Blood Royal: A True Tale of Crime and Detection in Medieval Paris

Blood Royal: A True Tale of Crime and Detection in Medieval Paris

by Eric Jager


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A riveting true story of murder and detection in 15th-century Paris, by one of the most brilliant medievalists of his generation.

On a chilly November night in 1407, Louis of Orleans was murdered by a band of masked men. The crime stunned and paralyzed France since Louis had often ruled in place of his brother King Charles, who had gone mad. As panic seized Paris, an investigation began. In charge was the Provost of Paris, Guillaume de Tignonville, the city's chief law enforcement officer—and one of history's first detectives. As de Tignonville began to investigate, he realized that his hunt for the truth was much more dangerous than he ever could have imagined.

A rich portrait of a distant world, BLOOD ROYAL is a gripping story of conspiracy, crime and an increasingly desperate hunt for the truth. And in Guillaume de Tignonville, we have an unforgettable detective for the ages, a classic gumshoe for a cobblestoned era.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780316224512
Publisher: Little, Brown and Company
Publication date: 02/25/2014
Pages: 336
Sales rank: 874,723
Product dimensions: 6.30(w) x 9.30(h) x 1.30(d)

About the Author

Eric Jager is an award-winning professor at UCLA and the author of many in acclaimed academic journals. He has also written three books, including the widely acclaimed The Last Duel, The Book of the Heart, and The Tempter's Voice. He lives in Los Angeles.

Read an Excerpt

Blood Royal

By Eric Jager

Little, Brown and Company

Copyright © 2014 Eric Jager
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-316-22451-2


The Provost

One day near the end of October 1407, when Louis of Orleans had less than a month to live, a cart carrying two condemned men rumbled through the huge fortified gatehouse at the Porte Saint-Denis, across the wooden drawbridge, and into the northern suburbs of Paris. Behind the departing cart and its well-armed escort, above the great encircling wall, rose "the city of a hundred bell- towers," the largest metropolis in Europe, a mile-wide panorama of spires and steeples all reaching toward Heaven amid a smoky haze exhaled by tens of thousands of kitchen fires.

Veering right, away from the freshly harvested vineyards covering the slopes of Montmartre in autumnal red, the execution party headed for another, more infamous hill to the east. The two felons in the cart, their hands bound and hemp nooses already around their necks, could see the grisly public gibbet looming before them as they lurched along an unpaved track toward the hill known as Montfaucon. They may have smelled it too—scores of blackened corpses dangled there, exposed to the wind and the sun, pecked and nibbled by the crows and rats that scavenged among the dead.

Riding on his horse at the head of the somber procession was the provost of Paris, "superb in his furs and scarlet robes." He was followed by his lieutenant and his bodyguard, a dozen mounted sergeants known as the Twelve. Behind the sergeants rode a gray-cloaked friar who would hear each prisoner's last confession. Then came the burly executioner atop his horse, and behind him the rattling cart containing the two prisoners. After the cart came a troop of sergeants, some mounted, others marching on foot with wooden staff in hand.

Following along behind the sergeants in a less orderly fashion was a crowd of spectators, larger and noisier than usual. Some of them had come because they had nothing better to do, simply for their own amusement, eager to watch the two hanged men struggle and kick their way out of this world and into the next. But others were there in protest, for the case involving the two men had aroused a good deal of controversy. Some, wearing the hooded robes of coarse black or brown woolen cloth that marked them as university men, were even shouting angrily at the provost and his officers, denouncing the imminent hanging. The prisoners, as if still hoping to be rescued during their short, final journey to the gibbet, loudly joined in, crying out, "Clergie! Clergie!"—"We're clergy!"

The gradual upward slope of the ground soon turned steeper as the group began to ascend Montfaucon, or Falcon Hill—named for "the ghastly sight of those birds of prey plunging down on to crows and ravens as they flew away with gobbets of flesh from dead bodies." Shouts from the approaching crowd now competed with "the cawing of crows and the cries of birds of prey."

The immense gibbet towered some forty feet in the air above the hilltop, "a hideous monstrosity" visible for miles around and lurid with the whitewash daubed onto it from time to time. Sixteen massive limestone piers stood in a rectangular array on a raised foundation about forty feet long and thirty feet wide. Three separate tiers of heavy wooden beams held the weathered ropes and rusty chains that could suspend at least sixty bodies at one time. Even so, the continuous demand for space often kept the gibbet filled to capacity.

