The Empire of Russia.

Did you think just now that I shouldn’t strike out “the Empire of”?

Yeah. It is hard to be a Russian outside of Russia nowadays. Other nations assume you pray to Putin, speak North Korean, act Zimbabwean, and want to prod with nukes anyone who’s not handing over their gas/heating revenues, a half of Ukraine, and not accepting Russia as a moral compass.

Russians are generally seen as a threat, except in places like the French Alps, or Bond Street in London, where they have been a source of both income and headaches for the last twenty years, and thus have created a class of sympathetic populace. But even there some store owners believe euros spent by Russians should come tax free becase servicing Russians is rather taxing in itself.

I can understand where the fears come from. The international media feeds you the news about Russia that they believe is important. News like Crimea, Putin’s interview on powering up nuclear arms in the Ukrainian conflict, or the killing of an opposition leader a few hundred yards from the Kremlin can be quite disconcerting.

I’d think Russians were a menace myself if that was my only news menu.

Fortunately, there is “local” news back home that shows Moscow is far from becoming another Pnompenh. Look at my yesterday’s “catch of the day”.

A man wearing a kilt was arrested in the centre of Moscow. He was participating in the traditional St. Patrick’s day parade, impersonating a Scotsman. Police officers thought the kilt was a skirt, and with anti-homosexual propaganda laws hovering over Russians, they classified it as a grave affront to public morals. A witness reported the Miranda warning sounded like, “Wearing a skirt? You f*cking homos gone out of your f*cking minds”, following which the man was handcuffed and taken to the local police station.

I am sure the police let him out after they googled up “kilt” and discovered the brave old world of Scottish clans. They probably even had a laugh at the no-underwear rule.

North Korean, you say? Come on! If Russia was North Korea, the man would be accused of spying on important government buildings while trying to distract the guards by the irregularity of his costume, and sentenced to 10 years in a labour camp.

Call it stupid, or dumb, but it is not another North Korea.

Another bit of local news was about a man in Vorkuta, a legendary city in the North of the North of Russia (it is as far north as one can get before heading south). The guy was put on trial for torturing his wife with an electric iron out of jealousy, all the time begging her not to leave him.

Isn’t this incident a perfect illustration of the Russian policies towards Ukraine? Yes! Indeed! Russia is not cruel to other nations out of its inherent rudeness. It all happens out of love. Is it North Korea? Of course not. As twisted as it looks, it is still love, not some paranoid aggression.

Oh, the art news is best represented by a story from Novosibirsk (originally a city of scientists in – no surprise there – Siberia)

A local Orthodox bishop continues his attempts to ban a local production of Wagner’s Tannhäuser opera as in his opinion it desecrates the religious feelings of Orthodox Christians. The first court ruling was not in his favour, but the case is now put on appeal. In the meantime, a group of people whose feelings appear to be desecrated picket the theatre entrance branding visitors as devil’s supporters and traitors.   

Is this a religious tyranny of the hardline ISIS or even the milder Gulf caliber? Surely, it is more of a parody on the latter. No one gets whipped or burnt at the stake.

The Russian news paradox is that crazy local news from Russia brings hope that behind all the madness of the recent times there is a layer of sanity.

Now, it’s time to start skiing, and writing about art appreciation again.

See you soon, and in the meantime, if you missed the crime documentary series about French art of the 15th century, it begins here.

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* I don’t want to imply Usain Bolt is using prohibited substances: I just want you to imagine the inhuman power he’d be if he was, for instance, a member of the East German or Russian team.

Prince of Orange, or Why Orange is Good for You

Nikolai Tarkhov, a Russian painter who settled in France six years before the Revolution of 1917, and died there, impoverished and forgotten, thirteen years later, was in love with orange. Take Van Gogh, max out reds and blues in his palette, add a good measure of orange colour, and you’d get very close to Tarkhov, though not quite.

I guess I know why he loved orange. Perhaps, this is why we all love this colour. It is a very rare or temporary colour in nature. The sun becomes orange for the last few minutes of its daily existence above the horizon. A pumpkin turns orange when it is ripe and then it gets eaten. A tree gets orange before it metaphorically dies for the season.

Orange gives us an acute feeling of being alive right here and then. Orange is a pinch that wakes us up from whatever gloomy state of mind we may find ourselves occasionally.

If I was a writer, I’d write 50 Shades of Orange as a collection of erotic stories, in which people are preparing for the boring routine of having sex, but, after seeing something cute and orange, decide to order pizzas, change career, and vote out their president (I understand this will bring on a ban on the book in some countries).

Now, see for yourself. I made the photos yesterday, at a Tarkhov exhibition in Moscow, and I can assure you the real Tarkhov is even more intense than in these amateurish shots:

The fundamental difference between Tarkhov and Van Gogh is that Tarkhov wanted to introduce dynamism and movement in his paintings through both varying the length and intensity of his brushstrokes, and using colours that the human mind links up with the time dimension. We know orange is temporary, so our mind involuntarily registers the importance of appreciating and catching the moment that has already been captured for us by the artist, because we know that the orange moment won’t last.

