Authors: HRH Princess Michael of Kent
Also by HRH Princess Michael of Kent
The Serpent and the Moon
Crowned in a Far Country
Cupid and the King
An Historical Novel
HRH Princess Michael of Kent
Constable • London
Constable & Robinson Ltd
55-56 Russell Square
London WC1B 4HP
First published in the UK by Constable,
an imprint of Constable & Robinson, 2013
Copyright © HRH Princess Michael of Kent 2013
The right of HRH Princess Michael of Kent to be identified as the sole author of this work has been asserted by her in accordance with the Copyright, Designs & Patents Act 1988
All rights reserved. This book is sold subject to the condition that it shall not, by way of trade or otherwise, be lent, re-sold, hired out or otherwise circulated in any form of binding or cover other than that in which it is published and without a similar condition including this condition being imposed on the subsequent purchaser.
A copy of the British Library Cataloguing in Publication
Data is available from the British Library
ISBN 978-1-4721-0845-6 (hardback)
ISBN 978-1-4721-0847-0 (ebook)
Printed and bound in the UK
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Jacket design & typography ©
; Jacket photograph © Malgorzata Maj / Arcangel Images
For my mother, Marianne Szápáry, who had the courage and intelligence of her ancestor, Yolande d’Aragon.
This book began with my wish to tell the true story of Agnès Sorel, a girl born in fifteenth-century France. She became the mistress of Charles VII, the king crowned with the help of Joan of Arc, and came to my attention as the mother of Charlotte de France, legitimised and beloved half-sister of the next king, Louis XI.
In my last book,
The Serpent and the Moon
, Charlotte de France appears briefly as the wife of Diane de Poitiers’ father-in-law, Jacques de Brézé. When he caught his wife
with his Master of the Horse, he ran the couple through with his sword ‘at least one hundred times’, it was said at his trial. Contemporary chroniclers wrote that Charlotte was as beautiful as her mother Agnès Sorel, a name which meant nothing to me at the time but, intrigued, I began searching for her story. It was during this process that I discovered the remarkable Yolande, ‘The Queen of Four Kingdoms’, and the subject of this book.
My manuscript, decreed too long, became two books – the first dedicated to Yolande’s story, the second to that of her pupil, Agnès. Both stories included frequent appearances of a remarkable man whom Yolande had met on her first visit to Bourges in central France. Jacques Coeur was a young merchant of the town; curious, intelligent, enterprising, charming. She marked him well and found in him a reliable friend and then a most essential asset – to herself, her family and especially to her son-in-law, Charles VII. Through his genius and business entrepreneurship, Jacques Coeur became the richest man in France – a dangerous position in an absolute monarchy and one which had dramatic consequences! The twists and turns of his story involve most of the characters in the first two volumes. The wars with England continue as well as the contradictions of treachery/loyalty; cruelty/kindness. His story is too long and intense to be excluded from either the first or second volumes. On the advice of fellow writers, I decided to make him the subject of the third volume.
It was only in the last three years that I learned – through a pathology analysis by a well-known medical expert – that a principal character in my story was found to have died full of poison, and felt the need for some historical improvisation. Difficult to solve a crime some 550 years later! Nor would I claim to have done so, but there are a number of possible clues and much circumstantial evidence that point to a potential villain, at least in the eyes of an unimpeachable character. If the reader agrees with him, then we have found the murderer, but I am afraid the story only ends within the last pages of the third book!
s the early-morning sun reaches the tops of the towers of Saragossa, the time has come for Yolande, only surviving child of the King of Aragon, to leave her home, and her country, to marry the French king’s cousin, Louis II, Duke of Anjou. By this union, it is hoped her people and his will cease fighting over the Kingdom of Naples and Sicily, which both Aragon and Anjou claim as their inheritance. She is nineteen years old and beautiful, they say – but flattery is commonplace in her world and she pays it no mind.
‘Juana, dear one, help me dress carefully,’ she asks her companion – once her nursemaid, then her governess, now her closest confidante. ‘I want everyone here to remember me as I look today. Who knows if I will ever return?’
Juana fiddles nervously with the ties on Yolande’s bodice. Perhaps she, too, doubts that her mistress will return.
‘I thank the Lord that you are coming with me to Provence, dear Juana. I will need your dear familiar face in my new life.’
‘You should thank your mother – it is she who is insisting I go with you.’ Her tone is not exactly joyful.
‘I wonder what it will be like, our new home.’
Juana knows that Yolande is musing to herself, since she has no more idea than her mistress of what awaits; she also knows that her charge is more curious about her betrothed than about the lands of which he is the ruler.
‘You must be excited, my treasure,’ she murmurs comfortingly as she starts to braid the girl’s long blonde hair. ‘After all, you have been waiting for this moment for nine years.’
It is true; it has been a very long engagement. Yolande sighs and tries to hide her anxiety.
‘Yes, and he may well look like a frog; portraits can be misleading . . . Perhaps he has even been disfigured in some way, fighting for so long in Naples for his crown.’
‘Then our spies would have told us. Stop fretting. Think only of the advantages you will bring to Aragon by this marriage.’
Yolande smiles and thinks:
Juana always talks like this – as if she were a great old sage when she is only ten years older than me.
Juana’s capable hands do their work and calm Yolande a little. But still . . . half of her is excited by the journey, while the other half shrinks from it. How can she be a good, dutiful wife to a man whose subjects have been fighting her countrymen for years? She takes comfort in the sight of her wolfhounds, Ajax and Hector, stretched out by the fire. They will come to France with her. Never leaving her side, they answer only to her call.
