A monument to a baby king
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1 Rue de la Légion d'Honneur, 93200 Saint-Denis, France
1 Rue de la Légion d'Honneur, 93200 Saint-Denis, France
The effigy of the tragic little Jean le Posthume (John the Posthumous, d. 1316) at Saint-Denis (France) gives a hint of his story, which – along with that of his family – is one of myth, scandal, drama, intrigue and violence worthy of The Game of Thrones.
Few kings can have lived and ‘reigned’ so briefly as Jean I of France, viz. a mere 5 days (15-19/20 November 1316). Even then he was younger than is suggested by the small white marble effigy of a crowned toddler in the royal abbey of Saint-Denis. It shows the little king recumbent in the conventional attitude of prayer, the innocent baby head with its chubby cheeks and curly hair on a cushion (fig. 1a-b). A simple coronet with inlaid coloured stones suggests his royal status. History knows him as Jean I but he was never crowned. His soubriquet le Posthume (the Posthumous) gives a hint of his story, which – along with that of his family – is one of myth, scandal, drama, intrigue and violence worthy of The Game of Thrones.
Little Jean was the son of Louis X, known as le Hutin (the Quarrelsome, 1289-1316), who in turn was the eldest son of Philippe IV le Bel (the Fair, 1268-1314). Through Philippe IV’s marriage to Jeanne I of Navarre they were also kings of Navarre. Jean I, Louis X and Philippe IV were three of the five last kings of the House of Capet (fig. 2) along with Philippe IV’s younger sons and later successors Philippe V (c.1293-1322) and Charles IV (1294-1328), and known together as les rois maudits (the accursed kings) after the famous series of historical novels by the French author Maurice Druon (1918-2009). A crucial role was played by Philippe IV’s daughter Isabelle (c.1295-1358), wife of the ill-fated English king Edward II and sometimes described as the ‘She-Wolf of France’. She was thus Jean I’s aunt.
The story of the ‘curse’ began on Friday 13 October 1307 at dawn when Philippe IV, who happened to owe a great debt to the Knights Templar, in a sudden move had hundreds of Knights arrested and assets seized. Many Knights were burnt at the stake after false confessions had been extracted through torture. The Order itself was officially dissolved by Pope Clement V in 1312. Among those seized were the last Grand Master of the Temple, Jacques de Molay, and the Preceptor of Normandy, Geoffroi de Charnay. They underwent a show trial in Paris before being slowly burnt at the stake in March 1314 on Philippe IV’s orders after they retracted their confessions. The deaths of Pope Clement V less than a month later and Philippe IV himself on 29 November that same year, aged only 46, led to the myth that both had been cursed by the dying Grand Master along with the king’s descendants.
Yet scandal and intrigue had already hit the royal family badly. Years earlier Philippe IV had sought rich brides for his three sons. In 1305 his eldest son Louis had married Marguerite of Burgundy; in 1307 his second son Philippe married Jeanne, eldest daughter and heiress of Othon IV, Count of Burgundy, and Mahaut, Countess of Artois; and in 1308 his youngest son Charles wed Jeanne’s younger sister Blanche while his daughter Isabelle was married to Edward II of England. In 1312 Louis’s wife Marguerite gave birth to a daughter, Jeanne (II of Navarre, d. 1349), but the following year Isabelle began to suspect her sisters-in-law of adultery with two Norman knights, Gautier (Walter) and Philippe of Aunay. Philippe IV ordered a secret surveillance and in 1314 the ‘Tour de Nesle affair’ was made public when he had the three princesses arrested. The Aunay brothers were also arrested for lèse majesté, tortured and condemned to a gruesome death. Marguerite and Blanche were tried, found guilty of adultery and sentenced to life imprisonment, whereas Jeanne was accused of complicity and placed under house arrest. The scandal may have contributed to the sudden death of Philippe IV that same year.
Upon succeeding to the throne Louis X faced a dilemma: he would not take his adulterous wife Marguerite back nor could he remarry while she was alive, and there was not yet a new pope to annul the marriage. On 30 April 1315 Marguerite conveniently died – either of a cold or strangled while imprisoned in Château Gaillard (Normandy) – and on 19 August Louis married Clémence of Hungary. The new queen was pregnant when Louis X unexpectedly died on 5 June 1316, from pneumonia or pleurisy due to drinking a large quantity of cooled wine after a tennis match – or could it have been poison? His heir was his unborn child, if it should prove to be a boy, for Salic Law meant that his daughter Jeanne (whose paternity was not undisputed) could not inherit the French throne.
So when Jean the Posthumous was born over five months after his father’s death he officially became the new king of France. Unfortunately he died just five days later on 19 or 20 November and was buried with his late father at Saint-Denis (fig. 3). Infant mortality was high in the medieval period but inevitably the little king’s death was blamed by some on his uncle and successor, who became King Philippe IV. Stories circulated that little Jean had been smothered, poisoned, or even abducted and substituted with a dead baby. Decades later a certain Giannino Baglioni claimed to be the real Jean I, but he was captured and died in captivity in 1363.
Philippe V remained married to Jeanne of Burgundy but died in 1322 without male heirs. His younger brother and successor Charles IV then had his marriage to the disgraced Blanche annulled and married twice more, only to die on 1 February 1328 while his third wife was pregnant with a baby who turned out to be another daughter. This meant the end of the royal House of Capet. Clémence herself survived them all and died on 13 October 1328.
An antiquarian Gaignières drawing now in Oxford (fig. 3) shows the original arrangement of the effigies of Louis X and Jean I. The accompanying text describes it as:
TOMBEAU de marbre a gauche dans le Choeur de l’Eglise de l’Abbaye de St Denis. Il est de LOUIS X, du nom dit Hutin Roy de France & de Navarre qui mourut l’an 1316, a 25 ans. Il eut de Clemence de Hongrie sa 2e femme Jean Roy de France & de Navarre postume, né le 15. novembre 1316, et mourut le 19.e suivant & fut proclamé Roy. Il gist auprès du Roy son père.
(Trans.: Tomb of marble to the left in the choir of the church of the Abbey of Saint-Denis. It is of Louis X, named Quarrelsome, King of France and of Navarre, who died in the year 1316 aged 25. He had by Clémence of Hungary, his second wife, Jean the Posthumous, King of France and of Navarre, born 15 November 1316 and died the 19th following and was proclaimed King. He lies near the King his father.)
It was Charles IV who commissioned the monuments to his predecessors in 1327, but Jean’s marble effigy is not mentioned among them, so perhaps if was Clémence herself who ordered her son’s monument. After the despoliation and removal of the royal monuments from Saint-Denis during the French Revolution, the effigies of Louis X and his children Jeanne and Jean were returned to the abbey in 1818 but rearranged so that Jean I now shares a black marble slab with his elder half-sister (fig. 4-5).
Jean’s effigy is 84 cm long and shows him not as a swaddled baby, which may have been considered indecorous for a king of France, but as a young child with his hands raised in the conventional attitude of prayer. Instead of royal robes, he wears a surcoat with three bands of ermine on the upper arms on top of a simple robe. A metal crown or coronet originally encircled his head, which would have covered the current simple band of stone, but this symbolic embellishment was lost probably centuries ago. Yet at least the marble effigy survives as an enduring image of this short-lived king of France.