The Hospices de Beaune
Guigone de Salins
Five hundred and more years after its foundation, the Hospices de Beaune is still the focal point of charitable giving and wine culture in Burgundy. I asked Guigone if she would talk to us about this remarkable institution, including information about her family and background, and just how she came to be Madame Nicolas Rolin the third. This is her story.
Background Briefing Note
Nicolas Rolin was born in 1376 in Autun, southern Burgundy. Following the early death of his father, his mother, who was a resourceful woman, sent Nicolas and his brother Jean to be educated in Paris. While they were away, widow Rolin had wedding bells on her mind. Not one to do things by halves, she organised a triple wedding. She herself would marry a widower of means from Beaune. The widower’s two daughters would marry Nicolas and Jean. A family affair indeed!
By 1401 Nicolas had qualified as a lawyer. His first job was as a clerk in the parliament building in Beaune. Soon recognised as an able advocate and mediator, he moved back to Paris. There he was promoted to trusted advisor to the Duke of Burgundy.
Burgundy at this time was a wealthy free state, independent of France. Its prosperity was generated by Flanders in the north, and salt production at Salins in the Jura mountains, to the east. Burgundy was ruled by its Dukes, and France by the King, albeit both the Dukes, and the King, were part of the same Valois family. However the King Charles VI was a minor when he acceded to the throne, and shortly after he reached his majority, suffered from bouts of mental illness. The Duke of Burgundy was the most senior member of a governing council, which ruled France while the King was incapacitated. The younger brother of Charles VI, Louis Duke of Orleans, was not so happy with Burgundy having a significant say in the affairs of France.
This intermingling of the affairs of the two states developed into a period of turmoil in the history of both. In 1407, the Duke of Orleans was assassinated on the streets of Paris. It was the act of the headstrong Duke of Burgundy, John the Fearless, who lost patience with the Duke of Orleans’ objections to the council. Louis’ death triggered a civil war between Burgundy on the one hand, and the Armagnacs on behalf of Louis and the French throne, on the other. The Armagnacs took their revenge by arranging the murder of John the Fearless. This just notched the heat up further, and led to the Treaty of Troyes in 1420, when Burgundy turned its back on the French Valois, and supported English King Henry V’s claim to be the next King of France.
Throughout this bloody maelstrom, Nicolas Rolin succeeded in enhancing his personal status and accumulating a substantial fortune. He had his mother’s touch. In 1422 he was appointed Chancellor of Burgundy. It was the most powerful position beneath the Duke, and for Nicolas, a staggering political achievement. As a token of the nobility’s acceptance of his rise through the ranks, in 1423 he was offered the hand of Guigone de Salins, a 20 year old virgin from one of Europe’s oldest and most trusted aristocratic families. Rolin was a 47 year old widower of two marriages, with three children by his second wife, and at least another four children from extra marital relations. Turning a page on this somewhat ‘laissez-faire’ attitude to parenthood, Rolin declared that from the time of marrying Guigone, he would have eyes for no other woman. By way of reminder, lest he should be distracted from his commitment, Guigone had the initial S for ‘seule’ - ‘the only one’, emblazoned on all their possessions. It was in the tiles of the floors of their residences, the tapestries, in fact, just about everywhere, including the canopy over the bed they lay in at night. He could not miss it!
This improbable union, produced Burgundy’s most treasured possession, the Hospices de Beaune. Not just a building breathtaking in its beauty, but the creation of a self financing hospital, which served the good people of Beaune for 500 years, without a dime of support from the French taxpayer.
Following Rolin’s death in 1462, Guigone could have chosen a life of comfort, moving between their 30 different chateau, (not counting the town houses), and living on the rents from their vast estates and the salt production. Instead she chose a pious and charitable working retirement at the Hospices, caring for the sick and the poor.
From the author - A train of thought
One of the luxuries of relative retirement, is the time to follow a train of thought. I sensed that there was rather more to Guigone and her contribution to the Hospices de Beaune than she was receiving credit for. I decided to delve further. I was considerably aided by a well researched and detailed tome by Marie Thérese Berthier and John-Thomas Sweeney, Editions L’Armancon 2008.
