Blood Royal

A True Tale of Crime and Detection in Medieval Paris


By Eric Jager

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A riveting true story of murder and detection in 15th-century Paris, by one of the most brilliant medievalists of his generation.

On a chilly November night in 1407, Louis of Orleans was murdered by a band of masked men. The crime stunned and paralyzed France since Louis had often ruled in place of his brother King Charles, who had gone mad. As panic seized Paris, an investigation began. In charge was the Provost of Paris, Guillaume de Tignonville, the city’s chief law enforcement officer — and one of history’s first detectives. As de Tignonville began to investigate, he realized that his hunt for the truth was much more dangerous than he ever could have imagined.

A rich portrait of a distant world, Blood Royal is a gripping story of conspiracy, crime and an increasingly desperate hunt for the truth. And in Guillaume de Tignonville, we have an unforgettable detective for the ages, a classic gumshoe for a cobblestoned era.


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IN THE 1660S, an unusual parchment scroll was discovered at an old château in the French Pyrenees. Thirty feet long and filled with small, neat script, the scroll had been lost for more than two and a half centuries. It was the original police report on a high-level assassination whose violent repercussions had nearly destroyed France.1

On a chilly November night in 1407, Louis of Orleans, controversial brother of the French king, had been hacked to death in a Paris street by a band of masked assassins. After knocking him from his mount, they split open his head with an ax, splattered his brains on the pavement, and stabbed his body to a bloody pulp before throwing it on a pile of mud and disappearing into the dark.

The crime stunned the nation and paralyzed the government, since Louis had often ruled in place of the periodically insane king, Charles VI. As panic seized Paris, an investigation began. In charge was Guillaume de Tignonville, provost of Paris—the city's chief of police. Knight, diplomat, man of letters, and man of law, he was also very likely one of history's first detectives.

Guillaume soon learned that behind the murder lay an intricate conspiracy. But who had plotted it? A jealous husband avenging one of Louis's flagrant seductions at court? A foreign power eager to sow chaos in France? The mad king, who had once drawn a sword on Louis and tried to kill him?

Over the next several days Guillaume solved the case, astounding the city all over again as the mystery behind the crime was revealed. Yet his official report—committed to the scroll—eventually disappeared, and with it many details. Now, in the 1660s, more than two hundred and fifty years later, it had come to light again.

The parchment scroll. "In the year of grace one thousand four hundred and seven…"

Like a torch ignited in the dark, the long-lost scroll revealed the gruesome facts of the assassination. It contained firsthand accounts of the grisly autopsy and the ensuing investigation as well as sworn depositions from shopkeepers, housewives, and other eyewitnesses who had seen the actual murder or the killers escaping afterward.

The parchment scroll also captured a great national calamity in the making. For Louis's murder had plunged France into a bloody civil war, leading to a devastating English invasion under Henry V, followed by a brutal foreign occupation that began to lift only with Joan of Arc.

Guillaume's inquiry took place hundreds of years before the advent of police detectives in the nineteenth century and the creation of the modern detective story by Edgar Allan Poe, Arthur Conan Doyle, and others. But literary murder mysteries are as old as Shakespeare's Hamlet and Sophocles's Oedipus Rex, whose title characters each pursue a criminal inquiry.2 And Guillaume de Tignonville's real-life investigation shows that one literary scholar is wrong to claim that "as long as the officially practiced, universally accepted means of crime detection was torture, the detective story was impossible."3 Indeed, Guillaume led the investigation with what an expert on medieval law describes as "a remarkable legal and scientific rigor."4

A brilliant sleuth, Guillaume directed the scores of officers and clerics under his command to examine the crime scene, collect physical evidence, depose witnesses, lock Paris's gates, and ransack the city for clues. The priceless scroll gives us a unique inside look at his investigation, conducted without modern forensic tools and mainly with shoe leather, intelligence, and a courageous pursuit of the truth.

There are some things we will never know about the case. The decadent court of the mad king swirled with scandalous rumors of adultery, poison, witchcraft, and treason. But the tattered scroll provides a rare window onto a turbulent week in Paris that changed the course of history, recording developments almost as they took place and before their huge, enduring consequences for millions became apparent.

The scroll also gives us a glimpse into the lives of ordinary Parisians who were going about their daily routines when they were suddenly caught up in great events. These people played small but crucial roles in the drama, speaking for themselves and in their own voices, as carefully recorded by the provost's scribes. Along with other surviving records spared by the teeth of time, the rediscovered scroll tells a story of conspiracy, crime, and detection that would be hard to believe were it not true.

This is that story.


