Tough times, tough lady- meet Mahaut!
Those who regularly read my blog will know I have a fascination with strong historical characters – and especially women. I suppose this reflects on my belief that I am a strong woman – and would have made a great ruling queen back when ruling queens and kings wielded real power. Of course, had I been around back then, chances are I’d have been a very strong woman stuck in some sort of menial role. My genes do not include much of the royal or noble blue – as far as I know, I am descended from hard-working farmers and miners.
Neither here nor there – but I do daydream about being a medieval mover and shaker. Seeing as daydreams rarely come true, I indulge myself by writing about women who did leave a mark on the world, despite living in times when gender equality was an unknown concept and women (in general) had a weaker legal status than men.
Today, I’d like us to spend some time with Mahaut d’Artois, a contemporary to Philippe IV of France, usually nicknamed le Bel because he was such a handsome dude. If we’re to believe Maurice Druon (and Mr Druon is a compelling writer, so it is difficult to fully wipe his description of Mahaut out of my head) this was a lady who would stop at nothing to get her genes on the French throne. Murder was not an issue, blackmail was a walk in the park. Calumny and false accusations – pah! – a mother does what she has to do to ensure her daughters get ahead. Ultimately, it didn’t help, but one cannot fault Mahaut’s determination for trying – and trying really hard – to make her unborn grandchild a king. Assuming we believe Maurice Druon, of course…
If we start at the beginning, we must conclude we’re not quite sure when things began. Some sources cite Mahaut was born in 1268. Some offer a date closer to 1275. So let us compromise and say she was born in 1270 or thereabouts. Her father, Robert II, Count of Artois, was a nephew of St Louis, and accordingly Mahaut could claim close kinship to the ruling Capet dynasty, albeit that her great-uncle’s saintliness seems to have passed her by.
I assume Mahaut was educated in accordance with her status – i.e. she was taught to administer substantial landholdings, to read and write and manage her accounts. We have no idea what she looked like, but the Capets in general were a handsome lot, so reasonably Mahaut was pleasing enough on the eye. In 1291, she married Otto of Burgundy, a man at least two decades her senior. Otto had been married before but had no children, something which was quickly remedied as Mahaut presented him with two girls in the first few years of their marriage. I’d guess there were other, unrecorded, babies, before the birth of a precious son in 1300.
Maybe more sons would have followed, but in 1302 Otto died, and Mahaut was suddenly the rich – and powerful – dowager Countess of Burgundy. Some months later, she would also become the countess of Artois.
Mahaut was not the only child of Robert, Count of Artois. In fact, she had two brothers, one of whom died very young, but the other grew up to be a healthy man. This Philippe married and had a son, named Robert after his grandfather. It would seem the succession to the County of Artois through the male line was assured (at the time, male heirs took precedence over female heirs). Phew. Except that in 1298, Philippe died of his wounds after the battle of Furnes. At the time, his son was eleven.
Whether Robert Sr raged and tore his hair at the loss of his only son, we don’t know – but it seems a fair bet to assume he did, finding some comfort in his young namesake. And had Robert Sr lived until his grandson was an adult, things might have gone very differently. Instead, Robert Sr followed his son into the afterlife in 1302 – killed on the battlefield. And this is when Mahaut surged forward and claimed Artois for herself, citing local customs. Effectively, she claimed she was closer by blood to the deceased count than her nephew, ergo she had the right to inherit.
Even from a distance of 700 years, Mahaut comes across as a grasping and callous lady, coolly using archaic customs to disinherit her nephew. It wasn’t as if she was destitute – rather the reverse. Robert Jr was too young to forcibly push his own claim, and besides, King Philippe le Bel had an interest in keeping Mahaut happy – Burgundy was important to France. And so, to the surprise of many of their contemporaries, Philippe upheld Mahaut’s claim.
I imagine our lady of the day rubbed her hands together in glee. Even more so, when some years later she ensured that both her daughters married royalty: Jean, the oldest, became the wife of Philippe, second son of Philippe le Bel, and Blanche married Philippe’s baby brother Charles. Suddenly, she could start dreaming of seeing her grandsons on the French throne – well, assuming Philippe’s and Charles’ older brother Louis did not leave any heirs.
This is where the story about the manipulative poisoner Mahaut starts to take shape: undoubtedly, she had a vested interest in clearing the path for her son-in-law(s). Seeing as she’d already proven herself to be singularly ruthless – poor Robert made sure no one forgot how his detested tante had cheated him of his patrimony – such rumours found fertile ground. But such things were as yet in the future, and instead Mahaut had a number of years in which she could bask in the reflected glory of her daughters.
But not all good things last for ever – not even if you’re named Mahaut. In 1314, France was rocked by the biggest scandal in French medieval history – the Tour de Nesle affair. Through the testimony of Isabella of France, Queen of England, it came to light that her three sisters-in-law were slipping off to enjoy carnal intimacies with men other than their husbands, thereby cuckolding the Capetian princes. Did not go down well, putting it mildly. Mahaut’s precious daughters were revealed as simple adulteresses, the two young men who’d had the temerity of dallying with the princesses were cruelly executed, and everyone assumed the three princesses would be locked up for life in Chateau de Gaillard or in a similar nasty environment.
“Ahem,” said Jeanne, Mahaut’s eldest daughter. “I didn’t do anything wrong! I never cheated on my husband, my dear, handsome Philippe.”
