The Iron King by Maurice Druon
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
“It must be admitted that such things were common coin of the period. Kingdoms were often handed over to adolescents, whose absolute power fascinated them as might a game. Hardly grown out of the age in which it is fun to tear the wings from flies, they might now amuse themselves by tearing the heads from men. Too young to fear or even imagine death, they would not hesitate to distribute it around them.”
Philippe IV, the Fair, of France
Philip IV, known as Philip the Fair, came to the throne at the age of 17 and ruled France for 29 years. He was a dispassionate, imperial man. His ice cold blue eyes betrayed nothing of the workings of his mind. He fought with Edward I King of England. He defied the Pope. He expelled the Jews in 1306, over 100,000 of them were frog marched out of the country. On Friday the 13th in 1307, Black Friday as it famously came to be known long before it became a celebrated day of Walmart shopping, he arrested the Knights Templar and seized all their property.
He simply owed the Jews and the Knights Templar too much money. Of course a king can not say the reason he is forcibly expelling one group or torturing to death another group is because he is...well…a welcher. The Jews are one thing. You can just give them a boot in the buttocks on their way out of the country and no one will care, but the Knights Templar are quite another thing. In fact they are a rather dangerous lot, skilled swordsmen, warriors for Christ none the less, and they have more than money enough to curry favor with those that can extract them from the clutches of the crown.
This is delicate matter that can not be handled delicately.
Philip The Fair must have sat down and made a list of every dastardly thing that a man or an entire organization can be accused of. The short list: apostasy, idolatry, heresy, beastiality, obscene rituals, financial corruption, fraud, secrecy and of course the ever popular sodomy. After all it gets cold in those Middle Eastern desert climates at night, sometimes a pair of saddlebags are not a pair of saddlebags. (Those aren’t pillows!)
This all leads to torture and more torture.
Jacques de Molay, Grand Master of the Knights Templar was of particular interest to the crown. He was tortured for seven long years.
”And more recently he had undergone the torture by stretching, the most appalling perhaps of all those to which he had been subjected. A weight of two hundred pounds had been tied to his right foot while he, old as he was, had been hoisted to the ceiling by a rope and pulley. And all the time Guillaume de Nogaret’s sinister voice kept repeating, ‘Confess, Messire, why don’t you confess?’ And since he still obstinately refused, they had hauled him from floor to ceiling more hurriedly, more jerkily. He had felt his limbs becoming disjoined, the articulations parting, his whole body seemed to be bursting, and he had begun to scream that he would confess everything, admit every crime, all the crimes of the world.”
Now I have never looked at a goat with desire or had any inclinations for devil worship, but if you swing 200 pounds off my leg and jerk me up and down until all the joints of my body dislocate I will admit to fornicating with the devil while he fornicated the goat or any other thing you want me to confess to if you will make the pain go away. De Molay, after a valiant effort to resist, has admitted everything that Philip needs him to confess.
This book starts in 1314 with a few strategic flashbacks to catch us up on how things happened, but I wanted to give a little background on Philip before discussing Maurice Druon’s book The Iron King first in a series of seven novels published from 1955 to 1977.
That stench in your nostrils is the reek of betrayal.
So after seven years Philip has what he wants so it is time to start piling up the wood and get ready for the smell of singed flesh. He brings de Molay and a few of the remaining high ranking Templars to the final show trial so that the charges can be publicly read. De Molay puts a damper on the event by renouncing all the charges and placing a curse on Pope Clement V, de Nogaret, and Philip IV.
“Accursed! Accursed! You shall be accursed to the thirteenth generation!”
The crowd is swayed for a moment by the spirited defense offered by the Knights Templar, but they really came to see the show and once the first lit torch is dropped:
”A huge sigh rose from thousands of breasts, a sigh of relief and horror, excitement and dismay, a sigh made up of anguish and of revulsion and of pleasure.”
Blanche of Burgundy, one of the scandalized cousins.
All three of Philip’s sons have been married to a girl from Burgundy, political alliances. The three girls are cousins, muses of beauty, and thick as thieves. Isabella, Philip’s only daughter, has been married off to the King of England Edward II with the hope that peace can be achieved and sustained. Philip would like to see his grandson on the throne of England. Druon makes the case that Isabella may have had bigger plans than that for her infant son.
Poor Piers Gaveston lying dead at the feet of one of his assassins Guy de Beauchamp. Was he killed because he was having pillow fights with Edward in the bedroom or was he killed because he’d gained too much influence too quickly?
Despite Isabella’s renown beauty, Edward likes to spend his time with boys, spilling his royal seed other places than in the fertile womb of his queen. When he becomes too close to Piers Gaveston, Earl of Cornwall, his wife proves to be more like her father than her three brothers. She arranges to have Gaveston ran through with a sword and beheaded. His body left on the very road he was executed on. Gaveston irritated more than just the queen with the special attention he received from Edward. It wasn’t hard to find men willing to take him off the chessboard.
When Isabella hears her sister-in-laws might be committing acts of adultery she concocts a plan that will hand irrefutable evidence to her father. She doesn’t like her sister-in-laws and doesn’t mind exposing their conduct even if it embarrasses her father and the French court. This scandal was called the Tour de Nesie Affair named for the tower in which these royal women and their young lovers were “supposedly” meeting. There is speculation that these accusations were all part of Isabella’s grand plan to eventually see her son ruling France.
Now with three brothers you would think that there would be no chance for the future Edward III to ever be next in line for the French throne. Each of the three brothers became King in quick succession, all died young, and all failed to produce a male heir touching off a little dust up called The Hundred Years’ War. Edward III, was the closest male heir to the House of Capet, but the French slid around that issue by declaring Edward III unfit under the rules of the Salic Law. This law covers a lot of different aspects of the rules and conducts of the Franks, but the section we are most interested in is the part where it states it is against French law for a female to sit on the throne of France nor shall any male heir from her line be qualified to be King of France either.
Knowing Queen Isabella, as I’ve come to know her under the guiding hand of Druon, I can only imagine how much stewing, plotting, and conniving she will be doing with the hope of seeing her son in her father’s chair despite the stipulations by the Salic Law.
I have stretched out the history, giving everyone some of the lead up to the events in this novel and also flashed forward a bit to see where things will be going. George R.R. Martin has been leading the surge in bringing this series back into print. He has said that he was heavily influenced by Druon and states that ”This is the original Game of Thrones’”.
If you love Game of Thrones you might just like this series. If you don’t like Game of Thrones you might just love this series. There is intrigue, uneasy alliances, betrayal, lust, gamesmanship, and a minor Italian character named Guccio Baglioni who when he meets a mother and daughter can’t decide which he will try to seduce first. Ahhh those Italians.
I’m looking forward to book two called The Strangled Queen. Now isn’t that quite the tantalizing title.
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