Ingeborg of Denmark, Queen of France


Continuing with the narrative of King Philip II Augustus’ marital woes, we have the tale of his second and third wives. And the story just gets more curious. We have already seen that due to political exigencies, Philip tried to rid himself of his first wife Isabelle of Hainault.

After giving birth to the much awaited heir Prince Louis, Isabelle died. Philip was in the midst of plans for a Crusade and not even Isabelle’s death would stop him. He left for the Holy Land and after a disappointing trip, returned in December of 1191. While he was gone Prince Louis was mortally ill and on his deathbed. Louis recovered but it became imperative Philip find a new wife and have more children.

Philip selected Ingeborg of Denmark. Ingeborg was born circa 1175, the daughter of King Valdemar I the Great of Denmark and his second wife, the Russian Princess Sofia, daughter of Volodar Glevoitz, Prince of Minsk. Ingeborg’s brothers would in turn become Kings of Denmark, Knut VI and Valdemar II. We know little of Ingeborg’s upbringing. She doesn’t really surface into the political arena until Philip decided to marry her.

No one can really explain why Philip chose her as a bride. Denmark was on the ascendency and therefore a political wild card. Social and intellectual connections were heating up between Denmark and France. Danish students and some nobles came to France to study in the prominent schools and monastic centers. Philip sent word to King Knut that he would be interested in marriage to any sister he may have available. The only advantage to the marriage on the surface is the fact that Ingeborg was of royal birth and she brought him a dowry of ten thousand marks of silver.

Eighteen year old Ingeborg arrived in Amiens on August 13, 1193. She knew no French and Philip knew no Danish so they were compelled to speak in rudimentary Latin. On August 14, the marriage ceremony was performed. The couple spent the night together and the next day Ingeborg’s coronation took place at Amiens Cathedral. During the ceremony, Philip appeared pale and restless, anxious for the ceremony to be over. Afterwards, Philip approached the Danish party and demanded they take Ingeborg back to Denmark with them because it was his intention to seek an annulment of the marriage. Ingeborg was very unhappy with this state of affairs and fled to a convent in Soissons.

Three months later, on November 5, a council was convened at Compiègne by Philip’s uncle, William, Archbishop of Reims. The council consisted of fifteen bishops, counts and knights who were either relatives of the king or members of his household. Philip’s argument was presented stating Ingeborg was related to his first wife Isabelle within four degrees, which was a forbidden degree of affinity by church law. This was a very weak argument and the genealogical tables Philip produced did not convince the Danes. However, the council unsurprisingly decided to dissolve the marriage by annulment, allowing both parties to marry again. The Danes were dismayed by the decision and never accepted the affinity argument.

When Ingeborg was told of the decision, she shouted loudly in halting Latin “Mala Francia: Roma Roma” (Bad France: To Rome, To Rome) signaling her aim was to appeal to the Pope. Philip sent her to the monastery of Saint-Maur-des-Fossés, not far from Paris. Things had obviously gotten off to a very bad start.

Ingeborg appealed her case to Pope Celestine III in Rome. He bided his time. Danish ambassadors came to France in an attempt at reconciliation but Philip expelled them. Denmark sent a delegation to meet with the Pope and he declared the decision by the Compiègne council to be invalid. Ingeborg was virtually a prisoner in Cysoing in Lille and then in a château in the Forest of Rambouillet.

Based on the council of Compiègne’s decision, Philip went ahead and sought another wife. The fact he had tried to repudiate both his wives and he was under censure from the Pope was enough to dissuade many candidates. He finally settled on Agnès de Méran and married her in June of 1196, immediately after the Pope had convened a council in Paris in an attempt at reconciliation with Ingeborg. Ingeborg accused Philip of bigamy and adultery and from the beginning insisted the marriage had been consummated causing her to become an outlaw and exile. The council failed in the face of Philip’s opposition. It was as if Philip was thumbing his nose at the Pope.

