From Tales of Humour, Anonymous, London: Burns and Oates; New York: Benzigers; undated (c. 1890); pp. 149-160.
AN ANECDOTE OF ALICE OF BURGUNDY
“My good lords, give entertainments, and all the shopkeepers will bless you.” — FUSELIER. The Fair of St. Laurence.
THE Princess Alice of Burgundy, widow of Henri le Debonnaire and Dowager-duchess of Brabant, was a noble lady, yet it was with some difficulty that she obtained the guardianship of her sons, and the government of the duchy.
Henry of Thuringia, brother of the deceased duke, and Henry of Gaesbeck, his cousin, would fain have possessed themselves of this office, which would have rendered them in some degree masters of the country; for the hereditary prince was deformed, sickly, and almost imbecile. But Alice, who had numerous partisans, succeeded in having herself nominated guardian, with only two counsellors: Godfrey, lord of Penvey, and Walter Berthold, lord of Malines, and they refrained from all interference in her administration.
Alice therefore exercised independent power, and though admired for her able management and uprightness, she yet made enemies on account of the exactions committed by her agents. These men disposed of offices for their personal emolument — a dishonesty common enough both before and since, and which is by no means unknown in the present day; they collected the revenues of the Duchess in their own name, and by extorting her subjects more 152 than was due, they were able to enrich themselves at the expense of the people. Complaints had often been made to the Duchess of these exactions, but she had paid little attention to them. Good and generous herself, she was unwilling to suspect the integrity of the men whom she had honoured with her confidence; and having, moreover, been brought up in the idea that the people were made only to minister to the pleasure of the sovereign, she did not attach sufficient importance to the popular grievances which were now becoming the source of serious animosities. Let us not, however, be too severe upon Alice of Burgundy; she only acted in accordance with the opinions prevalent at that period. Not obtaining redress from authority, the people were disposed to take the law into their own hands, and a tumultuous assembly met in the cemetery of St. Gudule at Brussels, on the feast of the Ascension, in the year 1266.
Amidst the various clamours of the people, a young man offered his advice, by name Rochus van Velden, an armourer of the town, celebrated for his skill and artistic talent.
All the citizens of Brussels made a point of having their arms made by Rochus, not less on account of his great popularity than of his proficiency in his trade; the Duchess too had employed him to forge the armour for her three sons, Henry, John, and Godfrey. Thus Rochus van Velden, although as yet but six-and-twenty, had already become a rich burgess.
“My friends,” said Rochus, “it is true that the agents of the Duchess impose upon us, and our complaints are just, but they want support; there is too great a distance between us humble people and a sovereign duchess.
“Let us therefore address ourselves to some of those who by their dignity and learning are fitted to sit at the table of princes, and at the same time, in 153 their practice of the virtue of evangelical humility, may also be found in the cottage of the poor.
“Let us seek Thomas Aquinas, who is not only a saint and a doctor, but an intimate friend of the king of France, and also held in veneration by the Duchess Alice. He is fortunately close to us at this moment, for he is now, I am told, at the abbey of Afflighem: I am sure we shall do right in consulting him.”
The public voice coincided with the proposition, a deputation was immediately formed, of which Rochus was the leader, and that very day they set out for Afflighem.
THOMAS AQUINAS listened with great interest to the request of the good people of Brabant; his mediation in behalf of the oppressed was never sought in vain. Convinced of the truth of the axiom, that good is never properly done if it be deferred, he did not postpone till the morrow the assistance which was required to-day. Being unable at that time to go in person to Brussels, he gave Rochus a letter for the Duchess, full of the wisest counsels.2 He observed amongst other things that princes were chosen by God himself, not to seek their own advantage, but the good of the people; that complaints which are refused a hearing by persons in high station, will be one day brought against them at the tribunal of a just God; that the most humble subject of the Duchess ought to be equal in her eyes to the most elevated in rank; that he did not exculpate her from the guilt of the exactions committed by her agents; that she was to blame before God for allowing the persecution of the Jews; and finally he enjoined her, by the love of God, and the desire of her own salvation, to insist upon 154 restitution being made by her officers of everything which they had criminally extorted from the people.
