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The Princess in the Tower: Alex Sanmark tells the strange tale of the ill-fated marriage of Philip Augustus of France and his Danish princess at the end of the twelfth century.

PRINCESS INGEBORG of Denmark (1175-1237/8) and King Philip II 'Augustus' of France (1165-1223) were married in August 1193 at Amiens in northern France. The following day the couple were crowned in the town cathedral. Some time later, Philip, however, unexpectedly declared that the marriage must be dissolved, since he, for 'bodily reasons', could no longer be Ingeborg's husband. Philip may well have expected a quick end to this marriage, but this was not to be. Instead his struggle for an annulment dragged on for twenty years, and brought him into a serious conflict with the papacy. All this time, Ingeborg was held more or less as a prisoner in various royal castles. The matter was finally resolved in 1213 when Philip gave in and announced that he would reinstate Ingeborg as Queen of France, although not as his wife.

Throughout history, Ingeborg's fate has touched the hearts of many. She was only eighteen years old at the time of the marriage, but still staunchly refused to comply with Philip's requirements that the marriage be dissolved. Perhaps this willpower should not be seen as totally her own, since her brother King Knud VI (1182-1202) and his advisers were actively working to stop the attempted annulment. Ingeborg's predicament is described in her many letters to Denmark and the papacy. In one of her letters, Ingeborg pleaded for help from Pope Innocent III, in the following words:</p> <pre> ... Set me free, from those who hate me, so that I shall not drown in the deep waters since I am being pursued for no reason. It is my master and husband Philip, the famous king of the French, ... who wishes to scoff at my youth. Through isolation in prison he continues to torment me through his men ... so that I shall conform to his wishes against the law of marriage and the law of Christ ... I suffer from innumerable and unendurable indignities. No one dares to visit me, not even monks or nuns in order to comfort me, neither can I hear the word of God to strengthen my soul nor confess to a priest. I only rarely hear mass, and no other services. I do not get sufficient

food ..., I have no medicines to bear the weakness of humankind ..., I am not allowed to have a bath ... I do not have enough clothes, and those I have do not befit a queen ... the detestable people who surround me, by order of the king, never give me any kind words, but torture me with sneering and offensive words ... these things and others ... make me tired of living. </pre> <p>Despite the heart-rending character of this letter we do not know if Ingeborg's conditions were as dire as she described them. She may have portrayed her circumstances as worse than they actually were, in order to gain the pope's help. But the dreadfulness of her situation, being held as a prisoner against her will, cannot be disputed. The circumstances of the marriage between Ingeborg and Philip have puzzled scholars for years. Why Philip decided to marry her in the first place is an interesting issue, as the marriage seemingly involved some political disadvantages to himself.

Neither Philip's Capetian monarchy nor Ingeborg's Danish dynasty were major powers at the time of the marriage, and the chief political question of the day concerned the future succession to the German imperial crown--in other words, which candidate would win the title of 'Roman emperor'--in which France and Denmark were on opposing sides. Philip supported the Swabian family of the Hohenstaufen (which included Frederick Barbarossa, emperor 1155-90 and his son Henry VI r.1191-97), while the Danes favoured the Welfs, to whom they were related. One of the members of the Welf house was moreover one of Philip's greatest enemies, Henry the Lion. The main reason for Philip's animosity was that Henry was the brother-in-law and ally of Richard I of England, with whom Philip was at war at this time. The Danish support for the Welfs was strengthened by the fact that the Hohenstaufens tried to claim supremacy over Denmark. France and Denmark had no actual influence over the imperial elections, but tried to gain support for their sides through political alliances and marriages. The rivalry between the Hohenstaufens and the Welfs culminated after the death of Emperor Henry VI, when both the Hohenstaufen Philip of Swabia and the Welf Otto of Brunswick (son of Henry the Lion) were elected as successors to the imperial crown. This disputed election led to a conflict which lasted until the murder of Philip in 1208. Knud's father had given his oath of allegiance to the Hohenstaufen emperor in 1162. Knud, on the other hand, refused to do so. This was a situation that Philip wished to change, as was the relationship between Denmark and England. A marriage to Ingeborg could help the French position especially in relation to England. Philip requested as a dowry the support of the Danish fleet for one year and also the right to any remaining Danish claims to the English throne. Knud refused to comply with either demand, but the two kings eventually agreed instead on an unusually large dowry of 10,000 silver marks.

