The name of Henri III of France’s first buffoon is Sibilot. This word, employed as a synonym for fool, was originally used for eiders (baby geese). The fool borrowed it from the saviours of the Capitol, “because of his simplicity or silliness, which was like that of an eider”.
If the pamphleteers are to be believed, Sibilot is a monster, both morally and physically. There is nothing more horrible than this being, no-one more inclined to drunkeness and debauchery.
Henri III, who had a taste for the bizarre and the frivolous, and whom a whole menagerie is unable to keep amused, takes care of his hounds, his parrots, his lions and his bears, almost as much as his white penitents and his mignons. He is unable to content himself with only one fool, so he also has a female fool. She is the first female king’s fool in France, the famous Mathurine.
Mathurine was mixed up in a number of historical events. When Henri IV buys back his crown for the price of a Mass, and occupies his capital with no blow being struck, in the night of 22 March 1594, he goes, after the Te deum, to the Louvre, which he hasn’t seen since the Saint-Barthelemy massacre.
With tears in his eyes, he re-enters this ancient palace of his predecessors, so recently filled with the incendiary plottings of the Ligue. Suddenly, he sees coming towards him Mathurine the fool, who had remained in the Louvre, as if to guard it for its kings. She runs joyfully to greet her master.
Mathurine is still with her master when Jean Chatel tries to kill him. The assassin, who sneaks into the King’s presence without being seen, tries to stab him. He is aiming for the throat, but hits the face “on the top lip, on the right side, and cuts it and cuts a tooth”.
The instant that it happened, the King, feeling the wound and only seeing his fool Mathurine near him, believes at first that it is she who has attacked him: “May the fool go to the devil,” he exclaims. “She has wounded me!”
However, Mathurine’s presence of mind does not abandon her. She runs to lock the doors, so that the assassin cannot escape, “who, being seized, then searched, threw his still bloody knife on the floor, and was obliged to confess the fact with no other force”.
From that day, the King’s fool has great influence on Henri IV, who often gives her things which he refuses to the lords of his court. He admits her to his table and defends her against the mockers.
Although she is classed on the same rank as the animals and the servants, she has her part in the King’s Councils, and does not appear to have abused it.
One writer tells us of a strange place in the royal household reserved for someone known as the “King of the Debauchees”. He has the recognized right of jurisdiction over the women who “make commerce of their charms”. He is paid a tribute by bawdy houses, and all “public” women who follow the court, live in his home.
Dice-players, the owners of gambling houses and bordellos, and the public women of the court, each owe him two sols, which they pay him every week. He is like the grand master of prostitution, at a time when it is not yet very well reglemented.
Elsewhere, he is shown differently. He is an officer who looks after the king’s apartments as well as his household. The prince is no sooner in bed, than the said officer explores all the corners of the palace with a lighted torch, to be sure that no suspicious individual is hiding there.
And it is not so much thieves or assassins for whom he is searching. He is more likely to find some gallant, who thought himself safe from being surprised, in an unequivocal position. This must have been the original function which later became that of the King of the Debauchees.
The officer who fills this position, must be careful to expulse from the royal residences, any person foreign to the palace, man or woman, who has entered it. Vagabonds or prostitutes, he judges them regally, and has delinquents beaten with birches.
This charge must have been instituted, in principle, in the vast farms (villae) or agricultural and manufacturing exploitations owned by the kings of the Francs in diverse points of their empire, and whose revenues composed the principal riches of royal fiscality.
At the time, male and female serfs are not masters of their bodies, or their time. Their work, their health and their morals are protected by a tutelary authority.
Because they could have suffered from the unhealthy contact with women of loose morals or men with a communicable disease, like leprosy, the officer specially in charge of their care, forbids entry of intruders into the royal towns.
This officer does not yet have the title of King of the Debauchees, which appears for the first time in 1214. It is on the list of prisoners taken at the Battle of Bouvines, where a “King of the Debauchees”, to whom these prisoners are handed over, is mentioned.
Ninth and last part (including more on the King of the Debauchees) tomorrow.