The Provost

ONE DAY NEAR the end of October 1407, when Louis of Orleans had less than a month to live, a cart carrying two condemned men rumbled through the huge fortified gatehouse at the Porte Saint-Denis, across the wooden drawbridge, and into the northern suburbs of Paris.1 Behind the departing cart and its well-armed escort, above the great encircling wall, rose "the city of a hundred bell-towers," the largest metropolis in Europe, a mile-wide panorama of spires and steeples all reaching toward Heaven amid a smoky haze exhaled by tens of thousands of kitchen fires.2

Veering right, away from the freshly harvested vineyards covering the slopes of Montmartre in autumnal red, the execution party headed for another, more infamous hill to the east.3 The two felons in the cart, their hands bound and hemp nooses already around their necks, could see the grisly public gibbet looming before them as they lurched along an unpaved track toward the hill known as Montfaucon. They may have smelled it too—scores of blackened corpses dangled there, exposed to the wind and the sun, pecked and nibbled by the crows and rats that scavenged among the dead.4

Riding on his horse at the head of the somber procession was the provost of Paris, "superb in his furs and scarlet robes."5 He was followed by his lieutenant and his bodyguard, a dozen mounted sergeants known as the Twelve.6 Behind the sergeants rode a gray-cloaked friar who would hear each prisoner's last confession.7 Then came the burly executioner atop his horse, and behind him the rattling cart containing the two prisoners.8 After the cart came a troop of sergeants, some mounted, others marching on foot with wooden staff in hand.9

Following along behind the sergeants in a less orderly fashion was a crowd of spectators, larger and noisier than usual.10 Some of them had come because they had nothing better to do, simply for their own amusement, eager to watch the two hanged men struggle and kick their way out of this world and into the next. But others were there in protest, for the case involving the two men had aroused a good deal of controversy. Some, wearing the hooded robes of coarse black or brown woolen cloth that marked them as university men, were even shouting angrily at the provost and his officers, denouncing the imminent hanging. The prisoners, as if still hoping to be rescued during their short, final journey to the gibbet, loudly joined in, crying out, "Clergie! Clergie!"—"We're clergy!"11

The gradual upward slope of the ground soon turned steeper as the group began to ascend Montfaucon, or Falcon Hill—named for "the ghastly sight of those birds of prey plunging down on to crows and ravens as they flew away with gobbets of flesh from dead bodies."12 Shouts from the approaching crowd now competed with "the cawing of crows and the cries of birds of prey."

The immense gibbet towered some forty feet in the air above the hilltop, "a hideous monstrosity" visible for miles around and lurid with the whitewash daubed onto it from time to time.13 Sixteen massive limestone piers stood in a rectangular array on a raised foundation about forty feet long and thirty feet wide. Three separate tiers of heavy wooden beams held the weathered ropes and rusty chains that could suspend at least sixty bodies at one time. Even so, the continuous demand for space often kept the gibbet filled to capacity.14

Montfaucon. The huge public gibbet was the reputed haunt of sorcerers and body snatchers.

The place "was like an outdoor Chamber of Horrors" with its vast "crowd of skeletons swinging aloft, making mournful music with their chains at every blast of wind." In addition, "the remains of criminals previously beheaded, boiled or quartered were brought from all over France to hang in wicker baskets beside the people actually executed in situ." And "delinquents and blasphemers" were chained alive to the pillars, in the company of the dead.15

The odors of the grisly place and the cries of these unfortunates kept most people away, except when there was a hanging. And Montfaucon's evil reputation for body-snatching and sorcery ensured that almost everyone avoided it after dark. "Dabblers in black magic were reputed to steal and use not only the bodies of dead criminals, but also pieces of rope, chains, nails, and wood from the gallows."16 The gibbet, some said, was haunted by the Devil himself.17

The provost of Paris leading the procession that day amid the crowd's taunts and protests was a knight named Guillaume de Tignonville.18 Sir Guillaume, who had been appointed provost by the king, was essentially Paris's chief of police, although he also had the powers of a judge, district attorney, and head of the local militia. In matters of law and justice, the provost, "after the king, was the most important person in the city."19 As the king's top law officer, Guillaume was responsible for maintaining order, investigating crimes, presiding over the city's chief tribunal, and carrying out the sentences handed down there. Shortly after he took office in 1401, his powers had been further enlarged by a royal ordinance authorizing him "to do justice to all malefactors throughout the realm."20 In a civil emergency, Guillaume could close all the city gates, muster troops and post them in the streets, and call for the townsmen to arm themselves—with staffs, clubs, knives, or "whatever they had handy"—and keep watch in front of their houses, with big fires burning in the streets all night.21 He could also order great iron chains, specially forged for the purpose, to be stretched across streets throughout the city to prevent the sudden rush of invading enemy troops or mobs.22 He had wide civic authority as well, since a popular revolt in 1383 involving the provost of the merchants had prompted the king to abolish that office and grant its powers to the provost of Paris.23 Guillaume thus enforced the trade statutes governing silk makers, armorers, and other artisans' guilds, and he was responsible for garbage disposal and the half dozen or so leper hospitals on the city's outskirts.* 24

