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Our Lady Collegiate church in Vernon
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Vernon half-timbered houses
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The Old Mill in Vernon
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Monet's house and garden at Giverny
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The XIIth c. castle keep in Vernon
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Visits, indeed, but there are so many other things to do in Vernon
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Walking and cycling around Vernon
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Museums in Vernon (paintings by Monet) and Giverny
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A walk in the streets of Giverny
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The water lily pond at Giverny
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Tourelles castle in Vernon
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  Under construction

 

Royal love affairs and adultery in the 14thc. :
Marguerite de Bourgogne's ceremonious wedding and plain burial in Vernon

 

Belgian and French televisions (and perhaps other networks) broadcasted 'Les Rois Maudits' (the Cursed Kings) at the end of the year 2005. Even if the authors did take some liberties with history, the series, in which politics, religion, adultery and all kinds of public and private interest intermingle, rests on historic foundations in which our town played a minor but not insignificant part.

A large part of this historic epic revolves around three adulterous queens, particularly Marguerite de Bourgogne.
She was the daughter of Robert II of Bourgogne (Burgundy) and of Agnès, one of the daughters of king Louis IX (known as Saint Louis in France).
On September 1305, she married Louis, the king of France's eldest son, who would later reign as Louis X, dubbed 'le Hutin', which means 'quarrelsome'.

He had two brothers and a sister Isabelle of France (married with Edward II of England). This involves four sisters-in-law altogether…

Marguerite de Bourgogne's wedding with Louis was held in Vernon

One may wonder why this royal wedding was celebrated in this small and fairly obscure castellany.

First, note that French kings had not got any permanent residence, nothing of the size and the grandeur of the future palaces of Chambord, Fontainebleau and even less Versailles. The court would be constantly moving from one castle to another, as in most High Middle Age kingdoms.
This was partly because the king had to "show himself" to the lords and the lowly in order to renew the vassalage that linked the elite of the kingdom to him. This was also partly because, according to the economic policy of the time, the king had to' live on his own Domain' which provided him ordinary revenue. However these taxes (land, justice, commerce and toll taxes) were often paid in kind. The court would then stay in a town long enough to consume these resources and then, the king, together with his court, that is a number of judiciary and administrative offices , would move to another royal town to consume the local taxes.

It is therefore not surprising to see king Philippe staying in Vernon in September 1305 (the town had been in the royal Domain since 1194). For instance, hadn't the king's grandfather, Louis IX, come to stay more than fifteen times in Vernon?

One must also remember that a wedding, even that of the king's son, was usually considered as a private and not public matter before the 15th century. (Indeed, the choice of the bride was highly political, but not the wedding ceremony itself.) This is likely to be the reason why both local and national archives have not kept any particular records of Marguerite's wedding.

Moreover it is well known that, before the late 15th century, the royal court displayed neither the splendour nor the ostentation that the princes of the Renaissance were to exhibit later.

So, why couldn't a plain castle like the one in Vernon be chosen to hold a wedding, which was not thought to be a major political event but mere family rejoicing.

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The ruins of the castle where the wedding took place.

The wedding was celebrated in the chapel of the castle, dedicated to St John. It was indeed customary to get married in such chapels, as it had been the case on May 23rd, 1200 with Louis VIII who married Blanche de Castille in the chapel of Port Mort castle, a few kilometres from Vernon.

After the wedding, the history of this princess moves away from our town only to return some ten years later.

Indeed if Marguerite de Bourgogne with her cousins Jeanne and Blanche have made history, it is not for her reign as a Queen of France but for a scandal that was made public as "the Affair of the King's step-daughters."
In the spring of 1314, given away by Isabelle of France (the king's daughter), two of the three king's daughters-in-law were found guilty of adultery. The mistresses of two Norman gentlemen, Gautier and Philippe d'Aulnay , Marguerite and Blanche, were sentenced to life imprisonment and sent to Château Gaillard in Les Andelys (20 km from Vernon).

Marguerite died there after a year, Blanche spent ten years in jail before having to take the veil as a nun in Maubuisson Abbey, where she died in 1326. As to Jeanne, the third sister-in-law, guilty of (only) aiding and abetting, she was jailed a few months in Dourdan castle.

 

Writer Maurice Druon (of the Académie Française) in his great historical novel Les Rois Maudits ( the cursed Kings), published between 1955 and 1960, evokes this tragic episode.
As to Alexandre Dumas, he made the unfaithful princesses the heroines of a famous novel : La Tour de Nesle in1832 (Nesle Tower).

Nesle Tower as it was before it was pulled down in 1663. Plaque affixed on the location of the tower.

According to a famous and picturesque but totally untruthful legend, the tower, located Quai Conti in Paris, where now stand the Institut de France and Mazarine Library, was said to have been the scene of the sisters' orgies. The legend says that the one-night lovers were thrown into the Seine, bound inside a bag. Did these women think that a lover can be used only once? The famous philosopher, Jean Buridan, is even supposed to have had a boat laden with hay moored under the tower windows so as to save his life when the princesses would throw him down into the Seine at dawn.

