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Jacques Coeur, merchant: 1432-1451

The career of Jacques Coeur vividly suggests the opportunities open to an enterprising merchant in the 15th century. The greatest source of trading wealth is the Mediterranean, linking Christian markets in the west with Muslim ones in the east - known at this time as the Levant, the land of the rising sun.

Jacques Coeur enters this trade in 1432. He soon has seven galleys taking European cloth to the Levant and bringing back oriental spices. At Montpellier he builds a great warehouse to form the centre of his trading operation.

Agents promote Jacques Coeur's business from a string of offices which link the Mediterranean source of his wealth with the markets of western Europe. He is represented in Barcelona, Avignon, Lyons, Paris, Rouen and Bruges.

Rapid commercial success and a marked political talent soon bring Jacques Coeur influence in government. Master of the mint in Paris from 1436, he is put in charge of royal expenditure three years later. In 1441 he is ennobled. In 1442 he becomes a member of the king's council.

These are heady years in which to be close to the French court, as Charles VII recovers his kingdom in the closing stages of the Hundred Years' War. The king returns at last to Paris in 1437, the year after Jacques Coeur's appointment to head the royal mint in the capital city. When Charles wins Normandy in 1450, he is financed by a large loan from his commercial friend. Jacques Coeur enters Rouen in pomp and ceremony beside the king.

Meanwhile in Bourges, where for so many years Charles VII held his court, the merchant has built himself a house fit for a king. The Palace of Jacques Coeur, still surviving, is a spectacular example of 15th-century domestic architecture.

Such conspicuous wealth and power in an upstart brings its own dangers. Jacques Coeur has lent large sums to many in court circles. Greed and envy alike prompt his ruin. The king is persuaded that Jacques Coeur is guilty of various financial crimes and may even be responsible for the death of Charles's mistress, Agnès Sorel, in 1450.

Jacques Coeur is arrested and imprisoned in 1451. He escapes two years later and makes his way to Rome to serve the pope. All his possessions have been confiscated. Nothing survives of the mighty merchant's kingdom. Jacques Coeur's story reflects the dangers of the age - but also, even more abundantly, its opportunities.

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