Even though he was a trusted advisor and friend of the king, the Comte de Vézelay always attracted scandal at the court in Paris largely because of his family life. His first marriage to the Vicomte de Foix’s daughter had led, on the latter’s death, to an expansion of his lands but the marriage had been loveless and when the Comtesse de Vézelay died, many suspicions were voiced, especially after the Comte married again less than a fortnight later. This second marriage was with Madelaine de Lara, and the scandal of the first liaison paled in comparison to that of the latter. For one, the new Comtesse was from a branch of the nobility so debased and degraded in the eyes of the court that the marriage was practically a morganatic one. But King Henry was fond of the Comte and would brook no gossip about him within earshot, even after the new Comtesse gave birth to a son with bright red hair–a trait which neither his father nor mother shared.

The child, Charles, was precocious. He walked and spoke at much earlier ages than his contemporaries, and by the age of eight had composed poetry and chamber music that were performed for adult audiences. This did little to dull the harsh whispers about Madelaine de Vézelay; one of the long-running rumors about the de Laras was that their fall had been in part due to dabbling in witchcraft and making pacts with darker powers. Madelaine’s quietness and Charles’ intense and aloof demeanor for a youth were often cited as proof.

Eventually, young Charles de Vézelay was presented at court to Henry IV; the king enjoyed the youth’s seriousness and dedication, so unusual in an era of decadent and spoiled princes. Not long afterwards, Charles approached his father, troubled, and declared that he had a secret that was only for the king’s ears. The Comte, unable to glean the nature of this secret or how Charles came by it, arranged the meeting.

Observers in court saw Charles approach the king and whisper in his ear, after which Henry reacted by violently pushing the youth away. He called for the guard and ordered that Charles be executed immediately. This order, so out of character with the normally conscientious and fair King Henry, was questioned by many but the king was resolute and refused to discuss the secret. Charles, likewise, refused to reveal what he had said; indeed, the young man reportedly never spoke another word for the rest of his short life.

At the exhortation of Madelaine de Vézelay, Henry consented to tell her (and only her) what Charles had said. The interview, in the king’s private chambers, lasted scarcely five minutes. Madelaine emerged, shaken, and agreed that her son needed to be put immediately to death. She collapsed not long after and spent her remaining months as an invalid.

Charles was executed by swordstroke on the first of May. With the assassination of Henry fourteen days later and death of his mother in a sanitarium seven months after that, no one ever learned what the fatal secret had been.

  • Like what you see? Purchase a print or ebook version!