University of Iowa, Emerita
The reputed French historical novelist Maurice Druon wrote seven volumes for his medieval series, The Accursed Kings (Les Rois maudits), that proved to be very popular. Translated into English in the 1950s, they are currently being reissued in paperback editions by Harper Collins: The Iron King and The Strangled Queen (2013), also The Poisoned Crown, The Royal Succession, The She Wolf, The Lily and the Lion, and The King Without a Kingdom (2014). Recounting the fortunes of the last Capetian kings of France during the early 1300s, the books are steamy potboilers featuring transnational political power brokering, corruption in government, clashes over secular and religious authority, and malignant competition for entitlements; familial intrigue, ungovernable lust, adultery and murder, homosexual dalliances, baby-switching, and all manner of vices vividly described. Along the way, the kingdom of France suffers injury, but stays afloat, as does the kingdom of England caught alongside. For this review, I was to read the first two books. The Iron King and The Strangled Queen. Caught up in stories so boldly told, however, I ended up reading all of them. The first three books steam to a boil; the next two simmer; and the final two trickle down and out. All of them, especially the early ones, hold the attention the way novels freely dispensing fantasy can, and as histories reined in by evidence cannot. Casting the books as novels, not histories, the author nevertheless throws the reader into deep historical waters with no lifeline. So which kings of France were purportedly “accursed,” why are they singled out, and what are the consequences? The first two volumes, in the main, are considered here and the others in passing.
Maurice Druon tells of the last five Capetian kings of France (1285-1328), descendants of the famed Louis IX (Saint Louis)–Philip IV and three successor sons, Louis X (whose infant son, Jean I, did not survive), Philip V, and Charles IV–and along the way he draws in two kings of England related to the French kings by marriage–Edward II, husband of Philip IV’s daughter, Isabelle, queen in England, and Edward III, their son. Straightaway, in The Iron King, Druon posits an overarching literary device that explains the general title of the series, The Accursed Kings, and thematically ties the books together. These Capetian kings are “accursed,” it is held, from the moment the progenitor, Philip IV–cold, smart, handsome, and ruling with an iron hand–defeats the Knights Templar, grabs their assets, and executes their revered Grand Master Jacques de Molay  who issues the curse that will eventually destroy the Capetian dynasty: “Accursed! Accursed! You shall be accursed to the thirteenth generation!” The events that follow depict the end of the Capetian dynasty, and their replacement by the Valois.
Editor’s note: Both the 1972 and 2005 series are available subtitled on YouTube.
This framing device of the curse is recalled in each subsequent volume, but Druon supplies other interwoven themes throughout the series. Just a sample: first, the hatred between Mahaut, duchess of Artois and a peer of France, and her nephew, Robert of Artois, whose claim to the duchy was rejected by the law courts, spikes a long vendetta that wreaks havoc in the kingdom of France. Second, a shocking sexual scandal with dire political effects erupts at the royal court in Paris: that is, accusations of adultery brought against Philip IV’s three beautiful, lustful, and naive, young daughters-in-law. On the docket are the princesses, Marguerite of Burgundy–wife of Louis [X]; Jeanne of Burgundy–wife of Philip [V] and daughter of Mahaut of Artois; and her sister Blanche of Burgundy–wife of Charles [IV]. The scandal, which has been orchestrated by Robert of Artois and told by Isabella, queen in England, to the king of France, her father, is heart-stopping. Found guilty, the two paramours, the knights and brothers, Gautier and Philip of Aunay, are mercilessly tortured, drawn, and quartered in a gruesome spectacle, a warning to others. Two of the princesses, Marguerite and Blanche, are convicted of adultery and imprisoned in the grim Chateau Gaillard. There they suffer physical privation and psychological ttorture that is sure to kill them eventually and, in the interim, to drive them insane. Meanwhile, Jeanne, who served only as a messenger, is exonerated but confined for a time to a convent. The consequences of the adultery scandal and incarcerations are politically disastrous, since neither the dauphin nor his brothers can fulfil the reproductive duty that sustains the monarchy. Another theme involves the salutary presence of the chief minister Enguerrand of Marigny, adept at turning the wheels of governance, and hence providing a stabilizing influence. Philip IV trusts and rewards his politically astute, financially prudent and loyal servant; but the king’s brother, Charles of Valois, uncle of the sons-in-waiting, jockeys for influence and seeks the minister’s demise.
