Of Templars, towers and adulterous princesses
Once upon a time…No; that won’t work. After all, the story I’m about to tell you is not a fairy tale complete with a happy ending. Rather the reverse actually. And it all began – or so those blessed with hindsight would claim – when Philip the Fair of France went after the Templars.
The Templars were an order of monastic knights. You know, men with white tabards adorned with a big red cross who bravely rode out to do battle against the infidels. Over time, the Templars not only acquired a reputation for being fearless in battle, but also for being very rich. Exceedingly rich. And as we all know, with money comes power, so it follows that the Grand Master of the Templars was quite a force to be reckoned with, a mover and shaker, should he be so inclined.
This did not please the Pope, who was of the firm opinion that he should be the most powerful man in Christendom. Neither did it please Philip the Fair, who just as firmly maintained that he should be the most powerful – and richest – man around. Plus he owed the Knights Templars a mint, and he’d had quite some success in lowering his debt burden a year or so previously by evicting the Jews (to whom he also owed a considerable amount) so why not do something similar with the Templars?
A Christian order of fighting knights could not just be evicted, which is why Philip, with some grudging help from the Holy See, decided it was time to crush the Templars by accusing them of heresy. As a nice side-effect, he would also be making the point that the Pope did his bidding, thereby underlining just who was calling the shots.
Philip was a handsome man, hence his nickname. He was also something of a cold fish, not given to much emotion one way or the other. In fact, the one person he seems to have been truly attached to was his wife, Jeanne of Navarre, who was described as plump and plain. That, I suppose, is a point in his favour. He was also a relatively efficient ruler – if ruthless, to which the poor Templars can attest.
In 1307, Philip made his move. On Friday the 13th of October, hundreds upon hundreds of Templars all over France were arrested and during the subsequent torture many of them confessed whatever crimes they were asked to confess, primarily that of heresy. The pope made some noises about holding trials, Philip produced all those signed confessions and the pope decided to zip it. He was too dependent on Philip to do otherwise.
Destroying an order while appropiating their possessions take time, and so it wasn’t until March of 1314, when the last Grand Master of the Templars, Jacques de Molay, was burnt at the stake, having first retracted any confessions by claiming they’d been wrung from him through torture. It is said he died bravely, and people fought over his ashes, a sure sign that in burning him, Philip had indirectly created a martyr. Some say the Grand Master cursed Philip. Subsequent events would confirm such a supposition, but before we go there, allow me to give you some further backstory.
Other than being creative in his approach to reducing his debts, Philip had other matters to handle – the life of a medieval monarch was relatively hands-on, so one day he’d be off putting down a rebellion, the next he’d be establishing a university, and all the time he’d be keeping an eye on his more powerful nobles. In Philip’s case, one of the most powerful nobles was a woman, a certain Mahaut d’Artois, and to secure this lady’s fidelity, Philip married two of his sons to two of her daughters.
Philip had three sons. The eldest, Louis, married Margaret of Burgundy. The second, Philip, married Joan of Burgundy. The third, Charles, married Blanche of Burgundy. Err…One could be excused for thinking all three of these ladies were sisters, but nope, Margaret was of the Ducal house of Burgundy, while the other two were daughters of a mere count. Not that their papa, Otto, would appreciate being called a mere count – and neither would his formidable wife, Mahaut.
Anyway: Philip’s sons were all married to Burgundy ladies, and his only daughter, the beautiful Isabella (she took after her father as did her brother Charles) was married to Edward II of England. A most handsome couple those two, even if Edward now and then showed more interest in hose and braies than in kirtles and garters.
By 1308 all these dynastic marriages had been concluded. All Philip had to do was sit back and relax while his sons produced plenty of male heirs and the Capet dynasty would remain forever on the French throne. Further to this, the Templar matter was progressing just as Philip had hoped it would, thereby balancing Philip’s seriously overstretched credit facilities. For some years, life was good. And then came the scandal of the Tour de Nesle.
It all began with a purse. Well, with multiple purses. In 1313, Isabella and her husband came for a visit to France. As a token of her esteem, Isabella gave her sisters-in-law beautifully embroidered purses. They all went “oolala”, Isabella was happy they’d liked her gifts, and after some weeks of harmonious family time, Isabella and Edward went back to England while Marguerite, Joan and Blanche went back to playing happy families with their husbands. Or?
As stated earlier, in March of 1314 Philip had the last Grand Master of the Templars burnt to death. According to legend, the dying Grand Master cursed Philip and all of his blood – as per what little we know that probably didn’t happen. What did happen was that the pope who’d allowed Philip to ride roughshod over the Templars died a month after the execution. A sure sign to some that maybe Philip had overreached – and more such signs were to come.
Several months after her stay in France, Isabella was visited in England by two gentlemen named Gautier and Philippe d’Auney. She delighted in having French visitors, but was somewhat shocked when she recognised the purses that hung from these elegant Frenchmen’s belts. They were the purses she’d given her sisters-in-law. To Isabella, this could only mean one thing: the purses had been given as love tokens.
I suppose we must all take a break here as we consider whether the gift of a purse necessarily means there’d been some hanky-panky going on. Apparently, to the 14th century mind, it was crystal clear: give a man a purse and you’d obviously been giving him other things as well, such as access to your body.
Isabella felt obliged to inform her father. Most moral of her – and rather hypocritical, given her future adventures, but they’re neither here nor there in this post. Philip the Fair was not pleased. I’m thinking he wasn’t too pleased with Isabella for telling him either, because once she had, he had to act. Which he did, by having Gautier and Philippe discreetly followed wherever they went.
The two gentlemen seemed to spend a lot of time at the Tour de Nesle. Very much time, given its rather dilapidated state. The old tower had been bought by Philip some time earlier, but had not been refurbished, and yet these two young gentlemen could not stay away. Neither, it transpired could Marguerite and Blanche. The two princesses went as often as Gautier and Philippe, and it wasn’t to sit about and discuss the meaning of life, at least not to judge from what those charged with the surveillance could see and hear.
And so, in the summer of 1314 the scandal broke. Gautier and Philippe were arrested and tortured, the three princesses – even poor innocent Joan was besmirched in all this – were locked up, and soon enough the two young men admitted to having bedded the royal ladies, thereby sealing their fates. To sleep with a royal wife was the equivalent of high treason, and the two unfortunate men were most gruesomely executed. Some say they were hanged, drawn and quartered. Others say they were flayed alive. Some suggest they were broken on the wheel before being castrated and subsequently killed. Whatever the case, we can assume it was painful and bloody and extended.
As to the princesses, they were dragged before the Paris Parliament. Philip junior insisted his wife was innocent, an impassioned defender of the mother of his children, and as nothing implicated Joan she was found innocent by the Parliament – but placed under house arrest, just in case. Eventually, she was freed and returned to court, very much due to her husband’s championing of her cause.
Marguerite and Blanche were found guilty of adultery. There, before the assembled grandees, they had their heads shaved and were then thrown into the dank dungeons of Chateau Gaillard. Note that this was not a genteel captivity, this was punishment, locked away in the dark and damp.
It is said Philip the Fair was so shocked by all this it brought on his premature death in a hunting accident some months later. Or maybe it was the purported curse of the burning Grand Master…
With Philip’s death, his eldest son, Louis, became king. With a vacant Papal See, there was no one to annul his marriage with the disgraced Marguerite – and Louis very badly wanted to be rid of his adulterous wife, he needed a son. It is therefore something of a coincidence that Marguerite died in 1315, still in the dungeons of Chateau Gaillard. Some say she was poisoned. Some say she was strangled. Whatever the case, she was dead, and left to sit all alone in the dark was Blanche.
Louis married a Hungarian princess, but died very soon after, leaving a pregnant wife. Louis’ claim to fame – other than as a royal cuckold – is that he was a major fan of real tennis, and was the first to construct an indoor tennis court. So in love was he with this game, it would eventually cost him his life, seeing as it was after a particularly strenuous game that he drank too much cold water and contracted pneumonia – alternatively he was poisoned. Or cursed by the Templar Grand Master.
Louis was succeeded by a baby boy who died, and instead Philip, faithful husband to Joan, became king. Some say the baby was poisoned too, thereby clearing the way for Philip who was now king.
The years passed. Philip also died – no poison, dysentery – and left only daughters. People nodded and muttered: yet another of Philip the Fair’s sons dead prematurely, yet another with no living male heir. The Capet dynasty was living on borrowed time, and all because of the cruel repression of the Templars – and the Grand Master’s curse.
Whatever the case, the time had come for Charles, the last son of Philip the Fair. The first thing he did was have his marriage to Blanche annulled. After eight years locked up, Blanche was instead transported to a nunnery, where she conveniently died very quickly, her health broken by all those years as a prisoner.
Charles married again. His wife, Marie of Luxembourg quickly became pregnant – but miscarried. She became pregnant again, and everyone was so happy – until she fell out of the carridge she was travelling in, thereby going into premature labour. Her little son lived only for some hours, and some days later, Marie died as well. Not good. Clearly, the Capets were doomed.
In 1328, Charles died, leaving behind a pregnant wife but no son. France held its breath: would the widowed queen be delivered of a son? Yes please, prayed Queen Jeanne. No, no, no prayed Philippe Valois, vigorous cousin to Charles.
God – influenced perhaps by the souls of the dead Templars – went with the girl. The Capet dynasty was no more, all the male heirs dead. All but one, and in England the young Edward III set his covetous eyes on the shores of France and whispered “mine”. But that, I believe, is the subject for a future post, one without either Templars, adulterous princesses or towers.