“Accursed! Accursed! You shall be accursed to the thirteenth generation!”
This was the curse roared from the flames of Jacques de Molay’s pyre in Maurice Druon’s classic novel The Iron King. In 1314 the death of Molay, last Grand Master of the Knights Templar, symbolized the end of this powerful organisation of “holy soldiers”. This may be a fictional curse but later events would definitely make the last Capetian Kings of France seem ill-fated…
Philip IV ‘the Fair’, Louis X ‘the Stubborn’, John I ‘the posthumous’, Philip V ‘the Long’ and Charles ‘the Fair’ IV were the last of the direct line of Capetian kings to rule France and all their reigns were marked with scandal and conspiracy.
Philip IV was known as the ‘Iron King’ and became king in 1285. His reign involved continual war with England (although this wasn’t particularly unusual for the medieval period!) Yet this led to financial difficulties and Philip relied on devaluation, confiscating property from the French Jewish population and imposing exceptional taxes at the clergy. Taxing the clergy naturally put Philip in conflict with Pope Boniface VIII, who in retaliation suspended Philip’s right to tax the clergy and imposed Unam sanctam, a bull which expressed the theory that the Pope was above monarchs. Events turned so sour that Philip was very nearly excommunicated. His worsening finances were also a part of his motivation to attack the Knights Templar, who were a wealthy crusading organisation. Despite poor beginnings, when founded in 1119, it hadn’t taken long for this organisation to grow powerful. The demise of the Knights Templar’s was swift and brutal. Charges of heresy and sodomy were levied against them, and they were hunted down and tortured into giving confessions of guilt. Molay’s fictional curse isn’t too far fetched when considering the events that happened next. As not long before Philip’s death in 1314, a sexual scandal occurred within the heart of the royal family that were too cause serious repercussions for his heirs.
The Tour de Nesle scandal, as it came to be known, involved the wives of Louis X and his younger brothers Philip and Charles. Marguerite of Burgundy (wife of Louis) and Blanche of Burgundy (wife of Charles) were found guilty of having affairs with two French knights Gautier and Philippe d’Aunay. Jeanne, although generally believed to have not committed adultery, was accused of covering for them. Marguerite and Blanche were imprisoned in the forbidding Château Gaillard fortress. Louis’ heir was his daughter Joan, but now her legitimacy was thrown into question due to the actions of her mother. On acceding to the throne he needed a new wife, and fast, if he were to beget more heirs. A prospective bride was found in Clemence of Hungary, but the problem remained of what to do with his first wife. Marguerite, conveniently for Louis, died in 1316 which leads many to believe that Louis had her murdered so he could remarry quickly. It wasn’t long until Clemence became pregnant, but Louis would not live long enough to see the birth of son and heir, as he died in 1316 at the age of 26.
This led to a tense few months with no King of France, as the nation waited with bated breath for the birth of Clemence’s child. The months passed and Clemence was delivered of a son John, but sadly he died within a few days. Whether his death was the result of foul play by his uncle Philip is debated. This then led to the accession of Philip V in 1316. His wife Jeanne had been imprisoned for her involvement in the Tour de Nesle affair, but Philip must have believed in wife’s innocence as he did not repudiate her, and had her crowned Queen in 1317. They had no surviving sons, and as Philip has convinced the States General to prohibit the succession of women to the French throne in 1317, he was succeeded by his brother Charles on his death in 1322.
France was now ruled by its fifth king in less than a decade. A quick succession of kings usually meant instability for a kingdom, which is what happened in France, with Charles IV having his work cut out for him having to face a rebellion in Flanders’s early on into his short rule. Like his brothers he also died early without male issue, his first wife Blanche he repudiated (their marriage was annulled in 1322) his second wife Mary of Luxembourg died in childbirth and his third wife did not have sons. With his early death in 1328 aged 33 the direct Capetian dynasty ended with him.
So were the last Capetian Kings cursed? They were certainly unlucky, all of Philip IV’s sons died prematurely without surviving male heirs, leading the country into a state of instability ultimately leading to the end of a 341 year rule by the Capetian dynasty.
What do you think of the last Capetian Kings? I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments below!
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The Templars: The Rise and Spectacular Fall of God’s Holy Warriors by Dan Jones
The Accursed Kings by Maurice Druon
The Family Trees of the Kings of France by Jean-Charles Volkmann