Quicksilver by Princess Michael of Kent
This is the last volume in Princess Michael of Kent’s Anjou Trilogy. It is also the best, for the royal historian has added another layer to her chronicle of 16th century France: a detective story. An earlier popular historian and Golden Age crime novelist, Josephine Tey, turned sleuth and sowed doubts about Richard III’s guilt in killing the princes in the tower in her masterpiece The Daughter of Time. Princess Michael instead investigates the murder of the beautiful Agnès Sorel, Charles VII’s mistress.
We learn in the epilogue that in 2004 Agnès’s tomb was opened, and a toxicological test carried out on the 28-year-old’s hair revealed a huge concentration of mercury. Who could have wished the angelic and much-loved girl ill? Queen Marie, Charles VII’s wife? Antoinette de Maignelay, Agnès’s alluring and manipulative cousin, who had amused the king while Agnès was suffering through a bad pregnancy? Queen Marie’s faithful doctor, Poitevin?
The one person whom we know to be innocent is in fact the one accused, and imprisoned, for the murder: Jacques Coeur, a self-made millionaire, brilliant merchant and doting friend of young Agnès. It is Jacques who narrates the book, and his rise and fall, from young entrepreneur through cherished courtier to crusader, is played out against a vast and vivid backdrop.
Jacques travelled widely (chewing on garlic to keep seasickness at bay) to collect the beautiful objects his wealthy patrons desired. From Alexandria, Naples, Cyprus, the Levant and Rome, he brought back to Provence rare gems, luxurious tapestries and ancient glass, even, in the novel, a cheetah called Vitesse. (But the Muslim slave stowaway, who converted to Christianity in order to escape his owners, was forced back on land – no Christian ship has the right to take on board a Muslim slave.)
In Rome, Jacques becomes a friend of Pope Nicholas V, a wise and generous man. This was a dark time for the Church, with two competing factions pledging allegiance to two competing popes – Nicholas and Felix V, elected at the Council of Basel in 1439. Although the seat of Avignon had disappeared, in Switzerland Felix was determined to be recognised as the rightful heir to St Peter. He was a complicated figure – a Duke of Savoy who fathered 11 children, became a reclusive monk when his wife died, and was never ordained. His meeting with Jacques is beautifully rendered: the two men sip rosehip and cherry sherbet while discussing the split in Christendom and the advancing threat of the Ottomans.
It is the other pope, Nicholas V, who delivers what Jacques has come for: a letter of indulgence for his friend Agnès. She may be an adulteress, but the pope is ready to forgive her. He gives Jacques a letter that can be produced on her deathbed. The theology may be dubious, but the humanity of the ancient pope forgiving the lovely royal mistress makes for a great story.
Like the previous two books in this popular trilogy, Quicksilver luxuriates in historic details: the stomach skins of martens are used to line a duke’s coat; the alchemist’s motto, Faire, dire, taire, is carved and repeated on the walls of a merchant’s home; aristocratic women’s eyebrows must be plucked until their arc is as thin as the line drawn by a quill. We also meet again some of the characters – real, historical figures – who featured in the first two volumes: The Queen of Four Kingdoms and Agnès Sorel: Mistress of Beauty. The mad Charles VI, the lovely Agnès Sorel, the wise and powerful Yolande d’Anjou; the Maid, Joan of Arc, also makes an appearance. Princess Michael has written before of how the extraordinary Yolande promoted the young visionary, helping her win over the Dauphin after the disaster (for the French) of Agincourt.
In Quicksilver we are given more tantalising glimpses of this tragic figure: pious, pure, and totally inept when it comes to dealing with the sophisticates at court. Joan’s immense popularity among the soldiers and ordinary people, her magnetism – when she appears on the battlefield, astride her white horse, “all fell silent and no one stirred” – and her peculiarities (the man’s clothes, the streak of vanity, the obtuseness in dealing with the king who ultimately betrays her) are beautifully rendered in what amounts to a quick character sketch. I wonder if, now that she has completed her trilogy, the royal historian might not try her hand at bringing to life la Pucelle.
Agnès, Princess Michael’s ancestress, was lucky to have a descendant determined to avenge her posthumously. Joan the saint and martyr surely deserves the same.