Despite the fact that Philip's requests were denied, he still agreed to marry Ingeborg. To understand why, we must consider his situation and political aspirations. Philip was a highly ambitious king who through marriage and warfare had already managed to strengthen his political position and extend his territory. At his accession in 1180, large parts of present-day France were held by the Angevin dynasty who ruled an assemblage of lands including England, Normandy, Anjou and Poitou, while the Capetian land-holdings consisted of little more than the Ile-de-France, a small area around Paris. Philip was almost continuously fighting to gain territory from the Angevins. By 1206 he had managed to take control over most of their Continental possessions, including Normandy, Anjou and Brittany. Moreover, through his first marriage in 1180 to Isabelle of Hainault (1170-90), he had acquired other substantial territories in the northern parts of the country (Artois, Valois, Vermandois and Amiens). In a relatively short space of time Philip had transformed France from a minor kingdom into a leading political power. However, by 1193, he had already been a widower for three years. Isabelle had only produced one heir, the weak and sickly Louis (1187-1226) who became Louis VIII near the end of his life. Philip was thus actively searching for a new wife to secure his kingdom, perhaps more vigorously than ever since he had recently been turned down by the Queen of Sicily.

One of Philip's main reasons for marrying Ingeborg must have been that this union could boost his fight against the Angevins. Her large dowry, over which Philip would have full control, would have been a substantial financial contribution to his war chest. (By comparison, when Knud's other sister, Kristine, married Emperor Frederick Barbarossa's son she received no more than 4,000 silver marks.)

Presumably Philip hoped to break the Danish support of the Welf party by the marriage. One of his main anxieties was that Henry the Lion's son, Otto of Brunswick, might become Holy Roman Emperor. It would not have been unreasonable of Philip to expect that he would be able to influence the Danes regarding imperial politics. Denmark had marital links with both the Welfs and the Hohenstaufens, and had never officially broken with the Emperor. By the twelfth century, the Danish kingdom was growing stronger, and by the reign of Knud, the country was powerful enough to be able to push a more independent political agenda. A worthwhile ally, therefore, could be obtained by this marriage. Despite Knud's refusal to give up all his claims to England, Philip would still be able to gain Ingeborg's rights to the throne of England. These claims would no doubt have been rather weak, but they went back further than did those of the Angevins, as Ingeborg and Knud were descended from Knud the Great (Canute), who had ruled England and Denmark between 1017 and 1035.

It might still seem surprising that the King of France should have proposed to a Danish princess, but Denmark at this time was not to be underestimated. Not only was the country closely involved in European politics but Ingeborg herself was rather coveted on the marriage market and had received proposals from both the Welfs and the Hohenstaufens. A further factor was that Denmark was going through a second period of expansion at this time. The Danes had turned their interest to the east, particularly to the Slav territories along the Baltic coast and their land seizures were often carried out in alliance with the Welf supporter Henry the Lion. The Danes were rather successful and for a short period of time, around the year 1200, they ruled over a 'Baltic empire', which included the northern coast of present-day Germany and the southern regions of present-day Sweden.

Altogether, this picture of Denmark suggests that there were political considerations behind the marriage. This is also indicated by Philip's dowry requests. Some scholars have argued that Philip's request for the support of the Danish fleet was of no importance, since Denmark did not have a fleet of significant size. This view cannot be substantiated, however, and scholars disagree on the fleet's exact size and its degree of organization. The Danish overseas landholdings would undoubtedly have required the use of a competent fleet.

Another reason why the request of the support of the Danish fleet against England has been regarded as insignificant is that it was assumed to have been connected with a planned French attack on England. This was seen as an unlikely target as Philip's territory was landlocked at that time. It is possible, though, that Philip intended to use the Danish fleet not to attack England but the Angevin landholdings in France. This would perhaps have taken the Angevins by surprise, although as we know, Philip did not get the chance to attempt this.

There was a further driving force behind the marriage between Philip and Ingeborg. Medieval chronicles and letters strongly suggest that the marriage was instrumented by what today is termed an 'old boys' network'. Intellectual links between Denmark and France were strong, as many Danes studied at the schools in Paris. One of the most influential 'members' of this network was Philip's ecclesiastical adviser, Bernard of Vincennes and it was presumably he who drew Philip's attention to Denmark and Ingeborg. Bernard's action was probably spurred on by his old friend, Guillaume, abbot of the Danish monastery of AEbelholt. Guillaume had originally been a canon in Paris, but had been recruited to AEbelholt by the Danish Archbishop Absalon. Guillaume was in contact both with Paris and with Rome. He thus became one of Knud's closest advisers, and served him on many diplomatic missions. It was Guillaume who persuaded Knud to accept the proposal from Philip, in spite of the large dowry requested. Guillaume felt that such a union might put an end to the German demands for overlordship over Denmark.

