In 1237, Ingeborg, Dowager Queen of France, died. At the time of her death, she was approximately sixty years old, and had lived more than forty years in France, having arrived as a young and pretty bride-to be in 1193. Her intended was Philip II, King of France, a.k.a. Philip Augustus. At the time, he was pushing thirty, ten years or so older than his Danish wife. The fact that Ingeborg is described as being “sweet, wise and pretty” was not enough to endear her to him – but we have no idea why the groom exited the bridal chamber so distraught he never touched his wife again.
If we start at the beginning, Ingeborg was the youngest of the eight surviving children born to Valdemar the Great of Denmark and his wife, Sofia of Minsk.
Seeing as Valdemar’s mother was a princess from Kiev, I suspect he was now and then called Vladimir both by her and by his wife. Valdemar had not had the easiest of lives, born the posthumous son of Knut Lavard, who was one of Sven Estridsen’s grandsons.
Valdemar is famous as the Danish king who crushed the Wends, a ferocious race who plagued the Danes with continuous raids, but before he got to that point, Valdemar had to fight for his throne. By 1157 he was safe on the Danish throne which was when he married Sofia.
Sofia of Minsk was reputedly very beautiful, but as per the legends, she was also cruel and vindictive. Supposedly, she rid herself of the competition for her future husband by burning the poor woman alive. At a distance of 900 years, we’ll never know the truth in the matter, so maybe we should give the woman the benefit of the doubt. After all, she was a foreigner in Denmark, and maybe a jilted Danish lady with her eye on Valdemar chose to get her own back by spreading these lurid rumours.
Ingeborg was born around 1176, and six years or so later, her father died. Instead, her eldest brother, Knut, became king, and it was Knut who was involved in arranging her marriage – with the French king! Paris beckoned, but I imagine Ingeborg was somewhat torn: it was a long ride from Denmark to Paris, and chances were she’d never see her homeland again. Plus, she didn’t speak French.
Philip had political reasons for pursuing an alliance with Denmark. First of all, the Danish fleet was feared throughout Europe, and Philip wanted to make sure the fleet would not attack his lands or his budding navy. Secondly, since the time of Knut the Great (a.k.a. Canute), the Danish kings insisted they had a claim on the English throne. A tenuous claim, but still: Philip must have chortled at the thought of presenting the English with an alternative to those Angevin bastards who presently wore the English crown – and controlled a sizeable chunk of Philip’s France.
Thirdly, both Denmark and France were eager to thumb their nose at the Holy Roman Empire. By entering into an alliance, they sent a not-so-subtle message to the Holy Roman Emperor that they didn’t like him much – and would like it even less if he tried to expand his empire at their expense.
Philip also had personal reasons for finding a new wife: his first wife, Isabella of Hainault, had died in childbed in 1190. As her twin boys died with her, this left Philip with only one child from that union, little Louis. Not enough, according to Philip, and Ingeborg came with the benefit of having a fertile mother. By all accounts, Philip was not particularly nice to his first wife, even going as far as threatening to divorce her because she hadn’t given him a son. The poor bride was fifteen or so at the time…
On August 14, 1193, Ingeborg was wed to Philip. After the usual celebrations, the couple retired to their chamber. And there, dear peeps, something happened. Whatever it was, we don’t know, but already the next day, Philip was insisting Ingeborg be sent home – far, far away from him. He wanted the marriage annulled, no matter if it cost him the Dano-French alliance.
This must have been terribly humiliating for the recently married and crowned Ingeborg – who, to add further injury, had been stripped of her own name and re-named Isambour. I imagine her lonely and frightened – unless, of course, she did have a streak of black magic in her, inherited from her mama. Philip would later claim that she’d put a spell on him, making it impossible for him to consummate the marriage. Ingeborg vigorously denied both the spell and the non-consummation.
One can’t help but wonder what transpired between the two on that long-gone August night. Did she giggle at the size of his member? Was she somehow malformed? (although there is nothing on record to indicate that was the case) Did she smell? Or was she so shocked by her new husband’s attempt at making l’amour she kneed him where it really, really hurts? After all, she didn’t even speak the language, so maybe she misunderstood what he was trying to say.
Philip immediately demanded an annulation. He seems to have assumed Ingeborg – oops, Isambour – would go along with this, but she refused. According to Ingeborg, she was now a happily (hmm) married woman, and, even better, the queen of France. No way was she letting that go without a fight. Given just how stubbornly she refused to give into Philip’s demands that they part ways, I get the feeling that whatever transpired between them had left her hurting badly. So maybe it was him who laughed…
Anyway: Philip decided to force Ingeborg’s hand by placing her under house arrest. In distant Denmark, Ingeborg’s brother raised his voice in loud protest, and when Philip tried to argue the marriage was invalid due to consanguinity, this was repudiated by the Danish diplomats, who produced a genealogy chart that showed the Capet king had very little blood in common with his fair wife.
