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1314: Tour de Nesle Affair adulterers

April 19th, 2010 Headsman

Think you want to fall in love with a princess?

On this date in 1314, the French crown dissuaded the fantasy by butchering two Norman knights who had sheathed their swords where they oughtn’t.

In the Tour de Nesle affair (English Wikipedia page | French), French princess Isabella — then Queen of England, where she is known as Isabella of France or any number of less-flattering sobriquets — noticed that some purses she had once given her brothers’ wives as gifts were being sported by a couple of (evidently metrosexual) dudes in the court.

Let their fate be a warning against regifting.

In short order, the purse-toting knights Philippe and Gauthier d’Aunay or d’Aulnay (both links are in French) were arrested for tapping, respectively: Margaret of Burgundy (the wife of the king’s eldest son, Louis, soon to become Louis X); and, Blanche of Burgundy (the wife of the king’s third son, Charles, the future king Charles IV).*

“The pious confidence of the middle age, which did not mistrust the immuring of a great lady along with her knights in the precincts of a castle, of a narrow tower — the vassalage which imposed on young men as a feudal duty the sweetest cares, was a dangerous trial for human nature, when the ties of religion were weakened.”

-Jules Michelet

Under torture, the knights copped to the cuckoldry, supposed to have been conducted in the Tour de Nesle, a since-destroyed guard tower on the Seine.**


Detail view (click to see larger image) of the dilapidated Tour de Nesle, as sketched in the 17th century by Jacques Callot. The tower was destroyed in 1665.

The knights suffered horrific deaths:

“deux jeunes et biaux chevaliers furents roués vifs, écorchés vifs , émasculés, épendus de plomb soufré en ébullition, puis décapités, traînés à travers rues, et pendus au gibet y pourrissant durant des semaines. Leurs sexes, instruments du crime, sont jetés aux chiens. Jamais corps n’auront autant souffert.”

In fine: flayed, broken on the wheel, burned with hot lead and sulfur, genitals thrown to the dogs, and then decapitated for ignominious gibbeting on Montfaucon.

The women fared only a little better. Neither faced execution, and in fact both would technically become Queens of France. But they “reigned” as such from prison.

Margaret of Burgundy was clapped in a tower in a room exposed to the elements while her estranged husband became king. She succumbed (or possibly was murdered outright to clear the way for a new wife) in 1315.

Blanche of Burgundy was still in wedlock and still locked up in Chateau-Gaillard when her husband ascended the throne early in 1322; the marriage was annulled a few months later, and Blanche lived out her last few years at a nunnery.

Isabella’s role in all of this as the goody-two-shoes informer upon the adulterers looks particularly ironic with benefit of hindsight. In another 12 years’ time, this Queen of England and an adulterous lover combined to overthrow the King of England.

But maybe not so ironic after all, if one takes her for a power-thirsty “she-wolf”.

This Tour de Nesle scandal also happened to cast doubt on the paternity of Margaret’s only daughter Joan, which mitigated against Joan (and potentially in favor of Isabella’s new son, Edward) for eventual claim to the throne of France. Since this potential succession was not evidently imminent, and Isabella had three brothers in the prime of life, this seems a farfetched motivation for tattling. But one is drawn to the question of inheritance since happenstance soon put the royal succession into dispute — a misfortune that helped lead to the Hundred Years’ War when that son, grown up to be Edward III of England, did indeed press his French claims at swordpoint.

(The Tour de Nesle scandal is generally thought now to have been legitimate, on the grounds that the ruling family would not have inflicted such an injury to its own legitimacy without very good cause. However, according to Alison Weir, at least one chronicle blamed the affair on a frame-up by hated royal advisor — and eventual Executed Today client — Enguerrand de Marigny.)

Neither Isabella nor Joan ever ruled France. Joan, however, was an ancestor of Henri IV.

* The wife of the middle son, Philip, was also accused of knowing about the affairs, but her strong defense and her husband’s backing got her off.

** Spectacular embroideries enhanced the legend in later generations, into tales of a royal succubus making her rendezvous in the tower by night, then having her lovers hurled off it at dawn. Alexandre Dumas spun a melodrama from this material, though Frederic Gaillardet accused him of plagiarism. (Dumas gives his side of the story at excrutiating length in his memoirs.) La Tour de Nesle was later made into a movie.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 14th Century,Arts and Literature,Beheaded,Broken on the Wheel,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Flayed,France,Gibbeted,Gruesome Methods,History,Nobility,Power,Public Executions,Scandal,Sex,Torture,Treason

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7 thoughts on “1314: Tour de Nesle Affair adulterers”

  1. Fiz says:

    Good piece on a very forgotten part of French history! I do wish they would re-publish Maurice Druon’s book series ” The Accursed Kings of France”. He wrote them as fiction but did an enormous amount of research for them and they are now out of print and hardbacks go for thousand second or third hand – well out of my pocket, anyway. Jason, Isabella is considered as “how not to be a Queen” by those who consider her at all in the UK!

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