The irony is that Tarkhov’s most famous or prominent paintings don’t have orange in them. Like this gargoyle of the Notre Dame in Paris.

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As the observer gets perched up next to the gargoyle, all sorts of thoughts and ideas start pouring out. Get yourself comfortable, and try it for yourself.

PS If you missed the medieval story about friendship, love, betrayal, and nipples, it just may be the recipe for a great Sunday art & crime reading experience. It begins here

Epilogue

Murder, by Death. Epilogue

Episode 1  // Episode 2 // Episode 3

Many believe that the meaning of life is in the memory one leaves about oneself; that it is somehow related to the imprint people leave on their children, friends, and humanity, in general. 

The trick has always been in measuring that impact, but now google makes it easy.

“William Shakespeare” lands 87m results, but “Kim Kardashian” comes ahead with 203m. While common sense dictates the playwriter has had a bigger impact on humanity than a good-for-nothing TV celebrity, google does reflect the true state of affairs as it is now. The only consolation, perhaps, can be found in the future. Kim Kardashian will dissipate into nothingness, but google will keep adding some more Shakespeare links each year, and in a hundred years, Ms Kardashian will stay put at, say, 300m results, but Shakespeare will be celebrating a couple billion. It is also possible that given the state of affairs as it is now, Shakespeare will fade away, getting replaced by Kim Kardashian. 

I understand the number of google hits may not be an accurate judge of historical memory, especially Google.co.uk when it comes to all matters French, but it is the only measurement available to me right now. I will tell you what happened to the characters of my story after Agnes died, and google will assist me in measuring their historical worth. I am colouring Agnes’ friends in blue, and her enemies in green. Neutrals stay black.


Agnes Sorel, 568,000 results Upon her death, her heart was buried at one place, and the rest of her remains at another. The abbey in which her heart was interred is now a romantic ruin.

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Jumièges Abbey, where Agnes’ heart was buried

The tomb made for her heartless body is one of the best sculptural examples of the budding French Renaissance. P1100431a Her middle daughter Charlotte married Jacques de Breze, the son of Pierre de Breze (310K google hits), the man who introduced Agnes to the royal court and made a spectacular career out of it. This marriage was based on need rather than love.

Pierre de Breze’s influence with Charles VII waned after Agnes’ death, and he lost everything when Charles’ son, Louis, ascended to the throne: they were almost mortal enemies. So, Pierre arranged the marriage to win back royal favours, for Louis, as strange as it may sound, and as bizarre as it really was, loved his bastard sisters.

The irony here is that Pierre de Breze did win the royal favours with this marriage only to get himself killed in a battle a few years later.

The drama of the story is that this marriage without love backfired big time.

Charlotte bore Jacques five children. She was 31 when her husband discovered she was having an affair with his chief huntsman. Tipped off by “a friend”, he stormed into her bedroom when the two lovers were enjoying the company of each other. First, he killed the huntsman, and then his own wife. He was put on trial, of course, and had to do serious time before King Charles VIII (the grandson of Charles VII who was Charlotte’s father) pardoned him.

But wait, that’s not the end of it.

Their son, Louis, married Diane de Poitiers as his second wife (she was 16 at the time, and her husband was 39 years her older). Diane de Poitiers (400K+ google hits), in turn, became a famous royal mistress (being 20 years older than her royal lover, by the way – whoever said men don’t love brains was wrong at least once). Louis-de-Breze   Diane-de-Poitiers At one point, Diane’s husband discovered a plot against the king, being unaware that his father-in-law was involved in it. The king spared the life of Diane’s dad when his head was already placed on the block, waiting for the axe to fall.

I don’t know if karma keeps working postmortem, but isn’t it too much of a punishment for the sin of being a king’s mistress?

Jacques Coeur, 1,360,000 google results

You already know that poisoning charges were meant only to have him arrested and allow the conspirators to unravel his business schemes and expose a little fraud here and there. The king, convinced Jacques stole from him, sentenced him to death which was replaced by a confiscation of assets, a huge fine, and public penance.

Afterwards, he was exiled to a monastery, from which he escaped to Rome where the Pope offered him friendship, asylum, and a change of clothes. The Pope then sent him on a crusading mission as a fleet commander, but he died on one of the islands on his way to military glory before the said glory could be achieved.

Never lend money to kings or tyrants who may feel obliged to pay it back, especially if you stole some of the money from them in the first place. This obvious truth is still very much valid. I am sure some Russian oligarchs might benefit from reading the story of Jacques Coeur.

I also feel the French predilection for robbing their successful and rich whenever the State needs cash might be rooted in their history, and thus, is incurable. Knight Templars, Jacques Coeur, Nicolas Fouquet, and the recent 75% tax on high incomes: the list goes on and on.

