1314: Tour de Nesle Affair adulterers

7 comments 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.

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1315: Enguerrand de Marigny, on Montfaucon

8 comments April 30th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1315, an obscure petty noble who had become the king’s right-hand man was hanged by his rivals a few months after his royal sponsor expired.

Late in the epoch-making reign of King Philip the Fair — under whose rule the papacy was hijacked to Avignon and the Templars were crushedEnguerrand de Marigny was the man loyally keeping the books.

Since Philip was a stubbornly spendthrift fellow, that meant Marigny’s chief pursuit was the creative extraction of new revenues, through fresh taxes and the debasement of coinage. His public esteem suffered commensurately, little aided by the fact that his duties made him fabulously wealthy and the most powerful man in the country, give or take a king.

Said monarch was vigorous in that age-old pastime of the feudal monarchy, centralization of the power scattered among the nobility, further to which end he was happy to promote a competent administrator of scanty lineage and dependable loyalty.

Aggrieved lords, like the grasping Charles de Valois, were ready with their grudges against the unpopular minister when Philip shuffled off in November 1314. When charges of financial impropriety didn’t stick, they cooked up an allegation of sorcery — just then coming into vogue as a trump card in the game of judicial homicide.

Enguerrand hung two years upon the monumentally terrifying Montfaucon Gibbet (the link is to the structure’s French Wikipedia page), but everyone felt just terrible about it later. (the link is French, again) An actual inquiry — they skipped that step when they strung him up — exonerated the luckless minister, allowing his heirs to retrieve his body and a chunk of his fortune from the sympathetic king; Charles was so pursued by guilt that on his deathbed, he sent out a fat dispensation of alms with the request that recipients pray for both Enguerrand de Marigny and himself.

It worked … at least for Marigny’s reputation.

None can tell, after this lapse of time, whether this remorse proceeded from weakness of mind or sincerity of heart, and which of the two personages was really guilty; but, ages afterwards, such is the effect of blind, popular clamor and unrighteous judicial proceedings, that the condemned lives in history as a victim and all but a guileless being. (Source)

It was no hard feelings from Enguerrand’s little brother, Jean. The family influence had landed him a bishopric, and he held the job until his death in 1350, even repelling an English siege of Beauvais during the Hundred Years’ War.

A European Haman?

Enguerrand de Marigny comes in for a passing notice as T.H. White affectionately surveys the Middle Ages in The Once and Future King:

What an amazing time the age of chivalry was! Everybody was essentially himself — was riotously busy fulfilling the vagaries of human nature … [a] coruscating mixture of oddities who reckoned that they possessed the things called souls as well as bodies, and who fulfilled them in the most surprising ways.

[Y]ou might have seen Enguerrand de Marigny, who built the enormous gallows at Mountfalcon, [sic] himself rotting and clanking on the same gallows, because he had been found guilty of Black Magic.*

That Marigny erected the gallows on which he hung is an oft-repeated claim, an instance of a whole subgenre of moralistic folklore in which death-dealing inventors are hoisted on their own petard. These stories are not always dependable — contra rumor, for instance, Dr. Guillotin was not guillotined — and today’s protagonist may not have a firm hold on this small consolation, either.

Here is Victor Hugo’s rendering of the structure’s history in The Hunchback of Notre Dame.

Montfauçon was, as Sauval says, “the most ancient and the most superb gibbet in the kingdom.” …

Let the reader picture to himself, crowning a limestone hillock, an oblong mass of masonry fifteen feet in height, thirty wide, forty long, with a gate, an external railing and a platform; on this platform sixteen enormous pillars of rough hewn stone, thirty feet in height, arranged in a colonnade round three of the four sides of the mass which support them, bound together at their summits by heavy beams, whence hung chains at intervals; on all these chains, skeletons; in the vicinity, on the plain, a stone cross and two gibbets of secondary importance, which seemed to have sprung up as shoots around the central gallows; above all this, in the sky, a perpetual flock of crows; that was Montfauçon.

At the end of the fifteenth century, the formidable gibbet which dated from 1328, was already very much dilapidated; the beams were wormeaten, the chains rusted, the pillars green with mould; the layers of hewn stone were all cracked at their joints, and grass was growing on that platform which no feet touched. The monument made a horrible profile against the sky; especially at night when there was a little moonlight on those white skulls, or when the breeze of evening brushed the chains and the skeletons, and swayed all these in the darkness. The presence of this gibbet sufficed to render gloomy all the surrounding places.

The mass of masonry which served as foundation to the odious edifice was hollow. A huge cellar had been constructed there, closed by an old iron grating, which was out of order, into which were cast not only the human remains, which were taken from the chains of Montfauçon, but also the bodies of all the unfortunates executed on the other permanent gibbets of Paris. To that deep charnel-house, where so many human remains and so many crimes have rotted in company, many great ones of this world, many innocent people, have contributed their bones, from Enguerrand de Marigni, the first victim, and a just man, to Admiral de Coligni, who was its last, and who was also a just man.

Hugo — who, let us admit, is not to be depended upon for history — has elevated Marigny to the very first victim of the Montfaucon gallows, but the reader will also notice that the same passage dates the edifice’s construction thirteen years after Marigny’s own execution.

Helpless Historiography

Montfaucon the execution site had a rich history. There seem to have been at least two separate gallows sites (the link is French) on the hill, and its vintage as an execution space dates back to the 13th century. (more French)

About this point, this blog runs against the limits of its writer’s access to primary documentation and werewithal to pursue it. Sources seem mightily confused on the embryonic era of Montfaucon; at least two other ministers — Pierre de La Brosse, a confidante of the previous king, and Pierre Remy, another royal treasurer hanged a generation after Marigny — also have their own claim to have been hanged on the structure they erected.

It may be that this was actually true of Remy, a less dramatically captivating figure with an official portfolio similar to Marigny’s, and the two simply became conflated in legend. Something certainly seems to have been built during his time, and it may have been the stone replacement for the original gallows.

The suggestion of someone who researched it more thoroughly than I have (another French page, but worth the visit if only for the pictorial schematics) is that the landmark structure may have predated all these men.** Brosse and Marigny, in this conception, may simply have worked various repairs upon it that became magnified in the retelling, while the gallows Remy set up might have been those on the secondary location, erected as a stopgap during a more thorough reconstruction of the permanent site, and/or reserved for more vulgar elements than ministers of the crown.

* Readers may appreciate an annotation of other references White makes in his fantasy classic.

** We find repeated claims that the alleged “sorceror” Marigny engaged for his capital crime was hanged below him, which would support that notion; I have been unable to identify the provenance of this detail, however.

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