Besides his personal bodyguard, the Twelve, Guillaume commanded several hundred police sergeants as well as scores of clerics who made and kept the official records.25 There were two kinds of sergeant: the sergent à verge, or tipstaff, who "did the local work," patrolling the city on foot; and the sergent à cheval, a mounted officer who "went further afield, both as a policeman and as part of the town's militia."26 All had the power to make arrests, though some were as dishonest as the criminals they pursued, even to the extent of acting as their accomplices. One officer reportedly "sent two or three fiddlers in advance of him, so that their noisy playing would alert wrongdoers to his approach."27 But Guillaume himself, said a chronicler, was "a very respected knight" with a reputation for personal integrity and aggressively enforcing the king's laws.28 As provost, "he refused to do many strange things he was asked to do, such as relaxing the demands of justice."29

In 1407, Guillaume was probably in his early to middle forties.30 Descended from an old noble family in the Loire, he had inherited his father's title, estate, and coat of arms—six gold macles on a field, gules.* 31 Wellborn, he also had great ability and drive. In 1388, when he was probably still in his twenties, Guillaume had ridden as a knight banneret, leading troops under his own command, in a royal expedition to the duchy of Guelders, in Flanders.* 32 In 1391 he was appointed a chevalier d'honneur and a chamberlain, one of the king's personal advisers. In 1398, he became a member of the royal council—the inner circle of royal relatives and close advisers around the king.33 A highly valued diplomat as well, Guillaume had served on important embassies to various cities in Europe, including Rome, Milan, and the papal court at Avignon.34 In the mid-1390s, Guillaume saw further military service during a one-month siege at Montignac, in the south of France, where he helped lead an expedition of "two hundred men-at-arms and one hundred and fifty crossbowmen" who had been sent to crush the robbers and brigands terrorizing the region.35 As a man-at-arms, Guillaume had battlefield courage and impressive skill with a sword as well as the toughness it took to ride all day and bivouac overnight. And as a well-traveled, well-connected royal official with years of experience at court, he was intimately familiar with the workings of the French government and the levers of power in general.

Guillaume served as provost at the king's pleasure and could be sacked at a moment's notice, but in the autumn of 1407, he had held office for over six years, a lengthy tenure suggesting his competence and success.36 No portrait or physical description of him survives, but his contemporaries praised him for his mind, character, and personal presence.37 "Of noble lineage," he was also "wise, knowledgeably and well spoken, and greatly valued by the king for his advice," says one source.38 Another says that he was "renowned for his mind and his knowledge" and that he spoke in "a loud, clear voice."39 In all, Guillaume seems to have been "a highly intelligent and cultivated man" with an "independent mind" who was "moderate in his politics" and, "above all, loyal to the king."40

Besides being a knight, diplomat, and officer of the law, Guillaume was also a man of letters.41 He was wealthy enough to keep a personal library, then a rarity, with books such as Aesop's Fables, an encyclopedia known as On the Properties of Things, and other works in Latin and French, all copied out by hand and bound in leather or heavy cloth.42 Like many educated noblemen, Guillaume had written some courtly verse.43 More unusually, he had also translated an originally Arabic collection of philosophical wisdom entitled Moral Sayings of the Philosophers from Latin into French, an achievement that had earned him a modest literary fame. The translation was probably completed around 1402, after he became provost. One of the stories collected in the book recounts how Alexander the Great once refused to pardon a man condemned to hang despite the man's claims of penitence. "Hang him at once," ordered Alexander, "while he is still sorry for what he did."44 A more measured quote found elsewhere in the text—"There is no shame in doing justice"—was particularly apt to the challenges faced by the provost.45

A man devoted to the law and to letters, Guillaume was evidently fond of courtly and literary society. His friends included the celebrated poet Eustache Deschamps, who had died just the year before, in 1406. Guillaume had also befriended Christine de Pizan, a rare woman in the male-dominated world of letters, supporting her defense of women in a famous literary quarrel over the Romance of the Rose and even helping her with legal advice.46

Guillaume had a wife named Alix and a daughter, and he lived with them in the city.47 As provost, he was provided with a residence at the Petit-Châtelet, a small château facing the river on the Left Bank, but Guillaume chose instead to live at his own house in the Rue Béthisy, not far from the Louvre—the huge square fortress guarding the western edge of Paris. Guillaume's house had once belonged to the lords of Ponthieu, a county north of Paris in Picardy. An imposing stone mansion, located in a prestigious quarter, it identified its owner as a wealthy, distinguished noble.48 At the end of a long busy day on the job—studying documents and writing reports, issuing orders to his officers, questioning prisoners and witnesses before his tribunal, or supervising a hanging—Guillaume probably went home with relief to his family and the neighborhood's quiet and comfort.

