A forgotten Valois prince: Charles, Count d’Angoulême and father of King François I (part 2)

The depiction of the bookseller Antoine Vérard. From the Book of Hours of King Charles VIII.

Charles d’Orléans, Count d’Angoulême, spent a lot of money on books. He had a network of agents in Italy, France, and other countries, who purchased rare and old manuscripts for him. The count collected in his library at Château de Cognac. His large library included more than 1000 manuscripts. Charles was in contact with Antoine Vérard – a great bookseller of the time who commissioned and sold printed books, many of which were truly magnificent.  Buying a book for Charles was more important than acquiring splendid clothes.  The Count d’Angoulême was highly praised by King Charles VIII of France and other aristocrats for his intellectual activities.

Rare, expensive books from Vérard were delivered to Cognac nearly every month. Among his manuscripts were several ancient volumes by Vincent of Beauvais (the 12th century Dominican friar at the Cistercian monastery of Royaumont Abbey, France). They included:

  • ‘The Mirror of Nature’ (Speculum Naturale);
  • ‘The Mirror of Doctrine’ (Speculum Doctrinale);
  • ‘The Mirror of History’ (Speculum Historiale).

Once the monarch refused to buy books prepared for him by Vérard. Having learned about this, Charles d’Angoulême contacted the bookseller and paid to him for three works:

  • the book ‘The Tree of Battles’ (Arbre des Batailles) written by Honoré de Bouvet, who had been King Charles VI’s councilor and a nobleman from Provence;
  • the book ‘The Bible of Poets” (La Bible des poëtes) by the Picardian poet Évrard de Conty, which had been written in 1401-1402;
  • the mystical treatise ‘The Clock of Wisdom’ (Horloge de Sapience) by Henry Suso. This author was a German Dominican friar and a popular vernacular writer in the 14th century.

Charles had his own copies of the official Chronicles de France, which had been written on the orders of his ancestor – King Charles V of France.  The count possessed the original manuscript of ‘The Hundred Tales’ (The Cent Nouvelles Nouvelles), which is a collection of stories narrated by courtiers at the court of Philippe the Good, Duke of Burgundy. When Vérard began producing ‘Grandes Heures’ in 1490, Charles started ordering new illuminated manuscripts.  Charles loved that Vérard took care to personalize each copy for him through illumination and decoration.

There was one interesting book in the count’s library. It was the book ‘Boèce,’ which is the translation into French of the work ‘The Consolation of Philosophy’ by Anicius Manlius Severinus Boëthius, who was commonly called Boethius (a Roman senator, consul, magister officiorum, and philosopher of the early 6th century).  On the front page of the ‘Boèce’, Antoine Vérard depicted his patron, Charles d’Angoulême, receiving a book from a kneeling Vérard.  The original work, written in Latin, emphasized the vital importance of philosophy in everyday life.

In Jean Froissart’s ‘Love Clock’ (Horloge Amoureuse), Charles is portrayed on the front page standing and listening to the charming, yet somber, Dame Sapience (Lady Wisdom), who points towards the book in the count’s arms.  On the front page of ‘The Tree of Battles’ (Arbre des Batailles), Charles is depicted beneath the allegorical tree holding a long and white baton, dressed in a long, ermine-trimmed robe, a reddish-gold hat, and the collar of the Order of Saint Michelle.  This depiction stressed the count’s high position – the governor and lieutenant of Guyenne.

One of such illuminated manuscripts is ‘The Hours of Charles d’Angoulême’ (‘The Heures de Charles d’Angoulême’), which is a masterpiece of the late 15th-century art. It is now kept in the Bibliothèque nationale de France.  The manuscript was illuminated by a talented medieval illuminator and painter – Robinet Testard, who was part of Charles’ entourage. Testard worked for the Count d’Angoulême and lived at Cognac, for Charles made him Valet de Chambre (a personal attendant) in the mid-1485.  Testard’s masterful, brightly colored illuminations reveal a sharp contrast to the more somber illuminations by Jean Poyer (a French miniature painter and manuscript illuminator of the late 15th century) and those by Jean Fouquet (a French painter and miniaturist in the late Gothic and early Renaissance).  Testard’s illuminations conveyed realism and perspective, positioning him clearly in the anti-realism school of Anjou and Poitou in the 15th century.   Testard’s use of Germanic prints mainly by Israhel van Meckenem make his manuscripts very original, and Charles loved illuminations with such engravings.

Les Heures de Charles d’Angoulême (The Hours of Charles d’Angoulême), now kept in Bibliothèque nationale de France
Robinet Testard’s painting from Les Heures de Charles d’Angoulême (The Hours of Charles d’Angoulême), now kept in Bibliothèque nationale de France

Charles d’Angoulême was not only a philanderer, but also a cultured man – more cultured than King Charles VIII, and even more cultured than King Louis XII of France.  Charles’ favorite book seems to have been ‘The Tree of Battles’ (Arbre des Batailles) by Honoré de Bouvet.  What does this book tell us about  the count’s personality?  This book is a treatise on war and its laws.  Written in 1387, it was created for a broad audience, in ordinary French, not in Latin unlike most books of the time.  It found great favor and was extremely influential among nobles and educated commoners.  Different topics about war and chivalry are covered in this work; it also includes accounts of people from classical times.  Themes discussed in the book were: what constitutes boldness in a knight, whether a man should prefer the death to flight from battle, what the duties of a commander were, what the duties of a good knight were, and so on.

