Originally François de Montcorbier (aka de Loges), François Villon (1431 – unknown) was a French poet who was born in Paris. His father died while he was young and François took the surname of his guardian, Guillaume de Villon, a priest who may have been a close relative. Guillaume enabled François to study at the University of Sorbonne where he graduated (1449) and became MA (1452). While a student, he fell into bad company and began a life of crime.
In 1455, Villon was involved in a fight with a young priest called Philippe Sermoise. The cause may well have been a girl. He received a dagger wound but killed his opponent either with a sword thrust or by smashing a large stone onto his head (two versions exist). Villon was banished from Paris. He joined a criminal organisation, the Brotherhood of the Coquille, which had its own secret jargon in which Villon was to write some of his ballads. Pardoned in January 1456, he returned to Paris and there wrote Le Lais ("Legacy"), also called Le Petit Testament. His style was to grant a series of bequests, often humorous and sometimes sad. He was a master of satire.
In December 1456, Villon was involved in the robbery of 500 écus from the treasury of the Collège de Navarre in Paris. After being detected, he fled from Paris to escape punishment. Possibly he went to Angers at first but was later at Blois where he stayed on the estate of Charles, Duc d'Orléans. He was imprisoned there in 1457 for an unknown offence. On 19 December 1457, the birth of Marie d'Orléans resulted in a general amnesty for all prisoners in Blois and Villon was among those released. In 1458, he entered a poetry contest at Blois and wrote his Epître à Marie d'Orléans.
Villon is believed to have remained in the Loire Valley but there is little knowledge of his activities until the spring of 1461 when he was imprisoned by the Bishop of Orléans at Meung-sur-Loire for an unknown offence. He is known to have been jailed for several months and to have protested his innocence.
Villon's latest arrest occurred against the background of the apocalyptic Battle of Towton on 29 March 1461 (Palm Sunday) in what came to be known as the Wars of the Roses. A large Lancastrian force under the Duke of Somerset was annihilated by the Yorkist army of King Edward IV. The Lancastrian King Henry VI and his wife, Queen Margaret of Anjou, awaited the outcome in nearby York. The Lancastrians had to face a snowstorm and the overwhelming Yorkist victory confirmed Edward IV's position as ruler of England. It was certainly the bloodiest battle ever fought in Britain, with an enormous number of Lancastrians being massacred after their escape was cut off. Henry VI and Queen Margaret fled to Scotland. While no reliable image of Margaret has survived, contemporary reports agree she was a beautiful woman, albeit formidable and ruthless in her determination to defeat the Yorkists. It is believed she had numerous affairs and that her son Edward of Lancaster was illegitimate.
King Charles VII of France died on 22 July 1461 and was succeeded by his son Louis XI, the notorious "Universal Spider", who passed through Meung-sur-Loire on 2 October during his Royal Progress. This event traditionally occasioned another general amnesty and Villon was freed once again. Whether Villon and Louis XI actually met is unknown but highly unlikely.
After his release, Villon is believed to have stayed in the Loire Valley for another year, until October 1462, when his relations and friends obtained a conditional pardon for him which meant he could return to Paris. In the meantime, he completed Le Testament, in which he again employed his familiar bequest style but also incorporated numerous independent ballads into the work. Many of the ballads are believed to have been written years previously. One of the bequests is to a woman called Rose who has apparently betrayed him. He says she has left him no heart because she would rather have something else, namely enough money in a large silk purse full of écus.
Le Testament, also called Le Grand Testament, is certainly one of his greatest works. Villon expressed actual horror at the prospect of sickness, poverty and death; it is believed that he was afflicted by remorse, ill-health and destitution. The work suggests that he may have been suffering the onset of tuberculosis.
On 3 November 1462, just days after his return to Paris, Villon was imprisoned in the Châtelet for a minor robbery which breached the conditions of his pardon. His release was delayed by a demand for reimbursement of the money stolen six years previously from the Collège de Navarre. On 7 November, he was released after signing a guarantee to repay 120 écus within three years.
In December 1462, Villon is known to have had a room at the Porte Rouge hotel which was on or near the Rue St Jacques. He was out one evening with friends including Roger Dogis and Roger Pichart. About eight o'clock they reached the Convent des Mathurins on the Rue de la Parcheminerie. Here they saw a light in the window of one François Ferrebouc, a papal notary who had been part of the prosecuting counsel against Villon's friend Guy Tabarie in 1457 (Tabarie was certainly charged with the Collège de Navarre robbery but his sentence is unknown, though he was probably hanged). Pichart hammered on the shutters and shouted abuse at Ferrebouc and his colleagues. They came out, holding candles, and a brawl developed. Ferrebouc was wounded by Dogis' dagger after he had jostled him. It seems that Villon actually stood aside from all this but he was recognised by Ferrebouc. Next day, he was arrested and imprisoned in the Châtelet.
Part of Louis XI's policy was to take a hard line against criminals. He had recently appointed Jacques de Villiers as Prévôt de Paris in place of Villon's friend Robert d'Estouteville, who had been dismissed. On account of his extensive criminal record, Villon was summarily condemned to be pendu et étranglé (hanged and strangled). He made an immediate appeal. While he was in prison awaiting the result of his appeal, Villon wrote Quatrain and Ballade des Pendus. The latter is a classic by any standards.
In the early days of 1463, Villon's fate was decided after he had spent a month in prison. On 5 January, a parliamentary decree quashed the death sentence on him but with regard to his “evil life” he was banished for ten years from the city and environs of Paris. He was told that if he returned within that time he would be executed immediately. Villon asked for the sentence to be delayed so that he could say his farewells and “obtain some money.” By another robbery perhaps? He was given three days.
His last two known poems, written just before he left Paris, are La Cour de Parlement and Ballade de l'Appel.
Fate and legacy
On Saturday, 8 January 1463, François Villon left Paris and disappeared from history. He was 31 years old. It is not known where he went, what he did or when he died. It is possible that his health was poor and that he had few possessions. It is generally supposed that he died soon afterwards, perhaps on the gallows, but that is speculation only. There is a later tradition, recounted by François Rabelais in the 16th century, that he went to England.
The first printed edition of Villon's works was published in 1489. The Petit Testament comprises 40 octosyllabic octaves and the Grand Testament comprises 172, bridged by 16 ballads and other verse forms. Six of the known Coquille jargon ballads have been definitely attributed to him.
The above is a summary of the life and times of François Villon which was written by me some years ago as part of my research for a planned fiction project in which Villon becomes involved with other historical people. It has not been published before and I am happy for it to be the basis of a CZ article. John (talk) 10:41, 27 May 2023 (CDT)