Of all the collection of empty crowns that made Provence remarkable even in an age when every hilltop was the capital of a kingdom and every cross-roads boasted of at least one petty monarch, none is more worthy of a romancer’s notice than that of the kings of Naples, the dukes of Anjou.
The first line of Anjou was of the Capetian blood, and its representatives were content with such honors as fell to them as the junior branch of the French royal house until Pope Urban IV called them to aid in the subjugation of Sicily in 1266. Charles of Anjou, brother of St. Louis, performed the task and received the crown as a fief of the papacy. He does not seem to have been overly popular with his subjects, who complained that his scepter-hand was just a bit too heavy. They arose to demonstrate their point in 1282 and proceeded to wipe out the troops of occupation with a thoroughness that made the Sicilian Vespers a synonym for bloodshed and cruelty in the chronicles of many a century to follow.
Ever after that the house of Anjou and the house of Valois-Anjou which succeeded it sent out their first-born to tilt with this treacherous windmill for the reward of a perilous throne. Each generation saw a new expedition set out, an iron column apparently invincible. Youth, confident, arrogant, flaming with faith in the justice of the cause, took the field with the enthusiasm of an army bent upon a crusade. Age, bent and disillusioned, shook its head sadly. Each generation saw the return of ragged warriors and gray-haired young leaders, weeping over their broken swords.
This was the phantom heritage that came to the good King Rene through a freak of fortune that had made him the ward of Queen Jeanne. Rene’s father and elder brother had died in pursuit of the great mirage. The death of Queen Jeanne brought to Rene quite suddenly and unexpectedly the full possession of this regal liability. The circumstances of his accession to the title were no less comical than the dozens of situations that grew out of it. The messenger who brought the glad tidings found the prospective wearer of the purple in jail at Dijon.
Rene’s turbulent history is the more remarkable in that he was probably the only real pacifist of his time. He does not seem to have sought honors. But his unwillingness did not prevent their being thrust upon him, nor did it guard him against the riotous consequences that their acceptance entailed.
While he was still young he married Isabelle of Lorraine and was designated as the heir of his uncle, the cardinal duke of Bar. Shortly afterward Charles II of Lorraine, father of the Duchess Isabelle, died and left his coronet to his son-in-law. This was the beginning of Rene’s unsought troubles. Antony of Vaudemont, a relative of Charles II through a collateral male line, laid claim to the duchy. He would have been put to some difficulty in advancing his claim had he not obtained assistance from Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy, whose quarrel with Louis XI of France embraced all the princes of his family.
Vaudemont raised an army of English archers and Burgundian cavalry. Rene marched against him with a division of German mercenaries and another of French knights. The young duke was defeated and captured after a short battle at Bulgneville in July, 1431. Vaudemont took the throne of Lorraine. Rene was escorted to the Tower of Bar in Dijon, where for many a month he had the opportunity to study prosody, music, and painting. Had it not been for his kingly inheritance he might have stayed in the tower until he rotted, writing his little rondeaux, painting dainty miniatures, and composing little musical airs. But just as he had mastered the guitar he found himself called upon to leave his comfortable prison and take his place in international politics. Through the county of Provence, the only tangible portion of the realm willed to him by Queen Jeanne of Naples, he was able to raise a ransom.
So it came about that Duke Rene who had no duchy rode out of Dijon as King Rene who had no kingdom. As duke of Lorraine he had come close to poverty in the raising of an army. As king of Naples he had shouldered a lifelong debt in the payment of a ransom. He had languished in a prison while the beautiful Isabelle became gray with worry over him. Then, as if to show the futility of inter-family strife in general and Franco-Burgundian family strife in particular, his daughter Yolande married Count Ferry of Vaudemont, son of his late aggressor. It was a great joke on the warriors whose skeletons bleached on the field of Bulgneville.
Rene at once started in pursuit of the Anjou will-o’-the-wisp. He had better luck than nearly three generations of his immediate ancestors, for he actually defeated the Neapolitans and ruled as king of Naples in fact as well as in title for four years. Then the Italians revolted after their sprightly manner and unseated him. He sat down in his chateau at Tarascon to contemplate the difficulties of maintaining a court on the pennies shaken from a very flat purse.
Reneby the grace of God; King of Naples and Jerusalem, Duke of Anjou, Duke of Lorraine, Duke of Bar, and Count of Provencewas in fact Rene of Tarascon, king of the great realm of Rien de Tout, lute-player extraordinary to the populace of southern France, and chief justice of the Court of Love. The armor of the warriors who had ridden with him to his triumph in Naples and back again hung in cobwebbed nooks and gathered rust. Moths had long since devoured the tabards of the heralds who had trumpeted his call to arms. His favorite war-horses grew fat in pasturage or dragged the plow through the royal farm-land.