Seen in this context, Philip's reasons for marrying Ingeborg may seem more understandable. The union could give him political advantages, both against the Angevins and the Welfs. Philip was moreover subjected to the powerful persuasion by a circle of learned men. How then can Philip's sudden dismissal of Ingeborg be explained? The political situation had not changed overnight in 1193. It therefore seems likely that Philip's desire for an annulment was, just as he himself had claimed, for personal reasons.

His actions might in fact be explained by medical or psychological reasons. In 1191 he had been on a crusade with Richard I of England. During this campaign he had contracted an infectious disease, as a result of which, he had lost his hair. Modern medicine has suggested that Philip suffered from 'sweating sickness', the symptoms of which are high temperature, hair loss, as well as flaky skin. This disease could also lead to severe nervous disorders. A combination of the effects of the infection and a congenital condition of mental instability may have caused Philip to experience panic attacks. It has also been suggested that he may have been temporarily impotent on the wedding night. If this was the case, then his male pride may have taken a severe blow, which, together with his illness, could account for his strong aversion to Ingeborg.

One scholar has suggested that if Philip suffered from a mental disorder it may explain his odd conduct at other times in his life. At one point he seems to have suspected that Richard I was planning to have him killed with the help of the Assassins of Syria. Philip therefore abandoned his father's policy of not having a personal protector, and hired his own bodyguard. His advisers, though, did not believe in the threat and asked Philip to compose himself.

Marriage was one of the seven sacraments and therefore, according to canon law, indissoluble. In order to be able to remarry, Philip had to demonstrate either that the marriage had not been consummated and was therefore left 'incomplete' or that he and Ingeborg were too closely related to be married. If either of these were proven, Ingeborg and Philip had never been legally married, and they could choose new partners. If no cause for annulment existed, they would merely be granted a judicial separation, and would not be allowed to enter into new marriages. Ingeborg consistently stated that the marriage had been consummated, and Philip therefore tried to show that an impeding kinship existed between them.

Three months after the wedding, Philip summoned an ecclesiastical council in Compiegne. At this meeting, his advisers produced a rather clumsily falsified family tree, showing that Ingeborg and Philip were related through Philip's first wife. This type of kinship was termed 'affinity' and existed in three forms. The most severe form was created on the marriage of a couple. The wife's relations then became related to the husband and vice versa. The other two types of affinity concerned kinships created by second and third marriages. Canon law also prohibited consanguineous marriages. This meant that a woman and a man could not marry if they shared an ancestor in common within the last seven generations.

The Council of Compiegne, which mainly consisted of Philip's allies, declared the marriage void on the basis of the fake genealogy. When Ingeborg heard the verdict, she is said to have cried 'Mala Francia, Mala Francia, Roma, Roma!' ('Wicked France, Wicked France, to Rome to Rome!') These words were not merely an expression of fear or desperation, but constituted an appeal to the papacy. The Danes soon dispatched a delegation, of which Abbot Guillaume was a member, to Pope Celestine III and convinced him that the family tree was false. Celestine's action was nevertheless rather lame. He declared the divorce void, and vaguely prohibited Philip from remarrying. To the annoyance of the Danes, Celestine refrained from ordering Philip to take Ingeborg back. Philip ignored the Pope's letter and in 1196 wedded Agnes de Meran, whose father supported the Hohenstaufen claim. It now appeared that he had managed to resolve the matter according to his own wishes.

But in 1198, the situation changed drastically. Pope Celestine died and Innocent III emerged on the scene. Innocent was not only young and ambitious, but also a skilled lawyer and diplomat. He was dedicated to the cause of exercising papal control in church matters, leaving temporal matters to secular governments: yet in order to pursue this goal he played kings off against each other. Three months after his consecration, Innocent ordered Philip to dismiss Agnes and reinstate Ingeborg as his wife. Philip refused and Innocent therefore placed France under interdict. This was lifted when Philip promised to take Ingeborg back. Later, however, Philip's promise turned out to be false.

After giving birth to a son and a daughter, Agnes died in July 1201. This improved Philip's situation, as he was no longer guilty of bigamy. Philip asked Innocent to declare his children by Agnes legitimate. Innocent complied, despite the fact that he knew that a consanguineous kinship existed between Philip and Agnes, which had made their marriage illegal. The main reason for Innocent's action was that he now, more than ever, needed Philip's political support regarding the German imperial succession. Philip had entered into a peace treaty with King John of England, which meant that John would no longer support the Welf interest. Meanwhile, the Hohenstaufen Philip of Swabia and the Welf Otto of Brunswick had both been elected Emperor by their respective parties. Innocent was in favour of Otto, who had promised to look after the needs of the church in Germany. The Hohenstaufens also posed a larger threat to the papacy as Philip of Swabia's nephew, Frederick, ruled the Kingdom of Sicily. With a Hohenstaufen emperor, the papal state would thus be enclosed by this side's territory. Innocent's attempt to get Philip's support failed, though, as the King maintained his support of the Hohenstaufen party.