To his everlasting credit, Philippe not only believed her, he defended her, insisting he had no doubts as to his wife’s fidelity or the paternity of their various daughters. So instead of being judged an adulteress, Jeanne got off with the somewhat milder “complicit to adultery”, in that she hadn’t stopped her sister Blanche and her cousin Marguerite from fornicating with their handsome lovers. While Marguerite and Blanche suffered the ignominy of having their heads shorn before the parliament before being cast in prison, Jeanne was exiled from court, spending a number of months begging to be allowed to return to her husband’s side.
Behind her back, the entire court laughed at Mahaut. Her youngest daughter a whore, her eldest selectively blind – no, it did not reflect well on the haughty countess. Things went from bad to worse when her son died in 1315. The riches and lands Mahaut had amassed would not pass to her precious boy (yet another Robert). I dare say nephew Robert felt this was God doing some adequate punishment – he definitely took the opportunity of attempting to wrest Artois by force from Mahaut, fanning the flames of a rebellion that roared into life before spluttering and dying just as quickly. The people of Artois were happy with their countess, who was an able and fair administrator, a generous benefactress of religious orders, and in general much respected – even loved.
In the aftermath of the Tour de Nesle, Philippe le Bel died. His eldest, Louis, became king. Unfortunately for Louis, his wife was sitting in a dark and damp dungeon in Chateau de Gaillard, the daughter he had with her was tainted with the suspicion of bastardy, and there was no pope around to grant him an annulment (the papacy was living through its own little crisis).
Mahaut perked up. If Louis remained fettered to Marguerite, chances were his little daughter would be passed over in the succession, the crown thereby ending up with Mahaut’s dear son-in-law Philippe. So when Marguerite died in captivity, we can safely assume this was not Mahaut’s doing. Nope. Instead, we must point the finger very firmly at Louis, but truth be told, no one seemed all that eager to investigate the disgraced Marguerite’s death, and soon enough Louis had a new bride by his side, Clemence of Hungary.
This Hungarian princess (except she wasn’t all that Hungarian: she was as French as they came) was a major, major monkey-wrench in Mahaut’s plans. Even more so when she became pregnant. Louis was ecstatic – soon he’d have a precious heir, a child untainted by the scandal of Tour de Nesle. And then Louis upped and died – supposedly because he’d drunk too much cold water after a singularly heated and extended tennis game. (Yes: Louis was an avid tennis player – an early adopter of the sport). Or maybe he’d been poisoned…A young and healthy king to drop dead like that? Hmm. More than one glanced at Mahaut – and Philippe.
Poor Clemence was now the equivalent of a defenceless lamb, surrounded by wolves. Philippe was named regent, and took the opportunity to re-affirm the Salic Laws whereby the throne of France could not be passed down through the female line. Should Clemence be delivered of a girl, the crown would pass to Philippe. Should she present the joyous French with a son, Philippe – and I dare say he bared his teeth in a singularly icy smile – would act as regent for his dear nephew.
Clemence gave birth to a boy. Shouts of joy quickly transformed into hiccups of grief when the little baby, Jean I, died after five days. Yet again, there were rumours of poison. Yet again, the main beneficiary was Philippe, with impressive kick-ass mother-in-law Mahaut holding his back.
Leaving aside Maurice Druon’s elegantly woven tale of intrigue and dark mischief (and seriously, if you haven’t read his books about the Capet kings, The Accursed Kings, do so. Now!) one could still argue that Mahaut could have poisoned Louis – and little Jean. On the other hand, so could very many others. Or maybe both Louis and Jean did die natural deaths – albeit this was a novel situation in France, where for four centuries every Capet king had been succeeded by a Capet son.
Whatever the case, Philippe was now king. Only problem was, he had no sons. None. A boy was born and died in 1316 – the year Philippe became king – and after that there were no more babies. At most, his daughters could aspire to inherit grandma Mahaut’s combined title Countess of Burgundy and Artois – and marry well. Unless Philippe had sons, his crown would pass to brother Charles, also Mahaut’s son-in-law. The problem in this case was that Charles had no desire to reconcile with his wife, Blanche. Mahaut’s youngest daughter had been locked away in 1314, had given birth while imprisoned (with serious doubts cast on the child’s paternity), and Charles wanted nothing to do with her – he wanted an annulment and a new wife.
In 1322, Philippe died. Charles became king and wasted no time in forcing through an annulment. The children he’d had by Blanche were both dead, and Charles needed heirs – fast! For the first time in remembered history, the Capet dynasty had no male heirs. None. By now, Blanche was in a bad way – her eight years locked away had marked her for life. Once her marriage had been declared null and void, she was allowed to take the veil and was to die in a convent some years later. With her died Mahaut’s hopes of seeing a grandchild ascend France’s throne. By then, the pragmatic and hard-nosed Mahaut had probably given up on that particular dream. After years at the centre of things, she chose to pass her last years with her eldest daughter, widowed Queen Jeanne, and capably managing her estates.
So, who was Mahaut? A cold-hearted and manipulative bitch who stopped at nothing – not even murder – to reach her goals? A capable, if greedy, woman maligned by her contemporaries for being just that – competent? Well, Mahaut isn’t telling – ladies who’ve been buried for close to seven centuries rarely do. I suspect the truth lies somewhere in between: ambition and power does strange things to people, and Mahaut comes across as being somewhat addicted to this particular drug combo. But from there to murder it’s a loooong step!
In 1329, Mahaut fell ill. Some days later, she died. Ironically, some say she was poisoned…