Ockeghem is first mentioned by name among the chapel singers of the French court in the payment records for the fiscal year ending 30 September 1453, implying that he had been there at least since the previous October. The accounts for 1452 do not list the chapel singers individually, but the total number of chaplains was unchanged, and an 18th-century copy of the original documents specifies that Ockeghem was ‘new in 1451’. When his name first appears on the chapel rolls, he is already listed first among the singer-chaplains who were not priests, a clear indication that his reputation as both singer and composer was by then already solidly established. Moreover, during the years of royal service that followed (nearly half a century), his situation only improved. In January 1454 Ockeghem presented his royal patron with a book of music as a New Year’s gift and received in return four ells of scarlet cloth worth 44 livres. The account in which the exchange is recorded refers to the composer as premier chapelain of the royal chapel, the first known use of that title. The fiscal summary drawn up the following September indicates that later in the year he had also been awarded a special gift of 180 livres, the equivalent of his annual salary, and a similar supplement was apparently granted regularly in subsequent years (Perkins, JAMS, 1984).
Ockeghem again offered Charles VII a New Year’s gift in 1459, this time a chanson ‘most richly illuminated’, and the king reciprocated with the sum of 44 livres (33 écus). However, the single most generous mark of Charles VII’s evident esteem for his first chaplain came, it would seem, between November 1458 and July 1459. As nominal abbot of the wealthy collegiate church of St Martin, Tours, where Ockeghem had already been installed as prévôt de la Varenne some time prior to 21 March 1458 (Higgins, 1987), the king named Ockeghem to the high and richly remunerated office of treasurer of the church – perhaps prompting the composer’s gift. As was usual in such cases, there was initial resistance from the canons in Tours. But hearings on the matter before the Parlement of Paris seem to have simply petered out some time in 1462, possibly due to the influence of the crown (by then Louis XI), and there is no further indication of a challenge to Ockeghem’s possession of the dignity from any side. Charles died in July 1461, having just previously decreed Ockeghem’s release from the usual requirement of residence in Tours in connection with his new dignity, and Ockeghem was among the officers of the royal household for whom black robes and hoods were made for the king’s obsequies.
During the long reign of Louis XI, Ockeghem’s service in the royal chapel continued without interruption, and his favour at court seems only to have increased. As the king was increasingly in residence at his favorite hunting lodge at Plessis-lez-Tours, Ockeghem must have been able to reconcile more easily his functions in the royal chapel with his duties as treasurer of St Martin. In addition he was named to a canonry at the cathedral of Notre Dame, Paris, in 1463, a benefice that remained in dispute in the courts for more than four years. As Ockeghem was apparently never present for deliberations of the chapter nor involved in any meaningful way with either the musical or the administrative life of the cathedral, it has been suggested that his nomination was largely a ploy of Louis XI’s ecclesiastical politics (Wexler, 1997). Whatever Ockeghem’s purpose in the matter, he relinquished his claim to the canonry at Notre Dame in 1470 in a three-way permutation that gave him instead a chaplaincy at the collegiate church of St Benoît, Paris, a prebend he also appears to have held in absentia.
Relatively good relations between Louis XI and Philip the Good of Burgundy at the beginning of Louis’s reign, apparently made it possible for Ockeghem to visit his homeland. The records of Cambrai Cathedral indicate that while in the area he paid a visit to Du Fay, whom he may have known since his youth and met on earlier occasions (1452 and 1455) during formal meetings between the royal court of France and the ducal court of Savoy while Du Fay was still in the service of Duke Louis. Ockeghem is known to have been in Cambrai on 2 June 1462, when the cathedral’s Office du Four et du Vin recorded a gift to him of six loaves of bread, but there is nothing to suggest how long he might have stayed. In 1464 he was again in Cambrai, having travelled north with the court of Louis XI, and between 20 February and 5 March he was a guest in Du Fay’s house (Wright, 1975).
