Portraits et témoignages de pèlerins
page établie en février 2003
mise à jour le 16 janvier, 2009   survol du site Page précédente Accueil

Profiles of Queens and Princesses on Pilgrimage to Compostela

Denise Péricard-Méa, LAMOP (CNRS-Paris I Sorbonne) 2001
Translated by Christiane Buuck, Fulbright Scholar in France, 2005-2006

Few women were to be found on medieval pilgrimage paths. Nevertheless, some queens and princesses made their way to Compostela.


In the Middle Ages, it seems that the Way of Saint James was no place for a queen. Queen Blanche of Castille was discouraged from undertaking the pilgrimage, and only queen mother Marie d’Anjou accomplished it in 1463.

Princesses were allowed on pilgrimage under special circumstances: latent sainthood, war or diplomacy among them. When they went, they went in state, surrounded by impressive entourages, impossible to pass by unnoticed. More discrete princesses contented themselves by sending proxy pilgrims (either paid lay persons or reformed prisoners) to pray for them at sacred shrines, or they started foundations dedicated to Saint James locally.

In knightly literature pilgrim princesses occupy a meager place as characters who fulfill vows, atone for sins, or even take advantage of their relative freedom to commit adultery – characters who, nonetheless, may have caused their female readers, who would probably never go on pilgrimage themselves, dream of doing so.

Women in general are few on the major pilgrimage routes (less than ten percent of the pilgrimage population, if one were to advance a tentative figure), and women of royal blood are even fewer. Perhaps the scarcity of royal women on pilgrimage is due in part to Louis VII’s 1174 Crusade, undertaken in the company of his wife Aliénor. According to the chronicler Guillaume de Neuborg :

“ At the moment the famous expedition set off, the king, prompted by fiery jealousy with respect to his young wife, decided that he should not, at any price, leave her, and that it was proper for her to accompany him into combat.” The chronicler adds that, “This example was followed by numerous other nobles who also took their wives with them. As these women could not be without their chamber maids, a multitude of women lived in this Christian camp that should have been chaste.” He concludes, “This is the scandal of our army.”

Thirty years later Guillaume de Tyr calls Aliénor a “crazy woman…who offended royal dignity, disregarded the law of matrimony and forgot her marriage bed.” Sadly, we do not know if the same Louis VII, later married to Constance, daughter of Alphonse VII, king of Castille, brings his new wife with him to Compostela in 1154. It is likely that he does since he visits his father-in-law on the way, but no chronicler leaves written confirmation of Constance’s presence.

Generally the church did not encourage women to go on pilgrimage, for fear of dissolute behavior on the way. Around 1175, the bishop of Rennes, Etienne de Fougères, in his Livre des manières (Book of Manners), details how a married woman can easily meet her lover on the eve of a festival: she announces she is sick, has a friend prescribe a pilgrimage as the cure and, without fail, obtains her husband’s permission to set out.

While sexual immorality provides grounds to discourage royal women pilgrims, another factor is also at play: cost. In the thirteenth century the bishop of Paris does not hesitate to forbid Queen Blanche of Castille to go to Compostela, in spite of her vow to do so. Etienne de Bourbon writes:

“Queen Blanche was to have gone on pilgrimage to Santiago and had already pledged sumptuary expenditures. Guillaume, Bishop of Paris and her confessor, asked if she had purchased everything with personal funds. She responded that she had. He then said,
“ ‘Domina, you have already spent much money uselessly on earthly adornments to show your magnificence in your native land. This money could have been spent on far worthier ends.’
“ ‘You are right,’ she said, ‘but what should I do now? I will follow your wise counsel and I solemnly pledge my word to you to renounce my vow in order to meet my new commitment before the Supreme Judge.’
“When Guillaume learned that the Dominicans of Paris were bound by debts they could not discharge, the bishop sent the queen on a much shorter pilgrimage to the rue Saint-Jacques, to the Dominican convent dedicated to Saint James. The trip, according to the Bishop, possessed the same merit as that to the convent in Compostela.
“ ‘See,’ he said, ‘the Frères Prêcheurs [preaching brothers] who are called the Brothers of Saint James are bound by their debts of 1500 livres, more or less. Take up the wallet and the walking stick and go to Santiago, that is to the brothers’ house, and pay their debt. As for me, I will modify the prayers I pray in your favor and I promise also to be a witness for you on the Day of Judgment. I will show that this gesture is much better than an excessive and superfluous show of pomp.’
“And the queen wisely followed the counsel of this holy man.”

