ER,  France,  Western Europe

Tour de Nesle Affair-  Medieval Soap Opera

The annulment of Blanche and Charles’ marriage Photo Credit-
The annulment of Blanche and Charles’ marriage Photo Credit-

No royal family is immune to scandal, but this one was a juicy one.  King Philip IV had three sons, who all eventually succeeded him to the throne in term.  They all made good marriages as befitted heirs to the throne and princes of France.  The eldest and heir, Louis, married Marguerite of Burgundy.   His brother, Philip, married Jeanne of Burgundy and the youngest brother, Charles, married Jeanne’s sister, Blanche of Burgundy.  The two sisters were Marguerite’s cousin, so they were all related by marriage and blood.  All of the couples seemed to have successful marriages, if not happy then amiable enough for children to be born to all of them.  Philip IV also had a daughter, Isabella, who went to England to marry King Edward II.  The tale of that marriage is a whole other post, but she does come into the story.

Isabella gave her sisters-in-law some beautifully embroidered purses while on a state visit to France with her husband.  The Burgundian princesses had transformed the French court into a place of frivolity and fun since the death of their mother-in-law, and Isabella must have wanted to thank them for their hospitality.  After returning back to England, two Norman knights appeared at Edward II’s court.  This was not unusually as French and Norman knights were often in attendance, however, these two were quite dashing.  Philip and Gautier d’Aulnay were two brothers who were handsome and charming, and caught the eye of many ladies at court.  Isabella noticed them, but not for the good looks.  She noticed that brothers was carrying a purse she had given to her sisters-in-law, Marguerite and Blanche.  Isabella’s suspicions were aroused.  Was this just a tacky regift or was it something more?

Dilapidated Tour de Nesle, as sketched in the 17th century by Jacques Callot. The tower was destroyed in 1665. Photo Credit-
Dilapidated Tour de Nesle, as sketched in the 17th century by Jacques Callot. The tower was destroyed in 1665. Photo Credit-

The brothers were less than discrete, and whispers and rumors reached King Philip.  Isabella shared her suspicions and the two brothers were put under surveillance as well as Blanche, Marguerite and Jeanne.  The trail led them to the Tour de Nesle, an old fortress on the Seine, that the three ladies had transformed into a bachelorette pad.  All three of them women and the knights were arrested, and the men were tortured.  Under the brutal inquisition the men spilled the beans, and confessed they had been having affairs with Marguerite and Blanche for some time.  Jeanne was not in an active affair, but was present and knew about her cousin and sister’s infidelities.  This was huge as if any of the women had gotten pregnant they would have been passing off their lover’s child as the legitimate heir.  The fate of the Capetian line was a stake.  Punishment was swift and brutal.

The men were publicly castrated, flayed alive and then decapitated. The women were a bit more fortunate.  All three went on trial before the Paris Parliament.  Prince Philip intervened for his wife, Jeanne, and she was found not guilty.  Her two cousins were not so lucky.  Blanche and Marguerite were found guilty and had their heads shaved and were sent to Chateau Gaillard, where they were imprisoned underground.

Months after the Tour de Nesle affair, King Philip IV died and his successor became Louis X.  Technically, he had a daughter, Jeanne, from his marriage to Marguerite, but her parentage had been called into question.  Louis needed to remarry and quickly.  Conveniently, Marguerite died soon after.  Whether it was just luck or the fact she was put in a tower room open to the elements, I shall leave that to your imagination, dear reader.  Louis remarried and immediately his wife was pregnant.  Alas, Louis died after a game of tennis and his baby son died soon after him.

Now what?  Did the crown go to Jeanne of the uncertain parentage or to his brother Philip?  Since Jeane was only a child of four, it is not surprising that everyone preferred that crown went to Philip.  As soon as he was crowned, Philip convened the three estates of France and confirmed that they were following Salic Law, which said that females could not inherit the throne.  This put the orphan Jeanne right out.  Unfortunately, Philip and his male heir died as well.  He left behind four daughters, but by their father’s own assertion they could not inherit.  So on to King Charles.

Charles was also still technically married to Blanche, imprisoned in Chateau Gaillard.  Blanche, despite the terrible conditions, managed to eak out some comfort with one of her jailers and bore him a child.  Charles was granted an annulment and married again twice, but still died without male issue.

Salic law said the throne could not pass to Isabella, but she tried to end run it by enforcing the claim of her son, Edward III.  And ladies and gentlemen, we have the Hundred Years War.  All from a love nest of two knights and their married princesses.


Sources available on request