The 15th-century manuscript of The Tree of Battles’ (Arbre des Batailles) by Honoré de Bouvet

The Count d’Angoulême detested martial activities, save his rebellion during the Mad War to try and avoid his marriage to Louise de Savoy.  Yet, Charles adored this book about war and chivalry. This is probably explained by his father’s service in King Charles VII’s army during the last stage of the Hundred Years’ War, the count’s pride for Jean’s role in the liberation of Guyenne and Gascony, as well as his own educational interest in war and chivalry. Later, this book was inherited by his son, King François I of France, becoming one of his favorite possessions.

Antoine Vérard handing his book to the Count d’Angoulême. In the background: Louise de Savoie. Illustration Master by Philippe de Gueldre, c 1495

Charles consummated his marriage to his young spouse, Louise, when the girl was 14 years old. When Louise moved to Château de Cognac in 1491, she must have been shocked to find her husband’s two mistresses (Antoinette de Polignac and Jeanne Le Conte) residing in the same castle together with his mother.  Regardless of her feelings, Louise accepted that her husband would not be faithful to her, maybe due to her upbringing because girls were taught to obey their husbands, or perhaps thanks to her early wisdom.  Their first child, Marguerite, was born on the 11th of April 1492, and according to some chronicles, the count was a bit disappointed with the girl’s gender. By this time, he had accepted his wife, pleased that Louise did not object to him having many mistresses.  Their next child, born on the 12th of September 1494, was the illustrious King François I, and if Charles d’Angoulême could have predicted his son’s cultural and other accomplishments, in particular creation of the French Renaissance by François, he would have been proud.

By all accounts, the marriage of Louise and Charles was quite a good one despite their age gap.  He was 15 years older, but such unions were typical back then.  Louise and Charles shared a great passion for reading. Louise reveled in reading the books and manuscripts in her spouse’s library, and she also ordered books from Antoine Vérard.  On the lovely illuminated front page of the work ‘Book of moralized love chess’ by Évrard de Conty (‘Le livre des échecs amoureux moralisés’), we can see Charles and Louise playing chess with someone whose figure is small and unidentifiable, and there is a dog near the count, attesting to his secondary role in the game.  This miniature might proclaim that Charles admired his wife’s education and her acumen, which she displayed even in her early adolescence, or Louise would not have been depicted in this role.

Louise de Savoy behaved wisely: she befriended her spouse’s favorite mistress Antoinette, who became her lady-in-waiting.  Later, after Charles’ death, Louise would raise Charles’ bastards together with Marguerite and François.  That was noble of Louise to do so, perhaps out of her respect to her deceased husband.  In Antoinette’s company, Louise met with Francis of Paola – an Italian hermit who had been invited to France to save the life of King Louis XI in 1482, but had failed.  Having settled in France, Francis of Paola had gained a reputation as a fortuneteller.  These women’s meeting with the hermit happened before François’ birth; Francis of Paola allegedly told Louise that she would become the mother of a monarch.  At the time, Charles VIII could still have a son with his wife, Anne of Brittany, while Louis d’Orléans (future Louis XII) was alive as well.  If this is not a fake story, then the hermit predicted everything correctly; the son of Charles and Louise was named after both Francis of Assisi and Francis of Paola.

Charles d’Angoulême and his wife, Louise de Savoy, playing chess. From ‘Book of moralized love chess’ (Le livre des échecs amoureux moralisés) by Évrard de Conty

Louise enjoyed her time with the cultured Charles, with whom she played chess and different games of cards. They chose which manuscripts and books to purchase together. Jean de Saint-Gelais, a royal historian, and his brother, the poet Octavien, lived at Cognac, both being members of the count’s entourage.  Louise was frequently seen in the company of her husband, Robinet Testard, De Saint-Gelais, and his brother – they formed an intellectual circle at Cognac.

Unlike her husband who collected mostly books, Louise adored the Italian Renaissance and Renaissance humanism. At her behest, several Italian artists arrived at Château de Cognac and helped refurbish the castle, decorating hallways and chambers with stunning frescoes.  Louise’s patronage of literature and the arts during her marriage is well documented: she employed many artists and writers, among whom the most notable were the humanists Jean Thenaud and François de Moulins de Rochefort, who was made a governor of the count’s legitimate children.

Charles d’Angoulême and his wife, Louise de Savoy, playing chess. From ‘Book of moralized love chess’ (Le livre des échecs amoureux moralisés) by Évrard de Conty

There is no evidence that Louise and Charles ever quarreled seriously.  It would be naïve to assume that the young girl who had first arrived at Cognac had not dreamed of an everlasting love, but her dreams had been shattered.  Louise adapted to her marital situation, and her tolerance of the count’s escapades earned Louise her spouse’s gratitude and respect.  Charles permitted her to maintain her substantial independence, and to manage their estates because of her acceptance of his weaknesses, as well as thanks to his acknowledgement of his wife’s high intelligence.

The politically astute and smart Anne de France, the eldest daughter of the Spider-King, had raised Louis de Savoy. Thus, Louise did not lack the knowledge of governance, etiquette, and culture, which impressed Charles d’Angoulême. If it was not love – most likely it was not – Charles must have felt strong affection for Louise, who was not a stunning beauty, but who was lovely in her youth.  Their marriage was a union of partners rather than that of convenience where a wife was obligated to dedicate herself entirely to childbearing and running the household.

All images are in the public domain.

Text © 2021 Olivia Longueville

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Pamela Shields
3 years ago

I have writen about Jean Fouquet for photographfrance.com
I have Alain de Botton’s
The Consolations of Philosophy (ISBN 0-140-27661-0)
Royal Chateau d’Amboise put on a son et lumiere – the Prophecy – about the hermit

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