Antoinette de Maignelais, 5,560 google results

She became both a mistress and provider of young girls for the king, effectively running the royal brothel until the time when Charles descended into madness. She had a bigger political sway than Agnes Sorel. Not because she was loved more, or cleverer than her cousin: she simply was focused on her personal gain more than on anything else.

Fearful of the very probable dauphin’s retribution after Charles’ death, she volunteered to become Louis’ informant, sending him letters in which she described everything that was happening at Charles’ court. Louis arranged for one of these letters to fall into the hands of a loyal attendant of his father. Antoine de Chabannes was mentioned in it as a participant of a plot against the king. Louis wanted de Chabannes, who busted Louis’s own plot some fifteen years earlier, out of his way, but Charles VII was quite capable of seeing through his son’s tricks. Antoine de Chabannes’ remained the king’s most trusted man. There’s more on him further on.

Her stunt as the dauphin’s secret agent worked well, though, perhaps, not as Antoinette originally intended. I am sure she thought she could become Louis’ lover (who, just like his father, was infatuated with her cousin), but Louis could not afford to keep the She-Pimp of his father at the palace after he became king. A few years before his father died, he arranged a “transfer” of the 27-year-old Antoinette to the court of the Duke of Brittany, making her… the Duke’s mistress. She bore the Duke four children, before dying soon after her 40th anniversary.

Oh, remember the estate her father won from a powerful neighbour in exchange for her becoming the king’s new mistress? Well, after the king’s death, the neighbour won it back.

Google seems to have forgotten her, even though her partner in the fake marriage, André de Villequierscores a healthy dose of 155,000 google hits.

Etienne Chevalier, 663,000 google results

This exemplary knight, man, and king’s servant was promoted to the Treasurer of France the year the Melun diptych was completed, in 1452. His friend Jacques Coeur was still in prison on ridiculous poisoning charges. As the Treasurer, Etienne was responsible for collecting income from, and managing royal properties. He kept this position when Charles VII died, and his son Louis became the king.

Yet, it was not his prominent court position that made him famous enough to show up in 663,000 links on google. It was his investment in art, among which the Melun Diptych fades in importance to his Book of Hours (a personalised prayer book) that was illuminated by the same artist who did most of the paintings that illustrated this story, Jean Fouquet. You can enjoy some of the illustrations here.

Jean Fouquet. 595,000 google results

Louis XI made him his court painter, which seems to be quite logical as he was obviously the best French painter at the time. The concept of Spaniards becoming the best French painters was yet to be invented some four hundred years later. It is somewhat unfair that Jean Fouquet gets fewer links in google today than Etienne Chevalier, who got famous because of Fouquet.

Robert Pointevin (google hits are meaningless, as there are too many robert pointevins around nowadays)

He remained the personal doctor of Charles VII and then his son Louis XI, maintaining his position of the top medical scientist in France.

Guillaume Gouffier, 49,100 google results

The guy could be Exhibit No.1 in the gallery of “Plotters that got caught up in their plotting”.

He dispatched Agnes, eliminated Jacques Coeur, and began his rise to wealth and power. He got lands from the estates of Agnes Sorel, received a share of Coeur’s assets, and was promoted to the king’s inner council. After seven years of this ballistic rise he crashed with a loud bang. He was accused of practicing sympathetic magic on his Lord and Master (falsely) and was tortured into confession.

Sympathetic magic has nothing to do with sympathy or love potions. It uses the principle of similarity between objects to link them up in magical ways. While a voodoo doll would be a popular practical example, the principle more often is manifested in folk medicine beliefs such as the one about walnuts being good for the brain because the nut resembles it. If you believe red juices are good for blood circulation or phallic-shaped vegies improve potency, you are a practitioner.

The funny thing about Gouffier’s trial was not that it ended in a confiscation of assets, but that he got a restriction order. He was not to get closer than 30 leagues to the king. It’s more than 160 kilometres, or 100 miles. Many an estranged wife would welcome such a radius today.

Antoine de Chabannes, 190,000 google results

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Antoine de Chabannes: Upright and attractive royal servant

His was fine until the demise of Charles VII. The moment the dauphin became king, de Chabannes lost his properties, his title, and was banished to Rhodes. Someone who busted the dauphin’s plot against his father should expect something like that, don’t you think? Except, perhaps, the beautiful island of Rhodes as the place of banishment.

But, being an honest fighter, he was restless. He escaped the sunny beaches of the Greek paradise to join a league of nobles who were fighting Louis XI’s attempts at absolutising his power. After some years of fighting, he made peace with the king, who had a grudging respect for honesty, and was right to believe that a scheming spider like himself would be safer among upright former enemies than deceitful friends.

De Chabannes was re-appointed Grand Master of France (the top manager of the royal household) and recovered his estates. When Louis established the Order of St.Michael, de Chabannes became one of the first knights in it. Interestingly, this Knightly Order links up de Chabannes with Jean de Dinteville, the Ambassador on Holbein’s famous double portrait. They both wear the chain and the medallion of the order in their portraits.