Guigone de Salins 1403 to 1470
Guigone is a name that we do not hear today. What does it mean?
A - My father was a soldier, and my name means ‘fight’, so I think you can take it that he won out when it came to name choosing! While I would readily admit to a certain tenacity in my character, ‘fighting’ is far too strong. Technically the word designates the belt worn by the person in battle who carries the shield with the troops colours.
15 c Burgundy
Q Tell us something about Burgundy in your day Guigone.
G - Well, I agree that the story may make more sense with a bit of historical background.
One of my family’s connections, going back a few centuries, was the Emperor Charlemagne. We were not related by blood, but were highly regarded by Charlemagne for our hospitality and honest conduct, and he apparently insisted on calling us his ‘cousins’. He built an empire in the 9C, that covered most of modern Europe. In the centuries that followed his death, the empire was broken up into different kingdoms, with different noble rulers. France as we know it today, was divided between Burgundy to the centre and east, and the rest of France. Both were ruled by different members of the House of Valois. In Burgundy, the ruler was entitled to use the title ‘Duke’, whereas in France, the title was ‘King’. Peaceful relations in the family existed until Charles VI became King of France while still an infant in 1380. A governing council was appointed, and the most influential member of the Council was the Duke of Burgundy. However, Louis Duke of Orleans, the younger brother of Charles VI, argued he had a stronger claim to rule France than the Council, and a dispute developed between Louis and his supporters known as The Armagnacs on the one side, and the Duke of Burgundy on the other.
I was born in 1403. The following year, John the Fearless became Duke of Burgundy. He may have been brave, but he was also impetuous and foolhardy. His reputation was earned at the Battle of Nicropolis in 1396, an ill fated Crusade against the Turks. The Crusade was poorly planned, and John, and many other French nobles were taken captive, and only released back after substantial ransoms were paid. The nobles were poorly treated in captivity, and those that did return often died shortly after. In 1407, John unnecessarily escalated the dispute with the Duke of Orleans, and arranged for him to be murdered. This set off a civil war between Burgundy and France.
At the same time, France, and sometimes Burgundy, had been at war with England from about 1337. It became known as the ‘One Hundred Years War’. While there were long periods when not a lot happened, hostilities were given renewed impetus in 1413 when Henry V became King of England. The famous battle of Agincourt, immortalised in the play ‘Henry V’ by William Shakespeare, took place in 1415, when I was 12.
Q - I understand you come from an ancient aristocratic family Guigone?
G -Our ancestors on my fathers side were called Asinari, and came from Asti, in Piemonte, Italy. Asti sits at the foot of the Alps, which made the town strategically important for the defence of Italy against invaders from France and Switzerland. Any troops crossing the Alps would encounter the forces of Asti as the first line of defence. Over the centuries the town was continually besieged by one faction and then another, and these battles were the source of many of my father’s stories about the bravery of my ancestors. Our family owned a fortified palace in the centre of the town, which was regarded as a ‘safe haven’, when the town was under attack. My father would proudly recount these tales, as I sat with my three sisters by the fireside, at our home in Salins. There were accounts of notable victories, such as in December 1275, when Asti defeated the more powerful army of Charles I of Anjou. We did not hear quite so much about the times we were on the losing side, but perhaps that is the same now as it was then. We prefer to talk about the good things that happen to us, and to forget the not so good.
We could trace our ancestry to 50 AD, when we worked and fought for Roman Emperor Galba. Another important banking family in Asti were the Solari, and we would compete with them to lend money to traders importing or exporting goods from Genoa, and the ports on the Ligurian coast. We had a reputation for being trustworthy and reliable, which was not the case with every bank in those days, and nor do I understand it to be so now! However it was the good reputation which my great-grandfather Dimanche brought with him to France, that enabled our branch of the family in Burgundy, to find success in our country of adoption. To show his commitment to Burgundy, Dimanche changed his name from Asinari to Salins.
Q The name, Salins comes from the town where you lived?
