Mary was the youngest daughter of Stephen of Blois and his wife, Matilda of Boulogne, herself the granddaughter of St Margaret, queen of Scotland. Mary was born in Blois, France around 1136. She was destined for the cloister from an early age and was placed in a convent at Stratford, Middlesex, with some nuns from St Sulpice in Rennes. So how did this nun become a reluctant wife?
Mary’s father Stephen was the nephew of Henry I, one of his closest male relatives. In the confusion following Henry’s death it was Stephen who acted quickly and decisively….
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Philip II Augustus had acceded to the throne of France in 1180, at the tender age of fifteen. He married his first wife, Isabella of Hainault the same year; she was only ten-years-old. Isabella was the daughter of Baldwin V, count of Hainault, and Margaret I, countess of Flanders. At just one year old she had been betrothed to Henry, the future count of Champagne and nephew of Adele, queen of France. However, Isabella’s father later reneged on his promises, and arranged Isabella’s marriage to Philip, the son and heir of Louis VII. Philip had been crowned junior king of France in 1179. Isabella and Philip were married on 28 April 1180 and Isabella was crowned queen exactly one month later, even though her father-in-law was still king. With Louis VII’s death Philip and Isabella acceded to the throne as sole king and queen in September of the same year.
Philip was a capricious being when it came to his wives, indeed, he attempted to repudiate Isabella when she was only fourteen. Isabella’s father had taken the side of his enemies in war against Flanders, but he cited her failure to produce an heir as his reason for putting her aside, despite her still-tender age. Unfortunately for Philip, Isabella appeared before the council at Sens, called to support his repudiation of her, barefoot and penitent. Isabella was a popular queen and the people were so taken with this act of humility that their protests forced the king to take her back.
She gave birth to the desired son and heir, the future Louis VIII, three years later, in 1187. However, on 14 March 1190 she gave birth to twin boys, Robert and Philip, but died from complications the next day, aged just nineteen; the babies died three days after their mother. The Chronique rimee of Philippe Mouskes described her as “Queen Isabelle, she of noble form and lovely eyes.” Philip II left on Crusade just a few short months after Isabella’s death; however, with only one living son, he was soon looking around for a new wife.
Ingeborg was the daughter of Valdemar I the Great, king of Denmark, and Sofia of Minsk, and was the youngest of their eight surviving children. Born around 1176, it was only six years later, in 1182, that her father died. Valdemar was succeeded by Ingeborg’s older brother, Knut (or Canute) VI; and it fell to Knut to arrange Ingeborg’s future. I could not find any details of Ingeborg’s childhood, although she was probably educated to the standard expected of princesses of the time, in order to make her attractive in the international royal marriage market. A princess was expected to be able to manage a household, to sew, play music, sing, dance and much more.
Ingeborg held many political attractions for the king of France, her brother not only had a claim to the English throne, stretching back to the time of Cnut the Great, who ruled England in the eleventh century, but he also possessed an impressive navy, one which Philip would rather have with him, than against him. Such an alliance also helped France and Denmark to stand up to the expansionism of the Holy Roman Empire, under Emperor Henry VI.
On the conclusion of negotiations with Knut’s representatives, Philip sent an embassy to Denmark, to escort his bride back to France. The envoys were afforded a lavish reception at the Danish court, where the formal arrangements for the marriage were finalised. Ingeborg was provided with a dowry of 10,000 marks in gold and set out for a new life in France, accompanied by the French envoys and many Danish dignitaries, probably not expecting to ever see her homeland again. Ten years older than Ingeborg, Philip met his bride for the first time on their wedding day, 14 August 1193, in the cathedral church at Amiens. Ingeborg was crowned queen of France the next day, by the archbishop of Reims; her name changed to Isambour, to make it more acceptable to the French language, though what she thought of this, we cannot say.
At seventeen years of age, contemporary sources extolled her excellent qualities; in addition to the obligatory courtly praise of her appearance, comparing her beauty with that of Helen of Troy, she was a model of virtue. Ingeborg was described as ‘very kind, young of age but old of wisdom’ by Étienne de Tournai, who knew her well and said that the beauty of her soul overshadowed that of her face. Remarkably, given subsequent events, even those chroniclers devoted to her Philip II, such as Guillaume le Breton, spoke of the new queen with respect.
Unfortunately, no one knows what happened on the wedding night, but poor Ingeborg had one of the shortest honeymoon periods in history; and by the end of the coronation ceremony he had such an aversion to Ingeborg that he tried to get the Danish envoys to take her home with them. Ingeborg, however, refused to go, saying that she had been crowned queen of France, and her place was now in France. Queen Ingeborg sought sanctuary in a convent in Soissons, from where she wrote an appeal to the pope, Celestine III. Three months later, Philip established a friendly ecclesiastical council in Compiègne, in an attempt to have the marriage annulled. Ingeborg was present, but, speaking no French, had little understanding of the proceedings until they were interpreted for her.
Philip claimed that Ingeborg was related to his first wife, and the marriage was therefore within the prohibited degrees of consanguinity, going so far as to falsify his family tree to provide proof. As a result, the churchmen, sympathetic to their king, determined that the marriage was void. When Ingeborg was informed of the decision, she appealed to Rome, protesting loudly “Mala Francia! Roma! Roma!” Her homeland finally took notice of Ingeborg’s plight and following a meeting with a Danish delegation, who produced their own genealogy showing that Ingeborg and Philippe had very little blood in common, the pope declared the decision by Philip’s ecclesiastical council to be invalid and ordered that Philip should take back his wife, and was not to remarry.