Fourth, Italian financiers who live in France, agents of the Lombard Companies, are profiting from their extensive ties to European banking networks. They serve many masters–kings, nobles, popes, and clients of every stripe who can pay the freight–by advancing them large sums, joining diplomatic missions, furthering their ambitions, and engaging in spying. Finally, the machinations of the high clergy looking to secure church interests are told with smart and tart humor.
As a novel replete with high-blown fantasy, piquant details, passionate encounters, and ferocious political intrigues, The Iron King does not disappoint. Life in medieval times comes riotously alive. The manner of living in royal quarters, noble houses, church environs, and lodgings of the poor, is vividly described, as is life on the streets replete with poverty, dirt, disease, and physical clashes. The clothing worn, food eaten, baubles hoarded are visual treats. Philip IV’s execution of Jacques de Molay with the smell of burning flesh in the air, is suitably appalling, his bold political decision-making impressive, his stony determination to punish adultery frightening, the anxieties of his sons, and heirs, in his presence palpable. The cost of the benighted sexual passions of Marguerite and Blanche, along with their inability to produce sons, their descent into madness in the prison of the Chateau Gaillard, are chillingly recounted. The heated passions of Isabella, queen in England, mother of a son, but neglected wife of Edward II whose sexual tastes run to men, are searing. And the problems confronting successors to the French crown, Louis, Philip, and Charles, who are deprived of their wives, one in a convent (hoping for recall), the other two locked up in a death chamber (losing hope of surviving) loom large. For the kingdom, worse is to come. Out of the blue, the strong, capable, handsome Philip IV suffers a massive stroke while hunting and dies. As the novel makes plain at the king’s death, soon followed by that of the pope Clement V, Jacques de Molay’s curse has come tumbling down upon the first of the last five Capetian kings, each of whom will be afflicted in turn. So concludes the first book wherein The Iron King lies dead, and his inept son, Louis X, dons the crown of France. Rumblings of woe are felt in every corner of the kingdom. In the second book, The Strangled Queen, Druon pulls out all stops, marshalling scary, if not lurid, fantasy that serves fiction better than it does history. Ruled by Louis X, a weak, petty, and quarrelsome king who finds it difficult to make important decisions, and thus hands them off to his scheming uncle Charles of Valois, the kingdom of France is heading for trouble. Caught in the wicked clutches of the Valois uncle, still conspiring against the talented chief minister, Enguerrand of Marigny, Louis X sits idly by while a sham criminal trial orders the minister’s execution and thereby deprives the French kingdom of a wise adviser. Charles of Valois now leads the ineffectual king by the nose. No good can come of this. By now the marital issues are festering. Louis X is a king without a consort, because Marguerite, who is now queen of France, remains incarcerated. They have an infant daughter, Jeanne, and he has also fathered an illegitimate daughter by his servant and mistress, Eudaline. He has no son nor any way of begetting a legal heir. Refusing to pardon Marguerite, who is at death’s door, Louis X would like a new wife. He has a prime candidate: the breathtakingly beautiful and innocent Clémence of Hungary, who is waiting in Naples. However, marriage negotiations are thwarted by Marguerite’s stubborn clinging to life, delaying the marriage offer to Clémence, who is being pressed by other suitors. Into this marital bind steps the malicious intriguer Robert of Artois, still frothing at his aunt Mahaut of Artois. He wants to negotiate with Marguerite an annulment of her marriage and thereby secure the favor of Valois, as well as of the king who might reassign the coveted duchy of Artois to him. Robert puts the annulment proposition to the once-beautiful, now malnourished and sickly queen, who, true to her sluttish reputation, is willing to have sex with Robert or even her chief warden. Should Marguerite agree to have her marriage to Louis X annulled, the pope in cahoots, she will be transferred from the deadly Chateau Gaillard prison to a commodious convent for the rest of her days. Still convinced Louis will take her back, hence insulted by the annulment offer which also will render her baby daughter illegitimate, Marguerite rejects it. And so things go from bad to worse. While the king pines for Clémence, who seems to be slipping from his grasp, the queen’s condition continues to worsen, but she does not die. Because of this, although time is of the essence, no French marriage offer can be put on the table in Naples.