The town of Salins is in the Jura mountains, and was known for its salt springs. Water heavy with salt would come to the surface from underground springs which had permeated extensive salt deposits deep in the earth. The water was collected, and distilled in large cauldrons, heated over wood fires. Once all the water had evaporated, a deposit of salt remained. The salt was baked into cakes, which could be easily transported, and it was then sold on to merchants for shipment across Europe. Salt was a very valuable commodity, and known as ‘white gold’. It was in demand not just as a condiment, but as a means of preserving food through winter months, or on long voyages.
It was my great-grandfather DImanche who settled in Salins. He was a very capable businessman, and shortly after moving to France, was appointed by the Duke of Burgundy to take control of the salt production. We were not traders, more administrators, but the Duke gave our family a significant interest in salt production. Dimanche modernised the methods of distilling the salt, and imposed better controls over the various rights to the salt that had been created by successive Dukes. Traditionally the Dukes would repay a favour or service by granting an interest in the salt, which entitled the beneficiary either to collect so much salt each year, or to be paid a certain sum of money. Many interests had been created, which resulted in a lot of accounting activity throughout the year.
Q Tell us about your early life in Salins
My father had inherited properties and assets from his parents and other relatives, the majority of which were due to the wealth accumulated by Dimanche. We owned Chateau Poupet, which sat on the top of Mount Poupet, high above Salins. We also owned a large town house, which is where we spent most of our time. The town is at the bottom of a valley, but was on important trade routes, in particular from Flanders, which at the time was part of Burgundy. Salins was therefore always a hive of activity. There were many hotels and restaurants to accommodate visitors. Shops selling exotic goods had set up in the town, such was its reputation for affluence.
Our house was at the foot of the steep steps leading up Mont Belin. The steps passed the church of Saint-Anatoile, and a number of fine houses with terraced gardens. We would play the usual children’s games, seeing who could run up the steps fastest. It was also the way to Mass, where I went with my sisters Louise, Renaudine, and Antoinette. The church of St Anatoile had been rebuilt in the 13c, is still there today. The architect was a religious man by the name of Etienne, and the design was broadly gothic with Cistercian influences. There are similar roof structures in the churches at Fontenay and Notre Dame de Saumur en Auxois.
On the ground floor of our home, there were large rooms for welcoming guests. At the top of the house was my fathers study, which we could only enter with his permission. Underneath the house, was a crypt where precious items were stored. When Dimanche first came to Salins, it had served as the strong room for the family bank. The house was completely destroyed in the great fire of 1825. Fire was always a risk in the town, because of the activity of distilling the salt from the water.
One of the early influences on my thinking were the stories that my mother used to tell me about Comtesse Mahaut, the wife of Othon IV, Count Palatine of Burgundy, who died in 1303. The Count owned the chateau de Bracon, which was not far from Salins, and they were therefore neighbours of Dimanche. The Count left 500 livres in his will for the construction of a hospital near to his chateau, and a further 1,000 livres for the blessing of the poor in front of the hospital on the day of St Michael. The Count died some time before the Countess, and as one of the executors of the will, she assumed responsibility for building the hospital. It took seven years, and she was helped by her also widowed daughter, Queen Jeanne. The Countess and the Queen were both popular figures of their time, and when my mother told me about their acts of generosity for the benefit of the poor of the region, it made an impression. The hospital buildings were very grand, reflecting the status of their founders, but also in the belief that nice surroundings would make patients feel better and aid recovery. The hospital provided its services to voyagers and pilgrims alike, without charge. The financing of the hospital came from rents payable to the Count by his farmers, together with profits from the salt production. These had all been assigned to the trustees of the hospital to assure its continued existence. Dimanche was appointed by the Count to verify the accounts for the hospital. In recognition of his good works, and his elevation to the ranks of the Burgundy nobility, in 1336 Dimanche was made a Chevalier in Burgundy.
Dimanche and his wife Isabelle had five sons, and five daughters. The eldest son Jean de Salins, was my grandfather, and he was also anointed Chevalier. One son took over the family bank, another became a lawyer, the youngest became Captain of the county, and took over Dimanche’s role in charge of salt production. The wealth accumulated by Dimanche was evenly and fairly divided between his children. When he died, he generously left money to the hospitals, convents, priories and other charitable institutions in the area. He was buried in the chapel dedicated to him attached to the church of St Anatoile.
Etienne de Salins
Q Tell us a bit more about your father
As I said, my father was a soldier. He was trained in using the arbeletier, or cross bow, a feared weapon in Medieval times. The arrow of the cross bow was sent with such force, that it could pierce the metal armour worn for protection. He was in charge of a company of arbeletiers who were responsible for the security of the Duke of Burgundy.
You can see from my short account of the history of Burgundy, that between the time I was born, and my father’s death in 1416, Burgundy was in a state of almost perpetual unrest. This was made worse by the bands of brigands, who, when they were not conscripted into the army, spent their time looting and pillaging the towns and villages of Burgundy. As one of the military protectors of the Duke of Burgundy, my father was continually called away for one cause or another, and while he returned to Salins from time to time, he was absent more often than he was present.
My father’s elder brother Henri, who was the main beneficiary of his father’s will, died in 1399, shortly after his return from the Battle of Nicropolis. This meant that my father Etienne, inherited all the assets from the estate of Jean his father. These included the Chateaux at Poupet, Combelle, Saint-Thiébaud, Ivrey, and Saizenay, as well as the share of the profits on salt production at Salins. He married my mother Louise de Rye on the 10 July 1399 in the chapel of the Chateau of Balancon. I was born four years later.
When he was with us, Etienne was a great story teller. He would hold us spellbound, recounting tales of the bravery of the soldiers in our family. However the stories were also about preparing me for my future. Families such as ours retained our privileged positions by cultivating relationships, and cementing them by marriage. So that pre-marital relationships were not affairs of the heart as they are today, but more a cold and clinical evaluation of the potential benefits to the respective families of the intended bride and groom. So while a kind father would want the best for his daughters, the concept of meeting someone and falling in love did not exist. In the way that a modern day father might say to his daughter, some day you will meet someone and fall in love, such a thought would not enter my father’s head.
And before you ask me was there ever any protest, I will tell you that in my day children did not have rights, legally or morally. We belonged to our parents, who could do with us as they wished. We had to respect their wishes without question. If we were fortunate, as I believe I was, our parents would be considerate, and not plan a future for us that would make our lives miserable. From the age of 7, we were expected to think independently, and from this age we could be married. Loving parents such as mine, would allow their daughters to develop before committing them to a sexual relationship, usually, with an older man.
Louise de Rye
Q Tell us about your mother Guigone
G My mothers name was Louise de Rye, and she was able to trace her ancestry to the 11c, when two brothers by the name of Rye met their death on the shores of Lake Geneva, during the course of a heroic battle on behalf of Otte-Guillaume, the first Duke of Burgundy. From then on the family were associated with the Dukes of Burgundy. In 1392 my grandfather and his brother, together with Margaret Countess of Burgundy, were the founders of a convent at Dole, in favour of a community of twelve Cordeliers monks. The Cordeliers were part of the Franciscan Order, and their name came from the long rope punctuated with knots that they wore around their tunic. They achieved fame for their bravery while fighting the Sarrasins in the Crusades. By 1789 there were 284 Cordelier convents in France, all of which were closed in 1790 by order of the Revolutionary Councils.
Q - Guigone, apart from stories about Comtesse Mahaut, what were the influences on your early education in Salins?
G - I anticipate that this may come as something of a surprise, however the question of a woman’s rights, education and role in society, was as topical an issue in the 15c as it is today. My mother was an educated intelligent woman, with an open mind, and she introduced us at an early age to the writings and thoughts of Christine de Pisan. This had an enormous influence on my thinking and later development.
