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.
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.
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:
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?
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:
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.
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.