Over the next five years, Agnès gave birth to two children, a daughter Marie and a son Philip. In 1198, Pope Celestine died and Pope Innocent III took office. He was an expert on church law concerning marriage and immediately became a champion for Ingeborg’s case, thoroughly supporting her. Innocent believed Agnès to be bigamous at worst and a concubine at best. He began to work on Philip to end his cohabitation with Agnès and take Ingeborg back, if not to the marriage bed, at least to treat her with grace. After years of letters back and forth and Philip’s stubborn refusal to put Agnès aside, Innocent pronounced an interdict over France which began on January 13, 1200.

The interdict lasted until September of that year and the people greatly suffered. In all the lands under Philip’s royal domain, the inhabitants were deprived of church services. The doors of the churches and the gates of the cemeteries were closed and the sacraments were withheld. The only services allowed were baptism for the newborn and the consecrated host for those who were seriously ill. Observance of mass and confession ceased, confirmations, marriages and conferring of holy orders were suspended and bodies were left un-buried, causing a terrific stench. Even the bells of the churches stopped ringing to mark the canonical hours and other church festivities. Thirteen of the bishops under the king’s control remained loyal to him and refused to obey the pope’s orders. Six of the bishops defied the king and he made them pay by despoiling their lands.

Philip’s hand was finally forced and negotiations were started with the Pope. Because Agnès was pregnant with her second child it was agreed she could stay within the boundaries of France. Philip agreed to meet in public with Ingeborg. This meeting took place in a royal manor outside Paris with Ingeborg kept under virtual house arrest. But it was a start and led to a council, held at Soissons in March of 1201 where the king would be able to air his complaints and the tribunal authority was recognized by both parties. The Pope lifted the interdict.

Agnès gave birth to her son and then died in July of 1201. She was buried in the abbey of Saint-Corentin in Mantes. Philip was no longer considered bigamous. Due to political wrangling, Philip came to the conclusion that the Soissons council would not rule in his favor and denied his right to have a new decision made by the council. Ingeborg was dispatched to the royal manor at Étampes. She would spend six years there as a prisoner in the cellars and then six more years above ground under house arrest.

After Soissons collapsed, Philip tried to argue Ingeborg had cast a spell on him on their wedding night making him impotent. Pope Innocent softened his stance and in a letter in July of 1202, he set two preconditions for dissolving the marriage. Ingeborg must be given the chance to defend herself before a disinterested judge and some of his own legates were to go to Denmark to interrogate witnesses. In the same letter, he legitimized Agnes’ two children with Philip. Philip had therefore secured the succession and he was free to bide his time.

His strategy pivoted to trying to break Ingeborg’s spirit, forcing her to become a nun or leave France. The conditions in Étampes were deplorable. In 1203, she wrote a letter to the Pope in which she states she lived under numerous unbearable insults. She had no visitors and no priest to offer her solace, hear the Word of God or confession. She hardly had enough food to eat, no medicine and she was not allowed to bathe. She says she barely had enough clothing and what she did have was not fit for a queen. She ends by saying she is “disgusted with life”.

The Pope answered by writing to Philip demanding that his legate be allowed to visit the Queen and pointedly says if anything happens to Ingeborg, Philip will be responsible. He threatened more sanctions if Ingeborg’s living conditions didn’t improve. Behind the scenes, the Pope was trying to get Ingeborg to relent and accept a separation from Philip. She stood her ground.

Philip went through a phase where he had many mistresses. More attempts were made in 1207 and 1212 to come to some kind of conclusion to the dispute. All failed. Finally in 1212, the Pope’s confidential agent concluded upon inquiries into the evidence that the marriage had been consummated on August 14, 1193 and Innocent stated he could not in conscience separate Ingeborg and Philip. Once again politics intervened.

