In the early years of the 14th Century, scandal rocked the French monarchy to its core and inadvertently contributed to the end of the Capetian dynasty.
1314 was a tumultuous year for France; the final act in the destruction of the Knights Templars was played out when Grand Master, Jacques de Molay and the Preceptor of Normandy, Geoffrey de Charney, were burned to death on the Ile de la Cite.
De Molay cursed Philip IV, King of France, and his descendants from the flames. Philip IV would be dead within a year and his dynasty’s rule over France would end with the death of his youngest son, Charles IV, in 1328.
Philip’s eldest son and heir, Louis, was married to Marguerite de Burgundy. Louis seems to have been a hard person to live with – his nickname was Louis the Quarreler – and the marriage was said to be unhappy. A daughter, Jeanne, would survive childhood to eventually become Queen of Navarre.
The second son, Philip, was married to Marguerite’s cousin, Jeanne d’Artois and Charles, the youngest, was married to Jeanne’s sister, Blanche d’Artois.
The royal scandal of 1314 was uncovered due to 2 rather innocuous items; silk purses.
On an earlier visit to France Isabella of France, wife of Edward II of England, had given silk purses to her sisters-in-law, as souvenirs of the knighting of her 3 brothers, Louis, Philip and Charles, the sons of Philip IV.
When she visited again in 1314, Isabella saw these same silk purses on the belts of 2 knights of the French court; Gautier and Philippe d’Aunay. When Isabella brought this to her father’s attention, the matter was investigated and the brothers were put under surveillance.
The 2 knights, it seems, were meeting with the princesses in secret. The whole scandal became known as the Tour de Nesle Affair, as the clandestine meetings were supposed to have taken place in this small palace on the outskirts of Paris (although some sources suggest that events happened at Philip IV’s country retreat of Maubuisson Abbey).
Whatever the location, the affair was discovered; all 3 princesses were arrested and questioned. When confronted in a secret court, Marguerite and Blanche confessed to adultery with the d’Aunay brothers. Their heads were shaved and they were sent to life imprisonment in Chateau Gaillard.
Blanche’s sister, Jeanne, fared better; she was also arrested, and placed under guard at the Chateau Dourdan. Her marriage with Philip was a very happy one, and it seems she was only guilty of knowing of the affairs. Philip defended his wife before the Paris Parlement and, with Philip’s support, Jeanne pleaded her innocence to the king, and was allowed to return to her husband and the court.
The 2 knights were arrested and, after being questioned and tortured, they confessed to the adultery and were condemned to death for the crime of ‘lese majeste’. The unfortunate brothers were castrated and ‘broken on the wheel’ – they were strapped to large wheels, which were spun while their limbs were shattered with iron bars. And finally, they were decapitated.
Marguerite’s imprisonment was the most severe. She was badly treated and some sources suggest she was held in a cell at the top of the donjon, open to the elements.
On his accession to the throne in November 1314, Louis X applied to the Pope for an annulment of the marriage. However, Pope Clement V died before he could grant the divorce and no new Pope would be elected until 1316. Shortly after Clement’s death, however, Marguerite died – probably strangled on the orders of Louis.
Louis married Clemence of Hungary, but died in June 1316, whilst Clemence was pregnant with their son. Jean I the Posthumous, was born and died in November of the same year and the crown passed to Louis’ brother, Philip V – with Jeanne d’Artois (by then Countess of Burgundy) at his side.
Philip died in 1322, leaving only daughters and the crown passed to his brother. On his accession, Charles divorced Blanche – still in an underground cell in Chateau Gaillard – and transferred her to a monastery at Gavray, in Normandy, where she became a nun, dying there the following year.
Charles IV died in February 1328, leaving his 3rd wife, Jeanne d’Evreux, pregnant. In April 1328, she gave birth to a daughter, Blanche, and, following Salic Law, the crown passed to Charles’ cousin, Philip of Valois, grandson of Philip III.
Salic Law, however, was not in force in Navarre, a kingdom which had come to the French crown when Jeanne I of Navarre had married Philip IV. Louis’ daughter, Jeanne, therefore inherited Navarre as Jeanne II, despite the questions that the scandal raised over her parentage.
It has been suggested that the Tour de Nesle Affair was all an elaborate plot to destabilise the French monarchy, but most historians believe the adultery took place. The harsh punishments reflected the need for queens and princesses to be above reproach, and the parentage of their children to be beyond question. The scandal cast a long shadow on the last years of the Capetian dynasty, with neither of the 3 brothers producing a son to carry on their line.
My book, Heroines of the Medieval World, looking into the lives of some of the most fascinating women from medieval history, will be published by Amberley on 15th September, 2017. It is now available for pre-order in the UK from both Amberley Publishing and Amazon and worldwide from Book Depository.
Sources: Pierre Goubert The Course of French History; Paul Doherty Isabella and the Strange Death of Edward II; J Huizinga The Waning of the Middle Ages; H.G. Koenigsberger Medieval Europe 400-1500; maison-hantee.com; herodote.net; histoirefrance.net.
Pictures taken from Wikipedia.
©2015 Sharon Bennett Connolly