Dangerous liaisons at the Tour de Nesle

We are in 1314, and never has the King of France been so powerful.

At forty-five years old, the grandson of Saint Louis, Philippe le Bel, is truly “emperor in his kingdom”, sole master of a monarchy that he centralizes and whose preeminence he reaffirms over the vassals.

Died in 1305, his tender wife Jeanne de Navarre assured the dynasty by giving him three sons: Louis de Navarre, Philippe de Poitiers, and Charles de la Marche. In order to further strengthen Capetian power, Philippe le Bel implemented a skilful matrimonial policy for his sons. He does not go looking for foreigners, as is generally customary, but three young girls who are also descendants of Saint Louis: Marguerite de Bourgogne, daughter of Robert II of Burgundy and Agnès de France, and her cousins ​​Jeanne and Blanche of Burgundy, daughters of Mahaut d’Artois.

Louis marries Marguerite in 1305, Philippe is united to Jeanne in 1307, and Charles to Blanche in 1308. The whole kingdom waits for the three sisters-in-law to give the King of France a string of grandchildren. But the young women, in a mood that was too free and too joyful, were not going to be satisfied for long with the austerity that reigned at the Court of France, and unleashed the most resounding scandal of the reign of Philippe le Bel.

Philippe IV le Bel
Philippe IV le Bel

Princesses made for love

Feeling death watching for him, Philippe le Bel notes with annoyance that his daughters-in-law prefer to frolic and have fun as they see fit rather than ensuring him a descendant. It is because the three young women are not made for the life of absolute rigor advocated by Philippe le Bel: he is not known to have had any affair during the lifetime of his wife, to whom he remains faithful even in death, and he abhors everything. what touches libertinage, near or far. The three princesses do not hear it that way: the less wise are Marguerite and her cousin Blanche.

Marguerite, this princess of noble ancestry, is described by her contemporaries as being endowed with unusual beauty, a lively mind and an arrogant sensuality.

Royal in appearance, conquering, she deeply loves life and regards her husband with an air of defiance.

Is the young wife bored at Court? Certainly. It also seems that her married life hardly satisfies her. There is talk of disagreement in the couple, the incompatible characters of Marguerite and Louis are in perpetual confrontation.

Blanche meanwhile, married to Charles at a very young age (12 years old), languishes with this husband who is a bit dim. She is said to be very beautiful, good-natured, happy to laugh at a trifle, ignorant of the next day. Younger, more easily influenced, she will follow Marguerite down the dangerous slope of adultery…

For now, the two sisters and their cousin are the muses of Paris. Elegant, laughing, we love them: they bring a breath of joy, youth and charm to the Court of France.

Among the princesses, we make music, we listen to poetry; merchants of rare fabrics and precious perfumes find an eager welcome here. In the dark vaulted rooms of the Palais de la Cité, new fashions are born: the three young women do not hesitate to be daring, wearing dresses that open up to the hip, to the rhythm of the gait.

Imaginary Portrait of Margaret of Burgundy
Imaginary Portrait of Margaret of Burgundy

King Philippe gauges these extravagances with his severe and cold gaze. But it is necessary that youth pass: he does not reprimand. It is still necessary that these pretty girls do not cross certain limits. Heads down, they rush into tragedy.

Marguerite and her cousin Blanche take two brothers for lovers: Gautier and Philippe d’Aunay, handsome as Apollos, knights of the King’s household. They secretly see their lovers in the tower of Nesle, protected by Jeanne. Calm, gentle and wiser, this one does not take the risk of imitating them, but she compromises herself dangerously by covering them up. The loves of the princesses will last two and a half years.

The Tour de Nesle, originally named the Tour Hamelin, is high on the left bank of the Seine, opposite the Tour du Louvre. Both are part of the four large towers of the enclosure that Philippe-Auguste had built from 1214 to protect Paris. Round and massive, that of Nesle, almost 25 meters high, quickly took the name of the Hotel de Nesle built nearby. It is in this hotel that the three princes and their respective wives live.

The one through whom the scandal comes

For some time now, the gossips of the Court have been whispering about the “wildness” of the princesses. Without evidence. As soon as a woman is pretty, coquettish, she sees herself accused of sin by jealous women. There is no evidence to support these accusations, and the princesses recklessly go on with their happy lives. The visit to Paris of the King of England Edward II at the beginning of the year 1314, sounded the death knell of the beautiful days. Indeed, he is accompanied by his wife Isabelle de France, the daughter of Philippe le Bel, who would be at the origin of the discovery of the adultery of the princesses.