Coming to the rescue again, Robert of Artois hastens full speed to the Chateau Gaillard. Treating the emaciated and bedridden Marguerite with faked affection and respect, therewith sparking new hope that Louis will relent and pardon her, Robert arranges, as planned, for an assassin to enter the chamber and brutally strangle the queen. Reported to the king as a natural death, Marguerite’s demise clears the way for his upcoming nuptials, and Clémence of Hungary sets sail for France. As readers are reminded toward the end of The Strangled Queen, all these woes–the adultery scandal, the untimely death of Philip IV, the weakened kingdom of France ruled by the inept Louis X, the judicial murder of Marigny, the brutal treatment of the princesses, and the criminal strangulation of Marguerite—hark back to the curse shouted from the stake by Jacques de Molay. Similar plot twists appear in the remaining volumes of the series where fantasy is ramped up and fact dampened down or simply thrown out.
The now happily married but sickly Louis X and his infant son by Clémence, Jean I, soon meet a terrible end (The Poisoned Crown). The wily Mahaut of Artois poisons the king. She also attempts to poison the baby, but unbeknownst to her, little Jean has been switched at the zero hour, and the infant who is substituted dies instead, leaving a real king of France to be brought up by a duped Italian financier residing in Italy. The time is ripe for Louis’s cunning brother Philip to exercise his wits in pursuit of the French crown (The Royal Succession). How might Philip bypass the young princess, Jeanne, the only direct descendant of Louis X? The political and legal machinations are amazing to behold. Having recalled his wife, Jeanne, from the convent, Philip intends to take the crown. This illegal feat–dispossessing the young Jeanne, now orphaned, of her inheritance rights–is accomplished when Philip floats the notion of a law of succession operating in France that forbids female rule, gets this message out to peers and council members, and enacts the supposed mandate by actually bypassing Jeanne, for whom he is regent, and arranging to have himself crowned king of France (1316). Druon leaves readers confused about this highly important legal step. In one of his “Historical Notes,” he states with certainty that there was no ancient “Salic Law” that forbade female succession to the French throne. Of course he is historically correct. But his narrative suggests instead that Philip V secured this legal right by force, although it had been mooted for some time. Doomed, in any case, to suffer Molay’s curse, Philip V dies early, leaving only daughters, presumably the effects of the curse as well. Through these skewed succession arrangements, his inept brother, Charles, now inherits the crown. Having successfully pressed his imprisoned wife, Blanche, abused to the point of death at the Chateau Gaillard, into granting an annulment of their marriage, Charles IV remarries, but he too, crushed by the curse, dies early leaving only daughters (1328) (The Royal Succession).
Onto this teetering dynasty–royal daughters but no sons–springs the vicious, manic, sex-crazed sister of the three dead Capetian rulers, Isabella, queen of England, direct descendant of Philip IV and Louis IX. The “she-wolf” with noticeably sharp teeth, Isabella deposes her feckless husband, Edward II, lets sexual passion overrule reason by coupling with Roger Mortimer, earl of March, who engineered the brutal murder of Edward, leaving her regent for her son, Edward III. Isabella claims the French throne on his behalf. Her actions epitomize the long arm of the Molay curse (The She-Wolf and The Lily and the Lion). The French, with no direct Capetian male to succeed, nonetheless reject Isabella and Edward and choose instead a collateral candidate, Philip, son of Charles of Valois, the wicked uncle, now deceased (The King Without a Kingdom). Jacques de Molay’s curse of yore is fulfilled: the Capetian dynasty, the “accursed kings,” has succumbed, and the Valois dynasty rules.
Students will like reading these books. I liked reading them. Perhaps the best one is The Iron King. But while the historian of the period can tell the difference, for students in history courses, the difficulties created by such blurring of fiction and history become serious impediments.