Women were few on the pilgrimage paths

Two ambassadors ?

Two noble women close to Louis XI both leave for Compostela, most likely propelled by something other than devotion. Diplomacy? Marriage projects? No one knows. Their true motivations remain a secret.

In 1463, the queen mother Marie d’Anjou (daughter of Yolande d’Aragon, wife of Charles VII, mother of Louis XI) leaves for Compostela. Officially she goes to assure that the will of the kings of France, to keep two candles lit in perpetuity before the altar in the chapel of the kings of France, is truly being carried out. Why does she choose such a bad season for travel if her goal is so vague? She even goes into debt to make the voyage. We know this because, according to her accounts, the queen suspends her officers’ salaries in order to finance her “joyous voyage to Monsieur Saint Jacques in Galicia.” She journeys not by land, but by sea, embarking from La Rochelle, but dies suddenly on the 29th of November, close to Parthenay, at the royal abbey of the Châtelliers, where she is buried. One week later, a solemn service is celebrated in her honor at the Church of Saint James de Dieppe, a local pilgrimage site where Louis XI once traveled as a pilgrim before he was king.

Barely three years later, in 1466, the king’s aunt, Marguerite de Savoie, Countess of Wurtenberg, leaves for Compostela. (She is his aunt twice over as a result of her marriages: first to Louis III d’Anjou, the maternal uncle of Louis XI, then to Louis de Savoie, uncle of the king’s wife Charlotte de Savoie.) On the first of September, Louis XI commands the residents of Troyes to reserve a warm welcome for the countess and he sends his chief steward Pierre Aubert, furnished with five hundred livres, to escort Marguerite to Saumur. The king meets her at Montargis and, from this location on the 16th of September, sends word to the inhabitants of Amboise to receive his aunt in the same way they would receive him :

“Dear and good friends, in order that our dear and beloved aunt the Countess of Witemberg [sic], who came before us long ago though not for her present business, and will shortly present herself to our dear and well-loved uncle the King of Sicily with the intention to continue therefrom on pilgrimage to Santiago in Galicia, we want and commission you to receive her and do her all the honor and serve her the best meals possible, just as you would do for us. In doing this you will do us a most singular and agreeable pleasure.”

This very accurate document detailing the king’s wishes allows readers to accompany the princess on her stay in Amboise. She arrives on the evening of September 22nd, surrounded by her entourage of sergeants and fifty-seven horses. Clergy and inhabitants meet her at the city gates and process in ahead of her. She is bowed to and offered grapes, pears and apples. It is surprising that none of the city’s nobles offer the countess hospitality. Instead she and her entourage are lodged in several inns around town, at the expense of the residents. Marguerite de Savoie stays one night and one day chez Perrenelle, the fashionable inn of the Image of Our Lady on the Amboise bridge, while her ladies-in-waiting stay at Pierre Pell’s inn, and her horses and other attendants are lodged on the rue de la Boucherie. The expenses incurred were finally settled on October 30, 1470, with money taken from the “village fortification budget.” Perrenelle declared herself, “satisfied and well-paid (tenue à contentemet et pour bien payée).”

Royal pilgrimage takes place, then, under conditions in keeping with social rank. A royal does not abandon status to become a pilgrim! Neither does pilgrimage preclude official business along the way, nor visits to family members. When the Duke of Savoie Amédée IX, allied with Louis XI, becomes unsure of this alliance, he also allies with rival territory Burgundy. Where aunt and nephew dealing with this case of shifting allegiances under the guise of pilgrimage? Did they attempt to organize a marriage to reestablish the ancient Franco-Spanish entente? (Three years later, between May and August 1469, Cardinal Jean Jouffroy is officially sent to Cordova for this very reason. He is charged to obtain the hand of Princess Isabelle, sister of King Henri IV and now heiress of Castille, for Charles, Duke of Berry and of Guyenne, and brother Louis XI.)