The same year, 1201, Philip made his last proper effort to have the marriage annulled. He now stated that he had been unable to consummate the marriage, since Ingeborg had bewitched him. According to canon law, a marriage could be annulled on the grounds of sorcery, and, if the marriage had not been consummated, the parties could remarry. Philip had continuously stated that the marriage had not been consummated, but this claim was difficult to prove, and Ingeborg had never given up her claim that sexual intercourse between them had taken place.

One of the most puzzling aspects in this affair is that it has recently been shown by a French scholar M.B. Bruguiere that at least one impeding kinship did in fact exist between Ingeborg and Philip, which, had it been brought up, could have made the marriage null and void. It is not certain that an annulment would have been granted, as it was a very distant affineal kinship. Pope Innocent often provided dispensations for marriages involving kinships beyond the third degree of consanguinity. The fact remains, however, that the marriage was illegal according to contemporary law. Furthermore, the law stated that dispensations should be issued particularly for those marriages that had been contracted a long time ago and that had produced children. Neither consideration applied in this case.

The prohibited kinship between Ingeborg and Philip may not have been raised because it was beyond the relationships normally investigated by churchmen. But Philip, desperate to have his marriage annulled would surely have done his utmost to try to find any impeding kinship between him and Ingeborg. Paris was one of the leading centres of canon law and Philip would have had access to many learned scholars. One suggestion is that the 'old boys' network' came into play again. Medieval sources make it clear that many of Philip's advisers took Ingeborg's, and thus also Denmark's, side in the dispute. Philip's ecclesiastical adviser, Bernard of Vincennes had strong personal links with Denmark and he, together with some other advisers, was of the opinion that Philip had treated Ingeborg unfairly. These men may not therefore have been particularly interested in finding evidence of prohibited kinships between Ingeborg and Philip.

There were no further developments in the affair until 1213 when Philip reinstated Ingeborg as Queen of France. The most significant explanation for this eventual capitulation was that his treatment of Ingeborg was the major cause of argument between himself and the papacy, and now they could finally be reconciled. Now that he had two healthy, legitimate heirs by Agnes, Philip must have felt more secure about his succession. A new marriage was no longer of great importance to him. Indeed on his deathbed Philip asked his son, the future Louis VIII, to treat Ingeborg well, since he had shown her great injustice. Louis seems to have listened to this advice, as both he and Louis IX acknowledged her as queen. Ingeborg herself died in 1237/8 and was buried in the Church of the Order of St John in Corbeil.

The marriage between Ingeborg and Philip was a lingering problem throughout Innocent's pontificate, and it is therefore interesting that he introduced some important changes to marriage legislation at the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215. At this meeting, Innocent reduced the number of prohibited degrees of consanguinity from seven to four, which meant that a woman and a man were now prohibited to marry only if they shared a common ancestor within the last four generations. Affinity based on second and third marriages was also removed from the law. Innocent furthermore abolished most other accepted causes for annulment of marriages, such as sorcery. Efforts were also made to put an end to fraudulent genealogies. Henceforth, written evidence was required to back up claims of impeding kinships.

Consanguinity and affinity were often used as reasons for annulment in the Middle Ages. They were not, however, commonly employed as impediments to marriages. By his reforms, therefore, Innocent actually made the dissolution of marriages more difficult. His actions were significant for the future in yet another way. His staunch attitude against Philip was a signal to kings that they could no longer expect formulaic annulments of their marriages. Through these means, Innocent provided at least a partial solution to the problematic issue of marriage, which had been a constant source of difficulties for the early medieval Church.


J.W. Baldwin, The Government of Philip Augustus (Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1986); J.A. Brundage, Sex, Law and Marriage in the Middle Ages (Aidershot, 1993); G. Duby, The Knight, the Lady and the Priest. The making of a modern marriage in Medieval France (Baltimore, 1978); W. Ullman, A short history of the Papacy in the Middle Ages (London, 1974); J.M. Powell, Innocent III. Vicar of Christ or Lord of the World? (Washington, 1994)

Alexandra Sanmark is course coordinator of Viking and Early Medieval studies at the University of Uppsala.
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Author:Sanmark, Alex
Publication:History Today
Geographic Code:4EUFR
Date:Feb 1, 2006
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