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A marriage alliance sowed the seeds of the 100 Years’ War

Posted in Historical articles, History, Royalty, War on Thursday, 28 February 2013

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This edited article about France originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 166 published on 20 March 1965.

King Philip and Isabella, picture, image, illustration

King Philip the Fair and Queen Isabella visited recently conquered Flanders, where the burghers’ wives turned out in their finery much to the queen’s amused irritation, by John Millar Watt

Spring had given her first touch to the green fields around Paris and the evening air was still warm when a group of people gathered on a small island in the River Seine and began to collect faggots for a bonfire.

The pile built, an extraordinary thing happened. Two of the men who had so enthusiastically collected the firewood calmly allowed themselves to be bound with ropes and set upon the bonfire pile.

Throughout the evening the two men had been protesting their innocence of any crime. “They had helped,” says a historian, “to prepare the faggots with so stout and resolute a heart, persisting to the end in their denials with so great steadfastness, that they left those that witnessed their torment filled with admiration and stupefaction.”

As the hungry flames licked around the two condemned men it is said that one of them, Jacques de Molay, cried out: “I summon thee, Pope Clement, to appear before the solemn tribunal of God in heaven within forty days, and thee, King Philip the Fourth of France, likewise within a year.”

Parisians who next morning saw the charred remains on the little island did not need to be told that by order of their King some more of the Knights Templars had been executed. Some, stopping to gaze at the embers, must have raised their eyes to heaven and demanded in sorrow as well as in anger, “Lord, is this a King you have sent us – or a monster?”

The execution of Jacques de Molay and Guy of Normandy, two leaders of the Knights Templars, that March evening in 1314 was one more sinister act in the hideous scenes that France was forced to witness in the reign of Philip the Fourth – called, ironically, Philip the Fair (i.e. handsome).

Philip was for ever seeking means to satisfy his greed for gold. What better way, then, than to destroy and plunder the military order of the Templars – an association which was begun by chivalric knights from the Crusades and which was now an order of proud warrior monks whose meetings were secret (and, it was said, impious and scandalous), and whose treasury was crammed with the useful sum of 150,000 gold florins, among other treasures.

In October 1307 Philip ordered his seneschals and bailiffs to swoop on the surprised Templars. Vicious tortures made sure that they “confessed” to everything put to them, and then the burnings began. In the Faubourg St. Antoine, in Paris, fifty-four Knights Templars were burned in a day. The Pope meanwhile pronounced the dissolution of the order throughout Christendom, and in England, Italy, Spain and Germany the papal instructions were obeyed. But only in the France of Philip the Fourth were there executions, for only in France was there a real tyrant for a King.

Philip was seventeen when he succeeded his father, Philip the Bold, and in a short time his greedy eyes had alighted on Flanders, the richest country in Europe, whose Count, Guy de Dampierre, was Philip’s vassal. At this time Count Guy was trying to cement his good relations with Edward the First of England by secretly marrying his daughter into the English royal family. When Philip heard about this he was furious and imprisoned Count Guy for negotiating without his knowledge.

In time Count Guy was released and one of his first acts when he was back in Flanders was to condemn Philip for his pride, vanity and unkingly behaviour. “My daughter,” added Count Guy, “will continue with her plans to marry the English prince.”

Philip at once declared war on Flanders. His army marched into that country, took the town of Lille and then agreed to a truce. When the truce period was over he sent his brother Charles of Valois back into Flanders with another army. There was to be no long peace for Count Guy.

Nor, in fact, was there to be any war. For when the French army came up to prosperous Ghent the burghers of that city, bent only on protecting their wealth and property at any price, treacherously walked out to meet the invaders and handed them the city’s keys.

Surrounded by traitors, Count Guy had to surrender. Philip put him in prison again and declared that henceforward Flanders was to be part of France.

During the period of these happenings, at the end of the thirteenth century and the beginning of the fourteenth, a small but important event had occurred. Philip and Edward the First of England had agreed to peace terms and by these terms Edward had given up his ally Guy of Flanders and Philip had given up aiding the Scots in their battle against Edward. The agreement was sealed in the style of the age – with the marriage of Philip’s daughter to Edward’s son.

The peace in itself was unimportant because, of course, it did not last. What was important was the marriage, for in due time Edward the Third of England was to lay his claim to the French crown through that marriage – a claim that was to continue to bedevil both countries for many years to come.

A year after the subjection of Flanders, in 1301, Philip decided that he and his court should go to visit his new acquisition. The Flemings – the people of Flanders – whose great wealth had been built upon their sheer capacity for hard work, dressed up in their finest clothes and wore their most brilliant jewels for the occasion.