The two men whom Guillaume was leading to the gibbet that day were named Olivier François and Jean de Saint-Léger. Both claimed to be students at the University of Paris, and this was the reason their case had caused such controversy and protest.49

They had been arrested earlier that month, charged with "robbery and murder on the high roads." After their imprisonment, they had demanded "benefit of clergy," the right to a trial in a special ecclesiastical court.50 The university, known as "the daughter of the Church" because it answered to the pope rather than the king, enjoyed great independence in matters of law, as was typical of universities throughout Europe at this time. From its founding in the twelfth century, the University of Paris had been an independent corporation with its own royal charter granting it special rights and protections.51 For example, like priests and friars and monks and nuns, students and professors were considered clergy and thus were under the jurisdiction of the Church courts, a separate legal system distinct from the secular courts wherein laypeople were tried. There was a good reason for this: clerics tried in a Church court under the authority of the local bishop generally got more lenient treatment; even those convicted of capital crimes, including theft, murder, and rape, often got away with very light sentences or nominal fines.52

After arresting the two men, Guillaume had conscientiously "gone to the rector and officials of the university and offered them the malefactors charged in the case" for trial in a Church court.53 But the university, wanting nothing to do with these accused "murderers, thieves and highwaymen," or "infamous evildoers," as another source describes them, had washed its hands of the matter, refusing to acknowledge the two men as its own.54 Guillaume next went to the Parlement of Paris, the highest secular court in France, and requested that judges be appointed in order to try the case in that venue. The Parlement duly assigned several magistrates to hear the case. The two men were convicted and sentenced to hang.

Word of their condemnation angered their fellow clerics, who began to complain, raising a vociferous protest intended to rouse the university authorities to action. There were threats of a strike, which meant canceled classes and a suspension of preaching—an attempt to enlist popular support for the cause by withholding spiritual benefits from the people. But Guillaume had carefully followed the law in all of his proceedings, and he held firm in the face of the university's noisy opposition. The provost, wrote a monk, wished to demonstrate "that from now on, scholars and priests would be punished just like everyone else."55 In his account, the monk, perhaps fearing a new precedent, failed to mention that Guillaume had already given the university a chance to try the two clerics in its own court. But ordinary people may have welcomed the idea that no one was above the law or beyond its reach.

When the execution party finally reached the top of Montfaucon, Guillaume ordered one of his sergeants to unlock the sturdy gate in the wall surrounding the gibbet.56 The wall helped keep out wolves and dogs as well as the thieves who stole bodies from the gallows for medical or more occult purposes. The wall also discouraged friends or relatives of the condemned from visiting the site at night to cut down the bodies and give them proper Christian burials.

By now the stench of the place would have been overwhelming. Besides the odor from scores of rotting corpses swinging back and forth above whenever jostled by a breeze, a foul smell arose from the charnel pit below, where the remains of the dead were eventually thrown without ceremony to make more room on the gibbet.57 Some of the attending officers may have worn scent-soaked cloths over their faces to ward off the smell, although the two condemned men had to withstand its full, unmitigated force.

It was customary to allow the condemned to go to confession before they died, and now the friar in gray stepped forward to perform this office. Confession had not always been allowed to criminals prior to execution, a withholding of ultimate pardon that cruelly added spiritual torment to the physical agony, but attitudes had changed over time, and by the early 1400s, even felons convicted of capital crimes were allowed to put themselves right with God before suffering their sentences.58 Had not Christ himself forgiven the repentant thief on the Cross?

As the friar led the two men through their final confessions, "assistant hangmen tested chains" and "fixed the halters."59 When all was ready, the executioner prodded the freshly confessed felons toward one of the half a dozen "long wooden ladders" propped against the gibbet. One after the other, nooses looped around their necks, the two men were forced to climb.60

Once a condemned man reached the top of the ladder, he had to wait as the hangman tied the loose end of his rope to the beam. There were no blindfolds or hoods. What he saw in that moment—the gaping crowd below, the circle of sky above, the city's silvery spires in the distance—would have been his last living glimpse of this world.