The Duchess received this communication with feelings which did her honour. She did not for a moment resist its justice and truth; she read the letter twice over, and after meditating upon its contents, she sent for Rochus, thanked him courteously for the step he had taken, and dismissed him with an assurance that the grievances complained of should be redressed. She lost no time in commencing the work of reformation, and it was not long before she regained fully the popular affection which she had before lost.
Alice now determined to carry into execution a plan which she had formed; that of declaring her eldest son, Henry, incapable of succeeding to the duchy, and of causing John, her second son, to be proclaimed duke — a young prince distinguished for his goodness and talent, as well as for his great valour. It was he who afterwards became John I., John the Victorious, the Heir of Woeringhem, and who united Limbourg to Brabant. He early gave promise of what he afterwards became.
The project of Alice in setting aside the direct order of succession required the consent of the towns of Brabant; she reckoned on obtaining this with ease in every place, except at Louvain, which was openly adverse to her. Louvain was then the principal town of Brabant; and it was there that the States General were to be convoked, with a view to carrying out the proposed measure. But the population of this opulent town, consisting principally of woollen drapers, had become riotous and insubordinate; its rich inhabitants had for some time been divided among themselves by party feuds, but were now unanimously combined in their opposition to the Regent’s intention of altering the succession. Alice was afraid, under these circumstances, of fixing the 155 place of meeting at Louvain; she therefore appointed it to take place at Cortemberg, whither she invited the principal cities, at the same time politely requesting Louvain to send its representatives.
The assembly met on the 23d of May, 1267. Brussels, Anvers, Lierre, Tirlemont, Jodoigne, Lean, and Gemblona repaired thither; but Louvain did not send her deputies. Henry of Brabant declared, that desiring, on account of his infirmities, to retire to the monastery of St. Etienne de Dijon, he solemnly renounced all right to the sovereignty, and voluntarily yielded up the succession to his brother John.
With the exception of Louvain, all the barons of Brabant, and the representatives of every town, were present, as also the bishop of Cambray, the abbot of Afflighem, the abbot of Villers, the abbot of Parc, and Dame Isabelle, abbess of Nivelles.
On returning from this meeting of the states, Alice was still uneasy; she doubted the fidelity of Louvain.
Suddenly it occurred to her send for the armourer, Rochus.
“You,” she said, “who are so prompt in bringing warnings to us, and who are also, as we are aware, well disposed towards us; will you now, as a loyal subject, do us a good office?”
“With all my heart, Madam,” he replied.
If report tells true, you are acquainted with Veuloet, the rich draper of Louvain.”
“I am,” replied Rochus with a sigh.
“The cause of your sighing is known to us,” replied the Duchess, smiling. “You seek Ida, his only daughter, in marriage, and her father Veuloet does not sanction your addresses. Think you not, young man, that you are aspiring too high? Veuloet, however, esteems you, and does not reject your suit. If, therefore, you require any assistance in securing the object of your wishes, you shall have our patronage 156 and support after you have performed what immediately interests us. It is to go to Master Veuloet, who has confidence in you, as a man of good sense, and to endeavour to gain him over to our party. He is the most influential citizen of Louvain, and if he once acquiesce in our views, the whole town will immediately recognise the act of Cortemberg.”
“What you say is true, Madam; for the young Ida I would attempt the most arduous task; and, therefore, I shall unhesitatingly undertake the mission you propose to me.”
“You may rely on our protection,” said the Duchess; “and you yourself, in the event of success, shall specify the services you require at our hands.”
Furnished with instructions by the regent, Rochus forthwith set out for Louvain. He betook himself first to the Sire de Wesemacle, who was of the party of Louvain, and who enjoyed great credit and authority among the people. He held out to them the promise of special court favours, and by this means Rochus soon succeeded in gaining him over. He next proceeded to his task with Master Veuloet, whom he won over also by the following plan.