The place "was like an outdoor Chamber of Horrors" with its vast "crowd of skeletons swinging aloft, making mournful music with their chains at every blast of wind." In addition, "the remains of criminals previously beheaded, boiled or quartered were brought from all over France to hang in wicker baskets beside the people actually executed in situ." And "delinquents and blasphemers" were chained alive to the pillars, in the company of the dead.

The odors of the grisly place and the cries of these unfortunates kept most people away, except when there was a hanging. And Montfaucon's evil reputation for body-snatching and sorcery ensured that almost everyone avoided it after dark. "Dabblers in black magic were reputed to steal and use not only the bodies of dead criminals, but also pieces of rope, chains, nails, and wood from the gallows." The gibbet, some said, was haunted by the Devil himself.

The provost of Paris leading the procession that day amid the crowd's taunts and protests was a knight named Guillaume de Tignonville. Sir Guillaume, who had been appointed provost by the king, was essentially Paris's chief of police, although he also had the powers of a judge, district attorney, and head of the local militia. In matters of law and justice, the provost, "after the king, was the most important person in the city." As the king's top law officer, Guillaume was responsible for maintaining order, investigating crimes, presiding over the city's chief tribunal, and carrying out the sentences handed down there. Shortly after he took office in 1401, his powers had been further enlarged by a royal ordinance authorizing him "to do justice to all malefactors throughout the realm." In a civil emergency, Guillaume could close all the city gates, muster troops and post them in the streets, and call for the townsmen to arm themselves—with staffs, clubs, knives, or "whatever they had handy"—and keep watch in front of their houses, with big fires burning in the streets all night. He could also order great iron chains, specially forged for the purpose, to be stretched across streets throughout the city to prevent the sudden rush of invading enemy troops or mobs. He had wide civic authority as well, since a popular revolt in 1383 involving the provost of the merchants had prompted the king to abolish that office and grant its powers to the provost of Paris. Guillaume thus enforced the trade statutes governing silk makers, armorers, and other artisans' guilds, and he was responsible for garbage disposal and the half dozen or so leper hospitals on the city's outskirts.

Besides his personal bodyguard, the Twelve, Guillaume commanded several hundred police sergeants as well as scores of clerics who made and kept the official records. There were two kinds of sergeant: the sergent à verge, or tipstaff, who "did the local work," patrolling the city on foot; and the sergent à cheval, a mounted officer who "went further afield, both as a policeman and as part of the town's militia." All had the power to make arrests, though some were as dishonest as the criminals they pursued, even to the extent of acting as their accomplices. One officer reportedly "sent two or three fiddlers in advance of him, so that their noisy playing would alert wrongdoers to his approach." But Guillaume himself, said a chronicler, was "a very respected knight" with a reputation for personal integrity and aggressively enforcing the king's laws. As provost, "he refused to do many strange things he was asked to do, such as relaxing the demands of justice."

In 1407, Guillaume was probably in his early to middle forties. Descended from an old noble family in the Loire, he had inherited his father's title, estate, and coat of arms—six gold macles on a field, gules. Wellborn, he also had great ability and drive. In 1388, when he was probably still in his twenties, Guillaume had ridden as a knight banneret, leading troops under his own command, in a royal expedition to the duchy of Guelders, in Flanders. In 1391 he was appointed a chevalier d'honneur and a chamberlain, one of the king's personal advisers. In 1398, he became a member of the royal council—the inner circle of royal relatives and close advisers around the king. A highly valued diplomat as well, Guillaume had served on important embassies to various cities in Europe, including Rome, Milan, and the papal court at Avignon. In the mid-1390s, Guillaume saw further military service during a one-month siege at Montignac, in the south of France, where he helped lead an expedition of "two hundred men-at-arms and one hundred and fifty crossbowmen" who had been sent to crush the robbers and brigands terrorizing the region. As a man-at-arms, Guillaume had battlefield courage and impressive skill with a sword as well as the toughness it took to ride all day and bivouac overnight. And as a well- traveled, well-connected royal official with years of experience at court, he was intimately familiar with the workings of the French government and the levers of power in general.

Guillaume served as provost at the king's pleasure and could be sacked at a moment's notice, but in the autumn of 1407, he had held office for over six years, a lengthy tenure suggesting his competence and success. No portrait or physical description of him survives, but his contemporaries praised him for his mind, character, and personal presence. "Of noble lineage," he was also "wise, knowledgeably and well spoken, and greatly valued by the king for his advice," says one source. Another says that he was "renowned for his mind and his knowledge" and that he spoke in "a loud, clear voice." In all, Guillaume seems to have been "a highly intelligent and cultivated man" with an "independent mind" who was "moderate in his politics" and, "above all, loyal to the king."