It was presumably in Cambrai, and perhaps on this occasion, that Ockeghem, who was identified as a sub-deacon as late as 1463, was ordained a priest; Vatican registers dating from 1472 refer to him as presbyter Cameracensis diocesis (a priest of the diocese of Cambrai), indicating that he had been ordained during the intervening years (Roth, 1994). Since Cambrai was his home diocese, it is not surprising that he would have gone there for the ordination, but his reasons for waiting until so late in his life before postulating for the higher office remain unclear. It has been suggested that he did so, finally, to assure the peaceful possession of his dignity as treasurer of St Martin (Roth, 1994), but this seems unlikely so long after all resistance had apparently evaporated. It is also possible that he sought the ordination in order to be able to assume the office of maître de chapelle, which was usually reserved for an ecclesiastic of elevated rank, and thus enter the inner circle of the king’s council; significantly, he is first identified by this title in court records in 1465 (Perkins, 1997). Interestingly, Ockeghem’s ongoing attachment to his home diocese is apparent in his support for the Collège de Cambrai in Paris; he is listed 11th in a printed necrology (undated, but probably 18th-century) among the three founders and 14 benefactors for whom students there were instructed to pray daily.
Through this same period, from 1460 at the latest until at least 1465, Ockeghem must also have had frequent contact with Antoine Busnoys. An entry in a papal register for 28 February 1461 refers to Busnoys as holding a chaplaincy in the cathedral of St Gatien, Tours, in circumstances indicating that he had already been there for some time (Starr, 1992). By 1465 he was a choir clerk and heurier at St Martin, where he was made a sub-deacon on 13 April (Higgins, 1986). Given Busnoys’ long stay in the city of Tours and his association with the church where Ockeghem held one of the principal dignities, it is virtually certain that the two musicians were well acquainted. Moreover, in light of Busnoys’ encomium to Ockeghem in the motet, In hydraulis (text and commentary in Perkins, JM, 1984), which was probably completed between 1465 and 1467, it appears likely that Ockeghem played a significant role in the musical development of his younger colleague.
In January 1470 the king’s treasury paid Ockeghem 275 livres tournois to cover expenses for a trip to Spain. It seems likely that this disbursement was authorized in connection with one or both of the diplomatic embassies sent by Louis XI to the court of Henry IV of Castille under the direction of Cardinal Jean Jouffroy, Bishop of Albi. The mission of the first, which reached Córdoba in late May or early June 1469, was to dissuade the Castilians from joining an alliance with England and Burgundy against France. Friendly relations were to be cemented by means of a marriage between Louis’ brother, Charles, Duke of Guyenne, and Henry’s sister Isabella, who had just been declared heir to his throne. Isabella, who preferred a union with Ferdinand of Aragon, was more than reluctant. She eluded Henry’s attempts to take forcible custody of her person and resisted the arguments of the eloquent Jouffroy, who sought her out for a face-to-face interview at her retreat in Madrigal before leaving Spain in August.
The news of Isabella’s marriage to Ferdinand on 18 October prompted Louis XI to send the cardinal back to the court of Castile, this time to wed the Duke of Guyenne by proxy to the eight-year-old Juana la Beltraneja (the queen’s daughter), who was to be declared heir to the throne of Castile in Isabella’s place. The embassy reached Burgos towards the end of July 1470, and the nuptials were celebrated (with a proxy standing in for the duke) during the week of 20–26 October 1470 (Märtl, 1996). It is not clear from the lapidary entry in the account books if Ockeghem participated in both embassies or just one of them, and if only one then which of the two. It is still uncertain whether his role was primarily a musical one. It is possible that in those circumstances he was expected to function as a member of the royal council; in a document of 1477 he is referred to as a conseiller to the king and he may have been entrusted with other matters as well.