“Under a week and sickly prince like Duke Henry, whom you wish to succeed to the duchy,” said he to the draper, “we shall have neither court nor feasts, and you would stand no chance even of selling your cloths; whilst the Duke John is fond of pomp and display, he will give magnificent banquets and splendid entertainments, and will soon celebrate his own nuptials with becoming grandeur. Again, will you alone oppose the popular feeling in the duchy; and lastly, remember that many of the privileges of Louvain are doubtful, and the Duke John agrees to recognise them by a formal charter.” Master Veuloet was shaken and the armourer continued to urge him.157
“If the duchess employs so humble an individual as myself to confer with you, it is because she wishes to leave to you the honour and glory of restoring peace to the country.”
The diplomacy of Rochus triumphed; Master Veuloet brought over his fellow-citizens, and the people of Louvain gave in their adherence to the act of Cortemberg, declaring themselves as actuated solely by the desire of securing peace. Nevertheless, when Duke John made his entry into Louvain on the 29th of June of the following year, they took the precaution of procuring his formal signature to the charter which confirmed the privileges of the city, and had it vouched moreover by the signatures of Walter Berthold, of the Sires of Diest, and of Wesemacle, and even by the seal of the town of Brussels.
Satisfied with his success, Rochus, who knew himself sure of the heart of Ida, set himself to assault with greater vigour the less tender heart of Master Veuloet, who did not reject the suit of the armourer, but still abstained from giving him the direct assurance which he expected. At last he said to Rochus, —
“I am perfectly satisfied with your character and circumstances, and I approve of your intentions towards my daughter, especially as you have the promise of Alice’s patronage, which, of course, you will take care to secure. One thing, however, I have resolved upon, which is this: I am determined not to marry Ida until the day when the Duke of John’s own nuptials shall be solemnized.”
Rochus could only sigh and be resigned; but he repaired regularly every month to her father’s house to see Ida, the constant object of his affection; while his thoughts were perpetually recurring to the marriage of Duke John, — an event which seemed now to be near at hand.158
The Duchess had formed designs which accorded with the views of the Duke himself. She was aware of the need she had of external support; and Rodolph of Hapsburg, recently elected emperor, having come to Aix-la-Chapelle to receive the crown, the Duchess despatched her son thither, who, in doing homage to the new emperor, obtained from him in return a full confirmation of his title. This object attained, a high alliance was now sought for Duke John, and his mother demanded on his behalf the Princess Margaret of France, daughter of St. Louis.
The active friendship of Thomas Aquinas, who enjoyed the veneration of the king, obtained for the young duke the hand of that pious princess, the daughter of a sovereign whom all Europe regarded with admiration, and of a queen, who, both as a woman and a mother, was a model of her sex. This was in the year 1269.
The nuptial preparations were splendid; all eyes were turned upon them with delight; but no one rejoiced more sincerely than Rochus.
“Now then,” said Veuloet to him, “it is no longer I who will stand in the way of your union. Eight days after the Duke’s marriage, yours shall take place. All that is necessary now is to obtain the fulfilment of the Duchess’s promise. We are not persons to ask for a sum of money; it would be disgraceful! No, you will only ask of her race this simple favour: that the Duke John should be present at the ball which we shall give at my house on the celebration of your nuptials, and that he will open the ball by dancing with my daughter.”
“What a fancy!” exclaimed Rochus; “an honour so great and so unusual!”
“It is not the honour which I care about. It is simply an idea which I have a fancy to carry out. As I do not wish to cripple my resources by bestowing 159 a marriage portion upon my daughter, and as I cannot give her to you without a dowry, I have thought of a means of procuring it for you without prejudice to myself. This means is the ball. Lose no time, then, in obtaining the favour I have mentioned; the rest leave to me.”
