René of Anjou, the Good King of the Provençals

Homme riche et puissant de la fin du Moyen-âge, René Ier d’Anjou compte parmi les personnages historiques les plus appréciés des Provençaux.

King of many crowns, but without a kingdom, warlord and prince patron, this complex and fascinating man is as much a part of history as he is of Provençal folklore.

René of Anjou, a well-born man

René was the son of Louis II of Anjou and Yolande of Aragon, daughter of King John I of Aragon. This powerful family, related to the King of France and allied with the Dauphin during the Hundred Years’ War, owned many lands and crowns, particularly in northern France, Provence and Italy.

During his lifetime, René accumulated noble titles and held several crowns himself. Initially lord and count of Guise (1417-1425), he became duke of Bar (1430-1480) and duke consort of Lorraine (1431-1453), king of Naples (1435-1442), duke of Anjou (1434-1480), count of Provence and Forcalquier (1434-1480), and finally titular king of Jerusalem (1435-1480) and of Aragon (1466-1480).

Unhappy in war, he did not manage to establish himself in Italy and only kept the titles attached to these kingdoms. He settled in Aix-en-Provence in 1472, and held court there until his death in 1480. Rich and literate, and a lover of the arts, Good King René offered Provence a period of peace and prosperity, of which the collective memory has kept an idealised memory.

Benefactor of arts

René I of Anjou gathered many artists around him. Troubadours, singers, actors and poets met in Aix-en-Provence, where he held court. This patron also maintained a theatre company at his own expense. This cultured man himself spoke several languages and composed poems. He was the author of the Livre du Cœur d’Amour épris (The Book the Besotted Loving Heart), an illuminated work that tells a chivalrous love story. King René also enjoyed painting and gardening. Curious and erudite, he was also interested in science, particularly biology and medicine.

Fascinated by the high ideals of chivalry, King René rehabilitated the Order of the Crescent. Only the best born men of impeccable behaviour could be inducted. The Duke of Milan Francesco Sforza was a member.

Statesman and great builder

But this lover of the arts also established himself as a valuable statesman. He initiated major irrigation works in the Luberon and the Durance valley, built the Bonde dam, renovated the port of Marseille and set up a commercial court managed by the merchants themselves. The Provençals returned to peace and prosperity after the ravages of epidemics, wars and brigandage.

Over the centuries, many authors and chroniclers contributed to enriching the biography of King René, adding anecdotes, true or imaginary, intended to praise his generosity.

His reign is all the more striking because it was followed by the annexation of Provence to the Kingdom of France. On his death, the county of Provence fell into the hands of the kings of France. This situation also certainly explains the special place that Good King René occupies in the hearts of the Provençal people.

In the footsteps of Good King René

Many places and tourist sites still bear witness to the reign of René I of Anjou.

Built at the beginning of the 14th century, the castle of Tarascon was the residence of the Good King René. An art centre in the heart of the castle bears his name, paying tribute to his patronage and love of all forms of artistic expression.

Near Gardanne, the hunting lodge known as the Pavillon de chasse du roi René has been entirely restored. It is surrounded by a park, and is a starting point for many walks in the heart of the wooded hills of Provence. The work of the sculptor David d’Angers, it pays tribute to this remarkable character in many ways.

In Aix-en-Provence, a statue was unveiled in 1819 at the top of the Cours Mirabeau. You can see it when you visit the city.

The Château de Peyrolles, a former possession of the archbishops of Aix-en-Provence, belonged to René d’Anjou between 1475 and 1480, who sometimes took refuge there in search of coolness and tranquillity.