A picture this that one still may behold if he looks long enough through the shimmering haze of a midsummer afternoon : The great square bulk of the castle rising out of the Rhone, its pretty gardens clustered about it like embroidered skirts on a Titan; two tattered halberdiers asleep in the dust at the gate, their illkept weapons leaning against the wall behind them; a lazy pennon flapping from the parapet of the keep; the smell of roses; the sound of women’s laughter; the plashing of a fountain; and the tinkle of mandolins. Through the gardens, in the shade of the arbors, and in the deep gray recesses of the Salle des Chevaliers, noble dames trailed robes more costly than the entire wardrobe of the king himself, and listened coquettishly to the amorous chants of the troubadours. Scarred errants and gallant swordsmen had no place in this court. Rene preferred wandering minstrels, peddlers of baubles and perfumes, peacock trainers, and travelers from far lands.
It was a sleepy, poppy-flower sort of existence. Conflicts raged all about Provence, some of them first-class wars that affected the fate of kings and nations. But Rene had unbuckled his sword for good. He had no time to practise fencing and mace-wielding. Such useless pursuits ruined one’s technique for guitar-strumming, and it was manifestly impossible to round out a verse while guiding an armored war-horse.
Queen Isabelle, loyal through Rene’s reverses, died shortly after his return to Provence. His next wife was Jeanne de Laval, the beloved Queen Jeanne of Provencal legend. She was an ideal mate for a statesman of his talents. If he was always youthful, so was she. She loved the bizarre and stirred his passion for the whimsical.
It is not mere legend but staid and sober history that tells of their adventurous questings over the hills of Anjou and through the olive-groves of Provence. On such occasions Rene hung up his misfit crown, and Jeanne discarded her trailing gowns of state for short skirts and loose tunic. In the crook of his arm the king placed his lute, and together they stole out through the postern-gate, past the sleeping sentries, and into the open country.
They looked like shepherds. The represented themselves as shepherds, mingling in the dances and merrymaking of villages, tending flocks when some farmer employed them, and sleeping and dreaming under the broad blue sky. If some discerning lout penetrated their disguise it made little difference in the game, for Rene and Jeanne were perhaps the most human royal couple who ever stepped out of Mother Goose.
Rene never did much to add to the glories of Provence, but no monarch ever was given higher place in the affections of a people. If he didn’t believe in conquests, neither did he believe in heavy taxes, and his langourous administration brought happy days to Provence at a time when the rest of France was a busy abattoir. To the day of his death Rene was that sort of king.
Eventually, however, the old king’s troubles found him out, even as he sat listening to the florid recitals of his tattered fiddlers. He had established his court at Aix, the old capital of Provence near Marseille, when he heard that his daughter, Margaret of Anjou, wife of Henry VI of England, and heroine of the Wars of the Roses, had been taken prisoner at Tewkesbury. This blow was followed a short time later by the news that his son John had fallen in a battle in Aragon.
The broken old man pawned the last of his possessions to pay the ransom of Queen Margaret, but he found it less simple to dispose of the responsibilities that came to him as a result of the death of John. It was in favor of this son that he had relinquished his claim to the duchy of Lorraine, and Nicholas of Anjou, the grandson who inherited, lived only three years after John’s death. Rene thus be-came the heir of his own grandchild, and the cause of his original quarrel with the duke of Burgundy was resurrected once more.
For once in his whimsical career he displayed political gifts. He abdicated the sovereignty of Lorraine once more, this time in favor of his daughter Yolande, who passed the honor to her son. The new duke took the coronet as Rene II. Such was the state of affairs when Charles the Bold left Dijon to batter Alsace, Lorraine, and Switzerland into subjection.
The important part played by the boy duke in these affairs has been given the space it merits in history. Old King Rene is left by the chroniclers in his chateau at Aix or wandering in his gardens at Tarascon, as ever aloof from the strife at his door-step, awaiting the death that finally overtook him in 1480. It is to legendever more satisfying if less crediblethat one must turn for a different picture of these momentous days.
The Rene of romance was in his study at Aix when news was brought to him of the sacking of Nancy. Before him lay the half-finished manuscript of a poetical masterpiece. Without a word he laid down his writing-materials and hobbled to the almost forgotten closet where he had stored his discarded armor. He buckled it on once more, summoned the more sturdy of the minstrels, and set forth upon his most spectacular adventure.
Through the olive-groves where he and the care-free Jeanne had wandered as shepherd pipers, he rode with his motley entourage, borrowing silver, gold, food, horses, and men from the country folk with whom he had danced in the village festivals. If the story be true, no more mismatched, ill-equipped, nondescript army ever took the fieldnor one more loyal. The tale is logical in one thing at least; it is characteristic of Reneand, as a corollary, it seems reason-able to suppose that where Rene called the Provencals who loved him would follow.
Concerning the manner in which this sturdy mob avoided the roving mercenaries of Charles the Bold on one hand and his allies in Savoy on the other, the legend is grandly disdainful of detail. But we are told that they succeeded in getting into Switzerland by some unguarded pass and were with the Swiss confederates who went to the aid of Rene II and his borrowed army in the decisive battle of Nancy.
King Rene, too old to fight, conducted his troops into Switzerland and then rode back to Tarascon alone to resume his allegorical romance and await the news of the expected victory. He died at Aix a few years laterdied as he had lived, quietly and happily. In the courtyard beneath his window a wandering minstrel was singing a love-lyric, and the fountains were playing, and there was a scent of roses in the air.