The big question–centered on what is history as opposed to fiction– looms large in a history course hewing as close to the “truth” as the archival evidence will allow. Maurice Druon not only deliberately transgresses the boundaries but also dallies with readers on that score. First, in the statement linked to his Copyright notice of 1955 (repeated in all volumes), he declares outright that the books are fiction on every imaginable count and that the contents have no “resemblance to actual persons, living or dead.” Yet despite his disingenuous, or maybe humorous, disclaimer, the main persons featured in the books are certainly not, as he says “characters” conjured up by the “author’s imagination.” Just the opposite. The men and women, who are correctly identified, were once actually alive, and their actions have been amply documented. Second, in the books’ dedication, he toys with the history-fiction divide, quoting not historians of medieval history, but Edmond and Jules Goncourt, who co-authored six novels and declared that “History is a novel that has been lived.” Third, although he provides in each book a list of the featured real personages, replete with names, titles, and even ages, he titles this list, “The Characters in this Book,” thus reframing the historical personages as “characters.” Druon uses his “Author’s Acknowledgements” to don the historical mantle by saying: “I am most grateful…to the Bibliothèque nationale for indispensable aid in research,” and adds his informative “Historical Notes” which help with the context but eschew references to relevant scholarship. No real bibliography ever appears. The overall effect of the license established by this playful mixing of heavy doses of fiction with light dustings of history is a series of very tall tales that are even more compelling for the aura of truth in which they are carefully wrapped.
So how might instructors assign such books, not in literature courses but in history courses, where methods for describing real worlds, however long past, with their structures (institutions, laws, religion, customs, etc.) and events (living persons acting in that historical context), pieced together through scholarly research? A rather-grand set of corrections would be the first step.
Straightaway students would have to learn about the structures that molded the kingdom of France into a workable polity in the 1300s, including knowledge of the judicial system, traditional customs, and everyday notions that fashioned social mores and political behavior, especially whenever novels skew the historical context to favor their plot. Once the historical context is restored, events in the novel can be reexamined. I’ll cite just one example, but one that is quite glaring. What are we to make of the way Maurce Druon relentlessly undermines powerful, astute, and important women, defaming each in turn and using them as pawns to service his fictional rendering? In short order, these real women recorded by history are tossed into the bin.
In Druon’s telling, the women are beautiful and narcissistic, lustful and naive (the adulterous Marguerite and Marie); or beautiful, docile, and simple like Jeanne. They are gorgeous, pious, and innocent like Clémence or terribly ugly, their features invoking disgust, as well as disagreeable, vengeful, and murderous as with Mahaut of Artois, although, mind you, she is a peer of France. They are either sluts or downright murderous. They are also the snarling she-wolf whose sharp little teeth go for the jugular, the blood-stained whore Isabella, more animal than human. They have no recognizable brains: fodder to convince that women–brainless purveyors of vice—are indeed unfit to wear the crown.
Still, this warped view no longer works. Students aware of the gender inequality in medieval times are bound to question the nasty depiction of Isabella as a sharp-toothed she-wolf, and ask how Mahaut held the prestigious title of peer of France. Such details can be readily verified by consulting SIEFAR’s prize-winning online Dictionary of Women in the Old Regime, where accounts by scholars correct this kind of distorted view of history, this fantasy version often found in novels. To be sure, some time ago my article on bringing film into history classrooms, “European History in Text and Film: Community and Identity in France, 1550-1945,” strongly argued for allowing film makers, who must create dialogue and keep events flowing, a good deal of leeway as long as, in the end, they communicate the main historical points supported by current scholarship. The same goes for historical novels. In the end, however, zippy as the novels of Maurice Druon may be, history instructors will have a hard time disentangling the historical version of events precisely because he has confused history and fiction, fact and fantasy, so well! A boon for novelists who need not demur. A problem for historians who must do so, and who might well prefer to avoid the task altogether.
Maurice Druon, The Accursed Kings series: The Iron King and The Strangled Queen (Harper Collins 2013). Also The Poisoned Crown, The Royal Succession, The She Wolf, The Lily and the Lion, and The King Without a Kingdom (Harper Collins, forthcoming 2014).
- Maurice Druon (1918-2009), member of the Académie Française, was Minister of Cultural Affairs (1973-1974). Les rois maudits appeared between 1955 and 1977.