A candidate for sainthood

Saint Brigitte made the pilgrimage to Compostela in 1341-1342. Herself of noble birth, she married Ulf Gudmarson, steward of the house of Néricie, in 1320. After she had converted her husband to Christianity they took a vow of chastity and set out for Compostela: “Thus, fervent in their love of God, and in order to free themselves from the vanities of the world, they followed the example of Abraham, leaving home and family, and after much effort and expense, made their way to Spain to Santiago de Compostela.”

Brigitte and her husband do not travel alone. They are surrounded by laypersons and clergy, among the latter monks, priests, and mendicants. They stop first in Cologne, then in Aix-la-Chapelle, then Sainte-Baume. They leave Marseille by boat and arrive at the Spanish coast. According to her biographer, Brigitte “did not spare herself pains in order to visit the saints’ tombs, that of Saint James and others, treading in the footsteps of her predecessors, as her father who had been on pilgrimage to Jerusalem, as well as her grandfather and great grandfather…It is unheard of that such magnificent, richly endowed, and glorious lords should accomplish so difficult a journey, leaving from the end of the world to see Saint James and Jerusalem where Jesus Christ became incarnate and suffered his Passion. The Knights of Saint James,” continues her biographer, “invited Brigitte under the vaults of the sanctuary. She prayed to Saint James to protect Christendom and to awaken the desire for crusade among the faithful.” This statement highlights the political ethos of royal life, from which women were hardly excluded.

Upon arrival in the cathedral of Santiago, Brigitte’s confessor Dom Svenung, who was weakened by a chronic illness, rests at the feet of the apostle’s statue. Here he has a vision in which Brigitte is crowned with seven diadems, a sign that she will be recipient of a seven-fold grace. When her husband dies in 1344, Brigitte enters the convent of Alvastra, where she has the visions that make her famous. She also urges the popes at Avignon to return to Rome where she herself moves upon the Jubilee of 1350. In 1372 she journeys to Jerusalem and dies on her way back to Rome on July 23, 1373. Later she is canonized by Pope Boniface IX and by the Council of Constance.

They sent pilgrims in their place

Some women of high nobility had access to pilgrimage only by proxy. Fourteenth century Countess Mahaut d’Artois is a typical example of a royal woman devoted to Saint James who never went to Compostela. Her life and personality make her particularly interesting.

Mahaut d’Artois
The noblewoman

Daughter of Robert II, Count of Artois, granddaughter of Robert I the brother of Saint-Louis, Mahaut is of royal blood. She marries Othon IV, Count Palatine of Burgundy, who is later killed in Cassel in 1303. She bears four children during the marriage: Jeanne before 1291, and Blanche soon after. Robert is born around 1300. (We know several facts about Robert’s life. Following the death of his father, the administration of the County of Burgundy descends to Robert. As he is not yet of age, these responsibilities fall to his mother and guardian, Mahaut. Robert participates in the Flanders campaign of 1315. He attends the coronation of Philippe le Long on the 9th of January, 1317, at Reims. In September he dies a brutal death at the age of eighteen.) Mahaut’s last child, Jean, dies in the cradle.

Mahaut becomes Countess of Artois upon the death of her father Robert II in 1302. Her two daughters, each in turn, marry a king of France. Jeanne, Philippe V le Long; Blanche, Charles IV le Bel - both men sons of Philippe le Bel. In 1314, Jeanne, Blanche and their cousin Marguerite are accused of adultery and imprisoned. Jeanne is locked away for nearly a year at the castle of Dourdan before being declared innocent. She returns to court at Christmas 1315. Cousin Marguerite of Burgundy, imprisoned at Château-Gaillard, dies in the winter of 1315. Blanche is also detained at Château-Gaillard. When her husband ascends to the throne in 1322, he repudiates her, at which time she takes the veil at the Abbey of Maubuisson. She dies in 1326, at the age of around thirty.

