Of all the animals of prey, man is the only sociable one.
Every one of us preys upon his neighbour, and yet we herd together.
The Beggar's Opera: John Gay

Tuesday 18 March 2014

A real-life game of thrones

Anniversaries are not something we make much of here in the Tavern, but occasionally something comes along that is too good to miss.

On this day in 1314, Philippe IV of France had four high officers of the Order of Knights Templar brought from their prison cells to make a public confession of their sins and those of the Order, the culmination of a seven-year process of persecution designed to assert the King's spiritual authority and, conveniently, secure for the Crown the Templars' substantial assets.

Instead, to the consternation of the authorities, Grand Master Jacques de Molay and Geffroi de Charnay, Preceptor of Normandy, loudly recanted the confessions of heresy, sorcery and sacrilege that had been wrung from them by torture. The royal council immediately decreed they should be burned at the stake that same evening.

According to legend, as the flames rose about him, de Molay cursed the King and the Pope, who had assisted in the disbanding of the Templars; both, he said, would be summoned to divine judgement within a year. The curse may have been a later invention, but it is true that Clement V died only a month later and the King in November of the same year.

What happened next is history with more than a touch of drama and was certainly enough to fuel rumours of a family curse operating into the next generation.

The first event was a major scandal which erupted when Philippe's daughter observed two young knights wearing distinctive gifts she had given to her sisters-in-law. Two of Philippe's three daughters-in-law were found guilty of adultery while the third was said to have abetted and concealed the affairs.The King immediately had the princesses imprisoned in remote castles and their lovers publicly tortured, flayed and executed.

The succession of the Capet dynasty was already problematic; two of Philippe's brothers were believed to have been poisoned in childhood by their stepmother in favour of her own new-born son Louis who, along with Philippe's younger full brother, Charles, grew up to play an active part in disruptive political intrigues.

Philippe's death complicated matters further; the new king had only a single female child whose legitimacy was questionable and, with his wife imprisoned for adultery, little chance of producing another heir. A papal annulment proved impossible to obtain but, with suspicious convenience, the 24-year-old 'queen' died in prison a few months later and Louis X was free to marry again.

The following year he too died - rather picturesquely, after a vigorous game of tennis - leaving a pregnant wife and a daughter whose parentage was in doubt. In the face of this potential crisis, some hasty legal manoeuvring resurrected an ancient law excluding females from the line of succession, a law which was to foster decades of dynastic conflict.

As well as dividing the nobility of France, this ultimately led to the Hundred Years War; Philippe's daughter, thus excluded from the French throne but mother of a son with a possible claim, was none other than Isabella, wife of Edward II, whose notoriety owes much to her alliance with the ruthless Roger Mortimer and the untimely and unusual demise of her husband.

If all this sounds like the plot of a novel - and a novel you would like to read - I recommend 'The Accursed Kings' by Maurice Druon, a seven-book epic fraught with arrogant kings and warrior princes, renegade Popes, feuding noblemen (and -women), scheming politicians, adulterous princesses, religious fanatics, daring escapes, damsels in distress, a sprinkling of sorcery and, of course, the obligatory red-hot poker, all based on real events.

It'll help pass the time, anyway...

(Youtube link here)


  1. The Pope in question, John XXII was also involved in the Shepherds Crusade against the Jews, selling some of them off to Muslims and giving the Franciscans a hard time. He was in Avignon and close to the French King. He was also the man to whom King Robert The Bruce and the Scots addressed The Declaration of Arbroath.

  2. Yes, wherever you look, Demetrius, there are fascinating stories to be found in the early 14th century; it would take a lifetime of blog posts to do them justice.

    I particularly like the way that John XXII, a compromise candidate, gave the impression of such advanced decrepitude at the age of 72 that his opponents were prepared to allow him be elected, then went on merrily for another 18 years.

  3. Is flayed not also executed, Macheath?

    And no doubt you caught up with this latest news:


  4. JH; not a subject for the squeamish, but yes, eventually. There appears to be some ambiguity about the exact order in which things were done to the d'Aunay brothers; personally I'd be rather suspicious of any historian who decides it is a fitting subject for in-depth investigation.

    Thanks for the link, which I had not seen - most interesting!


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