Following the plague called the Black Death, France's population was reduced by half to around 8million, 90% of whom were hard-working peasantry. Depending on their liege lords, some lived better than others but it is on these great princes that I will focus, for their lives and living conditions were far from austere or primitive.
The first half of the 15th Century was a most dramatic time with England and France deeply involved in the One Hundred Years War. The country was also in the grip of a recurring civil conflict waged between the followers of the semi-mad French king, Charles VI, and those of his cousin, the Duke of Burgundy who coveted the throne. And yet, despite these upheavals, there was an extraordinary flourishing of the arts in France. This was due to the great wealth of the four royal dukes.
The most junior of these was Burgundy whose court was a by-word throughout Europe for its splendour, his chateaux filled with rare tapestries and treasures brought by traders from abroad and the Levant; jewels, worked steel from Damascus, woven cloth of every colour and texture; furs from the steppes of Siberia to line the long flowing sleeves, necklines and hems of both men and women. There were sumptuous festivities and tournaments, and libraries filled with codices gloriously illustrated.
It was much the same at the rich court at Bourges of the king's uncle, the Duke of Berry and in his many elegant chateaux. Among Berry's collections, in particular of legendary precious stones, there was a famous ruby weighing two hundred and forty carats!
Anjou's royal duke, Yolande's Louis, the next in line of precedence after the king, concentrated less on his treasures in France and more on his disputed inheritance of the kingdom of Naples and Sicily - which absorbed not only his ambition but also his purse. As well as Anjou, he was the sovereign lord of Provence in the south with its mighty trading port of Marseilles. From there he would make several expeditions to unseat Alphonso d'Aragon from the throne of Naples and Sicily both claimed.
This was the purpose of the marriage between Yolande, the King of Aragon's daughter and Louis d'Anjou. Although the marriage became a deep and enduring love match, it did not solve the political problem; Louis' battles for his kingdom on the Italian peninsula continued. For now, Louis took his bride from their wedding in Provence on the long journey by river and road to Paris to meet his family.
Aside from the King of Aragon's love of music, his court was not a match for the splendours Yolande saw for the first time in Paris. As she walked through the great corridors of the Louvre, wearing green velvet to match Louis's wedding gift of emeralds, her shoulders draped in a matching cloak lined with sables, she marvelled at the glorious tapestries lining the walls. On entering the throne room, her tall, blonde, splendour caused quite a sensation, but her eyes were fixed on the king - an older and less handsome version of Louis who whispered she was fortunate - today Charles VI was sane!
As they smiled at one another, Yolande could sense a kinship and instant liking. While she thanked him for the splendid Arabian he had sent as his wedding gift, he removed a sapphire signet ring from his little finger. Slipping it onto her forefinger, he whispered: "this ring will give you access to me should ever you need." It was the beginning of a bond of trust between them which remained even in his darkest moments.
Now Yolande examined the gathered court. On their high plucked foreheads, the younger ladies wore tall, conical headdresses with delicate films of transparent chiffons floating from their tips in soft colours. Tight ribbons encircled high waists, and stomachs appeared somewhat rounded. It was the fashion for ladies to tie a pillow of down feathers around their waists to achieve that "appealing profile"! When indeed with child, after some months a lady would remove her pillow and still remain fashionably at court until even her eighth month before disappearing to give birth. Leaving the baby with a wet nurse, she returned to court with almost no one the wiser for her absence. No lady at the court of France would feed her baby!
It was through her instant friendship with Valentina Visconti, Charles VI's delightful sister-in-law, the wife of Louis d'Orleans, that Yolande came to learn a great deal about the customs of the court of France. A foreigner like herself, Valentina already had two children and knew who she could recommend to become a friend and who to avoid, invaluable information in what Valentina called "this nest of vipers"! Her husband was as handsome as Yolande's - both tall, fair and with laughing, though wise blue eyes. Close friends as well as cousins, Yolande could delight in this, her first friendship in her new country.
Arriving at Louis's capital of Angers, a huge, forbidding castle-fortress, Yolande's heart sank a little, but her spirits lifted at once on meeting her mother-in-law, Marie de Blois, who led her through the endless great formal chambers, and then the many smaller ones. Unlike its stern exterior, the castle's interior was decorated in the most pleasing soft colours, velvet on deep cushions and beds draped with high curtains. There were flowers in vases despite the lateness of the season, fires blazed in the great chimney pieces, and the rows of bobbing, sweet- faced servants pleased her. Added to all this was the smiling face of her dear mother-in-law and the pride she could see in her husband's eyes.
Yes, the Spanish princess felt welcome in her new home in France.
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Volume III of The Anjou Trilogy by HRH Princess Michael of Kent, Quicksilver will be published on 27 October by Constable in UK.