"Accursed! Accursed! You shall be accursed to the thirteenth generation of your lines!" - The Iron King Philip the Fair of France

29 November 1314, the King of France and Navarre and Count of Champagne, Philip the Fair, died in Fontainebleau at the age of 46.

“Pape Clément! Chevalier Guillaume de Nogaret! Roi Philippe! Avant un an, je vous cite à paraître au tribunal de Dieu pour y recevoir votre juste châtiment! Maudits! Maudits! Vous serez tous maudits jusqu'à la treizième génération de vos races!" (“Pope Clement, Chevalier Guillaume de Nogaret, King Philip, I summon you to the Tribunal of Heaven before the year is out, to receive your just punishment! Accursed! Accursed! You shall be accursed to the thirteenth generation of your lines!" – alleged curse of the dying Grand Master of the Knights Templar, burned at the stake on 18 March 1314) 

The Iron King Philip the Fair of France - a 16th century illustration

The French did not call him “le Roi de fer”, the Iron King for nothing. And the Middle Ages saw very few true statesmen like him, far-sighted, ambitious far beyond military exploits and utterly ruthless. His grandfather Saint Louis left him with a legend of chivalry and piety and a country that was suffering from fragmentation, the enormous debt Louis’ two failed crusading attempts had left behind, and the people's yearning for the fabled “Golden Age” of his rule that Philip’s father had allegedly gambled away. Saint Louis’ half-done reforms of France’s still rather early medieval body politic were something, though, Philip IV addressed with a vengeance as soon as he had ascended the throne in 1285. Without the least attempt of being saintly. At the beginning of the 14th century, Philip’s Kingdom of France had surpassed the Holy Roman Empire as the dominant power in Europe, and not, noticeably enough, with successes on the battlefield. The Iron King’s exploits there were rather negligible. It was by sheer power play that le Roi de fer became medieval Europe's top dog. In 1309 then, Philip levered out the Holy Roman Empire's stumbling block of 200 years to grasp absolute power. By coaxing the Papacy to relocate to Avignon for the next 70 years, he downgraded the most influential institution of the Middle Ages to a mere local French affair. An irreversible blow to the pope’s universal claim to power. Philip had succeeded were all the Holy Roman Emperors had failed, including the mighty Staufer Frederick Barbarossa and Frederick II.

Some of the principal actors in the Tour de Nesle Affair, depicted in 1315, the year after the scandal broke: Philip IV of France (centre) and his family: l-r: his sons, Charles and Philip, his daughter Isabella, himself, his eldest son and heir Louis, and his brother, Charles of Valois (wikipedia)

Establishing an early absolutistic reign 400 years before Louis XIV, incorporating disputed territories into the crown domain, reforming and centralising financial institutions and establishing an administrative system, is, naturally, rather expensive. And Philip IV, always strapped for cash, had some rather dubious ideas of how to bring money into his coffers. Blackmailing Lombard bankers and disseising and expelling the Jews from France was one thing that his contemporaries did not exactly frown upon, though. However, seizing the probably richest establishment of the day, the Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Christ and of the Temple of Solomon, better known as the Knights Templar, was something different. Accusing the whole order with the help of his papal marionette in Avignon of blasphemy, confiscating their immense assets and burning their leaders at the stake in 1312 in Paris was his questionable masterstroke. And, besides the Tour des Nesle Affair that ended with two of his daughters-in-law imprisoned for life for adultery and their lovers brutally executed, the curse of Jacques de Molay, the dying grandmaster of the Knights Templar, was probably the best-known event of his long reign that was successfully and brutally ahead of its time. 

The Death of the Iron King - from a 15th century miniature (and probably not quite the way it happened)

Philip’s creature Pope Clement V did indeed die under rather unsavoury circumstances four weeks after Jacques de Molay’s demise and, only a couple of months after Tour des Nesle Affair, while hunting in the Forest of Halatte in Picardy, the Iron King suffered from a stroke on November 3rd and died in Fontainebleau at the age of only 46. Many of his subjects allegedly saw his death as a release from his hard rule, even though it was probably more of Golden Age for most of the French than the years of Saint Louis’ reign. What followed, though, was far worse. Philip’s daughter Isabella was married to King Edward II of England and after the death of Philip’s third son Charles IV without leaving an heir to the House of Capet, her offspring Edward III made a claim for the crown of France and was refused under the Salic Law, stating that “no portion of the inheritance shall come to a woman: but the whole inheritance of the land shall come to the male sex.” Edward’s cousin Philip VI was elected as the first king of the House of Valois in 1328 and in 1337 Edward III prepared his invasion of France to claim his rights. The Hundred Years’ War had begun.

And more about Philip le Bel on: