The Shocking Adulterous Affair that Changed France

In the days of yore, when knights in shining armor pillaged and ravaged the lands, Paris stood as an overcrowded and filthy center of political, religious, and educational power. While the streets were narrow, dark, and full of mud, garbage, and other refuse, those in power sought to beautify the city through magnificent pieces of architecture. These towering structures of stone stood as a testament to the wealth and power of the medieval French Kings and the Catholic Church. Luckily for today’s citizens and tourists alike, a number of these buildings survived the modernization efforts of Baron von Haussmann in the nineteenth century and provide a glimpse into Paris’s medieval past.

Centered around the Ile-de-la-Cite, medieval Paris was ringed by the mighty walls of Philippe Auguste. Built between 1190 and 1215, this wall guarded the city from invading armies, provided a way to tax imports coming into the city, and gave us one of the most notorious scandals in history! Located along the wall were a series of guard towers, the most famous of which was the Tour de Nesle. This tower stood on the Left Bank of the Seine, approximately where the Pont des Arts bridge stands today. According to legend (and a bit of history), in 1314 the French Royal family was engulfed in scandal when three of King Philip IV’s daughters-in-law were accused of adultery, leading to years of torture, execution, and imprisonment for those involved. Now Philip himself was not a man free of scandal. He most notably remembered as the man who gave the orders on Friday, October 13, 1307 to liquidate the Knights Templar, bequeathing to history the superstition of Friday the 13th being unlucky. His key role in this affair is said to have cursed his family. The Grand Master Jacques de Molay, while being burned at the stake, cried out that those who condemned him to death would shortly follow him to their deaths. Interestingly, both King Philip IV and Pope Clement V who were responsible for the actions taken against the Templars, only a few months later.

While the sordid history of the King Philip and the Knights Templar played out, another scandalous affair was taking shape within his own family. Philip’s three sons had been married to Margaret, Blanche, and Joan of Burgundy, providing a strong alliance with one of the wealthiest regions of France. At the same time, his daughter Isabella had been unhappily wed to King Edward II of England. The scandal of the Tour de Nesle supposedly began when Isabella returned to her father’s court for a visit and noticed that the beautifully embroidered purses she had given her sisters-in-law before departing for England were now being worn by two knights of the court. Suspicious of sisters-in-law, Isabella reported the information to her father, who had the knights followed. From there it was revealed the Blanche and Margaret had been using the Tour de Nesle as a meeting place to entertain their lovers! After announcing the wickedness of those involved, the King had the knights (who were attempting to flee to England) arrested and tortured. Both confessed to the affair, were found guilty of lèse majesté (or doing harm to the king, one of the most serious crime that one could commit in the medieval period) and were brutally executed in accordance with their crimes. (Most likely they were castrated before being either drawn and quartered or flayed alive.) Blanche and Margaret were found guilty and had their heads shaven and condemned life imprisonment. Their sister Joan, although suspected, was found innocent due to her husband’s influence.

tour de nesle
19th century drawing of the Tour de Nesle | By Eugène Viollet le Duc - Dictionnaire raisonné de l'architecture française du XIe au XIe siècle, Public Domain,

The scandal did not stop there. Following the death of Philip IV, his son Louis X inherited the throne. Unable to have his marriage to Margaret annulled by the Pope (due to a gap in the election of a new one), Louis had his wife imprisoned in the underground cells at the Chateau Gaillard in Normandy. She died a year later under mysterious circumstances, just in time for Louis to remarry Clementia of Hungary. Louis himself died a year later, falling ill after a grueling game of tennis. Louis’s untimely death and lack of an heir led to his brother Philip V becoming king. Deeply in love with his wife Joan, Philip had successfully saved her from the sentence of her sisters and had continuous campaigned for her release from house arrest. They ruled together for several years until Philip’s death in 1322. The continued lack of a male heir led to the final brother Charles IV becoming king. His wife Blanche had likewise been imprisoned underground in the Chateau Galliard, suffering for over eight years. Upon taking the throne, Charles refused to release her from this imprisonment. He instead had their marriage annulled and sent her to a nunnery, where she died from poor health due to her years of imprisonment. He followed her a few years later, once again leaving no male heirs.

Outside of damaging the reputation of the French women in royal circles and creating centuries of suspicion towards the Queen and her liaisons, this affair had further repercussions in France. The Salic Law became the basis for inheriting the French throne following the affair, effectively preventing a woman from ever ruling the Kingdom of France. It also led to the death of courtly love and adulterous queen (à la Guinevere and Lancelot) as theme in literature. The lack of male heirs from all those involved ending led to the outbreak of the Hundred Years War, as Isabella’s son Edward III tried to claim the French throne as his own.

Today all that remains of this oh so infamous tour is a small plaque near the Institute de France, outlining where the building once stood.

A tale of love, lust, curses, and general bad behavior, the Tour de Nesle Affair remains one of the juiciest scandals in French history.

tour de nesle institut français
The small plaque next to the Institute de France | Par PHGCOM — self-made, photographed in 2007, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Want more of Paris? Then read our article about the oldest buildings in Paris still standing!

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