A few months earlier, Isabelle would have given her two sisters-in-law Marguerite and Blanche two precious, richly embroidered chaplains. What a surprise to discover them on the belt of two lords who were part of the procession who came to receive her! Such a gift hides something unmentionable, that’s for sure…

We can, in the case where this story of chaplains is true, easily reconstruct the events. When the Queen of England gathers evidence of the guilt of the young women, her anger bursts. Thus, what we whisper is true: the Court of France shelters the princesses of debauchery! Two reasons that have nothing to do with each other push her to react so violently. His own marriage is a total failure: Edward II is homosexual, has absolutely no interest in his wife. Her status as Princess of France then does not allow her to let such an offense pass.

It is her wounded pride as a proud princess, daughter of Philippe le Bel, but also the unconscious jealousy of a frustrated wife, faced with the irritating spectacle of physically satisfied women, which pushes her to intransigence.

Julie Gayet in the role of Isabelle de France — Series “the Cursed Kings” version 2005
Julie Gayet in the role of Isabelle de France — Series “the Cursed Kings” version 2005

Isabelle would then have requested an audience with the King her father, who then resided at the Château de Maubuisson, near Pontoise, a residence he loved because it kept him far from the city. After hearing Isabelle’s astonishing accusation, Philippe has a secret investigation carried out. She confirms in all respects the sad reality: Marguerite has Philippe d’Aunay as a lover, Blanche her brother Gautier, and Jeanne, by her mere presence, has become the benevolent accomplice of her sister and her cousin.

The King hesitates. The situation is serious, but what to do? By punishing the culprits, he caused the scandal to burst, this scandal which would splatter not only the royal family but the monarchy as a whole. By not punishing them, he takes the risk of questioning the legitimacy of his present and future grandchildren. Philip the Fair cannot tolerate such an offence. The relentless justice of the Iron King falls on the adulterous princesses and their accomplices. At night, at the beginning of this year 1314, Marguerite, Jeanne and Blanche de Bourgogne were arrested. They immediately learn that the Aunay brothers are already moaning under the atrocious torture of the question.

Exemplary punishments

Gautier and Philippe hold firm, but the executioner redoubles his refinement: seldom have bodies suffered as much as those of the unfortunate knights. More dead than alive, broken by pain, Philippe admits to being the lover of Princess Marguerite. Gauthier did not take long to do the same: yes, he found Blanche in the Tour de Nesle! The princesses, who have denied, collapse under the frightening weight of the confessions: one and the other, in sobs, recognize the adultery. Only Jeanne continues to protest, and for good reason! She is not guilty, and demands to see the King. Philippe le Bel receives her, declares that she can defend herself before the court he has reserved for her. In the meantime, he still has her locked up in the castle of Dourdan…

On the other hand, no pity for Marguerite and Blanche. They are tried and sentenced to life imprisonment. Stripped of their rich clothes, shorn (punishment reserved for adulterous women), dressed in homespun, they are taken in a cart to the dungeon of Andelys. It remains to publicly punish the knights of Aunay.

Torture has left them only breath, comes the day of the last torture.

Nothing is spared them: they are emasculated, flayed alive, decapitated then hung on the gibbet by the armpits (or by the feet, according to the sources…!). Some servants accused of complicity are also sacrificed. The cruelty of the punishment astonishes public opinion, which remains confounded by so much barbarism. If the people are accustomed to these practices, they nevertheless find the punishment very severe for a fault, which, ordinarily, does not call for so much violence.

This is to misjudge the consequences of such adulterous behavior. Beyond the affront to the royal family, this crime is an attack on the institutions of the kingdom even more than on morals: it quite simply endangers the Capetian dynasty. What would be the legitimacy of a future sovereign whose royal paternity can be questioned? It is not the arrest of the princesses and the execution of the Aunay brothers that will prevent the elder branch of the Capetians from dying out, but that, Philippe le Bel does not know and will never know.

Marguerite of Burgundy has her hair tonsured — 14th century miniature
Marguerite of Burgundy has her hair tonsured — 14th century miniature

The timely death of Marguerite

On November 29, 1314, the Iron King died: Marguerite and Blanche were then transferred to Château-Gaillard, a real war castle transformed into a cold, damp and austere prison.

