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The sad secret of Château Gaillard

If you are in Les Andelys and look up you will abandon all previous plans in favour of visiting the beautiful white ruined castle on the top of the cliffs.  Here overlooking the Seine river is Château Gaillard.

Château Gaillard - match!
Château Gaillard – match!

Either park at the top of the hill behind the Château and walk down, or park halfway and walk up.  Both solutions end up with a lot of walking up to reach your destination. But worth every step.

Sieges, occupation and destruction

Views from the Château are incredible, it would have been impossible for attacking forces to sneak up.  The strange fluted design, we discovered from handy French/English info boards, was influenced by Richard 1st and his travels in the East. The boards told of sieges, occupation by brigands and casual destruction by Kings, the history of the Château appeared laid bare.  But not everything was revealed.

Château Gaillard
Château Gaillard

We admired the shiny new stones of renovation and cringed in the cold dark space under the Château, the dungeon.  Not until later did we learn about Blanche, Margaret and a dark time in the history of this bright, white castle.

An old story of youth, betrayal and terror

Margaret was the daughter of Robert II Duke Burgundy and Agnes (youngest daughter of Louis IX of France). She was expected to have a charmed life. As were Blanche and Joan, daughters of Otto IV Count of Burgundy.  All three were blessed with huge dowries, youth and ambitious parents.  This combination served them well and all three married sons of Philip IV of France.  They married:

Blanche – Charles
Margaret – Louis
Joan – Philip

Not so blessed unions

So far so good, however Charles (named ‘the fair’ like his father) was also a cold fish (again, like his father).  He was straight-laced, keen on protocol for the sake of it, and generally dull. Blanche was pretty, indulged and as we discovered, foolish. The marriage contract was signed when Blanche was 11.  By 18 she was fulfilling her duties as a wife, but with a slight lack of concentration.

Margaret’s ‘catch’ Louis was even less appealing. She has been described by contemporary commentators as curvy and confident.  Unfortunately he was named ‘the quarreler’ or more respectfully ‘the headstrong’, for good reason.  And he preferred playing tennis to playing with his wife.  But he did have the advantage of being the future king of France.

Joan? Initially a choice for Louis but overlooked, she married Philip.  Who absolutely adored her.  We know this because he wrote long, slightly tedious love letters to his gentle wife.

All the poison of a sister-in-law

These were political marriages, not unusual across the centuries.  What happened next, was.

Charles and Philip, Isabella herself, her father, Philip IV, her brother Louis, and her uncle, Charles of Valois
Charles and Philip, Isabella herself, her father, Philip IV, her brother Louis, and her uncle, Charles of Valois

Isabella daughter of King Philip IV, sister to these flawed brothers and married to King Edward II of England, visited France in 1314.  Queen Isabella of England was a tough cookie.  Not yet, but at some time in the future, ­­­she would get rid of her unpopular husband and rule England as regent for her son, Edward III, and gain the nickname ‘The she-wolf’.

Isabella noticed that two of her brothers’ wives, silly spoilt Blanche and sexy Margaret, had re-gifted her presents to them.  Courtly brothers Gautier and Philippe d’Auney flaunted the two easily recognisable and very expensive embroidered purses.  Isabelle was insulted, furious and sure of inappropriate flirtations.  Sons of these girls would be kings of France, their wives should not dally.

She shared her fears with father King Philip IV of France.

The old king was shocked.  Known for his lack of enthusiasm for all things emotional, he was completely dumbfounded by his daughter-in-law’s more basic enthusiasms and urges.

Party in a Paris tower

Philip placed Blanche, Joan, Margaret and the knights under close observation.  These privileged youth didn’t have a clue, nor friends in high places to warn them of the danger they were in.

Tour de Nesle, Paris
Tour de Nesle, Paris

Parties attended in a Parisienne Tower, Le Tour de Nesle, did not help their case. To straight-laced King Philip the youthful goings on seemed scandalous, and they probably were a bit.

It did not take much ‘observation’ for King Philip of France to denounced daughters-in-law Blanche and Margaret for adultery, and Joan for knowing about it.  The French court was agog.

Gautier and Philippe were arrested and he dealt with them first.

Do not read this next paragraph if you are of a sensitive disposition

Gautier and Philippe had threatened the King’s bloodline and could be spared no suffering.  This was the middle ages and torturers had plenty of practice.  The Knights were interrogated viciously until they admitted their guilt.  Then the horror really began.  Both were strapped to, and broken on the wheel.  Before they passed out in pain they were castrated, slowly, and their ‘parts’ thrown to the dogs.  Next each had boiling lead and sulphur applied liberally.

The wheel
The wheel

The experienced torturer would know how to keep them just alive and awake before adding another dollop. But the brothers were probably past all caring when the torturer started to cut off their heads.  After which the decapitated bodies were dragged through the city of Paris, hung on the public gallows, skinned and left.  For weeks.

A chronicler at the time did not exaggerate when he stated ‘never have bodies suffered so much’.

A pretty prison by the Seine

Terrified, Blanche, Margaret and Joan turned to their husbands to save them.  Just Philip puts in a good word for his wife Joan. She was put under house arrest but after a year of campaigning by her adoring husband, released.

Château Gaillard
Château Gaillard

Blanche and Margaret were abandoned to their fate; life in prison.  To underline their fall both had their heads shaved.  The dungeon of Château Gaillard, north of Rouen and overlooking the Seine river, would be their prison.

Philip IV of France died in the November, some say from the shock of it all.

The patriot

Patriotic Louis, future King of France and husband of poor underground Margaret tried to offload her.  He wanted a new wife and legitimate children but the Pope would have none of it.  Denied an annulment Louis arranged for a lot of people to look the other way while she was strangled.  He quickly married again then died in 1316, having fallen ill after a game of tennis.

In the heart of Château Gaillard

Blanche was now completely alone in the cold and the dark.  It won’t be a surprise to learn that records of Blanche’s life at Château Gaillard reveal a long draw out horror.  Just out of her teens and used to a life of money and style, this soft silly child did not have a survivor’s strength. Would any of us?  Her suffering was approved of by the King so it is no surprise that she was repeatedly debased.

Blanche’s mother Mathilda sent gifts Blanche never saw.  Mathilda never visited.

No happy endings here

Some medieval PR - apparently the annulment of Blanche's marriage. While we know she was in the dungeon at Château Gaillard
Some medieval PR – apparently the annulment of Blanche’s marriage. While we know she was in the dungeon at Château Gaillard

It took eight years, until her own husband became King of France, for Blanche to be released.  He did not release her out of pity, he finally managed to annul their marriage.

He had Blanche sent to the furthest corners of the Manche to Château Gavray (not to an abbey as is widely reported) while he married again.

If the caretakers at Gavray expected a proud princess at their gates they were in for a surprise.  For after many years of underground torment Blanche, not yet 30, was grey, ugly, frail.

She was dead within the year.


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