P.S. If my series on Agnes Sorel has lit a spark of interest in you about her or French art history, you might be tempted to look for more serious writings on this topic. I was surprised to discover that there seems to be a surge of interest in the topic, and related activity lately.

Last year, French television produced a documentary on Agnes Sorel (in French), which can be found here:

It is not very informative, but it shows all the castles and beautiful views she might have enjoyed during her lifetime. I also learned that Agnes, like all women at the time who cared about their looks, had to pinch hair off her forehead up to the crown of her head. You can see it in her portraits. Yuck, that must have been painful.

I have also come across a book on Agnes (Agnes Sorel, Mistress of Beauty) published a few months ago. It is written by Her Royal Highness Princess Michael of Kent. After wondering for some time what kind of writers need to put their royal title first, and their husband’s name second, I read two pages into it. Now I know the answer: it is the kind of writers that won’t ever be published unless they had a royal title to put first. Stay away from it.

Episode3

Murder, by Death. Episode 3

Read Episode 1 and Episode 2.


He fought his first major battle when he was 15.

When he was 21, he scaled the walls of Orleans alongside Joan of Arc.
At 26 he was leading a band of knights turned brigands across both French and English-held lands.
And then he became the king’s most trusted man.
Without him, the plot that involved poisoning Agnes Sorel wouldn’t work.
The conspirators needed him, but knew he could never be persuaded to join it.
After all, he earned the king’s trust because he had busted conspiracies, not fostered them.

And no, Agnes Sorel was not at the centre of it. She was collateral damage. The target was Jacques Coeur, she just had to die first.


By 1488 Agnes had been well established in her role as the king’s official mistress. Besides estates, gifts, and having the royal ear whenever the owner of that ear was not away waging war, the position involved having a throng of false favour-seeking friends, even a bigger crowd of moralising enemies (many of whom were her rejected suitors), a few true comrades, and no close confidants.

Agnes wanted a soul mate, and thought that her cousin, a 14-year-old girl with whom they had spent much time together, could be the one.

She asked Etienne Chevalier, king’s secretary assigned by his master to assist Agnes in her every wish and whim, to travel to her uncle’s chateaux and fetch her cousin, Antoinette. To convince her aunt to let Antoinette go, Etienne was to promise a speedy introduction to the royal court with the honest aim of finding a suitable husband for the young lady. That should work, as Antoinette’s parents were losing a legal battle for their own estate against a powerful neighbour Duke, and needed help in both influence and money to turn the tables.

Etienne Chevalier was the kind of character that gets struck out by male editors for the simple reason of being sickeningly positive, and thus blatantly untrue. He was the Champion of Man’s Virtue of the 15th century, if not the 2nd millennium. You probably hate him already.

He fought for Agnes in tournaments. And, yes, he won.

He was always there to protect and comfort her, but he never made any improper advances.

He was her true friend, and she was his paramour, or fair lady.

When she was dying, she made him, his friend Jacques Coeur, and the good doctor sent by the king to help her, executors of her will.

When she died, he ordered a Madonna to be painted by Jean Fouquet that he intended to place above his grave. The Madonna was to have Agnes’s face and body. Yes, it is the Madonna that opened the story two episodes back.

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Madonna Surrounded by Seraphim and Cherubim by Jean Fouquet, 1452

On the left side of the diptych, Fouquet painted Etienne kneeling before his fair lady, with his patron saint, St.Etienne (or Saint Stephen in English) presenting him to the French beauty queen.

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The left side panel of the Melun diptych by Jean Fouquet, 1452

If you expected Etienne to look the likes of Prince Charming, you might be disappointed now. He was quite an ordinary looking man.

What is unusual about this painting, is the way St.Stephen is portrayed.

Ninety nine per cent of St.Stephen representations show him dressed in white and red, just like in this painting:

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The Stoning of St.Stephen from the Altarpiece of Stephen, 1470, by Michael Pacher

St.Stephen was stoned, in the good old biblical sense, for coming out with his own version of history in front of Jewish priests. This is why he is often shown with stones either peculiarly attached to his head or with stones and a book, wearing a red garment of a deacon on top of a white robe.

By the time Fouquet was completing his work, Jacques Coeur was in prison, being accused of poisoning Agnes. Etienne knew it was impossible, but he could not openly defy the king.

Perhaps, dressing St. Stephen in the colours of Jacques Coeur’s coat of arms (with some graphic elements also rhyming with the design of it) was Etienne’s way of showing whose side he was on?

Clothes and coat of arms

Coat of arms of Jacques Coeur, with the bordering graphics guaranteed to raise improper associations in today’s observers, especially the ones who tend to discern phallic symbolism wherever there is a phallic looking tower.

We’d never know for sure, but knowing the man, it seems to be a safe bet, especially with the stone that St.Stephen is holding. It resembles the natural mercury ore rock rather than a usual boulder: a fitting reference to the poisoning charge that was about to send Jacques Coeur to the block:

Cinnabar natural mercury ore rock

Etienne Chevalier should have talked Agnes out of the idea to bring over her cousin Antoinette. It was the first step towards the demise of his fair lady, and their friend Jacques Coeur.


