The sixteenth century was the age of travel and new discoveries and in France, Dieppe was at the forefront of the great expeditions. During those years one man stood out for his nerve, intelligence and the vast fortune he won, and lost.
Jean d’Ango was born in Dieppe in 1480 to a minor merchant from Rouen. Legend says he first went to sea age seven and gained more of an education on ships than in the classroom. As a young man he gained a reputation as a fine sailor, then officer and captain. He also had charm and the appearance of a generous disposition. But at his core was ambition.
His father’s best decision was to invest in two ships sailing to the New World to fish for l’or blanc, white gold – cod – and to establish a French colony. In 1508 one, La Pensée, became the first French ship to reach Newfoundland and sailed back to Dieppe piled high with white gold and furs. The d’Ango family were now rich.
Early 1500’s – sailing close to the wind
Jean led voyages to Africa and the East Indies in search of his own fortune. Then when he was 30, his father died and Jean inherited the family business. Jean decided to manage it from Dieppe. He is not thought to have sailed again.
There are only sketchy reports of the early voyages financed Jean d’Ango. Of the few reports that do remain in Rouen, they suggest Jean was sometimes sailing very close to the wind….
Records show that in March 1514 Jean d’Ango together with Richard Heron, Christopher Price and Mathieu Doublet financed a ship to be captained by Jacques Maheut who understood well what was expected of him. In April, the ship was on the coast of Zeeland when it met a ship from Lübeck, a free-city, on the coast of Germany. The ship, loaded with corn, rye and beer was seized by Ango’s corsairs and led to Dieppe.
On arrival in Dieppe, the furious captain of the captured ship, Mathieu Cosse, made a claim to the Lieutenant admiral in Dieppe stating his ship had already paid taxes (customs excise) to France for the goods. The good captain’s appeal succeeded, the value of the confiscated goods was estimated and a fine imposed on Jean and his partners.
1517 – the richest man
Despite minor setbacks by 1517 Jean was the richest man in Dieppe; he owned a shipyard and six ships.
His ships and those he invested in sailed to the Mediterranean, explored the coasts of Africa and India and traded in gold, ivory and precious stones. They challenged Spain and Portugal’s monopoly of the sea.
Jean convinced the Archibishop of Rouen to invest in his voyages and so impressed the godly man with the return on those investments he was awarded the title ‘Keeper of the Salt’.
By 1521 his money and influence gained him nobility; Vicomte Jean ‘Ango and some very important friends.
1522 – for France! (and for profit)
By 1522 Jean’s ships were carrying letters of marque (government protection, remember them, there will be more later!) from Marguerite de Navarre, sister of the King of France.
He then equipped his largest ship, secured his fiercest pilot (to the Spanish a plain old pirate) Jean Fleury and sent him to trade in South America.
After many weeks of voyage the sight of three Spanish galleons cheered Jean Fleury and his crew. They did not hesitate and attacked. Captain Quiñones leading the small fleet was in shock, he was completely unprepared for a confrontation. Spain has been given control of the high seas by the Pope himself, and this voyage was supposed to be a secret. For inside those galleons, along with a lot of silver bullion from the King of Spain’s mines was the treasure Cuauhtémoc, last Aztec emperor
Fleury managed to take two of the galleons. He could not have guessed at the treasures they contained. The cargo included an emerald pyramid the size of a man’s hand, gold and silver bracelets, necklaces, earrings and rings. Idols encrusted with precious stones, precious metal masks inlaid with mosaics of gemstones, altar ornaments of solid silver inlaid with gold, magnificent furs, clothing made of feathers so finely woven it felt like silk, thousands of large gold plaques… it was the stuff of dreams.
Their haul also included a couple of tigers. Unfortunately one escaped killing two sailors and wounding eight. The poor creature was thrown into the sea and his mate after him, to avoid a second massacre.
Back in Spain…
Outraged, the Spanish sent reinforcements to protect their fleets, but not enough to stop Fleury and Jean’s other corsairs (licensed pirates) who plundered, according to old, unsubstantiated reports, 300 ships.
The long, expensive but oh so rewarding journeys continued; 1523: Newfoundland, 1526-1529: Brazil, the coast of Guinea and the islands of Sunda, 1529-1530: Sumatra.
