Duke Charles of Lorraine, Rene's father-in-law, was at war with King Charles VII of France who was also involved in the Hundred-Years War with England. England's ally in this was the powerful Duke of Burgundy, Philip the Good. Rene, when old enough to bear arms, joined the forces - including Joan of Arc - who were fighting for the King of France. When his father-in-law died in 1413 Rene inherited the Duchy of Lorraine. But a nephew of the deceased Duke also laid claim to this inheritance, with armed assistance from the Duke of Burgundy. That same year the contending parties met in battle at Buligneville, where Rene was defeated and captured. Duke Philip of Burgundy asserted his right to the valuable prisoner and took Rene to his fortress at Dijon.
During Rene's imprisonment his young wife Isabel proved to be a most skillful advocate on his behalf. She even succeeded in obtaining Rene's temporary release from his dungeon, on his word of honor to return at the stipulated time (which he doubly guaranteed by leaving his two young children behind as hostages in Dijon). Rene remained at liberty for three years but returned to the Dijon fortress in 1435, to wait there for another year before the Duke of Burgundy finally gave him his freedom in return for a substantial ransom.
Rene's interest in painting seems to date from the time of his incarceration at Dijon, where, it is said, he occupied himself with painting on glass and decorated one of the rooms in the castle. None of this work has survived, but there is a prayer book of Rene's from this period with a number of illuminations that already show some characteristics of his later style. There is also a legend to the effect that, at Dijon, Rene met the Dutch painter Jan van Eyck and became his pupil. Since van Eyck was employed in the service of the Duke of Burgundy at the time, this is a possibility. It may be a point where fairy tale and reality converge.
But reality now took a firm grip on Rene. His elder brother Louis had died in 1434, so that Rene now became the Duke of Anjou. In addition to the Duchy, his brother had bequeathed him a royal crown, for Queen Joan of Naples and Sicily had made Louis of Anjou her Co-Regent and heir and, after Louis' death, named Rene as his brother's heir. In 1435 Joan died while Rene was still imprisoned at Dijon. His wife Isabel must be credited not only with safeguarding his rights to Lorraine, Anjou, and Provence, but also with actively representing his claim to Naples and Sicily against Alfonso of Aragon's counterclaim. It finally became necessary for Rene to betake himself to his new kingdom in person. In the spring of 1438 he journeyed from Marseille to Genoa, an ally, and thence to Naples where he was joyfully received.
There followed four year of changing fortunes. His peaceful reign in Naples was constantly interrupted by battles with Alfonso, fought at various points in southern Italy. In the summer of 1442, Rene was forced to abandon Naples. For a time he sojourned in Florence and northern Italy, but in the fall of that year he returned to Provence. Thereafter, he was King of Sicily in name only.
He was now all the more able to devote himself successfully to ruling his French territories and, with these as his base, participate in the Renaissance game of high politics. His oldest son, John of Calabria, would continue to fight for the South-Italian kingdom; his daughter Marguerite married King Henry VI of England in 1445; his younger daughter Yolande and her husband had been given the Duchy of Lorraine. Rene's relations with his brother-in-law, Charles VII, were so harmonious that the French king even found his legendary love, Agnes Sorel, at Rene's court - she was one of Isabel of Anjou's ladies.
Those years of nearly unbroken peace from 1442 to 1453 presented, at last, an opportunity for the unfolding of the rituals of a princely household. Court was held at Rene's and Isabel's castles throughout Anjou and Provence, many of which had been newly restored and refurbished. Saumur on the Loire, cited in Rene's principal work as the very model of a fine castle, became the family's favorite residence.
It is during this peaceful decade that reality and fairy tale become difficult to separate: the wise administration of Rene's domains is historical fact, while the romantic surroundings Rene created for his court have the aura of a fairy tale.
It was the world of such knightly romances as the legends of the Holy Grail, of King Arthur's Round Table, of Tristan and Iseult, of the nine heroic knights. It was with such characters as these that the knights of the fifteenth century identified, and their world revolved around such concepts as might be found in the witty allegories of the Romance of the Rose, their classic love breviary. In addition to the usual festive gatherings at the various castles and the great mystery plays to which the public was welcome, the crowning occasions of knightly activity in peacetime were, of course, the great tourneys. Rene was tireless in arranging for these scenes of knightly combat, some of which (as with the great tourneys at Nancy and Tarascon) enjoyed such fame that they were immortalized by the poets.
His first book, in fact, was The Manual for the Perfect Organization of Tourneys, an actual handbook, and indeed no one was a better-qualified author. It was prepared during the late 1440s, about the time Rene's great tourneys were actually held. When it was reported to Rene that a noble lord of high degree had expressed himself disparagingly about the Duke of Anjou's new literary activity, saying: "It ill befits a prince to descend to such scribbler's work," Rene's comment was: "Such words might come more fittingly from a bellowing bull than a noble prince."
In all his undertaking, whether they concerned the sober administration of government business or the festive life of a knightly dream world, Isabel was Rene's helpmate. When death took his wife from him in 1453, he was inconsolable. His deep mourning for her may have played a part in his letting himself be persuaded to go to war in Italy once more, on behalf of his old claim to the throne of Naples and Sicily. Florence and Milan, fighting against Alfonso of Aragon (then ruling Naples), called upon the King of France for aid; he sent them Duke Rene in his stead. In midsummer of 1453 Rene went to Italy, but he returned to France in February 1454 though the Italian campaign had not yet been decided one way or the other.
For Rene, the time of battle and political ambitions was now over. His second wife, whom he married in September 1454 in Angers, was Jeanne of Laval, the daughter of a Breton nobleman. She was twenty-four years younger than Rene, who was just forty-five. Again, that fairy-tale element in the story: the King secluded with his young wife in the quiet castle, writing and illustrating his books. For Rene actually stated at Angers and at Saumur, where his literary works came into being, almost uninterruptedly until 1471. Then he moved to Provence, taking his entire, carefully inventoried library with him. He died at Aix-la-Chappele on July 10, 1480.
Rene had provided for a fitting tombstone at the
Church of Sain Maurice in Angers during his lifetime.
Above the marble tomb was affixed one of his own large
paintings, showing a dying king on a throne.
The figure, holding scepter and orb, is halfway to being
a skeleton already, his crown threatening to slip off
the head leaning to one side.
This memorial was destroyed during the French Revolution. But the memory of Good King Rene is preserved in history and literature, not least by his own works.
Though his manual for conducting tournaments was a work of practical instruction in armed combat, his subsequent books were purely literary. The first two dealt with widely divergent subject matter: one was a pastoral love poem, the other a mystical dialogue about the vanity of all earthly things. The poem, Regnault et Jeanneton (created in 1454-55), about the love of a shepherd and shepherdess whose fictional names hardly disguise the fact that they stand for Rene and Jeanne, was a bridal gift to the author's young second wife. It was succeeded not much later by The Mortification of Vain Pleasure ( Le Mortifiement de Vaine Plaisance ), a dialogue carried on by the allegorical figures Fear of God ( Crainte de dieu ), Love of God (Souverain Amour ), Remorse ( Contrition ), Faith (Ferme-Foy), and Grace of God (Grace Divine), regarding the love of God as being the way to purge the soul of all earthly folly. We are sure of the date, although it does make the work seem oddly timed. Such thoughts might have been expected to arise immediately after the death of Isabel rather than after Rene's second marriage. But the months of warfare in Italy would hardly have provided the opportunity for creating such a work. We may certainly conjecture, therefore, that the plan for it originated during his time of deep mourning, though it was not completed until somewhat later under more favorable circumstances.