Besides being a knight, diplomat, and officer of the law, Guillaume was also a man of letters. He was wealthy enough to keep a personal library, then a rarity, with books such as Aesop's Fables, an encyclopedia known as On the Properties of Things, and other works in Latin and French, all copied out by hand and bound in leather or heavy cloth. Like many educated noblemen, Guillaume had written some courtly verse. More unusually, he had also translated an originally Arabic collection of philosophical wisdom entitled Moral Sayings of the Philosophers from Latin into French, an achievement that had earned him a modest literary fame. The translation was probably completed around 1402, after he became provost. One of the stories collected in the book recounts how Alexander the Great once refused to pardon a man condemned to hang despite the man's claims of penitence. "Hang him at once," ordered Alexander, "while he is still sorry for what he did." A more measured quote found elsewhere in the text—"There is no shame in doing justice"—was particularly apt to the challenges faced by the provost.

A man devoted to the law and to letters, Guillaume was evidently fond of courtly and literary society. His friends included the celebrated poet Eustache Deschamps, who had died just the year before, in 1406. Guillaume had also befriended Christine de Pizan, a rare woman in the male-dominated world of letters, supporting her defense of women in a famous literary quarrel over the Romance of the Rose and even helping her with legal advice.

Guillaume had a wife named Alix and a daughter, and he lived with them in the city. As provost, he was provided with a residence at the Petit-Châtelet, a small château facing the river on the Left Bank, but Guillaume chose instead to live at his own house in the Rue Béthisy, not far from the Louvre—the huge square fortress guarding the western edge of Paris. Guillaume's house had once belonged to the lords of Ponthieu, a county north of Paris in Picardy. An imposing stone mansion, located in a prestigious quarter, it identified its owner as a wealthy, distinguished noble. At the end of a long busy day on the job—studying documents and writing reports, issuing orders to his officers, questioning prisoners and witnesses before his tribunal, or supervising a hanging—Guillaume probably went home with relief to his family and the neighborhood's quiet and comfort.

The two men whom Guillaume was leading to the gibbet that day were named Olivier François and Jean de Saint-Léger. Both claimed to be students at the University of Paris, and this was the reason their case had caused such controversy and protest.

They had been arrested earlier that month, charged with "robbery and murder on the high roads." After their imprisonment, they had demanded "benefit of clergy," the right to a trial in a special ecclesiastical court. The university, known as "the daughter of the Church" because it answered to the pope rather than the king, enjoyed great independence in matters of law, as was typical of universities throughout Europe at this time. From its founding in the twelfth century, the University of Paris had been an independent corporation with its own royal charter granting it special rights and protections. For example, like priests and friars and monks and nuns, students and professors were considered clergy and thus were under the jurisdiction of the Church courts, a separate legal system distinct from the secular courts wherein laypeople were tried. There was a good reason for this: clerics tried in a Church court under the authority of the local bishop generally got more lenient treatment; even those convicted of capital crimes, including theft, murder, and rape, often got away with very light sentences or nominal fines.

After arresting the two men, Guillaume had conscientiously "gone to the rector and officials of the university and offered them the malefactors charged in the case" for trial in a Church court. But the university, wanting nothing to do with these accused "murderers, thieves and highwaymen," or "infamous evildoers," as another source describes them, had washed its hands of the matter, refusing to acknowledge the two men as its own. Guillaume next went to the Parlement of Paris, the highest secular court in France, and requested that judges be appointed in order to try the case in that venue. The Parlement duly assigned several magistrates to hear the case. The two men were convicted and sentenced to hang.

Word of their condemnation angered their fellow clerics, who began to complain, raising a vociferous protest intended to rouse the university authorities to action. There were threats of a strike, which meant canceled classes and a suspension of preaching—an attempt to enlist popular support for the cause by withholding spiritual benefits from the people. But Guillaume had carefully followed the law in all of his proceedings, and he held firm in the face of the university's noisy opposition. The provost, wrote a monk, wished to demonstrate "that from now on, scholars and priests would be punished just like everyone else." In his account, the monk, perhaps fearing a new precedent, failed to mention that Guillaume had already given the university a chance to try the two clerics in its own court. But ordinary people may have welcomed the idea that no one was above the law or beyond its reach.