 

Here is Marguerite with her hair cropped, wearing coarse cloth and imprisoned in Château Gaillard. Chroniclers and historians agree about neither the conditions nor the exact place of detention: some of them tell about an 'apartment', others about a dark cell ; some state that she was in the top floor part of the keep, exposed to wind and cold, others think she was locked up in an underground cell and they can even specify that it was situated at the foot of the keep, on the north side.

Château Gaillard in Les Andelys - The inside of the keep - Entrance to the possible presumed cell

The father-in-law, king Philippe le Bel, died at the end of the same year 1314 and the coming of Louis, now Louis X, to the throne made the situation even more complex because, as a consequence of this, Marguerite de Bourgogne had become Queen of France. On the one hand, it was hardly conceivable to leave a queen in jail, and furthermore a king has to have a lineage who will in turn ascend the throne. On the other hand, among the three husbands involved in this adultery affair, Louis was the least willing to forgive and he considered that his honour had irreparably been flouted. Consequently there was no question of having the queen back with him, but in this case of having a lineage either.
Louis had to find a new wife - it would be Clemence of Hungary - but the pope had to nullify the first marriage. The problem was that the Pope had just died and the cardinals were unable to agree on the name of the new Pontiff.

It is exactly at this time that Marguerite died, on April 30th, 1315 (some say on August 15th)

Did she die a natural death due to cold, physical misery caused by captivity and disease? Was she murdered on the king's orders or at least with the king's tacit agreement ? We do not know. Not before the 17th century did chroniclers begin evoking the thesis of murder by strangling. The writers of the time spoke only of natural death, but who would have dared write something else when they knew the terrible tortures inflicted to the lovers, Gautier et Philippe d'Aulnay ?

All things considered, it is clear that Marguerite's death, natural or not, wished for or ordered, came at the right moment to resolve King Louis X's predicament…

As to what came next, all the chroniclers agree that Marguerite was buried in Vernon, in the monastery of the Grey Friars (Minor Franciscans)
In Vernon was entombed
Her body at the Minor Friars.
They treated her honourably .
Her burial they did
In a noble and very devout way

writes one of the chroniclers, Geoffroi de Paris;

Here is our queen back in Vernon after ten years away from the town. In the meantime, her father, Robert II of Burgundy had died in our town and had been buried in this very monastery of the Grey Friars (his mortal remains were later transported to Citeaux abbey).


Map of Vernon in the 18th century showing the location of the monastery and its church and of the castle

Why was Marguerite buried in this monastery?
It was usual for Queens of France to be buried in abbeys or convents . The one in Vernon was among the nearest ones from Chateau Gaillard and was located within the royal Domain. We can also imagine that, realising that she was about to die, she might have asked to be buried in this monastery where her grandfather Louis IX, who often stayed in the near-by castle, used to go to hear mass. Moreover, do not forget that Marguerite knew the town since she had got married in the castle. Finally, her father's tomb had also been there for some time.

The last question is to know whether she was buried in the church itself, dedicated to saint Eloi, or elsewhere in the monastery. We can refer to her cousin Blanche. After being jailed for ten years at Chateau Gaillard, she was allowed to retire to Maubuisson Abbey (50 km north west from Paris). She was buried there in 1326, but in the chapter house, not in the church, as if her adulterous past had denied the queen (she was so for a few months) the right to a tomb in the church. Well then, Marguerite may have been buried in the chapter house too.

But unfortunately for us, the monastery was destroyed during the Revolution. The buildings were pulled down, the church, the monastery, the tomb; nothing remains that could tell us where Marguerite's burial place was and what it looked like.


The location of the church in 2005. The photo is taken from where the choir once rose

However she may not be that far! It happens by chance that, since the monastery was destroyed, nothing has ever been built on the former church but only light sheds , which have no deep foundations that would have disturbed the underground terrain layers. The largest part of the foundations of the church is still there, hidden under the ground.

Marguerite's tomb may still be there. Today the site is abandoned and will shortly be turned into an open air car park. Indeed, French law says that whenever a site is likely to contain (or simply might contain) archaeological remains, no property developer may use the ground and begin building before he has had extensive archaeological diggings carried out on the site at his own expense. In the case of this monastery, the question is not that the site "might contain" interesting remains, we know that they are undoubtedly there.

Who is the property developer who would therefore agree to get involved in the important expenses that would be required, should he decide to build over the site ? The underground is very likely to remain mysterious for many years. It may hide archaeological treasures or even the tomb of this unfortunate queen of France. Who knows?


Bibliography

* Les reines adultères, étude historique
byr Daniel Benguigui (unpublished)

* Histoire de Vernon et de sa châtellenie
by Edmond Meyer - Editions Delcrois, Les Andelys, 1876

* Les brus du roi et la mort de Philippe le Bel
Historia interactif - http://www.historia.presse.fr/data/mag/706/70605402.html

Special thanks to Mr Baboux from the Cercle d'Etudes Vernonnais ( the local historical society) whose help made it possible to complete the page.