‘Do you think they may still be permitted to sleep by my bed as they have always done?’ she asks
‘I hope so.’ Juana smiles. ‘That will depend on your husband, won’t it?’
Juana stands on a stool to help the princess into a white linen chemise, her riding habit of brown serge, a white shirt with frills showing at her neck, and a dashing broad-brimmed hat the colour of sand, pinned up on one side, trailing a red ostrich feather. She might not listen to flatterers, but since early childhood Yolande has been conscious of her appearance – and rather vain.
She turns around to gaze at her room, the cradle of her life until this day – the comfortable furnishings, the bright reds and blues of the large Agra carpet, the table where she sat daily at her lessons, the high bed with its red velvet curtains and huge pillows, the view from the tall windows across the plains towards the distant hills. As yet, the sun touches only their peaks. She takes one last look at her room, whispers, ‘Goodbye, sweet childhood’, and blows a little kiss as she opens the door, Ajax and Hector at her heels.
Downstairs, her mother is waiting with the ambassadors from Anjou who will accompany her on the journey. Juana senses the girl’s reluctance and takes her arm. Although Yolande is normally afraid of nothing, she is glad of the familiar touch.
As Yolande d’Aragon descends into the Great Hall of the castle, she can smell the heady scent of amber on burning logs, and sees her mother beckoning her into her private chamber. The Queen of Aragon is as tall as her daughter and worn thin from anxiety, having ruled Aragon alone for the past six years, ever since her much older and dearly loved husband died here in her arms. The queen still retains her proud features: the intelligent eyes, fine nose and sharp jaw line; she is a mature forty, well past her childbearing years, and never had any intention of remarrying.
‘My darling child, come sit with me for our last moment alone together before we greet the ambassadors and your escort.’ With a sweet smile that belies her firm grasp, she takes her daughter by the hand. Yolande is the only one left of her three daughters, and it is hard to see her go.
‘I have dreaded this moment – and yet I rejoice in it too,’ she confesses. ‘I came here to Aragon from the royal house of France to marry your father, and now you are to be married back into France, to the king’s cousin.’ And she sighs as if she is thinking of her homeland. She has not set foot there since her wedding.
Yolande remains silent, looking into her mother’s eyes as if to read her mind.
‘I know you are aware of this, my darling, but as your mother, it is my duty to say it again, for the last time. Never forget the purpose of this union – to bring an end to fifteen years of fighting between Aragon and Anjou.’
, thinks Yolande,
trying to keep me a little longer by telling me what I have heard over and over since my betrothal so long ago
– and she smiles despite feeling her tears gathering. Her mother continues.
‘As you know, I have corresponded with your bridegroom’s mother for nine years now. I feel I know her – and her son – through her letters, and because of this, I have no anxiety about your future family.’ Suddenly she clasps Yolande tightly. ‘But do not forget your home and all whom you love here, and fill your life with that dedication and spirit I have tried to instil in you.’
Yolande is torn between sadness and excitement, and she finds that she cannot say anything. Her mouth is dry and she presses her lips tightly together to stop herself from crying out. Her mother kisses her, then holds her away from her and gives her a long, searching look. They both know it is their last private moment. Then they leave the room and go out to face their futures – her mother’s here, alone, and Yolande’s in a foreign country.
Tall, blonde, and confident in her beauty, the Princess of Aragon takes a deep breath, fixes her smile and greets the fine dignitaries from Anjou one by one; bowing slightly to each as she meets their eyes, trying to read them, her hand and voice steady until she reaches the end of the line. There stands her remarkable mother, head held high. They have said their goodbyes a dozen times this morning, but now, in full view of the court and the ambassadors, they embrace again, tears running down their cheeks, and her mother says proudly for all to hear:
‘It pains me to see you leave, child of my heart, but never forget, you are part Valois through my family, which makes you half French already. To marry into the royal house of France is your destiny, just as it was mine to leave France and become Queen of Aragon. Remain true to your heritage; fulfil your father’s dream of reconciliation between our two lands. May he rest in peace, knowing that through your marriage, the endless, fruitless wars between Aragon and Anjou will be over.
‘Beloved daughter, go on your way with my blessing. Write often and put your staunch and joyful heart into all you do. I know you will not disappoint the memory of your father who loved you dearly; or me; or Aragon.’
And Yolande curtseys to her slowly, her head lowered, whispering words of commitment and love.
The royal escort is impressively large and would normally fill her with curiosity and delight, but today her heart is aching. Ajax and Hector bark loudly as if they too are bidding their home farewell, running in circles around her horse with excitement.
She turns back time and time again, until she can no longer see those familiar towers of Saragossa.
uring the days of the slow journey towards her wedding in Provence, riding over fields and through forests, along streams and across rivers, meeting other travellers on the road, Yolande finds it hard to hold back the flood of childhood memories. In particular, she remembers the long-ago events that, years later, would set her on this journey.
She can still hear her mother’s voice calling from the parapet of their great fortress of Montjuic at Barcelona: ‘Yolande! Yolande!’ and again, ‘Yolande! Child, where are you? The ambassadors from Anjou are here!’
Even at the tender age of seven, Yolande considered herself an adult, and knew that she had to behave as a young lady to make her parents proud of her. Tall for her age, she stood one step beneath where they sat on their thrones. The first ambassador addressed them with a low bow.