The Queen of France had clearly never before seen such pomp and finery among the common bourgeois.

“I thought until today,” she said airily, “that there was only one Queen of France. Now I see six hundred of them.”

One day’s glitter, however, did not compensate for the misery that Philip’s taxes and overbearing rule were inflicting on the ordinary Flemings. By the following year the peasants of Flanders had had enough of French rule and in a swift and sudden rebellion they massacred 3,000 Frenchmen at Bruges.

At once a French army marched into Flanders and met the rebels near the town of Courtrai in July, 1302. The Flemings had entrenched themselves behind a canal – a point which the French knights forgot about when they rode forward in such a cloud of dust as to obscure the water. When they did remember the canal they were floundering in it – an easy target for the Flemings as they went about the business of finishing off the pride of Philip’s French army.

The Battle of Courtrai – called the Battle of the Spurs because the day after it thousands of French knights’ spurs were picked up from the field and placed as war trophies in Courtrai Cathedral – was one of a series of costly engagements between France and Flanders. At last, in 1303, Philip could stand no more of this futile war. “It seems to rain Flemings!” he cried in despair as he agreed to sign a peace treaty.

All this time Philip had been having trouble enough on another front, and now that trouble was swelling into a problem that was to be momentous in Europe.

It began in 1296 when certain of the French clergy complained to Pope Boniface the Eighth that Philip was taxing them harshly. The Pope, who made his views known through bulls (from the bulla, or ball, on his seal), issued a series of pronouncements, the gist of which was to claim that the clergy were subjects of the Pope and could not therefore be taxed by the King.

“Dearly beloved son, do not allow yourself to be persuaded that you are not subject to the supreme head of the church, for such an opinion would be folly,” wrote Pope Boniface to Philip, who, as indication of his contempt for papal authority, ceremoniously burned the bull.

The clergy, argued Philip fiercely, were and had been subjects of the French king and had been taxed as such long before there were Popes in Rome. And that, he maintained, was the way things would continue.

As the argument grew more heated it became clear that it would have only one result. On September 8, 1303, the Pope excommunicated Philip.

If that result had been inevitable, what happened next could hardly have been dreamed of. Philip communicated with one of his officers in Italy, a man named Guillaume de Nogaret, and ordered him to contact one Sciarra Colonna, a Roman noble and avowed enemy of the Pope. Together with Colonna and a troop of soldiers, said Philip, Nogaret was to go to the Pope, then in his native city of Anagni, and arrest him.

So it was that a few days later Nogaret and Colonna swaggered into Anagni at the head of several hundred mounted soldiers. When Pope Boniface, who was now eighty-six years old, saw his enemies, he put his papal crown on his head, sat on his throne and addressed them: “Here is my neck and here is my head; if I must die like Jesus Christ at least I shall die a Pope.”

But there was no violence. Instead, Boniface died a few weeks later, worn out by the shame and humiliation of his arrest. Philip the Fair made sure then that the next Pope would be the man he wanted – a man who would obey him. Thus it was that Pope Boniface’s successor, Pope Clement the Fifth, abandoned Rome and fixed his residence in 1308 at Avignon in France, where his successors remained until 1376.

By now Philip had turned his greedy gaze upon the Templars. After torturing and executing them in droves and getting his Pope to sanction the cruelty, he kept the Templars’ leaders, among them the ill-fated Jacques de Molay, in prison for six years before burning them to death. Not content with this, Philip instituted a reign of terror throughout the land. Everywhere the King’s spies informed on any malcontents, and everywhere objectors to his policies were flogged and pilloried.

Yet strangely, Philip’s wickedness was one of the causes of the growth of parliamentary power in France, for his desire for wealth and his ruinous policies forced him to call together the country’s deputies to obtain the assistance he needed. The first States General, as such gatherings were called, was summoned by Philip in April, 1302, and to it came the deputies of the third estate, who, as we have already seen, were the bourgeois – the merchants and citizens of France.

Philip’s sinister career finally came to a timely end, and prophetically within the year in which the dying Jacques de Molay had summoned him to appear before the solemn judgment of heaven. All three of his sons followed him in succession to the throne.

The first of these sons, Louis the Tenth, had only a daughter named Jeanne, and when Louis died his brother Philip declared himself to be King. To make sure of his claim, Philip, as soon as he was crowned, declared that no woman could reign in France, and this law, called the Salic Law because old law books showed that it dated from the Salian Franks, was upheld.

Philip might not have been so adamant had he been able to foresee the future. For all his own four children were – girls! When he died his younger brother Charles succeeded him, and since Charles had no son to follow him either the line of the Capetian kings came to an end.

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