Two brothers from Florence, Giovanni and Girolamo de Verrazano, regularly sailed for Jean d’Ango, until a rather unfortunate mishap in 1528. In 1524 Giovannie had discovered Hudson Bay, now New York. Then in 1528 the brothers explored Florida before sailing on to the Caribbean. Unfortunately when they took a small row-boat to land both were captured by the natives. Girolamo was forced to watch as his brother was eaten, before he was saved by the crew.
Jean Fleury was finally captured by the Spanish in 1527. The king of France himself demanded his return but he was tried in Toledo and hung.
1525 – Rich. Very very rich.
Fleury’s Spanish haul of Aztec treasures made Jean one of the richest men in France.
In 1525 he lavished his wealth on a sumptuous home in Dieppe named ‘La Pensée’. The design was influenced by the Italian Renaissance, but with a Norman twist. Above a stone base it is all wood. Intricately carved columns depicted Norman adventures across the world. Embellished generously with gold, the tall house glittered. Inside art and furniture from Italy declared Jean’s appreciation of culture and love of luxury.
Securing a royal friendship
While Jean was wondering if his house has quite enough gilding, in Italy his King is suffering.
1525 was the year the King Francis I of France lost a major battle against Italian and Spanish forces at Pavia. Humiliatingly he was been captured by the Spanish army and taken to Madrid as a prisoner of his lifelong enemy Charles V of Spain. After some months Francis was forced to sign a mortifying treaty. The Treaty of Madrid stated that he would give Burgundy and Flanders to Spain and stop trading in the New World. He also agreed for his two sons to be hostages in his place.
Francis had absolutely no intention of carrying out the terms of the Treaty but did have his two eldest sons shipped to Spain. As soon as he was released in 1526 Francis made it clear to anyone who would listen that the stupid treaty was signed under duress and was not legal.
He defiantly continued to fund voyages to the New World and generally annoyed the rest of Europe until, trying to form an alliance with Portugal he agreed to marry a Portuguese princess and asked the Portuguese king for a loan. The loan was not forthcoming and the King of Portuagal demanded restitution for all of his ships taken by French pirates.
Francis had no cash for this or for his son’s ransom, but he found the money. A large portion of it was paid by Jean d’Ango of Dieppe.
1530’s – Powerplay at sea
Jean and the King shared many interests. Both supported the arts – It was Francis who acquired the Mona Lisa from Leonardo da Vinci – and both could see no reason for Spain and Portugal to rule the high seas. Francis was also very grateful for the Royal portion of all goods ‘liberated’ by French corsairs.
When João III of Portugal confiscated one of Jean’s ships that happened to be carrying plunder from captured vessels, Jean received Francis’ permission to respond. Acting under a letter of marque issued on 26 July 1530 and with support of the powerful Venetians, he harassed the Portuguese fleet in the Atlantic, and even threatened to block the port of Lisbon. The king of Portugal was forced to sent ambassadors to Dieppe. On 15 August 1531, João III agreed to pay reparations of 60,000 ducats if Jean would stop his dastardly activities and surrender the letter of marque which permitted them.
Just a few months later a very grateful King Francis, his Queen Claude and their courtly entourage visited Jean in his magnificent Dieppe home.
Fun, flags and a promise
The streets were decorated with flags and triumphant arches, every ship was trimmed with garlands. Days of feasts and lavish entertainment followed, the highlight a mock naval battle in the port.
It was at some point during the celebrations that Jean put his entire fleet at the King’s disposal.
The king magnanimously bestowed honours and privileges up Jean. He granted him the Governorship of Dieppe, then a huge city of 40,000 in habitants, with powers that reached from le Tréport to the Seine valley. He also named Jean Counsellor for Maritime Affairs and granted him freedom of the seas. Jean advises a new port was needed (on his side of the Seine) and secures agreement to construct one at Le Havre. He engaged the famous Italian architect Bellarmato to create an impressive new town.
Jean moved into Dieppe castle and set about transforming it into a home worthy of his own greatness.
The golden touch of success
The influence of Jean d’Anglo, Viscount of Dieppe was felt everywhere. His investors and sailors became wealthy and Dieppe a centre of ideas, knowledge, art and the third city in France.
His patronage of the famous Dieppe Maps of the sea and foreign lands discovered ensured they become the finest and most sought after in the world. He helped found The Compagnie des Indes Orientales or East India Company, which later became a series of companies in various countries, such as the English East India Co., and the famous Dutch East India Co.
Sometime during these years Jean married to Anne Guilbert, a descendant of William the Conqueror and the Dukes of Normandy. There are hints in some texts of two daughters, but no record of them surviving their parents.