The scheme of the rich draper was, in fact, this. Three years before, during the internal troubles of Louvain, Veuloet had fabricated, after a novel design, an immense quantity of cloth, which, however, had not met the public taste, and which, therefore, remained on his hands. It was a yellow cloth, dotted with innumerable little black spots. This extensive manufacture, the result of a whole year’s labour, had not been brought out for sale till such time as he thought he had sufficient to clothe the whole town; but, as we have said, it had not answered the sanguine hopes he had formed, and the enormous bales still remained on the shelves of his warehouse.
As soon as Rochus had succeeded in obtaining the promised favour, through the goodness of the Duchess, no less than the gaiety of the duke, who loved the joke, Veuloet selected a piece of the finest of the cloth, caused a complete suit to be made for the Prince, and had it conveyed to him in due form, with a request that he would be pleased to wear it at the ball; a condescension, he added, which would confer great honour on the town of Louvain, and insure its lasting gratitude.
John wishing, like other princes, to encourage industry, readily complied with this request. The worthy draper, leaving Rochus and Ida to enjoy the prospect of their approaching happiness, proceeded with the utmost alacrity in carrying out his proposed plan. He invited to the ball every person of any note in the town of Louvain and the neighbouring country, to the number of more than a thousand, 160 while he did not fail to announce at the same time the intended presence of the Duke at the festival, and his intention of wearing a complete suit of cloth of a new and elegant design: adding that it was absolutely necessary that all the guests should be attired in the same material.
This done, he caused the cloth to be publicly exposed in the various shops of Louvain. Many persons fancied indeed that they had seen the cloth before, but this recollection was soon effaced by the more absorbing thought that the Prince had chosen it for his ball-dress. Everybody purchased it. Everybody was dressed in yellow cloth pointed with black spots, and in this guise an immense multitude of guests appeared on the festal evening at the hose of Master Veuloet. Rochus had the honour of introducing his betrothed to the Duke, who received her with gracious courtesy; but who on looking round seemed surprised at seeing the whole assemblage arrayed uniformly in yellow and black. He appeared, however, to survey the scene with good-humour, and to be willing to let the good people of Louvain enjoy their fancy. The result so much wished for by the draper — viz., that the whole stock of cloth should be disposed of — was now attained, and the immense sum realized by the sale of it constituted the dowry of the beautiful Ida, whose youthful charms however would have been alone sufficient attraction for Rochus.
The ball-dresses never appeared after that day; the peculiarity of the material would have become a mark of singularity in the town, as belonging to the guests invited to the ball; nobody ventured to wear their clothes again. But what did this signify to Veuloet? he had skilfully played his part of merchant, and had pocketed the money. As for Rochus and his young spouse, all the accounts which come down to us represent them as having been prosperous and happy.
1 This is annonymous translation from the French tale number XXIV, “Une anecdote d’Alix de Bourgogne,” in Légendes du moyen âge, by Jacques-Albin-Simon Collin de Plancy, Henri Plon: Paris, 1863; pp. 213-228.
2 The very interesting Letter of Saint Thomas Aquinas to Margaret of Flanders, the famous Dominican friar, does indeed say the things summarized above, in essence. However, the translator states that the letter appears to have been written in 1271, to Margaret of Flanders, the Countess of Flanders not Adelaide (Alice, or Alix) of Burgundy, “Duchess of Brabant”. This date makes it too late to have been written to Alice of Burgundy (wife of Henry III, Duke of Brabant), before her son John’s marriage, as this story states, which occurred in 1270, to Margaret of France. I think that there is a great deal of confusion about the ladies in question. According to Wikipedia, John I, Duke of Brabant, married Margaret of Flanders after the death of Margaret of France in childbirth. However, since he was the Duke of Brabant, both of them were also called Duchesses of Brabant.
What is really astounding is that so little of Thomas of Aquinas’ work has been translated into English before this century. This is the only English translaton of this letter that I can find in this or any other century.