René of Anjou — an Arthurian king
- July 29, 2021
- David Abulafia
‘Good King René’ is remembered for the chivalry of his words and deeds, despite his numerous setbacks in the cruel arena of medieval politics.
Intensely active in the politics of fifteenth-century Europe, René of Anjou was both a vigorous patron of culture and a productive author. Born in 1409, at various times René of Anjou was Duke of Bar and Lorraine, Duke of Anjou, Count of Provence, King of Sicily, and claimant to Aragon, although this accumulation of titles was not matched by a comparable amount of power. René’s disparate lands defied any notion of a coherent empire. Moreover, he lost Naples to the King of Aragon in 1442, and by the time of his death in 1480 Anjou was controlled by the French King, Louis XI; Provence passed to the French Crown soon after René’s death. For thirty-eight years he was an exile from Naples, but never ceased to call himself roi de Cecile, ‘King of Sicily.’
‘Good King René’ rapidly became a cult figure, hailed as a wise and just king who remained calm in the face of adversity, and who finally took himself off to Provence where he could literally cultivate his garden and lead the life of a country gentleman. His was said to be an age when justice ruled in Anjou and Provence; a time before the rapacious kings of France laid hands on these territories. The cult of René gained new force in nineteenth-century France; statues of him were erected in Angers and at Aix-en-Provence, and he won praise for his justice and liberality, qualities recent regimes had ignored. René expected to be respected as a king in Anjou, but he was not king over Anjou; he was very conscious throughout his life that the king of France was his overlord there, and, even in the face of strong temptation, he insisted that, as an honourable and loyal prince, his place was by the king’s side. This was most obvious in 1464-5, when his own son John of Calabria joined rebels against Louis XI, a ruler whose capacity for making himself disliked was second to none.
The young René, as second son of Duke Louis II of Anjou, had no expectation of being drawn into Italian or Provençal politics, which were to be the inheritance of his elder brother, Louis III; the family also had a longstanding but unrealised claim to the throne of Naples (‘Kingdom of Sicily’). Rather, René was pointed in the direction of the Holy Roman Empire, in the hope that the presence of a French prince could hold in check the expanding power of Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy. René was adopted by the Duke of Bar, whose territory straddled the French-imperial border. Then René acquired by marriage to its heiress the more important territory of Lorraine, which lay within the Holy Roman Empire. Yet René could not withstand the massed forces of Philip, who secured a crushing victory at the Battle of Bulgnéville in 1431. Philip captured the young René and bore him off to a harsh imprisonment, until 1437. René’s chivalric principles were emerging; at Bulgnéville he followed the supposedly retreating Burgundians into a trap; he did not believe his opponents should or would practise deceit on the battlefield. He believed valour would cause righteousness to triumph.
His elder brother Louis III had been adopted as her heir by Joanna II, queen-regnant of Naples; however, she also offered the crown to the supremely ambitious king of Aragon, Alfonso V. Joanna II died in 1435, only a few months after Louis III, leaving René as the new king of Naples. René was convinced of his obligation to make his claim real, as a matter of honour. But first he needed to get out of prison.
The promise of a ransom payment once Naples was in his hands secured René’s release from gaol, and he arrived in Naples in 1438. His four years there were spent fire-fighting, as one province after another shifted loyalty between him and the King of Aragon. René’s campaigns reveal a prince who was captivated by the idea of living a chivalric life engaged in a knightly quest, like the Knights of the Round Table. When Alfonso died in 1458 René saw an opportunity to recover Naples, until a final defeat by Alfonso’s heir Ferrante in 1465. René never accepted the outcome. He was and would remain the authentic Roi de Cecile. His insistence on his family’s rights lived on after him; his great-nephew King Charles VIII of France took over the claim, seizing Naples in 1495, and initiating a cycle of bloody wars for control of Italy.