Antoinette was beautiful, but not well-educated. When she was presented to the king, it became apparent the king was charmed by her looks, but left unimpressed by her conversation.

There were two people at the exchange for whom it became more than a curious occurrence.

The first one was Agnes, who saw the king ogling her younger cousin. A very short time later she packed her cousin back home.

The second one was Guillaume Gouffier, one of the king’s chamberlains.

A plan was beginning to form in his head.


Gouffier knew he couldn’t pull it off alone. He had just one friend he could trust. It was the Master of Bedchamber of King Charles, André de Villequier. Together they awed at de Breze’s rise to power through taking Agnes Sorel by the hand to the king’s bed, Jacques Coeur’s ever accelerating ascend to riches through his relationship with Agnes Sorel, and the bliss of Etienne Chevalier who must have had that dreamy imbecilic air of the most virtuous man about himself each time he was in the presence of the king’s mistress. The latter, I suspect, was the most vexing.

They needed a new Agnes, an Agnes that would be their own creation to launch their own ascent.

And who could be a better candidate than Agnes’s own cousin, with the king already seen salivating at the teenager beauty? If only they could escort Antoinette’s into the king’s embrace! Of course, improving the sexual life of Charles VII was not their objective in itself. They wanted the power and riches that currently belonged to the circle of Jacques Coeur and other Agnes’s friends.

Now, tell me, how do you get rid of someone heavily guarded and loved by your sovereign if (a) you don’t have human resources for open assassination, and (b) financial resources for a covert operation?

They didn’t have the money to buy disloyalty of Agnes’s servants: for anything they could offer, Agnes’s friends would just raise the bets. They couldn’t use assassins, because they would be sold back to the king at once. They needed someone willing to act out of conviction, rather than a bribe, and they had to push that someone to the victim by an innocent coincidence.

The chance to create “the right circumstances” presented itself with Agnes getting pregnant with the fourth child of the king.

About the same time, rumours that Charles started a new relationship began spreading beyond the court confines. Who could be better suited to start spreading the news than king’s own bedchamber masters? At that, Antoinette’s family suddenly won the legal case against the powerful Duke. Agnes had had nothing to do with it, which made her suspicions about the king’s fraying loyalty all the more credible. It was de Villequier who solicited that favour from the king.

Gouffier  and de Villequier knew Agnes’s temperament well.  She was very loyal to the king, and the king’s cause of freeing France from the English. While gossiping then was as simple as twitting today, delivering a targeted rumour required something more than whispers at court receptions.

And for that role, no one is better than a fool in love.

Etienne Chevalier was fed information about the English plot to bribe Charles’ Scottish guard to have him captured during his Normandy campaign. Etienne couldn’t leave the side of his fair lady, so he passed the secret over to her. She decided she needed to warn the king of this mortal danger in person, which would also allow her to stay at the king’s side and fight off the mysterious mistress he must have picked up in her absence.

If only Etienne thought why it was he who was entrusted with the plot details, and not someone who could really deal with it, like Antoine de Chabannes, for instance?

So, Agnes rushed to Charles’ headquarters, covering hundreds of miles on winter roads, and being eight months pregnant. She was guaranteed to get sick.

When Agnes was getting sick, Charles always put at her disposal his personal doctor, Robert Poitevin, believed to be the best doctor and a leading scientist in France. The good doctor was a pacifist. He played an active part in the Congress of Arras that established a truce between the French and the English in 1435. Now, reportedly at the instigation of Agnes, Charles launched into a military campaign again. It must have made the doctor very sad and angry: instead of furthering the causes of science at his academic seat in Paris, he would have to spend precious time tending to Charles’ colds.

An honest man with grand ideas can be more effective than a contract killer, as Lee Oswald would be happy to testify were he available for questioning.

Why do I think it was the good doctor who poisoned Agnes?

Because he was the only one who could administer “the cure” to Agnes without suspicion, knew perfectly well what a mercury poisoning looked like, but diagnosed dysentery at once, and closed the case. He could not imagine that a 21st century technology will bring the truth out. I don’t know what he was promised, but I imagine it could be anything from a reversal of Charles’ militaristic policies to funding for his university.

Soon after Agnes was buried, Gouffier rode out to Antoinette’s parents and brought her to the royal court to marry his conspirator friend, de Villequier, with the king’s blessing.

The king was made happy again, with his new beautiful mistress brought to him by his faithful master of his own bedchamber. Charles showered the newlyweds with gifts, properties, and even ordered a castle to be built for them.

Portrait of Antoinette de Maignelais, Agnes’s cousin

Portrait of Antoinette de Maignelais, Agnes’s cousin

But it was just the beginning. The two chamberlains brought witnesses of Agnes’s poisoning by Jacques Coeur to their boss, Antoine de Chabannes, the master of the royal household. It was he who was the king’s most trusted man, who absolutely hated Jacques Coeur for virtually owning the household he had to rule and manage. The false accusations fell on the most fertile ground imaginable.

