Monday, 5 September 2011

Mystery People of History – Arthur Duke of Brittany


Poor old Arthur of Brittany! They say that you can choose your friends, but you cannot choose your family, and for this royal prince, born into a brood of constantly fighting and cantankerous Plantagenets, this was a very apt saying.  There have been many mystery people of history and in medieval times even a royal prince could disappear without trace. Probably the most famous princes to mysteriously vanish off the face of the Earth were the Princes in the Tower, supposedly murdered by their much vilified uncle, King Richard III. But Richard III was not the only Plantagenet monarch who was thought to have murdered a nephew.  King John enjoys a very bad reputation in English history; he tried to steal his brother’s crown while he was away fighting in the Third Crusade, when he became king riled up his barons so that they rebelled against him leading to the signing of Magna Carta and at the end of his long and not very illustrious career he has thought to have lost the crown jewels while he was crossing the Wash in bad weather. But what is not so well known, is that he is also thought to have been responsible for the death of his nephew, Arthur of Brittany.

Arthur of Brittany & Philip II of France


King Henry II, his queen, Eleanor of Aquitaine and their sons were famous for their quarrelling and for fighting among themselves for territory and prestige.  This was a time when primogeniture was not yet firmly established and the King could name his heir, which tended to set brother against brother and cause long-festering family feuds.  Arthur was the only son of Geoffrey, Duke of Brittany and his wife Constance.  The couple already had an elder daughter Eleanor, known as the Fair Maid of Brittany, but Arthur was a posthumous child, born in Nantes in 1187 after his father was killed during a tournament in 1186. Although a claimant to the throne of England, Arthur was French through and through, and never once visited the British Isles during his short life and could not speak English.  The Plantagenets wanted this royal infant to be named Henry after his grandfather, King Henry II of England, but his mother Constance chose the name Arthur, in honour of the mythical king who was so revered by her Breton subjects. Arthur was to be much influenced by his mother and it was probably from her that he gained his leanings towards France and the French crown

When the old King Henry II died in 1189, he was succeeded by his son Richard I, known as the ‘Lionheart’. Richard I decided that it was a good idea to patch up his ongoing feud with his younger brother John, in order to try and maintain peace in his realms.  In those days the Angevin Empire encompassed huge swathes of France as well as the kingdom of England, and Richard I was really not much interested in his English fiefdom, preferring to spend his time rampaging around France.  However, early on in his reign he decided to take up the Cross and join the Third Crusade. At this time Richard the Lionheart was unmarried and childless, so named the infant Arthur as his heir, just in case he came a cropper at the hands of the Saracens.  As part of the deal, he also arranged the betrothal of Arthur to a daughter of Tancred of Sicily, although this alliance was broken when the Holy Roman Emperor Henry VI conquered Sicily in 1194. He also made his brother Prince John swear an oath that he would not set foot in England while he was away.  Was this a red rag to a bull or what?  With his nose well and truly put out by Richard’s naming of Arthur as his heir, John duly proceeded to land in England and tried to get the English crown onto his own head.   Over in Brittany, Constance was also taking advantage of Richard I’s absence, and to try and wrest more autonomy for Brittany had Arthur hailed Duke of Brittany in 1194 at the tender age of 7. Unfortunately for Prince John, after a series of adventures, his brother Richard returned in 1194 and very firmly reclaimed his crown.


Once again in 1196, Richard I named Arthur as his heir, and to cement this relationship he summoned both Arthur and his mother to where he was currently residing in Normandy.  However, unfortunately Constance was abducted on the road by her estranged husband, one Ranulf de Blondeville, Earl of Chester.  This English aristocrat had been married off to Constance at the age of 17, as King Richard did not trust where her loyalties lay and wanted to ensure her continued obedience by wedding her to one of his more trusted barons. However, the marriage had not been a success and the couple were living separate lives. The abduction infuriated Richard I, who then led his army to Brittany to secure possession of Arthur, but the young Duke was whisked away in secret by his tutor to the French court where he was brought up alongside Prince Louis of France. In 1199 Constance managed to escape from her unwanted spouse and their marriage was dissolved on the grounds of desertion.

Richard the Lionheart died on April 6, 1199 during the siege of the castle of Chaluz-Chabrol.  He had been walking around the castle perimeter without his chainmail when he took a hit in his left shoulder from a crossbow.  He first tried to pull the missile out himself, and then had it removed by a bungling surgeon.  Richard developed gangrene in his wound, which proved fatal, and before he died he named his younger brother John as his heir.  Richard feared that as Arthur of Brittany was only 12 years old at this time that he was too young to be a decisive leader and, moreover, was far too much under the influence of the French Court. John was actually staying with Constance and Arthur in Brittany, when the news of his brother’s death and his elevation to the throne of England was brought to him.  He immediately made haste to secure the royal treasury that was housed in the castle at Chinon, while the intrepid Constance raised an army and took the town of Angers.