Finally, he stepped off the ladder; if he did not, the hangman simply pushed him. In some cases, the sudden drop may have caused death, but such a mercy was by accident rather than design. Death by hanging, before the advent of more "scientific" methods centuries later, was often a slow strangulation rather than a sharp snapping of the neck.* 61

Eventually the wretched strugglings of the two men ceased, their bodies slack and motionless at last. They now had left the realm of the living to join the vast brotherhood of the dead. Their corpses would hang at Montfaucon for weeks or months, their eyes ripening into fruit for birds, their flesh rotting away, their bones bleaching white in the wind and sun—although popular belief held that hanged men could come back to life, as revenants, to haunt the living.62

Once the spectacle was over, the crowd began to drift away. Guillaume, his unpleasant task complete, ordered his men to lock and secure the gibbet's gate and then mounted his horse and formed up the procession, now smaller by two.

As Guillaume reined his horse around for the return trip, the whole city lay stretched out before him.63 Despite the macabre surroundings, the view from the top of Montfaucon was superb, revealing Paris in all its splendor: the great river streaming with vessels of all sorts and lined by shrines and palaces gleaming like polished ivory, the profusion of towers and spires soaring above the horizon, the neat circumference of wall around the whole.64 Huge and multitudinous, with as many as one hundred thousand inhabitants, the bustling metropolis that Guillaume was sworn to police and protect now beckoned him away from the smaller, desolate village of the dead.65

Fifteenth-century Paris. The view is from the north, with Notre-Dame on the left and the Louvre on the right.

His officers fell in behind him, followed by the friar, the executioner and his assistants, and, finally, the additional troop of sergeants. At Guillaume's signal, the group began to move, heading down the slope.

Guillaume had probably supervised many hangings during his six years as provost, even if he often left executions to his deputies. But this case was unusual in its accompanying uproar. As Guillaume led the procession back to the city, he may have suspected that he had not yet heard the end of the matter.

But whatever his private thoughts as he rode back to Paris, Guillaume could not have foreseen that a new and much bigger case would soon push the two hanged men right out of his mind. A far more sensational crime, with tremendous consequences for all of France, was about to break upon the astounded city, seizing the provost's full attention and that of all Parisians literally overnight.


The Châtelet

GUILLAUME HAD TO be on duty by seven o'clock each morning at his headquarters in the Grand Châtelet, about a third of a mile from his home in the Rue Béthisy.1 After rising early, perhaps to a servant's call, and dressing, he probably heard a Mass said by his chaplain or a cleric in his employ and then had a small breakfast with his family—"primarily bread, possibly with cheese, and some ale"—before leaving.2 To get to his destination, he could follow a series of narrow, winding streets to the east—many of them paved with carreaux, flat square stones—then turn right into the wider Rue Saint-Denis and jostle his way south, nearly to the river, through an early-morning crowd of carters, vendors, and shoppers.3 He could also take a less congested route, turning near his house and heading straight for the river, where he could then proceed east along the busy but more spacious quais.4 Walking beside the Seine, or riding his horse if he was in a hurry, and doubtless escorted by some of the Twelve, Guillaume would have had a splendid view over the water to the Île de la Cité, the city's main island and the oldest part of Paris.5

Along the bank of La Cité, as it was called for short, he would have seen the old royal palace, known as the Palais, its four imposing stone towers lined up like sentinels.6


  • Praise for THE LAST DUEL:

    "This high-suspense, sanguinary tale ensnares readers. . . . The tension is nearly unendurable. . . . Sex, savagery, and high-level political maneuvers energize a splendid piece of popular history."—Kirkus Reviews
  • "Jager provides an excellent depiction of feudal society, placing the reader into the lives of knights and nobles, detailing their relationships with each other and their lords. The ongoing Hundred Years' War and each man's role in it give this personal conflict its historical context. The story of the duel and the rivalry leading up to it make for quick reading as enthralling and engrossing as any about a high-profile celebrity scandal today."—Gavin Quinn, Booklist
  • "If you read only one book about the Middle Ages, Eric Jager's thriller is the one to read."—Steven Ozment, author of A Mighty Fortress and The Burgermeister's Daughter

On Sale
Feb 25, 2014
Page Count
336 pages

Eric Jager

About the Author

Eric Jager is an award-winning professor at UCLA and the author of many in acclaimed academic journals. He has also written three books, including the widely acclaimed The Last Duel, The Book of the Heart, and The Tempter’s Voice. He lives in Los Angeles.

Learn more about this author