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The House Of Jacques Coeur In Bourges

( Originally Published Early 1900's )



Certainly Jacques Coeur, that citizen of humble birth, who, by his merit reached the highest dignity of state at an epoch when aristocracy reigned supreme, this man of genius, who, while creating a maritime commerce for France, amassed so great a fortune for himself that he was able to help towards the deliverance of his own country in supporting at his own expense four armies at the same time, was not one of the least important figures of the Fifteenth Century. Posterity has not always been just to this illustrious upstart: he should be ranked immediately after Jeanne d'Arc, for the sword of the Maid of Domremy would, perhaps, have been powerless to chase the enemy from the soil (which a cowardly king did not think of re, pulsing), without the wise economy and the generous sacri fices of him, who, at a later period, was abandoned by the king to the rapacity of his courtiers with that same ignoble ingratitude which he had shown to the sainte libertrice of the great nation over which he was so unworthy to rule.

Jacques Coeur was the son of a furrier, or according to some authorities, a goldsmith of Bourges. He was probably following his father's business when his intelligence and talents brought him into the notice of Charles VIL, who had been forced to take refuge in the capital of Berry on account of the English conquests. The king appointed him to the mint, then made him master of this branch of administration, and, finally, argentier, a title equivalent to superintendent of finance. Coeur, in his new and brilliant position, did not abandon commerce to which he owed his fortune; his ships continued to furrow the seas, and three hundred clerks aided him in bartering European products for the silks and spices of the East and in realizing a fortune. Always fortunate in his enterprises, ennobled' by the king in 1440, and charged by him with many important political missions, he probably did not know how to resist the vertigo which always seizes those of mean origin who attain great eminence. He exhibited an extraordinary luxury, whose splendours humiliated the pride of the noble courtiers, excited their hatred and envy, and contributed to his ruin. With little regard for the great services which he had rendered to the country, such as, for example, the gift of 200,000 crowns in gold at the time of the expedition of Normandy, the nobles only saw in the magnificent argentier an unworthy gambler, who should be deprived of his immense wealth for their profit. For this purpose they organized a cabal. Coeur was charged with a multitude of crimes: he was accused of having poisoned Agnes Sorel, who had made him her testamentary executor, of having altered money, and of various other peculations; he was also reproached for having extorted money for various purposes in the name of the king. . , ,

The sentence of Jacques Coeur was not entirely executed; he was not banished, but, on the contrary, was imprisoned in the Convent des Cordeliers de Beaucaire. Aided by one of his clerks, Jean de Village, who had married his niece, he made his escape and went to Rome, where Pope Calixtus III., at that moment preparing an expedition against the Turks, gave him command of a flotilla. Coeur then departed, but, falling ill on the way, he disembarked at Chio, where he died in 1461. His body was buried in the church of the Cordeliers in that island.

Of the different houses which Jacques Coeur possessed, the one considered among the most beautiful in all France, exists almost intact, and is still known under the name of the Maison de Facques Coeur, although it now serves for a hall of justice and mayoralty. This house, or rather this hotel, was built between the years 1443 and 1453, and cost a sum equal to 215,000 francs of our money. For its construction, Coeur, having bought one of the towers of the ramparts of Bourges, commonly called Tour de la chaussee, from the fief of this name, built on a level with it another and more beautiful tower, and these two towers served as a beginning for the manoir, which was called, in consequence, the Hotel de la chaussee. In building it they used stones taken from the old Roman walls of the town, which were on the site of the new hotel, and which had already been pulled down by virtue of a charter given by Louis VIII. in I22, by which, permission had been granted for building upon the ramparts and fortifications. At the time of the revision of the law-suit of Jacques Coeur under Louis XI, the hotel was given back to his heirs, who in 1552 sold it to Claude de 1'Aubespine, secretary of state. By a descendant of the latter it was ceded to Colbert in 1679; Colbert sold it again to the town of Bourges on January 30, 1682, for the sum of 33,000 livres. Jacques Coeur's house was therefore destined to become a hotel-de-ville, and, as we have said, still exists today.

The plan of the building is an irregular pentagon, composed of different bodies of buildings joined without any symmetry, according to the general disposition of almost all mediaeval civil and military buildings. The large towers are Jacques Coeur's original ones. One was entirely reconstructed by him with the exception of the first story, which is of Roman work, as the layers of brick and masonry indicate; the other, on the contrary, received only its crown and a new interior construction, and, like the first, was flanked by a tower destined to serve as a cage for the stairway. The court of honour is vast, and arranged so that it was easy to communicate with the different parts of the hotel.

The facade is composed of a pavilion flanked by two wings. Following an arrangement borrowed from military architecture, two doors were contrived, the little one for the foot-passengers and the large one, which was the door of honour, through which the Cavaliers entered. Both had pointed arches and were ornamented with an archivolt with crockets. One of them still possessed, until about a dozen years ago, its ancient sculptured panels and ornamental iron-work. Above these doors is a large niche with very rich ornamentation, which originally sheltered the equestrian statue of Charles VII. On its right and left is a false window, in which you see the statue of a man-servant in the one and that of a maid-servant in the other, both in the costume of the period. Above this niche the wall is pierced by a large window with four panes, whose tracery reproduces hearts, armes parlantes of the proprietor, and a fleur-de-lis, a sign of his recognition by King Charles. A cornice of foliage forms the top of the wall of the pavilion, which is crowned by a very high roof with four sloping and concave sides. Upon the front and back faces of this roof is a large skylight-window and on its lateral faces, a stock of chimneys. On the summit of the roof is an imposing ridge which ends with two long spikes.

The back of the pavilion is exactly like the front, with the exception of a statue of Coeur corresponding to that of the king. To the right of the pavilion there rises an octagonal campanile of great elegance; at its base is a balustrade in whose open-work runs a phylactery, carrying the motto, which is frequently repeated in the building and which characterizes perfectly him who adopted it:

A vaillans coeurs rien d'impossible.

Notwithstanding the mutilations to which the house of Jacques Coeur has been condemned by its fate, it is certainly one of the most interesting and best preserved of all the civil buildings of the Middle Ages. A vast amount of information regarding the intimate life of the people, which has so great an attraction for the archxologist, is to be found here. If the fact that the study of buildings should be the inseparable companion to that of history was less evident, the house of Jacques Coeur would afford us an opportunity to demonstrate the truth; in reality, when we have studied this building we certainly gain a much clearer idea of the manners of Charles VII's reign than could be obtained from a host of lecturers upon history.



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