Whatever Ockeghem’s part in these diplomatic initiatives, the most intriguing evidence of his presumed involvement is musical: his reworking of Johannes Cornago’s canción, ¿Qu’es mi vida preguntays?. However, even though the principal source for Ockeghem’s sacred works, the Chigi Codex (I-Rvat Chigi C.VIII.234), was on the Iberian peninsula from some time after 1514 through to the end of the 16th century, his music seems generally not to have been well known in Spain; aside from the Cornago arrangement, Spanish sources include only his Missa ‘Au travail suis’, the tract of his Requiem, Sicut cervus, and the widely travelled combinative chanson, S’elle m’amera/Petite camusette (Russell, 1979).
A letter in flattering terms addressed by Duke Galeazzo Maria Sforza of Milan to ‘Domino Johanni Oken’ on 3 November 1472, requesting assistance with the recruitment of singers for the ducal chapel, gave rise to speculation that the composer may have spent time in Italy just before his appointment at the royal French court (VanderStraetenMPB). Ockeghem was undoubtedly the intended recipient of Galeazzo’s letter, but he would not have needed to cross the Alps in order to make the duke’s acquaintance. Sforza had taken an auxiliary troop of soldiers to Louis XI’s aid in 1466 (Brenet, 1911) and may have made a point, given his musical proclivities, of becoming acquainted with the king’s distinguished maître de chapelle. Alternatively, the letter may have resulted from another diplomatic mission of Cardinal Jouffroy, whom Louis XI sent in early 1471 for private discussions in his name with Galeazzo (Märtl, 1996). There is, in any case, nothing in Ockeghem’s known works to suggest that he was familiar with the indigenous musical traditions of northern Italy.
In the summer of 1484 Ockeghem visited Bruges and Dammes. Brenet (1911) suggested that the primary purpose of the journey was again to assist with the negotiations undertaken by the French court that resulted in the alliance, concluded on 25 October 1484 between Anne of France and her consort Pierre de Bourbon (as regents for the 14-year-old Charles VIII) on the one hand, and the Three Members of Flanders – Ghent, Bruges and Ypres – (acting on behalf of the 6-year-old Philip the Fair) on the other. That may well have been the case, but her main argument, that because Ockeghem was not travelling alone, he must have been on royal business, is not convincing; a person of his rank and class would not have gone any distance without a retinue. In any case, his visit to Bruges may have been for more personal reasons: Busnoys had recently been named maître de chapelle at the city’s church of St Saviour. In addition, the banquet at St Donatian in honour of his presence suggests that Ockeghem may have had earlier contacts with its clergy. It is perhaps significant that Binchois, with whom Ockeghem may have become acquainted while still in his youth, had held a prebend there in 1430–31.
Following the death of Louis XI in 1483, Ockeghem’s place and role in the royal chapel are difficult to determine; the payment registers for the chapel musicians are missing from 1476 until well after Ockeghem’s death. However, he is identified as usual in the document recording his visit to Bruges as the king’s premier chapelain, and Guillaume Crétin used the same designation in his Déploration. In addition, Ockeghem is identified as prothocapellanus of the royal chapel in one of a series of executorial letters prepared at the papal court for the signature of Innocent VIII on 28 July 1486, apparently at the request of Charles VIII (Roth, 1994). These were requests for benefices in a variety of ecclesiastical institutions made individually on behalf of 20 members of the king’s chapel. Ockeghem was to be given preference for the next prebend available at Bayeux Cathedral (Perkins, JAMS, 1984), but there is as yet no evidence that any of these ‘expectatives’ was ever granted.
The only mention of the composer in court documents relating to the reign of Charles VIII simply indicates that he was among those present when the king observed the ritual of washing the feet of the poor on Maundy Thursday in April 1488. By contrast, his name continues to appear regularly in documents drawn up at St Martin, Tours, until 1494. In March 1487 he prepared his testament, bequeathing his property and revenues to the chapter of the collegiate church. His death on 6 February 1497 is known only through the king’s nomination of his successor as treasurer of St Martin, Evrard de la Chapelle, who also served at the royal court.