Then he arranged for the best architects he could find to design him a splendid summer residence a little outside of Dieppe so grand, so ornate it would take more than 10 years to complete. The Manoir d’Ango.
The mansion was inspired by Italian architecture; a Norman Florentine palace with galleries, arcades, monumental fireplaces, high walls, graceful windows, wide stairs… Mostly built using local flint, all decorated with stone friezes, medallions, and mosaics. Inside frescos painted by Italian artists created incredible backdrops to rooms filled with the finest renaissance furniture.
Legends say that from the eastern gatehouse Jean could see his ships sailing into Dieppe port, a view now hidden by tall beech trees. Another legend talks of an underground passage connecting the Manoir to the castle of Arques-la-Bataille, 10km as the crow flies. With all his money anything would have been possible.
Jean loved to surround himself with poets and artists and rewarded the most talented with his generous patronage. His encouragement of the arts and sciences was so influential he is sometimes referred to as the ‘Medici North’
Always among the many guests who enjoyed the hospitality of his elegant reception rooms, those who received him the most warmly and whose conversation he preferred, were the pilots who helped make his fortune.
Favours and fortune
When in 1535 Jean d’Ango was the height of his fortune, Francis I decided to renew his war against Charles V of Spain. Jean ensured plenty of recruits were found from around Dieppe for the King’s army.
Between the years of 1535 and 1547, some sixty-six Spanish ships were captured by French corsairs. A grateful king Francois 1 came back to Normandy in 1540 with his mistress Diane de Poitiers, to admire Jean’s new house at Verangeville, describing it as ‘the most beautiful residence in Normandy’.
1545 – a very big favour
In 1545 Francis planned to sail to England and destroy the English fleet. Jean counselled against the enterprise but for once the king would not listen to his maritime advisor and friend. Jean agreed to bankroll the attack. He supplied 146 ships – his own and some commandeered – and he took on responsibility for supplies. Records show he ordered from Rouen; 1000 barrels of beef, 63000 bread biscuits, 250 casks of beer.
Although this was at great personal expense he fully expected to be reimbursed and royally thanked for his generosity
The French fleet (between 200 and 300 vessels, records are vague) outnumbered the English (80 ships) and the English flagship Marie Rose was destroyed, but somehow the battle was inconclusive. A battered fleet returned to Dieppe to be met by one of the most terrible storms of the century. The port and all ships were damaged or destroyed.
Jean was now low on cash and in debt to suppliers across Normandy but had high hopes for a good return on his investment. He could not have foreseen what happened next.
Jean heard nothing from the often cash strapped King. A king who has not been feeling too well.
Then 31 March 1547 Francis I of France, died.
A disappointing new king
The new king Henry II was not a fan of the ostentatious Dieppe ship-owner. Not only did he refuse to reimburse Jean for his massive investment in the 1545 battle, he had him investigated thoroughly.
During his ascent in the favour of king Francis I, Jean had made enemies and earned the jealousy of rivals who could not compete with his power and riches. They now cheerfully shared their grievances with representatives of the new king.
In the castle above Dieppe Jean was under constant pressure to pay for the 1545 supplies, the broken ships and the sailors who had fought for their country. It was a shattered, bitter man who was arrested in 1549.
The charge was of official misconduct, for failing to pay taxes on proceeds from old privateering exploits.
Somehow Jean found enough money to help fund the 1550 siege of Boulogne, then under English control, and his own release but he was ruined, an old man cheated out of his fortune.
Some say Jean spent his last days in the castle above Dieppe looking down at the town where he was once feted, but now ignored and unwanted. Others say his fall from grace was so hard he was forced to leave the castle and lived out his last days at the Manoir d’Ango where he died age 71 in 1551 of ‘boredom and grief’. We prefer the story that Jean ended his days quietly at the beautiful Manoir at Varengeville, philosophical about the changing tides of his fortune and at peace after a life well lived.
As he requested Jean d’Ango, explorer, ex-millionaire, Vicomte and friend of a king was buried in St. Jacques Church.
Lawsuits against his heirs continued for many years. His family were equally energetic in their attempts to have the family fortune restored. As far as we can discover, it was not.
What happened to La Pensée?
All that is left of La Pensée, Jean’s famous Dieppe house, are some cellars on the corner of Rue Ango and Quai Henri IV, under the old Oratorians’ college. The house was destroyed in 1694 by Anglo-Dutch bombardment.
- Visit the Manoir d’Ango