François Villon was born François de Montcorbier (or perhaps des Loges) and later took as his own the name of his benefactor, Guillaume de Villon. He was a native of Paris, born there the year Joan of Arc died, and presumably reared there. He received his baccalaureate in 1449 and became a Master of Arts three years later.
Much of the fragmentary information which is available concerning Villon’s life comes from legal documents dating back to 1455. In that year, he was involved in a brawl and killed a priest named Phillippe Chermoye or Sermoise, but he was later pardoned for justifiable homicide. The following Christmas season, he and others committed a burglary at the College of Navarre, after which he apparently fled Paris.
In 1461, Villon was in a dungeon at Meung. Incarcerated there for reasons unknown, he was (as he says in The Great Testament) cruelly mistreated by Bishop Thibault d’Aussigny, but along with other prisoners he was released when the newly crowned King Louis XI passed through the town. Evidently unable to stay out of trouble, Villon was before long imprisoned once again, this time at the Châtelet in Paris. He was soon released again, but he had been incriminated in the College of Navarre burglary by a talkative accomplice, Guy Tabary, and had to agree to repay his share of the loot. Very soon, Villon was arrested yet again, following a brawl. This time, he was sentenced to be hanged; the sentence was commuted, however, and he was exiled instead. At that point, the trail ends, and further references to him (in François Rabelais’s works, for example) are probably pure fictions. He died during or after 1463.
At some time, perhaps after he first fled from Paris, Villon spent a while at Blois, at the court of Charles d’Orléans, and a poem is preserved (titled “Je meurs de seuf auprès de la fontaine”/ “I Am Dying of Thirst near the Fountain”) which he composed for a poetry contest held by Charles. His first long poem, The Legacy, was composed shortly after the 1456 Christmas burglary, while The Great Testament was written following his release from the Meung prison.