René retained his interest in acquiring new claims. The offer of the throne of Aragon arrived in 1466, following the outbreak of rebellion against King John II of Aragon. Despite support in Catalonia, René’s troops, commanded by his son John of Calabria, were still a very long way from victory when John died suddenly in Barcelona, in 1470; not long afterwards his grandson Nicolas also died, leaving René without a male heir. René had agreed to launch a campaign in Spain for the glory of his dynasty; instead he saw its destruction. Louis XI of France eroded his power in Anjou, and, with no hope of recovering lost lands, he spent a semi-retirement in Provence, at that time outside France, technically part of the Holy Roman Empire. Here was a land where he could exercise power without external interference. Politically, as contemporaries recognised, he was a failure.
His remarkable career as a patron of the arts and as a writer was bound up with his political values. A bridge connecting his politics to his patronage was provided by his chivalric order of knights, the Order of the Croissant. Its members came from all his territories, and in a loud echo of King Arthur’s Round Table, were expected to have their chivalric deeds recorded. Around the time that he conceived of the Croissant, in the 1440s, René wrote his shortest work, the Book of Tournaments. It was suffused with a powerful sense that champions do not simply perform brave feats in mock combat; knights should fight chivalrously in the service of their lady. René’s own manuscript of this well-diffused book was illustrated by his favourite painter, Barthélémy d’Eyck from Flanders, an exceptionally skilled artist who deployed light and shade in original ways.
One feature of René’s literary output was its great variety. The Mortification of Idle Pleasure examines the theme of the soul, devoted to God, and the heart, full of vanity, within the overall framework of a meditation on Christ’s Passion. Although only fragments of d’Eyck’s illustrations survive, we can see here the artist’s astonishing attention to detail, his interest in the natural setting and his command of the palette. The third, best-known, and longest of his works, the Book of the Love-Smitten Heart, describes an allegorical quest which begins with René lying in bed (again, beautifully illustrated by d’Eyck); René has a dream vision of Love, who takes out his Heart and gives it to Desire. Desire urges Heart to search for Sweet Mercy, the object of his affection. So Heart, René’s alter ego, sets off with Desire on a series of mock-Arthurian adventures – bridges defended by black knights, withered witches living in hovels, and evil dwarves. His stylistic abilities were competent at best, but the story is original; it is no great surprise that a fervent believer in the chivalric qualities of honour and loyalty should also dabble in the art of courtly love. The fourth work by René, Regnault et Jehanneton, is a charming story in verse of two lovers, with names very similar to those of René and his wife Jeanne, who are arguing about who loves the other more.
While these four works illustrate important facets of René’s character, aspirations and outlook – the tourneying knight, the man in search of a godly life, the romantic hero, the intimate lover – they do not expose the full range of his cultural interests. René was one of the greatest patrons of mystery plays and medieval farces, notably the extremely gross Farce of the Fart. As for the mystery plays, he redirected the story of Christ’s Passion towards a more sympathetic image of Jews as the precursors of Christians, guided by his warmth towards the Jews of Provence, who provided him with useful services as court tailors and retailers. Nor should one forget his sizeable menagerie at Angers castle with its camels kept by a Moorish camel-driver, and the leopards who unfortunately ate their keeper.
There is also mounting evidence that René valued his contact with Italian Renaissance scholars. He was enthusiastic about geography and cosmography at a time when knowledge of the world was being enlarged, and he possessed a good-sized library, including a printed psalter (the second printed book in the West), testifying to his openness to the new technology. To all this can be added his enthusiasm for Italian sculptors. In artistic competition with Alfonso of Aragon and Ferrante of Naples, René lured the great sculptor Francesco Laurana to his court. Italy got under his skin; and René’s Provence acted as a meeting-ground of cultures, as a bridge between Italy and northern Europe.
Once he was settled in Anjou, and then Provence towards the end of his life, he avoided hardship and accepted reluctantly the impending loss of Anjou and the probable loss of Provence to the French King. Meanwhile, he lived luxuriously and spent beyond his means. But was it, he asked himself, really worth it when all of this placed his own soul in peril? A comment he makes in one of his books expresses doubts about the grand life: ‘The ease of beautiful estates, of fertile and delightful land, and pleasant manors, sumptuous palaces, strong castles, powerful cities and abundance of goods often makes one forget God and lose the everlasting joy to come.’ And he also remarks: ‘Those who hold great office interfere most with the great actions touching and regarding the public good.’