Louis X le Hutin ascends the throne, but he is still married to Marguerite de Bourgogne: a Queen of France languishes in a dungeon! This situation cannot last, especially since the new King wishes to repudiate her as soon as possible. However, adultery is not considered by the Church as a sufficient reason to annul a marriage.

Behold, Marguerite dies suddenly. Natural death or assassination? It is true that the princess, considered the most culpable because wife of the heir to the throne, was isolated in a jail open to all winds at the top of the tower of Château-Gaillard: she would have died, it is said, of ‘a pneumonia. At least officially.

Other sources report that she was strangled to death on the orders of Louis X, who wanted to get rid of her as soon as possible to marry Clemence of Hungary.

Silvana Pampanini as Marguerite of Burgundy, 1955 film “la tour de Nesle”
Silvana Pampanini as Marguerite of Burgundy, 1955 film “la tour de Nesle”

It is true that this timely death is still timely. After barely a year in her cell, Marguerite disappears, taking with her the mysteries of her death. A legend says that she would have survived. Her powerful family would have “exfiltrated” her, and she would have lived in hiding at the Château de Couches, dying in 1333 and not in 1315.

Disturbing writings attest to this, but historical evidence seems to be lacking.

Jeanne the survivor

Jeanne, for her part, is still languishing in the Château de Dourdan. She is an intelligent, cultured woman, and her union with Philippe seems happy. If she did not betray her husband, she did not want to denounce her sister and cousin either, so she compromised herself with them. During the trial, when Marguerite and Blanche confess their faults, she is only accused of complicity. Her mother Mahaut d’Artois eventually intervened to clear her.

Philippe, her husband, plans for a moment to repudiate her, but he must then return Franche-Comté, a powerful fief brought as a dowry. “He thinks then that his “marital honor” is not worth this loss. “And then, his little Jeanne, he likes her…. He ends up obtaining his release from his brother Louis le Hutin, not without difficulty. On December 25, 1314, Jeanne de Bourgogne, found innocent, was acquitted by a decree of Parliament. After eight months of imprisonment, she comes out at Christmas and finds her place at Court.

On the death of Louis X le Hutin, Philippe de Poitiers ascended the throne under the name of Philippe V le Long. Jeanne becomes Queen of France, she is crowned in Reims with her husband on January 9, 1317 and remains at his side throughout his reign. A fairly brief reign, since Philippe V succumbed in 1322. From this union came seven children: only four daughters survived. Once again, a King dies without male descendants…

Lady of heart and culture, Jeanne founded by will the College of Burgundy, and showed kindness towards her dear county of Burgundy. She also received from her husband the Hôtel de Nesle and the tower that scandalized France so much. Widowed, she retired there and lived there for ten years: the place is not lacking in memories! It was there that she died in 1329, at the age of 37.

Julie Depardieu in the role of Jeanne de Bourgogne, series “The Accursed Kings” version 2005
Julie Depardieu in the role of Jeanne de Bourgogne, series “The Accursed Kings” version 2005

Blanche’s long penance

If Marguerite dies at Château-Gaillard a year after entering prison, the same is not true for Blanche. Her treatment is less cruel: she is considered less guilty than Marguerite. After the death of her cousin, the young girl, aged nineteen, will remain in her cell for another eight long years, alone and desperate.

Meanwhile, Charles IV became King in 1322. He has no pity for his wife. He does not forgive her adultery and the sad reputation that results from it. Aware of being the last Capetian and anxious to leave an heir on the throne, he asked the pope to annul his marriage. As adultery is not admissible, it is on the grounds of consanguinity that the alliance is dissolved. It is not a question of close kinship but of spiritual kinship: Mahaut d’Artois, mother of Blanche, is she not the godmother of Charles IV? The Church rejects union with the children of her godparents. On May 19, 1322, Pope John XXII pronounced the dissolution of the marriage, and the young woman willingly accepted the annulment. Theoretically free, Blanche is transferred to the Château de Gavray, in Normandy. She will only leave it to enter the convent in the abbey of Maubuisson where she will end her days in penance.

Anne Malraux in the role of Blanche of Burgundy, series Les Rois Maudits, 2005 version
Anne Malraux in the role of Blanche of Burgundy, series Les Rois Maudits, 2005 version

A short-lived love of youth will have sealed the fate of this brainless and inconsequential young woman. She paid dearly for the influence exercised over her by her cousin Marguerite. The one who could have claimed the throne will have lost, in the arms of Gautier d’Aunay, freedom, love and finally her life. Blanche de Bourgogne died in the convent in 1326, aged 30.

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