The king saw no reason to disbelieve Antoine de Chabannes, and dispatched him to arrest Jacques Coeur.  Guillaume Gouffier accompanied de Chabannes to make sure that everything was going according to his plan.

The poisoning charges, as we already know, had been dropped, but de Chabannes wouldn’t let Jacques Coeur out of his grip. After all, he and Guillaume Gouffier presided over Coeur’s trial.

Eventually, it was not just the king who profited from Coeur’s downfall. Gouffier, de Villequier, Antoinette, and de Chabannes got a hearty helping of Coeur’s estates.

They suddenly became powerful and rich, with no one able to challenge them.

Still, the king’s heath was deteriorating. Just like his father, he was descending into madness.

Would their “favours” evaporate after the king’s death?

Read the Epilogue to find out.

Episode2

Murder, by Death. Episode 2

Read Episode 1 here


She was the most beautiful woman in the country, and the king’s lover. He was the country’s richest man, and married. Her beauty and wit had the king wrapped around her finger. He had the king firmly in the wrestler’s lock of his financial might and diplomatic talent.

Together, they could rule the country.

No power in the world could stand in their way.

Except, perhaps, death and the death row.


Historians have always been puzzled by the amiable attitude of Charles’ wife, the queen, towards Agnes. The simple answer is that she was a wise daughter of a wise woman.

Charles’ wife thought a constant relationship with Agnes was better, both for the State and personal hygiene than occasional debauchery escapades with a variety of women of dubious morals. A single permanent lover meant stability and predictability that a new French Kingdom so much craved and lacked. The only drawback in the whole setup was that the permanent lover was meant to be loved. I guess Marie d’Anjou didn’t find it easy to maintain the front of the lawful wife of a husband who was passionately in love with someone else. Still, the queen thought it was a preferable alternative to the more standard ways of venting out royal promiscuity.

The whole affair was so…calculated that some contemporaries believed Charles’ mother-in-law herself, having inspected Agnes’s beauty and temperament a year before the two met each other, had arranged for Agnes to be presented to the king. Of course, this is the point where historical analysis gets replaced by historical bullshit, because no sane mother would be arranging a rival for her own daughter out of political expediency. It was Pierre de Breze, a rising star of the king’s council, who orchestrated the affair to insure his ascension. Many courtiers hated him, and started hating Agnes, whose favours were helping de Breze, but no one would risk poisoning the king’s love for a dubious effect of softening de Breze’s rise (his son would marry Agnes’s daughter long after Agnes died).

Regardless of how passionate was Charles’ “enamouring” with Agnes, no one believed she could hold a grip over Charles for more than a year or two. Kings have never been known for their loyalty, although quite famous for their appetite.

But the queen’s new lady-in-waiting was full of surprises. She was not just a beauty queen capable of supporting a witty conversation. She was a clever woman the Psychologies magazine would be proud to carry on its front page.

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Another woman of similar achievement, who sings rather than talks. And… there is even some facial similarity to Agnes.

She was making sure she stayed attractive. She was at the forefront of fashion, so provocative that the Chancellor (who was second after king at the king’s council) became a strong proponent of anti-Sorel modesty. Again, Jean Fouquet helps us to put face to ideology:

Jean_Fouquet_-_Portrait_of_Guillaume_Jouvenel_des_Ursins_-_WGA8042

Portrait of Guillaume Jouvenel des Ursins by Jean Fouquet (1460-1465). As you can see the fashion for padded shoulders was catching on.

His brother left letters which show just how strong they felt about Agnes Sorel style,

“…in his own household itself the king should prohibit openings in front through which you can see women’s nipples and breasts…he shouldn’t tolerate men or women tainted with whoredom and ribaldry and all sorts of sins…”

If only the good Chancellor could imagine what would become of the court after Agnes’ death, when Charles started fighting boredom with ever more whoredom.

Agnes’ 16th-century portrait by an anonymous artist who used Fouquet’s Madonna as his inspiration shows the ribaldry at all its glory:

Agnès_Sorel_-_anonyme_XVIe

Staying ‘abreast’ of fashion was but a part of Agnes’ strategy. She was managing Charles like a circus animal, offering him the treats of her grateful smiles only occasionally, for especially good tricks and gifts, and always making certain he knew of her sadness or unhappiness. A dog trainer knows all about how it works.  As do most wives!

Treattraining1

Some ill-wishing contemporaries accused her of greed. No. She was one of the most generous benefactors of the Church and the poor. Her first recorded donation to the Church was a reliquary with hair and a bone of St.Mary Magdalen, which many find rather symbolic. Agnes didn’t really care about riches: wealth was not an end in itself, but a means of securing Charles’ attention.

And it was in the process of receiving king’s gifts and fripperies that she got to know Jacques Coeur.

