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From the Emperor’s Desk: When posting on the life of King Philippe V of France and Navarre I briefly mentioned The Tour de Nesle affair. Today I am starting a short series on that scandal.


The Tour de Nesle affair was a scandal amongst the French royal family in 1314, during which Margaret, Blanche, and Jeanne the daughters-in-law of King Philippe IV, were accused of adultery. The accusations were apparently started by Philippe ‘s daughter, Isabella. The Tour de Nesle was a tower in Paris where much of the adultery was said to have occurred. The scandal led to torture, executions and imprisonments for the princesses’ lovers and the imprisonment of the princesses, with lasting consequences for the final years of the House of Capet.

The royal scandal occurred at the end of the difficult reign of Philippe IV, known as “le Bel” (the Fair) because of his good looks. Philippe IV was a strangely unemotional man. The contemporary bishop of Pamiers described him as “neither a man nor a beast, but a statue”; modern historians have noted that he “cultivated a reputation for Christian kingship and showed few weaknesses of the flesh.”

Throughout his reign, Philippe had attempted to build up the authority and prestige of the French crown, raising fresh revenues, creating new institutions of government, engaging in wars against his rivals, and on occasion challenging the authority of the Church. Just before the crisis broke, Philippe had been engaged in the liquidation of the order of the Knights Templar in France. By 1314, however, he was financially overstretched and in an increasingly difficult domestic political situation, and some have suggested that his weakened position contributed to the subsequent royal crisis.

Philippe IV had three sons, Louis, Philippe and Charles. As was customary for the period, all three were married with an eye for political gain. Initially Philippe had intended for Louis to marry Jeanne, the eldest daughter of Otto IV, Count of Burgundy, but in the end chose Margaret, the daughter of Robert II, Duke of Burgundy, in 1305, and arranged for his middle son Philippe to marry Jeanne of Burgundy in 1307. His youngest son Charles married Blanche of Burgundy another of Otto’s daughters, in 1308.

The three marriages had fared differently. The union of Louis and Margaret of Burgundy is considered to have been an unhappy match; Louis, known as “the Quarreler” and “the Headstrong”, is said to have preferred playing real tennis to spending time with the “feisty and shapely” Margaret. Charles, a relatively conservative, “strait-laced” and “stiff-necked” individual, had an unexceptional marriage. Philippe, the future King Philippe V, in contrast, became noted for his unusual generosity to his wife Jeanne; the pair had a considerable number of children in a short space of time and Philip wrote numerous, if formulaic, love letters to his wife over the years.

French Royal Family, depicted in 1315: l-r: Charles and Philippe , Isabella, Philippe IV, Louis, and Charles of Valois. Bibliothèque Nationale de France.

Meanwhile, Philippe IV the Fair married his daughter, Isabella, to Edward II of England in 1308 in an attempt to resolve the tensions of his twin problems of conflict over the contested territories of Gascony and Flanders. Isabella’s marriage proved difficult, largely due to Edward’s intimate relationship with his close friend and possible lover, Piers Gaveston. Isabella looked frequently to her father for help addressing the problems in her English marriage.

Most accounts of the scandal begin with the visit of King Edward II and Queen Isabella of England to the queen’s father in France during 1313. During the visit, Louis and Charles had a satirical puppet show put on for their guests, and after this Isabella had given new embroidered purses both to her brothers and to their wives. Later in the year, Isabella and Edward held a large dinner in London to celebrate their return and Isabella apparently noticed that the purses she had given to her sisters-in-law were now being carried by two Norman knights, Walter of Aunay (also known as Gautier of Aunay) and Philip of Aunay. Isabella reached the conclusion that the pair must have been carrying on an illicit affair with the wives of her brothers Louis and Charles and appears to have informed her father of this during her next visit to France in 1314.

Philippe IV placed the knights under surveillance for a period, and the scandal began to take shape. The accusations centred on suggestions that Blanche and Margaret had been drinking, eating and engaging in adultery with Gautier and Philip of Aunay in the Tour de Nesle over a period time.

The Tour de Nesle was an old guard tower in Paris next to the river Seine and had been bought by Philip IV in 1308. The third sister-in-law, Joan, was initially said to have been present on some of these occasions and to have known of the affair; later accusations were extended to have included suggestions that she had also been involved in adultery herself.

Most historians have tended to conclude that the accusations against Blanche and Margaret were probably true, although some are more skeptical. Some accounts have suggested that Isabella’s accusations were politically motivated; she had just given birth to her son, Edward, and in theory the removal of all three of her sisters-in-law might have made his accession to the French throne more likely.

Others have argued that this seems an unlikely plan, given the normal probability that at least one of the three brothers would have successfully remarried and enjoyed a male heir in the coming years. Some contemporary chroniclers suggested that Philippe IV’s unpopular chamberlain Enguerrand de Marigny might have been responsible for framing the knights and women involved.