- The first English editions of Druon’s works (his first copyright 1955) were issued by Rupert Hart-Davis, 1956 (1968, 1985, and 1987); and a French television series aired in 1972 and was remade in 2005 starring Jeanne Moreau. The newly reissued paperback copies, translator Humphrey Hare, are from Harper Collins Publishers in 2013 and forthcoming 2014.
- Philippe IV (le Bel, the Fair), 1285-1314; Louis X (le Hutin, the Quarrelsome), 1314-1316, and his son, Jean I (le Posthume, the Posthumous), 1316; Philippe V (le Long, the Tall, 1316-1322); and Charles IV (le Bel, the Fair), 1322-1328. For England, Edward II (1307-1327, deposed by Isabella), and Edward III (1327-1377). The infant son of Louis X and his second wife, Clémence of Hungary, Jean I, briefly succeeded at birth but died within a week (presumably, for Druon’s theme, also an effect of the curse).
- The Knights Templar, a worldwide religious order of soldier-monks who protected crusaders and transferred monies to them, was officially sanctioned by the Church at the Council of Troyes (1128-1129). By the 1190s, they were headquartered in the Kingdom of Jerusalem. The last of the order’s Grand Masters, Jacques de Molay (taking office in 1292) helped build a new army but lost the foothold in the Holy Land (1298-1300). Based in Cyprus (1291), the knights, who controlled great financial resources, paid no taxes, and seemed to have lost their purpose, becoming a state within a state, that looked to create their own state perhaps in Languedoc when Philip IV, along with Pope Clement V, who officially dismantled the order (1312), moved against them (1307) and burned Molay at the stake (1314).
- Actually, the fraudulent “Salic Law” forbidding rule by women in France was a deliberate forgery by a cleric, Jean de Montreuil, provost of Lille, in the early 1400s, after a spirited dispute on the topic with Christine de Pizan (1399-1403). Once her City of Ladies appeared (1405), he invented a Salic Law (1406, 1409, 1413, 1416) that suited some but was rejcted by those kings whose commissions examined the texts; see Sarah Hanley, “La Loi Salique,” Introductory chapter, 27-47, in Nouvelle Encyclopédie historique et politique des femmes (3rd French ed., augumented), ed. Christine Fauré (Paris: Les Belles Lettres, 2010; and Hanley, “Identity Politics and Rulership in France: Female Political Place and the Fraudulent Salic Law in Christine de Pizan and Jean de Montreuil,” a chapter, 78-94, in Changing Identities in Early Modern France, Michael Wolfe, ed. (Durham, N.C., Duke University Press, 1997). In short, there was no ancient Salic Law that forbade rule by women in France as embarrassed legists in the 1500s would discover when they unearthed copies of the Carolingian Salic Law Code and admitted that the medieval replica (in the early 1400s) was a forgery.
- See Sarah Hanley, “European History in Text and Film: Community and Identity in France, 1550-1945,” French Historical Studies 25:1 (2002):3-19.
- Perhaps Druon was criticized for providing “Historical Notes” in six volumes but failing to offer a bibliography, because in the seventh (and weakest) book, The King Without a Kingdom, he notes that due to requests for sources, he provides a short list (clearly not up to par and may even have been given facetiously as he continued to play around with the fact-fiction divide).
- The Druon books are ill-served by the decision of the latest publisher, Harper Collins, to add a “Forward” by George R. R. Martin, the author of the fantasy series A Game of Thrones, which, he tells us, was “influenced by the works of great historical novelists,” including “Maurice Druon whose Accursed Kings has it all…and all of it (well, most of it) straight from the pages of history.” Indeed, Martin declares, Druon’s “epic…was the original game of thrones.”
- There is no evidence that Jacques de Molay cast a curse on the Capetian dynasty, or that Robert of Artois repeatedly engaged in sexual scandals and murderous acts, or that Marguerite (wife of Lous X), who was queen of France, was strangled. In the later volumes, It is equally fantastic to portray Mahaut of Artois as poisoning Louis X who himself intended to poison the baby king, Jean I; or that Jean I was replaced by a commoner baby (duly killed off), while the real king survived as the son of an Italian financier. There is no end to this sort of ahistorical trafficking.