Mahaut’s hired pilgrims

Though we are still not sure of her specific motivations, Mahaut sends pilgrims to Compostela to pray for her and her family six times. In 1305, when her daughter Jeanne is deathly ill, she sends a man named Gauteron. The record states:

“Gauteron is paid to go from Saint-Mandé to Santiago in Galicia, for the vow that Madame had made, for our daughter who was sick, twenty-six livres.” In 1312 Mahaut pays two anonymous pilgrims nineteen livres and four sous. In 1317, after her son’s funeral, Mahaut sends several pilgrims many of whose names have not survived: one poor woman to Chelles, one pilgrim to Saint-Louis de Marseille, two pilgrims to Saint-Didier de Langres, another to Saint-Côme and Saint Damien de Luzarches, and a last pilgrim to Galicia “for Sir Robert and for offerings to the saint, eleven livres and six sols.” The latter is one of Mahaut’s repeat pilgrims-by-proxy, Yvon le Breton. He was Mahaut’s furrier, a bourgeois from Paris who traveled a great deal on business. He returns to Compostela in 1321. In 1326, Mahaut sends a Parisian, Laurent, called the Valliant. Records also highlight Estève Gelerin le Boudenier, whom Mahaut sends on pilgrimage in 1327: “The third day of April Estève Gelerin le Boudenier to make a voyage to Santiago in Galicia for Madame, and for the terms agreed upon: nine livres for a voyage accomplished on foot, and 16 sols for an offering. In total IX lb.XVIs.”

The departure contract of Laurent le Vaillant in 1326

“To all who will see these letters…Hugues de Crusi, guard in the military police of Paris, greetings. Know…that Lorens [sic] called Valliant, living in Paris at the gate of Montmartre as he says, came before us in person for judgment. He recognized and confessed to having received from the high and powerful noble woman our Lady the Countess of Artois, by the hands of the honorable and discrete Jehan de Salmes Esquire, her treasurer, nine Parisian livres in order to make a good and sufficient voyage to Santiago in Galicia, for the same Madame the countess. The same Lorent [sic] was told on his departure from Paris to make said voyage in eight days, and sixteen Parisian soulz [sic] were given to him for offerings to make at the altar of Santiago mentioned above for Madame the countess, as he said. The same Lorent [sic] holds and will pay the sums cited above, as agreed before us. Having these letters and the money he agrees to the terms of this contract…He promised to travel to the above mentioned place with the said offerings; he delivers into our hands his promises to do this well and loyaly, by his word and by the faith of his body. And to bring these good, sufficient letters to said countess or to her said treasurer, for her. If he fails he forfeits his belongings and the belongings of his heirs, movable or immovable property, now or to come, wherever they are or wherever they might be found…”

Proof of accomplishment of a pilgrimage of Yvon Le Breton, in 1321, singed by the treasurer of Compostela

“To all the faithful in Christ called to read these letters…and treasurer of the church of blessed apostle Santiago of Compostela in Galicia, greetings in the Lord who is our only strength and health. Know that Yvon le Breton, a Parisian, for the illustrious noble countess of Artois, still living…visited the tomb of the blessed apostle James of Galicia and that he accomplished his pilgrimage perfectly for the said countess. And we, we concede by these writings the indulgences of the blessed apostle James to the noble countess of Artois. And let it by known that the said pilgrim, Yvon le Breton, offered on behalf of the said noblewoman, on the altar of the apostle, four sols sterling silver [this currency existed since the thirteenth century]. We report that the charter furnished with said seal vouches for him as witness to this fact.”

Other examples of Mahaut’s devotion to Saint James

Three times Mahaut, who metes out justice as countess, rules to send penitential pilgrims to Compostela: one in 1307 (he was later pardoned), the others in 1328. Another way to send pilgrims by proxy?

Around 1318, Mahaut makes an offering for the construction of a reliquary to hold the head of Saint James preserved at Aire-sur-la-Lys. In 1319, her likeness is sculpted on the large portal of the church of the Hospital of Saint James in Paris, along with the likenesses of her daughter Jeanne and her four granddaughters. This is five years after the adultery scandal at the Tower of Nesle and Blanche is still detained at Château-Gaillard.