Christine de Pisan and The Women’s Movement
Q - tell us more Guigone
G - Christine de Pizan was born in Italy. Her father was a doctor and court astrologer. They moved to Paris when he accepted an appointment to the court of King Charles V. Christine was intelligent, educated herself in the classics, and spoke a number of languages. At the age of 15 she married a lawyer working in the French Court, and they had three children. However, when she was widowed at the age of 25, she suddenly had her family to support, including her mother and a niece (public service widows pensions were not available in France at the time!). She took up writing, and used her powers of persuasion with the quill, to promote the importance of a woman’s role in 14c society. In a book called The Treasure of the City of Ladies, she offered advice to all women, including governesses, widows and even prostitutes. In a world almost completely dominated by men, she took up the cudgels on behalf of herself and women in general. The Book of the Three Virtues, was a treatise advocating the education of women, and won widespread critical acclaim. In ‘The Book of the City of Ladies’, she created a symbolic city in which women were appreciated and defended. One of the characters, Lady Reason, argued that female stereotypes (created by men), could only be sustained, by excluding women from the debate. Her writing was daring and bold. In today’s world she would probably be categorised as a ‘feminist’, which suggests that things have not really changed so much in 500 years! Indeed if anything, minds could be said to be more closed today than they were then. Christine won the support of influential figures in Parisian society, University Chancellor Jean Gerson, the Rector Nicolas de Clemanges, the Prevost of Paris, Guillaume de Tignonville, and Marechal Boucicaut. She submitted a dossier of her work to Queen Isabelle of Bavaria, who offered her support, and she came to the attention of the Duke of Burgundy, Philip the Hardy. The Duke was so impressed, he commissioned her to write the biography of his brother, Charles V, King of France. A society was founded called ‘The Order of the Rose’, and at its inaugural banquet, at the Hotel Barbette in Paris, the room was decorated with 4,000 roses. Her success encouraged her to write more, and her critics were well and truly silenced! She was the first French female royal biographer, and could be said to be the founder of ‘The Women’s Movement’. I found her writings exhilarating and liberating, and they caused me to think about my own future, and what my contribution to society as an educated woman could, and should be.
My mother taught us the virtues of charity, modesty, humility and consideration for others, of whatever station in life. I was told it was the duty of a good Princess to act as the advocate and intermediary between her husband the Prince, and his people. The maintenance of our good name and reputation was paramount. One of the religious men of the Church Saint-Anatoile was tasked with teaching me writing, mathematics, accounting, grammar, and the history of the saints.
By my early teens, I had developed a modest but independent way of thinking. I realised that I was immensely fortunate, and later in life I wished to find ways to help those who were less fortunate. Whether I would be able to do this, would be strongly influenced by the views of the man chosen by my parents to be my husband.
Q and now we get to the part everyone is waiting for - Nicolas.
G - well I suppose I would not be giving away any secrets to say that as a teenager, my dreams were filled with young knights in shining armour, rather than a twice widowed 47 year old lawyer who already had at least 7 children. However as I have explained, that was not the way things worked. Love was not the foundation upon which successful relationships were founded. If we were fortunate in our parents choice, then love was something that could follow. The intense passion associated with early love in today’s world, was a vey rare commodity in my day, - at least within the marital relationship! Although, having said that, my son Antoine did marry his childhood sweetheart!
Q - so your father died in 1416, and you married Nicolas at the Chateau of Lons-le-Saunier in December 1423.
G In my father’s will, he expressed a desire for some of his wealth to be applied to the foundation and construction of a hospital for the poor of the region. The Hospital was to be dedicated to St Jacques, the Patron Saint of pilgrims and chevaliers. Following his death, my mother had to determine where the hospital could be built. She decided on Ivrey, less than 10km from Salins, and on the route for pilgrims travelling to Mont Poupet. My mother was helped by a ‘Family Council’ set up after my father’s death. The Council comprised my cousin, Louis de Chalon, Prince of Orange, my grand uncle, Jacques de Vienne, seigneur of Ruffey, who was the most senior and influential of the Council members, and my uncle Jean de Rye, seigneur de Balancon. My fate, in terms of the identity of my future husband, was in their hands.
Nicolas had been born in Autun in 1376. His family were of humble, rather than noble origin. However by saving, and hard work, they had accumulated a number of properties, and were reasonably well off. Nicolas’ mother Amée came from Pommard just south of Beaune, where her family owned vines. Nicolas' father died when Nicolas was 15, and after that his mother had to manage the family affairs. She sent both her sons to school in Paris, where they decided to pursue legal careers. From Paris, they went to Avignon, where the University provided teaching in civil law.