The pope became involved. Philip refused to reconcile. Ingeborg refused to accept an annulment. The pope ruled in favour of Ingeborg, and in retaliation, Philip ensured Ingeborg’s captivity was made even more uncomfortable.
She found solace in her faith – there’s a beautiful psalter still in existence she commissioned in 1200 – and in the firm belief she was in the right. Even more so, when Philip did a one-sided annulment and married Agnes of Merain.
“Bigamy!” yelled Ingeborg and her supporters.
“Get a life,” Philip growled. “Just sign the documents and get over it.”
“No way.” Ingeborg set her jaw. “You may sleep with your whore, but you’re married to me.”
The pope totally agreed with Ingeborg. He urged Philip to set Agnes aside and return to his loyal wife. Philip wasn’t having it. In fact, it seems that he was genuinely in love with Agnes – like for the first and last time in his life – and he stubbornly insisted his marriage to Ingeborg was invalid – or annulled, depending on how he had to argue the case.
The pope had had it. Either Philip set aside Agnes, or he’d place France under interdict. Still Philip refused to give up on Agnes, whom he treated as if she were his crowned queen. Where Ingeborg had never shown her face at court, never sat side by side with her husband, Agnes was a fixture in Philip’s court, and delighted him further by presenting him with two children. Illegitimate children according to the Church.
While Agnes was enjoying the good life, Ingeborg languished in captivity, deprived of sufficient food, of companionship. She toyed with the idea of suicide, and wrote as much to the pope, who was horrified and made good on his threat of placing France under interdict. This time, he also excommunicated Philip.
Late in 1200, Philip relented, officially sending Agnes away from court. Not that anything changed for Ingeborg, still locked up in her tower. Agnes, however, was heartbroken at being sent off, stripped of her status as wife. In 1201, she died. I can’t imagine this evoked any pity from Ingeborg.
One would have thought that with Agnes dead, Philip might have given things a go with Ingeborg. Nope. Instead he appealed yet again to the pope for annulment, stating he’d been subjected to witchcraft on his wedding night with Ingeborg. Pope Innocent snorted – loudly, I imagine.
For the coming decade or so, Philip went on with his life, while poor Ingeborg remained locked up. Her life was slipping through her fingers, any dreams she may have had of babies and a position in court denied her. Maybe she should have agreed to an annulment and attempted to find contentment elsewhere, but by now she’d gone down the road of obstinate refusal for too long to change her mind.
In 1213, Philip had a change of heart. With his eyes very firmly set on England and the potentials offered by the turmoil there, he needed peace with Denmark – an assurance the Danish fleet would not sneak up and demolish the French ships should France attempt an invasion. So, out of nowhere, more or less, he decided to reconcile with Ingeborg – Isambour.
After twenty years of captivity, Ingeborg was at last accorded the respect she deserved, recognised as Philip’s queen at court. Suddenly, her food was rich and plentiful, she was swathed in precious fabrics and adorned with glittering jewels. But her husband never touched her – he didn’t have to, seeing as his eldest son had recently fathered a son, thereby ensuring the Capet dynasty would thrive.
In 1223, Philip died. Supposedly, he asked his son, the future Louis VIII to treat Ingeborg well – a volte-face versus how he himself had treated this once so young Danish princess. Louis VIII would, in fact, always show Ingeborg the respect she deserved as his father’s widow. This was probably politically motivated, as by recognising that Ingeborg had been queen since 1193, Louis was also indirectly reminding everyone that his young half-brother, Philip, was nothing but a royal bastard, no matter that the pope had legitimised him after Agnes’ death.
Ingeborg paid for various masses to be said for Philip’s soul. She took to the role as a pious widow as a fish takes to water, and maybe all those masses were her way of letting the world know she’d forgiven Philip. Maybe she had. Maybe she was just playing to the audience.
After Philip’s death, Ingeborg retired to live out the remainder of her life mostly at the priory of Saint Jean de l’Ile, which she had founded. Fourteen years after Philip, Ingeborg departed this world and was buried in a church in Corbeil. A sad life, in many ways, twenty years spent in solitude as the prisoner of the man who’d married you. And as to what really happened on their wedding night, well only two people know – and they’re both very, very dead. I guess we can safely conclude that whatever it was, it sure didn’t make the earth move for them – at least not in a good way.