In 1213, King John of England conspired with Otto of Brunswick, emperor of the Germans to create a two-pronged attack against France. Philip conspired to invade England to dethrone John. King Cnut and King Valdemar had engaged in many quarrels with Philip over his treatment of their sister and their relationships were strained. Philip needed the help of Ingeborg’s brother as well as the Pope. Philip had alienated himself from the papacy and from his subjects in regards to his treatment of Ingeborg. He now reopened diplomatic channels and agreed to take Ingeborg back as Queen. He averted war with Denmark and he received the Pope’s blessing for his endeavors against the enemy, winning a couple of decisive victories at La-Roche-aux-Moines and Bouvines in 1214.

After the reconciliation, Ingeborg was not allowed to live in Paris with Philip so it is unlikely she had a court or was allowed to perform her duties as Queen. But she was accepted by the royal family and considered the king’s Queen and wife. He treated her with marital affection but he never allowed her into his bed. This remained the state of affairs until Philip’s death in 1223. After his death, Ingeborg was treated with dignity by Louis VIII and Louis IX, given all the honors of a widowed queen and allowed to participate in royal events. She received all her dower lands, making her a rich woman. She had complete control over her inheritance and was essentially a free woman for the rest of her life. She remained faithful to Philip’s memory, paying for masses to be said for his soul.

Page from the Ingeborg Psalter depicting the Magi (top) and King Herod (below)
Page from the Ingeborg Psalter depicting the Magi (top) and King Herod (below)

Ingeborg endowed churches, religious establishments and hospitals. When her brother and nephew were kidnapped in 1223 by Henry, Count of Schwerin, she sent a large contribution toward the funds needed to ransom them. She sent to the church of St-Maclou in Bar-sur-Aube one of the three teeth of St. Maclou she found in a reliquary in the royal castle of Pontoise. She gave a vineyard and house to the church of St. Aignan in Orléans, she founded the chapel of St. Vaast in the royal castle of Pontoise and she personally dispensed alms in the form of gifts and in her will. She was particularly fond of the Cistercians. A magnificent illuminated psalter was commissioned for Ingeborg’s use and produced in Vermandois.

Ingeborg finally withdrew to Corbeil, an island in the Essonne, to the priory of Saint-Jean-de-I’Ile which she had founded and where she ended her life in quiet on July 29, 1236 at the age of sixty. She was buried in the priory. A copper effigy topped her tomb until 1726 when it was removed to be replaced by a new altar.

What happened the night of the marriage is one of the great mysteries of history. Philip may have been sexually disgusted by Ingeborg or she may have had some kind of hidden defect. Philip may have realized she was willful and he wouldn’t be able to control her or perhaps she asked for something that provoked his wrath. The chroniclers all had good things to say about Ingeborg’s personal appearance and her piety. Ingeborg insisted from that night on that consummation of the marriage had taken place.

Philip denied this at first but was later forced to concede. The truth is we will never know what caused Philip’s aversion to Ingeborg. For Ingeborg’s part, she never even considered returning to Denmark.

Ingeborg had a very strong case and the support of some of the best legal minds available. She played a large role in the letters being written for her case, even if she didn’t actually write them herself. There is an element of comprehension of canon law in the letters. Whether this was her own knowledge or that of her supporters and lawyers is a matter of speculation. The fact remains she vigorously defended her case with the Pope and yet she still ended up as a pawn in a high stakes political game. The Pope only had so much power available in dealing with the recalcitrant Philip. What stands out is Ingeborg remained steadfast in her purpose and maintained her position as rightful queen.

Further reading: “La Belle France: A Short History” by Alistair Horne, “Royal Families of Medieval Scandinavia, Flanders and Kiev” by Rupert Alen and Anna Marie Dahlquist, “Paris 1200” by John W. Baldwin, “Queens and Queenship in Medieval Europe” edited by Anne Duggan, article entitled “Adventures in Law: The Danes and the Marriage Break-up of Philip II of France” by Frederick Pedersen of the Department of Divinity, History and Philosophy at the University of Aberdeen

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