In 1398 Amée organised 3 marriages. She herself married Percent Mairet of Beaune, who in turn gave the hand of his daughters Jeannette and Marie, to Nicolas and Nicolas’ brother Jean. Following the marriages, both sons returned to their studies in Avignon, where two years later they graduated with law degrees.
When Nicolas and Jean had finished their studies, the plague descended on Beaune, and took the lives of Amée, and both her daughters in law. When it was safe, Nicolas did return to Beaune, where he started his legal training at the Parliament.
His skills as an advocate quickly became noticed by important people, and he moved to Paris to continue his career, first as a clerk at the Royal Palace. From 1404, Duke of Burgundy, John the Fearless was in Paris. He was the most influential member of the supervising Council for Charles VI. In 1407, the year of the assassination of the Duke of Orleans, my father was in Paris providing protection for the Duke. This same year, Nicolas married Marie de Landes, the daughter of the Keeper of the King’s Treasures. By this second marriage he became part of an important family of Parisian financiers.
Lawyer to the Duke of Burgundy
On the 23 October 1408, Nicolas was appointed advocate to John the Fearless, and became responsible for representing all the Duke’s affairs before the Parliament. The assassination of the Duke of Orleans, which John the Fearless admitted had been carried out on his orders, created a civil war between Burgundy headed by John, and the rest of France, whose interests were represented by Bernard Count of Armagnac. It was Burgundy against the Armagnacs. John, with the aid of Nicolas, managed to convince Charles VI that the murder of Louis was justified, and by the Treaty of Chartres in 1409, John was granted a Royal Pardon. This was a major coup for Nicolas, and it goes without saying that it endeared him to John. There followed a reconciliation between John and the next Duke of Orleans.
Henry V of England
In 1413 King Henry V of England invaded France and was threatening to attack Paris. When Henry asked that John support his claim to the throne of France, Nicolas advised John he should agree. This might now be perceived by many as an act of betrayal of France, however it should be borne in mind that Burgundy was a separate state, and Flanders in the north, was one of Burgundy’s most important commercial assets. Flanders was at risk from Henry and his forces, so the advice of Nicolas was perhaps the correct advice for Burgundy. John rejected Nicolas’ counsel, and instead, sided with the Armagnacs.
The Battle of Agincourt
However when Henry invaded France in 1415, John kept his troops away from the Battle of Agincourt. The French army, although numerically superior to the English, and a stronger force, was heavily defeated. Two of John’s brothers died fighting for France, and the Armagnacs suffered heavy losses of noblemen. The charitable construction of what happened, is that Henry decided that there were simply too many captives to safely control, with an attendant risk that they might overwhelm their captors. He gave the order to slaughter the captured and the wounded, including vast numbers of the nobility, who according to tradition, should have been kept as hostages, and exchanged for a ransom. The defeat at Agincourt and John’s lack of support for France, brought new hostilities with the Armagnacs, but they were a weakened force. John took advantage of this. He recaptured Paris on 30 May 1418, and then did nothing to prevent the surrender of Rouen to the English in 1419.
The Siege of Rouen
Henry’s actions at Rouen would today constitute a war crime, and even at the time, were regarded with horror. After Henry failed to break Rouen’s defences, he laid siege to the town and would not allow anyone to leave. The defending troops and residents were starving, and reduced to eating every dog, cat, mouse and rat they could get their hands on. Finally, the women and children were allowed to leave. It was thought that they would be given safe passage, instead of which they were confined to a ditch outside the walls, where those inside could see them, and there they were left to starve to death. It was a tactic which Julius Caesar had adopted when seeking to obtain the surrender of the Gauls in the battle of Alesia in Burgundy. Finally Rouen did surrender to Henry.
Murder of John the Fearless
When John the Fearless later tried to make peace with the Armagnacs, he underestimated the hostility his actions had created, and was lured to attend a meeting to supposedly discuss the terms of peace. The meeting was on a bridge at Montereau on the 10 September 1419. The Armagnacs exacted their retribution with his killing. This act of defiance by the Armagnacs, as might have been anticipated, did not go down well with John’s immediate family. However in the Court of Burgundy, Nicolas was perceived to have been justified in his advice that John should have taken the side of Henry.
Philip the Good and the Treaty of Troyes
John was succeeded as Duke of Burgundy by his son, Philip the Good. Philip was determined to avenge the death of his father. Shortly after Philips’ succession, Isabelle of Bavaria, the wife of Charles VI, was persuaded to sign the Treaty of Troyes. The Treaty provided for English King Henry V to inherit the French crown upon the death of Charles VI. Isabelle was persuaded to sign the treaty disinheriting her son, Charles VII, on the basis that Henry would stand a better chance of uniting France and bringing the war to an end.
Margaret of Bavaria
Also in 1420, Nicolas' legal services were engaged by Margaret of Bavaria, the mother of John the Fearless, to bring to justice the murderers of her son. The complaint ran to 77 pages, and was supported by vast files full of witness testimonies and arguments. It had been compiled by Nicolas with the assistance of 12 other lawyers. After hearing Nicolas’ submissions, the accused were found guilty, and the Duke of Orleans was banished from the kingdom. Nicolas was feted, and his position solidified as the trusted advisor to Duke Philip the Good.
Pre marital visit to Salins
In June 1423 Nicolas visited Salins. He had been appointed Chancellor in December 1422. By the time of his visit, our union had already been agreed, however we still met in the company of my mother. The fact that he was more than twice my age, was a matter of concern to me, but not something that I could comment on. I was worried that I would not be able to meet Nicolas’ expectations, as a woman, as a surrogate mother to his existing children, or just as a companion. However Nicolas had a persuasive personality, and was able to make people in general, and me in particular, feel at ease. I would not say that I considered myself lucky to be marrying him, but I comforted myself by thinking that things could be worse.
The Hospices de Beaune
Q - so tell us how construction of the Hospices de Beaune came to pass.
G - Following our marriage, my life was very busy. I was appointed the ‘Dame d’Honneur’, or the ‘First Lady in Waiting’, to Bonne d’Artois, the wife of Philip the Good. Bonne was only two years older than me, and we got on well. The lives of everyone was touched in some way by the violent events that were taking place at this time, and nobody more so than Bonne. Her father Philippe d’Artois, had died shortly after being released from captivity after the Battle of Nicropolis. Her first husband, Philippe d’Artois, was killed at Agincourt. Her father in law and her brother, were both still in the capture of the English. Bonne lived in the Ducal palace in Dijon, which is where I spent much of my time. This was an enjoyable time in my life, which came to a sad end in September 1425, when Bonne died in childbirth. It was all the more poignant, because in 1424, the year following our marriage, I had given birth to our first child Antoine. Two other children followed, Louise and Claudine. While the children were young, my time was taken up instilling in them the family and religious values which I had myself been taught as a child.
In 1440 my mother died. The whole of Burgundy was suffering from a fresh outbreak of the plague. Quarantines and travelling restrictions had been introduced to try to limit its spread. Added to the devastation of disease, was the pestilence of the gangs of armed robbers who roamed the countryside, killing, raping and looting as they went. Known as the ‘Ecorcheurs’, they were mainly soldiers, hardened by battle and killing, who rampaged through towns and villages, with no regard for the hardship their actions caused. Once they had taken the cattle and the crops, the villagers were left to starve. We were receiving almost daily accounts of their actions in one or other of our territories. And if the plague and the Ecorcheurs were not enough, there were also packs of wolves roaming free, even as far as Paris. 14 people died as a result of wolf attacks between Montmartre and the Porte St Antoine. The town of Beaune was particularly badly affected by all these problems, losing more than half its population, as a result of one disaster or another.