Thwarted by Ingeborg’s stubbornness, Philip decided to force her to acquiesce, by making Ingeborg’s life as uncomfortable as possible. She was placed under house arrest; first at an abbey near Lille, then at the monastery of Saint Maur des Fossés and at various other convents afterwards, her treatment becoming gradually harsher the longer she refused to give in. For seven years, the French court saw nothing of her; Étienne de Tournai reported, to the archbishop of Reims, that “she spent all her days in prayer, reading, work; solemn practices fill her every moment”.
Ingeborg would spend twenty years, incarcerated in various castles and abbeys, contesting any annulment. The longer her imprisonment, the more desperate her situation became; Ingeborg was forced to sell or pawn most of her possessions, even down to her clothing, in order to sustain herself. She later described herself, in a letter to the pope, Celestine III, as “…discarded like a dried and diseased branch; here I am, deprived of all help and consolation.”
As the consanguinity argument was not working for Philip, in pursuit of his divorce, and with his counsellors already having an eye on a new bride for the king, another argument was advanced; that of non-consummation. Ingeborg, however, remained steadfast, insisting that she and Philip had slept together on their wedding night. The pope again took Ingeborg’s side. Philip disregarded the pope’s decree to return to Ingeborg and took a new wife, Agnes of Merania, a German princess, in 1196. They had two children together, Philip and Marie, illegitimate due to their father’s bigamous marriage with their mother. However, in 1198, the new pope, Innocent III, asserted his authority by declaring the marriage invalid, he announced that Philip was still married to Ingeborg and ordered the king to return to his true wife.
Philip responded by making Ingeborg’s imprisonment even harsher. Following vigorous correspondence between Paris and the papacy Innocent responded with his most powerful weapon; excommunication. On 15 January 1200, the whole of France was put under interdict, all churches were closed. There were to be no church services or offices; no sacraments were to be performed, save for the baptism of new-borns and the last rites of the dying, until Philip acquiesced to the pope’s demands and, at least, renounced Agnes, even if he didn’t return to Ingeborg. Indeed, Philip’s own son, Louis, had to hold his wedding to Blanche of Castile, daughter of Eleanor of Castile, in Normandy due to the interdict.
Towards the end of the year Philip finally gave in. Poor Agnes was stripped of her status as Philip’s wife and exiled from court; she died in July 1201, heartbroken. Her two children by Philip were legitimised by the pope shortly afterwards. For Ingeborg, however, nothing changed. Philip refused to take her back and appealed again for an annulment, this time claiming that she had bewitched him on their wedding night. The appeal, again, was refused and Ingeborg was only released – finally – in 1213. Philippe’s change of heart was not out of any sense of guilt, affection or justice, but more for practicality. With King John’s barons risen against him, the situation in England was ripe to be exploited, and Philip needed peace with Denmark in order to concentrate his attentions on the greater prize; the English throne.
Ingeborg had been a prisoner in France for twenty years. Now, because of political expediency, she was not only free, but reinstated as queen, accorded the respect and dignity she had had a right to since her wedding day in 1193. However, her husband never returned to her bed; it was for outward appearances only. His son, Louis, now had his own son and heir, and so there was no need for Philip to be with Ingeborg, physically, in order to secure the succession. On his deathbed, in 1223, Philip II Augustus asked his son to treat Ingeborg well; while in his will, he left her 10,000 livres. The new king, Louis VIII, and his son, Louis IX, would both treat Ingeborg kindly and accord her all the respect due to her rank as dowager queen of France. Such an action was politically preferable to Louis; by recognising Ingeborg as legitimate queen of France he emphasised that Agnes had not been, and that, therefore, her children, especially Louis’s half-brother, Philip, had no right to the throne (despite his legitimisation by the pope).
After Philip’s death Ingeborg paid for masses to be said for his soul, whether out of duty, or as a sign of forgiveness, we’ll never know. A dignified and pious widow, she then retired to the priory of St Jean de l’Île, Corbeil. She died on 29 July, though the year of her death has variously been given as 1236, 1237, 1238 or 1239. Ingeborg survived her husband by more than fourteen years and was buried in a church in Corbeil, having spent twenty of her forty-five years, as queen, a prisoner of her husband.
Pictures courtesy of Wikipedia
Sources: Géraud, Hercule, Ingeburge de Danemark, reine de France, 1193-1236. Mémoire de feu Hercule Géraud, couronné par l’Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres dans sa séance du 11 août 1844. [Première partie.] Article; Étienne de Tournai, quoted in Géraud, Hercule, Ingeburge de Danemark, reine de France, 1193-1236. Mémoire de feu Hercule Géraud, couronné par l’Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres dans sa séance du 11 août 1844. [Première partie.] Article; Anna Belfrage Weep, Ingeborg, weep, (article) annabelfrage.wordpress.com; Goubert, Pierre The Course of French History; histoirefrance.net; historyofroyalwomen.com.
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Coming 30 May 2023!
King John’s Right-Hand Lady: The Story of Nicholaa de la Haye is now available for pre-order as a hardback and Kindle from Pen & Sword Books, bookshop.org and Amazon (UK and US).
In a time when men fought and women stayed home, Nicholaa de la Haye held Lincoln Castle against all-comers. Not once, but three times, earning herself the ironic praise that she acted ‘manfully’. Nicholaa gained prominence in the First Baron’s War, the civil war that followed the sealing of Magna Carta in 1215.
A truly remarkable lady, Nicholaa was the first woman to be appointed sheriff in her own right. Her strength and tenacity saved England at one of the lowest points in its history. Nicholaa de la Haye is one woman in English history whose story needs to be told…
Alternate Endings: An anthology of historical fiction short stories including Long Live the King… which is my take what might have happened had King John not died in October 1216. Available in paperback and kindle from Amazon.
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