Everyone has their little guilty pleasures: spending a good half hour on The Daily Mail reading mundane celebrity gossip, or reading bridal magazines when you’re not engaged (just me? Well that’s embarrassing…), and historians are no different. For the scholar of French queenship, Ingeborg of Denmark is the tabloid story of the medieval period: this week we’re going to lower the tone a little and indulge in some good old gossip and guesswork. Married in 1193 and separated less than 24 hours later, King Philip II of France and his sort-of-wife Ingeborg have formed the basis of a huge amount of academic speculation in the attempt to answer the greatest question of all (apart from Anne Boleyn’s sixth finger of course): what on earth happened on that wedding night?
Philip and Ingeborg were due to be crowned together as King and Queen of France the day after their marriage in 1193, but hit a slight hitch when, during the ceremony, Philip disavowed his new wife and had her imprisoned while he sought an annulment. The most cited grounds for annulment in the medieval period was consanguinity. Unfortunately for Philip (and fortunately for Ingeborg), he had made the ‘mistake’ of choosing a foreign bride, and as such, his claims of consanguinity were quickly disputed. When that failed, he claimed non-consummation ‘per maleficium’ – due to sorcery. Whilst the sorcery element may seem like a pretty lame excuse to a modern audience, it was crucial for Philip’s future as King of France. If he argued that he had been unable to consummate the marriage for natural reasons, he would essentially be declaring to the whole of Europe that he was impotent and therefore would never be able to provide an heir to the throne. For Philip, sorcery provided a quick fix to the hole in his tale. When this failed to get him the annulment he so desired, he claimed consummation but non-insemination (no details required here I think…). In 1213, after twenty years of legal wrangling, during which Ingeborg remained imprisoned and Philip married again, he – suddenly and inexplicably – took her back. Restored in name only, Ingeborg held little power as Queen of France, but she had at least stuck to her guns and regained her title. Indeed she exercised far greater power than she ever had done as queen consort after Philip’s death in 1223, choosing to use it primarily in the patronage of religious houses.
Throughout her imprisonment, Ingeborg kept up correspondence with the Church, writing to first Pope Celestine II and then Pope Innocent III to plead her case. Whether or not these letters were written by Ingeborg herself or on her behalf is debatable (that she had sufficient education to write fluent Latin is seriously doubted); nonetheless, it seems that her voice is present in them, one way or another. They make it clear that Ingeborg knew exactly where she stood legally, accusing Philip of adultery and bigamy, and arguing that she, the Queen of France, lived an outcast in exile. Throughout the whole ordeal, Ingeborg remained constant; always maintaining that the marriage had been consummated and that she was Philip’s right and legal wife. In the case of the tortoise and the hare, the tortoise had won.
But the question remains: what happened between Ingeborg and Philip in the privacy of their bedchamber on their wedding night? The truth is that we’re probably never going to know. That hasn’t stopped historians from speculating however. Some put it down to Philip’s disappointment with the lack of Danish support for a French invasion of England. Some have suggested that Philip was driven mad by a disease that he caught while on crusade and the trembling reported in his hands at the coronation a symptom of it. Those who were slightly more gossip-inclined have suggested everything from a hidden deformity to a ‘lack’ of virginity, right down to the proposition that Ingeborg was in fact a man. It is for these latter explanations that she has earned her notoriety. The likelihood is that, had Ingeborg and Philip been crowned together and gone on to have a relatively normal royal marriage, she would have blended into obscurity like many of Europe’s early queens. Instead, she has become one of the most notorious women in the medieval period.
Gossip and guesswork aside, whilst Ingeborg gives us no real opportunity to examine the office of queenship, she does reveal the power of the public persona and gravitas afforded to a queen. Queenship was an office sanctified, not by divine right, but by marriage, and to uphold the sanctity of marriage, and thus the sanctity of a queen, was of considerable religious and moral importance to a medieval people. It was this public ‘persona’ that Ingeborg clung to, and it was this that saved her. But the persona of queenship would not go unchallenged after Ingeborg; nor would Philip be the first king to come up against it. And as Henry VIII’s struggle with Catherine of Aragon and the Church famously proves (in an interesting parallel tale), he certainly wouldn’t be the last.