When the execution party finally reached the top of Montfaucon, Guillaume ordered one of his sergeants to unlock the sturdy gate in the wall surrounding the gibbet. The wall helped keep out wolves and dogs as well as the thieves who stole bodies from the gallows for medical or more occult purposes. The wall also discouraged friends or relatives of the condemned from visiting the site at night to cut down the bodies and give them proper Christian burials.

By now the stench of the place would have been overwhelming. Besides the odor from scores of rotting corpses swinging back and forth above whenever jostled by a breeze, a foul smell arose from the charnel pit below, where the remains of the dead were eventually thrown without ceremony to make more room on the gibbet. Some of the attending officers may have worn scent-soaked cloths over their faces to ward off the smell, although the two condemned men had to withstand its full, unmitigated force.

It was customary to allow the condemned to go to confession before they died, and now the friar in gray stepped forward to perform this office. Confession had not always been allowed to criminals prior to execution, a withholding of ultimate pardon that cruelly added spiritual torment to the physical agony, but attitudes had changed over time, and by the early 1400s, even felons convicted of capital crimes were allowed to put themselves right with God before suffering their sentences. Had not Christ himself forgiven the repentant thief on the Cross?


Excerpted from Blood Royal by Eric Jager. Copyright © 2014 Eric Jager. Excerpted by permission of Little, Brown and Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Introduction 3

1 The Provost 7

2 The Châtelet 19

3 The Mad King's Brother 35

4 The House in the Rue Vieille du Temple 56

5 A Cold, Dark Night 69

6 Post Mortem 89

7 A Mass for the Dead 101

8 The Inquiry 110

9 A Break in the Case 127

10 Rival Dukes 147

11 A Confession 166

12 The Justification 178

13 Amende Honorable 200

14 Civil War 211

15 The Scourge of God 235

Epilogue 249

A Note on the Depositions 255

Acknowledgments 257

Notes 259

Sources 305

Illustration and Photograph Credits 315

Index 317

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Blood Royal: A True Tale of Crime and Detection in Medieval Paris 3.6 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 5 reviews.
pandabearCM More than 1 year ago
The book is not bad; it is just terribly miscast as an historical detective story rather than a story about a political assassination and its consequences. For me the book did not work as a mystery-and I like historical mystery and crime both true and fiction. The author did not persuade me that Guillaume de Tignonville who is the "detective" in this book did anything unique for his era in trying to pursue the people who committed the assassination. For it to be a true crime book I would have wanted more information on how murder was handled in that time period and what Guillaume de Tignonville did that was different. Also I felt I did not get sufficient information on the crimes of the two people who claimed they were clerics whom Guillaume de Tignonville executed (a previous set of crimes in which the book's "detective" handled). In addition, I did not like the fact that in the book first Mr. Jager describes the crime and who saw the crime and then writes about the depositions of the people who saw the crime occur. It is repetitive. How the crime happened and the witnesses to the crime saw should be written about only once. However, I did like a lot of the history in the book. I think the book better would have been described as "Assassination and its Effects". The book had good descriptions of Paris; at times I felt I was there. I was intrigued that the French nobles let a King whom everyone seemed to think was insane for much of the time rule France. Much of the history both the civil war in France and the wars between the French and English was interesting. In short I thought the book did provider some interesting history but it was not good as a mystery or detective story.
Angie_Lisle More than 1 year ago
Guillaume de Tignonville investigated the death of Louis I of Orléans, the younger brother of the mad King Charles VI's, who was murdered in the streets of Paris. The book wound up being less about the murder, focusing instead on how Louis' death sent France into civil war in the 15th-century. The book is written like a history textbook, which some people may find monotonous but will appeal to history lovers like me. The book is heavily cited with a well-organized bibliography for further research. The book briefly touches on Charles' illness by describing the symptoms and stating that he may have suffered from schizophrenia, which is what most scholars thought until the last century, when porphyria was documented and diagnosed in Charles' descendants. I wish this subject had been broached; then again, this book wasn't about Charles. I mention this because it's the only thing that irritated me. I loved the gruesome details that were given about some of the battles that followed in the wake of Louis' death. They broke that traditional textbook mold by not shying away from the horrific aspects of war. I requested a free copy of this book in exchange for a review from NetGalley.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Not having read the book but knowing that Phillip the Fearless Louis 1st cousin admitted arranging and justifying the deed in an open letter to the Pope, where is the mystery?
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Well researched and written. Gives a complete and comprehensive detailing of the "crime of the century" during that medieval period.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
A great read on a slightly obscure bit of French/Parisian history. The detective work taken on by the investigating provost as a bit of police history is worth the read alone.