Six years before Charles met Agnes, Jacques Cœur was appointed the argentier, the keeper of the office, exclusively tasked with supplying everything the court needed, from silk ribbons to armour, and from spoons to liquid cash. He set off as a low-born petty merchant and built a “business” that amassed a capital of 3500 florins by 1450. If this figure doesn’t immediately impress you, compare it to the Medici empire that was estimated to be worth 5000 florins at the time.

The Medici are famous globally but Jacques Coeur’s fame is far from being proportionate to his assets. Most people have never heard his name. I guess this a living proof (albeit the partakers are very much dead) that arts can be good for you if you are super rich, provided you are endowed with good taste and vision.

The majority of courtiers owed money to Jacques Coeur, and the king was his biggest debtor. Jacques practically financed the retaking of Normandy out of his own pocket (with compound interest, of course).

When Charles was making a gift, he would first borrow the cost of the gift from Jacques Coeur, and then ask the latter to provide the gift itself. It must have been somewhat embarrassing for the king, I reckon.

Jacques Coeur was the king’s financier, the biggest ship owner in France, had built an exclusive silver mining operation, was licensed to trade with Muslims, and employed most of the king’s own bureaucrats part-time as his own “managers”. Yes, many king’s men were also employees of Jacques Coeur, and I bet they spent 90% of their time on his commercial projects, with the treasury backing the full cost. When France was fighting the English in Normandy, his trade branch in London kept the English court happy by supplying them with silks and other valuables.

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The beautiful Gothic palace of Jacques Coeur in his home town of Bourges is the city’s main attraction today.

And, certainly, he made sure he was friends with Agnes.

They had much in common.

They were both low-born (relatively), they both achieved the highest status possible, and they both were envied by virtually everyone around them.

Jacques was a handsome man, who didn’t have to pad shoulders of his coats to look strong.

Jacques Coeur, by follower of Jean Fouquet

Jacques Coeur, by a follower of Jean Fouquet

He travelled a lot: to Levant, Italy, and all over France. He was sent on difficult diplomatic missions and during one of them remedied the papal schism, earning immeasurable gratitude of Nicolas V, who became uncontested pope thanks to Jacques’ efforts. I am sure he was an interesting guy to talk to.

In this portrait we see a strong man, looking into the future, a 15th century visionary, the forerunner of great trading empires and inspiration for generations of entrepreneurs. Bourges citizens erected his statue, which only fault is shameless beautification:

statue-de-jacques-coeur

Agnes and Jacques were known to be very good friends, so special that she would even advocate his interests before the king.

Did their relationship stretch beyond an engaging conversation by the fireplace?

Indeed, it is difficult to imagine that a man who owned France financially would not be tempted to take possession of one of its most prized assets, La Belle Agnes.

It is also easy to assume that Agnes could get attracted to a man like Jacques Coeur, but difficult to accept that she, being the wise woman that she was, could risk her position by walking out on the king. She knew it full well that the moment she dropped out of king’s favour, she was to lose everything.

And still, being attached to a man who was far from the Apollonian ideal and could only stop being weak when pushed by a strong woman must have been… tiring.

Could those rumours about her girls being not entirely Charles’ issue be true?

We will never know, for if there was something, it was kept secret, and kept well. Or paid well to be kept well.

Eighteen months after Agnes’ death, Jacques Coeur was arrested and accused of poisoning her.

It was easy to find witnesses, given that all of them owed him money and none of them was present at the châteaux where Agnes died.

Two years later, these accusations were dropped (and the accusers were arrested themselves). Instead, Jacques Coeur was charged with a whole lot of unrelated heinous crimes ranging from siphoning income from royal estates to selling a Christian slave to the Saracens. He was found guilty of these crimes on the very day of the fall of Constantinople. Charles sentenced his former friend to death, but on Pope’s intercession the execution was replaced by heavy fines and imprisonment.

There was a man who profited immensely from the death of Agnes and disappearance of Jacques Coeur.

King Charles the Victorious.

His major gain was financial. By 1450, Charles was desperate. He was spending more money than he could possibly get as taxes or revenues. He was paying out huge bribes and rewards to…enemy soldiers and captains who would surrender English-held towns and castles or help with intelligence during his military campaigns. However, the more territory he won in this manner, the more he had to spend on his regular army to guard it against the threat of an English invasion. Charles’ coffers had run so dry that even the budget for the kingdom didn’t exist at the time. Having appropriated most of Coeur’s assets, he finally got liquid cash to complete his reconquest.

Jacques Coeur broke a fundamental unwritten rule of medieval banking: don’t lend money to a king who might feel obligated to pay it back.

His other gain was Agnes’ cousin, 16 years of age. Charles first met her two years before the tragic event. Six months after Agnes’ death, Charles married off this young cousin to his Master of Bedchamber, and she became a new king’s lover. There is certain irony here, with the Master of Bedchamber providing alibi for the king to sleep with his wife. Times a-changing, and the current French leader has sunk to using a plastic helmet to cover up his amorous adventures.

hollande helmet

So, no, Jacques Coeur didn’t poison Agnes. He most likely loved her (if you believe in true friendship between the most beautiful woman and the richest man, lucky you).