I was determined that Nicolas and I should use some of our good fortune and considerable wealth, to alleviate some of this suffering. It was still common in the 15c for wealthy nobles to donate part of their lands or fortunes to a good cause, in return for a promised passage to a better life. The monasteries benefited significantly from guilty noble consciences. The vineyard Clos de Beze, in Gevrey Chambertin, was a gift to the monks of Beze in the 6c by the Duke d’Amalgaire and his wife. This is how the Benedictine and Cistercian Orders built up their vast wealth and vineyard ownerships. Nicolas, who had been associated with many of the less than christian acts on the part of the Dukes of Burgundy, needed little persuasion. The only question was what should we do, and where it should it be. In 1441 we sent two requests to the Pope for approval. One was for the construction of a hospital either in Autun or Beaune, and the other was for a convent for the community of Cordelier monks at Autun. The Pope gave us his consent for the hospital, and it was for us to decide where it should be built. Nicolas was in favour of Autun, the town where he was born, and where his eldest son was the Bishop of the Diocese. However there were already a number of churches, abbeys, and Houses of God, giving relief to the poor of Autun. Beaune on the other hand, had a better location in the centre of Burgundy. The town was largely dependent for revenue on the vineyards that surrounded it, and these had also fared badly as a result of the troubles. Taking everything into account, Beaune had the greater need, and Nicolas agreed.
The starting point was to acquire the site. Nicolas took charge of this, and on the 20 January 1442 he acquired the Tower of Lancelot near to the Cordeliers Convent. On the 4 March the Mayor of Beaune agreed to give up some of the adjoining roads, and after that there were further acquisitions of houses which would be demolished to accommodate the new buildings. From a financial perspective the hospital would require an income once completed, and Nicolas provided funds from the salt production at Salins. He also persuaded the Duke to exempt the hospital from all taxes. For my part, I was in charge of the internal layout and requirements for the hospital. A further request to the Pope granted me the right to visit any other convent or religious institution to gather ideas for how best to proceed. Even convents who obeyed a vow of silence, received a dispensation to converse with me on the subject!
The ceremony to commemorate the foundation of the Hospices de Beaune took place on Sunday 5th August 1443. A gathering of notables was seated in front of a small crowd, and Nicolas read out the Charter. The company of archers that provided permanent protection for Nicolas, was stationed near the Parliament building. He talked about exchanging his worldly goods for a divine blessing and the saviour of his soul. He perhaps did not think that my soul was in need of saving! His generosity towards the poor, would be recognised by a distribution of bread that would take place every day at 08.00 at the door of the hospital. The building of the Hospices would take four or five years, and the buildings would be worthy of his status and intentions. The hospital would receive the poor of both sexes, who would be treated without any requirement for payment. When he had finished reading the Charter, everyone moved to the site of the future buildings, and the first stone was laid.
From laying the first stone to opening the doors took a total of 8 years. The Hospices de Beaune opened on the 1 January 1452. At a time when a poor persons life was often not worth living, the starving and sick were taken off the streets, and looked after in a comfort that they had not previously known. We decided that everything should be of the finest quality, the linens for the beds, the instruments and medicines for their care, and the latest methods of assuring their warmth in the cold months. The building was as imposing then as it is today, and word of its opening spread far and wide. The project had the support of the Duke, who donated wood for the timbers from his own forests without charge. Perhaps not such a major contribution in the scheme of things, but we did need a lot of wood!
Once it had opened, the Hospices became gradually more or less self sufficient. Other buildings nearby were acquired, one was converted into a cuverie to make wine for the hospital’s needs. There was a cellar for the storage of the wine barrels. Grain was stored in the large attics, and the mill of the Tower, provided the flour for the daily bread. In 1454 Philip the Good visited the Hospices, and said he wished to provide more support. He signed ordinances giving the Hospices a perpetual right to use the wood from his forests for heating, and also exempting the Hospices from the payment of tax from the sale of wine or other produce. He also granted the Hospices a right of protection against claims of the relatives of patients who had left their property to the Hospices as a thank you for its services. These rights were valuable for the future functioning of the hospital, and were put in place on the advice of Nicolas.
Nicolas died on the 18 January 1462 at the age of 86. He stayed mentally alert until the end, and finalised his testamentary intentions 2 days before he died. He was buried at the Church Notre Dame de Chastel, and the cover of his coffin was engraved with the words ‘Seule’, which had been ever present in our relationship from the day we married, almost 40 year earlier.
Q Thank you Guigone.