“And in this same year, the Tuesday after les Brandons [a Christianized pagan festival that took place on the first Sunday of Lent. Shocks of blazing wheat were carried over the fields in the hopes of a plentiful harvest], the nineteenth day of the month of February [1319], a hospital in the honor of God and Saint James, the Confraternity of Saint James, was founded in Paris on the large street called Saint-Denys [sic] within the king’s walls, by Jehanne [sic] queen of France and Navarra, by Mahaut her mother, countess of Artoiz [sic] and Burgundy, by the duchess of Burgundy, daughter of said queen and by the members of the confraterity…on the portal the image of Saint James holds the place of honor, as do the kneeling images of Madame the queen on one side before the saint, and the countess of Artois on the other side, and the four daughters of the queen also…”

It seems that Mahaut participated in the founding of the confraternity hospital and in the inauguration ceremonies. Confraternity records speak of a “Mahiet de Douai” instructed to “make the legend of Saint James,” and a “Brisebarre,” also a native of Douai, entrusted with “finding the queen’s rhymes and statements (trouver les rimes et les dis de la reine).”

The countess Mahaut exemplifies a particularly constant devotion to Saint James, a devotion never realized in full by a personal pilgrimage to Compostela, but affirmed by local pilgrimages to Aire or Paris as well as by her periodic commissioning of proxy pilgrims to Galicia.

Bonne de Berry, Countess of Savoy

In 1384, Bonne de Berry, daughter of the Duke of Berry and married to Amédée VII in 1376, sends two lesser friars to Compostela.

Marie de Clèves (1426-1487), wife of Charles of Orléans and mother of Louis XII

In 1470, she sends Jean Beauson, a preaching friar from Blois, to Compostela. She instructs him to offer an ex-voto in the form of a heart encrusted with a sapphire, a ruby and an emerald. This heart was suspended by a golden chain. The heart’s small end held a small shield enameled on both sides with the ducal coat of arms. The voyage cost thirteen livres and fifteen sous.

Those who asked for a pilgrimage in their wills

Jeanne de Fougères, 1269

Jeanne de Fougères became countess of la Marche and of Angoulême after the death of Hugues XII, by whom she had had seven children. She was countess until her oldest son Hugues XIII reached maturity. In her will, made on the 28th of May, 1269, she gives “twenty livres to three men who will go to Compostela for my children,” after she has left, “a gift of one hundred livres to the land overseas, if I do not go for myself and for my daughter.”

Rose de Bourg, wife of Amanieu of Albret

The Albrets are a family related to the most important families of Aquitaine, and possess the majority of the Bazas diocese. In 1323, Rose de Bourg had asked her son Bernard Aiz to accomplish a pilgrimage to Compostela for her after her death. But, when her son makes his will in 1341, he admits that he has not carried out the last wishes of his mother. He asks his son or his brother Bernard de Vayres to carry out the vow in his place, but we do not know if this request was ever acted upon.

The misadventures of princesses in Compostelan pilgrimage literature

All the literature featuring noble female pilgrims seems to be written with the express purpose of dissuading all women from going on pilgrimage.

Floire et Blancheflor, written around 1150, tells the story of a knight accompanying his daughter to Compostela. His daughter, pregnant and recently widowed had made a vow to accomplish the journey upon the death of her husband. Father and daughter are attacked on the road and when the father resists, he is killed. The daughter is taken captive.

The author of The Daughter of the Count of Pontieu (la Fille de comte de Pontieu) places his characters – a young noble woman and her noble husband – on pilgrimage to Compostela to pray to Saint James for a child. In the Galician forests, almost on Compostela’s doorstep, the wife is raped in front of her husband, then tries to kill her husband in an attempt to erase her shame. Thibaut finishes his pilgrimage alone and retrieves his wife on the way home. Punishment, separation, Oriental adventures during which the young noble woman has a daughter by a sultan…and a reunion with her husband followed by marital reconciliation.

