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Jacques Cœur: his trade and his ships

L'escalier d'honneur du château d'Azay-le-Rideau

The palace's decorations bear witness to Jacques Cœur's taste for travel, as an adventurer and pioneer of international trade.

Jacques Cœur, an extraordinary merchant

Son of a pelletier Jacques Cœur acquired his trading skills early on. As a merchant to the king, he regularly saw foreign travelers arriving in Bourges to offer their wares.

He quickly decided to broaden his horizons and, tempted by adventure, sailed all the way to the Mediterranean to set sail for Levant in May 1432. Jacques Cœur was one of the first merchants in central France to make direct contact with Oriental trade. For this small bourgeois from the Berry region, this journey was one of study and prospecting, where he observed, obtained information and scouted before taking personal action.

In 1439, Jacques Cœur was appointed the king's moneyer. At the time, the role of silversmith was not that of minister of finance, as some people tend to believe. It was to supply the royal household with everything from clothing and crockery to jewelry and the luxury goods the court prized...

But between prospecting in the East and conquest, Jacques Coeur had to get organized: to master the sea, he needed ports and manned ships.

Plan Jacques Coeur et le commerce international

© Palais Jacques Cœur / Centre des monuments nationaux


So ports had to be found. At the beginning of the 15th century, France's Mediterranean coastline was very limited, covering no more than 150 kilometers. France had only three major centers on this sea: Aigues-Mortes, Narbonne and Montpellier. Jacques Cœur settled in the two main trading centers: Aigues-Mortes and Montpellier, whose port is called Lattes.

But ports without ships are nothing... Jacques Cœur wanted a fleet. He wanted, as he put it, "to give noise to the navigation of France".

Galleys (or galéasses) were the ships that usually sailed the Mediterranean in the 15th century. Documents on the argentier's ships provide only fragmentary information, and it's not easy to describe one of Jacques Cœur's galleys, or even to make an inventory of his fleet. Historians dispute the number of his galleys: Jacques Heers claims that his fleet consisted of " 4 ships, no more ", while Michel Mollat says that the number of his ships was " at least 7 ".

Two representations of ships can currently be seen in the Palais Jacques Coeur: a stained-glass window and a high relief. The stained-glass window shows a small nave with a round hull, a single mast and a large square sail inflated by the wind. Dated 1444, it is believed to be one of the earliest surviving examples of French stained glass in its entirety. The high relief gives a more accurate idea of the master of the house's ships, with oars and sails. The major problem of the day was finding the manpower to man the ships. On January 22, 1443, Jacques Cœur obtained from the king the right " to forcibly embark, for fair wages, idle and vagrant persons and other caimans found in the ports".

Jacques Cœur expanded his business considerably, setting up counters and letter carriers everywhere. In the heyday of his business, there were more than 300 letter carriers under his command.

L'escalier vue depuis l'allée d'honneur
Une galée de Jacques Cœur

© Alain Lonchampt / Centre des monuments nationaux


Weaving was the major industry of the Middle Ages. It's hardly surprising, then, that among the products exported by our merchant, fabrics held pride of place. In addition to sheets and cloth, Jacques Cœur shipped furs, tanned leathers and basketry products made in the Montpellier region.

At the same time, he brought back a wide range of products from the Levant. Alongside wines from the Orient, crates of candy sugar, powdered sugar from Cyprus, candied fruit and licorice. Spices such as pepper, cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, cloves and saffron also figured prominently, as did perfumes (eau de rose de Damas, essence of violet) or textiles (plain or striped velvets) and especially silk (sometimes woven with gold thread) as well as ornaments (pearls, ivory, diamonds and other precious stones) or ostrich feathers (which are carved into the décor of the house). In short, all the wonders that lords' wives dreamed of were the domain of the silversmith!

Jacques Cœur's links with the Levant are reflected in the palace décor, with sculptures of Oriental characters (one of the heads on the façade, a peddler on the grand staircase), monkeys and exotic trees (a palm tree, a date palm, an orange tree), and many other details that can be admired during a tour of the master of the house...

Le grand escalier du château
Tête d'Africain

© Philippe Berthé / Centre des monuments nationaux

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