But does it all mean that Charles poisoned Agnes to blame Jacques Coeur, seize his fortune, and start bedding a younger version of Agnes?

Charles was not a leader who created opportunities, but he never missed opportunities created for him by others. It is unlikely that he poisoned Agnes, the mother of his three living daughters, setting up Jacques Coeur along the way. It is more probable that Charles simply snatched the chance the poisoning presented, or he wouldn’t wait for 18 months to press the charges.

Or he learned of Agnes’ treason and – blinded by jealousy – decided to revenge himself?  Was it a crime of passion?

Unlikely again.

One of contemporary accounts mentions the last meeting of Agnes and Charles. The chronicler says Agnes came to Charles, who was traveling towards his army in Guienne, She burst into his chamber with the news of an English conspiracy to have Charles captured. Charles laughed and sent her away.

This story, however simple, has two important implications.

A pregnant woman undertakes a perilous journey on worn down winter roads to warn her lover of a non-existing conspiracy. If that’s not a woman desperately seeking attention, I don’t know what is. Agnes felt that the king’s loyalty was failing.

The king laughs away the warning and sends her away. The same king who would go to great lengths to enjoy a moment of privacy with Agnes before their relationship went “official”. Yes, it does seem his affection had…weakened, but it also shows that Agnes had lost any sway she might have had over the king in political affairs.

It means we can exclude political reasons for killing her, for there were none, and finally clear Louis XI of suspicion. Yes, the primary reason to suspect Louis was that he detested Agnes’ undue influence on his father in political matters. Why would he reopen investigation into her death then, when he ascended to the throne? To clear his name? He didn’t need it. He was accused of too many plots and murders to care about something as insignificant as poisoning a king’s lover.

We end up empty-handed again. Perhaps, we got it all wrong from the beginning? What if it was not a man of power? What if it was not a man at all?

That cousin, who had suddenly risen so high – perhaps, it’s time we stretch her on the rack?

Or maybe we need to start pulling the string from the other end and look at the potential executor?

We’ll get to them in Episode 3.

Episode 3 is out!

Murder, by Death

She was 21 when they met. He was 40, and married with 6 children. He fell for her at first sight.  In the six years they would spend together she would produce for him four children and become one of the wealthiest and most influential women in the country. She would die at the age of 28.  Yet, even though the doctor assigned to her would diagnose dysentery, rumours would start, rumours that persist to this day, that she was poisoned.

So if you are all sitting comfortably, we shall begin by playing a game, the game of detective, homicide detective.  In the following narrative names have not been altered to protect the innocent as in truth, and as you are about to discover, no one is entirely innocent when we start to consider the events and the clues that inevitably lead us to the unshakable conclusion of, murder.

Our story begins innocently enough, This is one of the most famous Madonnas of the French Renaissance, painted by Jean Fouquet in 1452. This artist  apart from his unfortunate surname, is famous for blending a healthy dose of the Van Eycks with a good measure of the Tuscany school, and brewing the concoction on the low fire of French charm, at a time when Frenchness didn’t quite exist yet. France was slowly emerging from the Hundred Years’ War, when a half of it was occupied by the English, and its people were just beginning to discover what it meant to be French.

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Madonna Surrounded by Seraphim and Cherubim by Jean Fouquet, 1452, currently in Antwerp because French revolutionaries destroyed or exported everything that had been made by and for royalists.

It is well known that the model for this painting was Agnes Sorel, the official mistress of Charles VII.

I suspect the very first questions that involuntarily pop up in the mind of a modern observer are related to the breast augmentation techniques existing in the mid-15th century, and the tombstonish colour of her skin.

But these are not the questions we’ll be addressing right now. It’s a criminal investigation, remember?

She died suddenly, aged 26, after giving birth to her fourth child, two years before the panel was painted. In 2005, her remains were exhumed for analysis that confirmed she had died because of mercury poisoning.

The scientists also reconstructed her face, so we can see her “photograph” now, and wonder at the beauty standards of the 15th century:

Agnessorel

The scientists didn’t say that mercury poisoning was by itself evidence of murder. They also found out that Agnes had ascarides: at the time the illness was cured by mercury-containing medicines, so theoretically she could have simply taken an overdose, whether voluntarily or not can never be proved.

The artist who made the painting above left us a series of portraits of almost all the people who surrounded Agnes during the six years that she was Charles’ mistress.

It is very unlikely that any of the portraits can point at the perpetrator of the murder (if it was a murder, of course), but perhaps they can help us develop hypotheses about who the poisoner might be?

Let’s check out the painting’s historical context and meet a cheerful crowd of 15th-century French aristocracy, who were still a hundred years away from discovering the table fork, not to mention table manners.

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