In King Flore and the Beautiful Jehanne (le Roi Flore et la belle Jehanne) the climax of the romance is a main character’s unexpected departure for Compostela. Robin, very recently married to the daughter of a Flemmish knight, must make good on his vow to go on pilgrimage as soon as he is decorated a knight – a vow he made on the eve of his marriage. A felon tries to convince the young knight that his wife will not be faithful in his absence. Despite some dishonest doings, all ends well.

Toward the end of the fourteenth century The Book of Ponthus, son of the King of Galicia, and Beautiful Sydoine, Daughter of the King of Brittany (Le Live de Ponthus, filz du roy de Galice et de la belle Sydoine fille du roy de Bretaigne) is written in the grand tradition of the romances of the previous centuries: a Sarrasin king disembarks close to La Coruna and kills the king of Galicia. The queen of Galicia flees with her thirteen children, among them young Ponthus. The survivors arrive in Petite Bretagne where King Huguet reigns, whose only child is “the most beautiful and most couteous” Sidoine. Huguet is sad for he had “loved the king of Galicia well,” and often helped his friend fight the Sarrasins with the help of the king of France. After three years in Petite Bretagne, Ponthus is presented at court where he meets Sidoine. They fall in love and she gives Ponthus a golden ring set with a diamond. After a Sarrasin invasion of Brittany, Ponthus is made High Constable, but his jealous companions betray him. The lovers do not see one another for seven years, after which Ponthus marries Sidoine before leading an army to Galicia to reconquer his kingdom. When he returns to his wife they “both make a pilgrimage to Santiago in Galicia before returning to Brittany.”

Jean de Saint-Quentin writes the Dit des annelés, a gloomy drama capable of discouraging any blue blood from venturing out on pilgrimage. In the story a young noble couple leaves for Compostela, and meets a knight who then journeys with them and ends up seducing the wife. The knight is hanged, the wife thrown into a boat without oars, her fingers clamped in iron bands. She is saved by a series of miracles and becomes a hospitalière on the ways of Saint James where she reunites with her husband and sons who have returned on pilgrimage. They forgive her, but she refuses to return home with them.

The Unhappy Wife of Saint Julien

Around 1260 an anonymous poet writes the Legend of Saint Julien, a long text dedicated to the glory of Saint Julien the only son of Duke “Gefroi” of Angers who “also holds the Touraine, Maine and Poitou.” In the forest of Mans during a hunting expedition Julien encounters a beast with “a man’s face” who predicts that Julien will kill his father and mother. He decides to flee, puts himself in Saint James’s protection, and sets out that very moment for Compostela. After many adventures on the way he liberates a castle by fighting a reputedly invincible giant, marries the woman of the castle and finally leads a happy life because he believes his father to be dead and the prediction to be null and void. But one day two old people making “the pilgrimage to Santiago” – none other than Julien’s parents – arrive at the town inn. They introduce themselves to Julien’s wife who offers them her bedroom until her husband returns. Julien comes home, goes to his wife’s room, thinks she is cuckolding him and, in keeping with the prediction, kills his parents. When the truth of the situation comes to light, Julien and Countess Clarisse are devastated and decide to become pilgrims in perpetuity, without hope of returning home again. They leave for Rome where the Pope promises them absolution if they found a pilgrim hospital. The couple takes to the road again, looking for an appropriate site, and continue all the way to Compostela where they establish and run the promised hospital close to a river. The countess becomes a servant, cook, gardener, washerwoman and delouser. One evening a leper arrives and wants to sleep with her. He turns out to be Christ, then disappears. Later the couple is murdered by thieves who believe them to be rich.

Were all these noble women models for their common counterparts? In the absence of compelling evidence to the contrary we can suppose that they were. But both fiction and reality show that there were few women of any rank on the roads, all most likely dissuaded by horror stories heard in church as well as in their own rooms in their castles. Yet the majority of those who could not set out must have dreamed of the trip, the adventure of walking to Compostela.

La propriété intellectuelle du contenu de ce site est protégée par un dépôt à la Société des Gens de Lettres

Page précédente haut de page Accueil

nous écrire