John’s claim to the English throne was supported by his indomitable mother, Eleanor of Aquitaine and William Marshall, a powerful English Baron.   However, the French nobility were resentful of the new King John, and favoured Arthur’s claim to the throne, especially as Arthur had declared himself as a vassal of the King of France, Philip II. The French King recognised Arthur of Brittany’s rights to the territories of Anjou, Maine and Poitou and headed up an army, which he took to Anjou and Maine to reinforce Arthur’s claim.  From April 18 of that year, Arthur styled himself Duke of Brittany, Count of Anjou and Earl of Richmond. Unfortunately, the young Prince’s staunchest supporter, his mother Constance, died in 1201, leaving him bereft of support.  Constance had remarried after her early union had been dissolved, to one Guy de Thouars, bearing him twin daughters, and she may well have died while giving birth again.

Philip II of France’s championing of Arthur of Brittany was due to the fact that he was always keen to exploit any family rifts among the Plantagenets for his own ends in order to extend the territory and influence of the French crown.  However, this stirring led to King John invading France in 1202, which forced Philip to recognise John as his late brother’s legitimate heir to the English throne at the Treaty of Le Goulet. The French King abandoned his support of the young Prince Arthur and forced him to acknowledge his uncle as his new overlord.  Arthur was mortified by this turn of events and fled to the sanctuary of his uncle’s Court where he was warmly welcomed, but soon became wary of King John’s real objectives, and swiftly returned to Angers.  King John’s marriage to Isabella d’Angoul√™me once again stirred up the resentment of the French nobility against him, as this lady had previously been betrothed to a French baron called Hugh de Lusignan.  Hugh de Lusignan rounded up his supporters and rebelled against King John, appealing to the French King for aid.  Philip II firmly requested that King John appear at his Court to explain his actions, and when John was a no show, Philip declared all of the English monarch’s land in France forfeit, and awarded Normandy and Anjou to young Arthur of Brittany.

Despite his youth, Arthur was shaping up to be just as warlike and belligerent as the rest of his Plantagenet forbears, and besieged his own grandmother, Eleanor of Aquitaine, where she was holed up in Mirebeau Castle. Queen Eleanor managed to get a message to John, who managed, in a huge feat of endurance and determination, to march his army the eighty miles between Le Mans and Mirebeau in just two days.  Arthur was captured by john’s forces and imprisoned in the fortress at Falaise in Normandy, under the watchful eye of Hugh de Burgh.  His sister Eleanor was also captured and sent to England to be imprisoned in Corfe Castle.  The following year Arthur was transferred to Rouen and put in the charge of William de Braose, and in April 1203 he mysteriously disappeared, never to be seen again.

Now to our modern minds it may seem utterly incomprehensible that a royal prince, the ruler of large territories in northern France, could just vanish without trace, but you have to remember that we are talking about a time where there was no mass media, no CCTV cameras and no photographs.  Very few of the ordinary people in Rouen would ever have seen Arthur of Brittany in the flesh, so would not recognise him without his royal regalia and retinue.  This was also a period where there was little portraiture, so many would not have even seen a likeness of the prince. Inevitably stories about Arthur’s disappearance soon started to circulate, and unfortunately to King John, most of them put him firmly in the frame.  Hugh de Burgh supposedly made a claim that he knew the details of Arthur’s demise, and that the young prince had been blinded and castrated by John’s henchmen, and had died of shock.

Another account offered in the Margam Annals, penned by an unknown Welsh monk, stated that one night King John got very drunk.  Arthur, being at the time a stroppy adolescent, rubbed his uncle up the wrong way by being rude and defiant, which caused John to kill him.  To get rid of his body, John weighted it down with stones and dumped it in the River Seine. The body then became caught in the hooks of local fisherman, who hauled it onto the shore.  They recognised the corpse as being that of Arthur of Brittany, and fearing reprisals from King John if he got to know about their discovery, took the body for secret burial at the priory of Notre Dame de Pres at Bec. Arthur’s jailer at the time of his disappearance, William de Braose, suddenly rose very high in John’s favour, being showered with lands and titles in the Welsh Marches, which led people to think that he had been complicit in Arthur’s demise.

It was unfortunate for William de Braose that many years later, after arguing and being in conflict with King John, William’s wife Maude de Braose openly accused John of being responsible for the murder of his nephew. As at the time of these accusations William de Braose also owed King John a large sum of money, the English monarch demanded that they hand over their son William as a hostage to enforce their continued loyalty and ensure that they kept their mouths shut.  Maude had apparently made audible comments in the presence of the King’s officers that ‘she would not deliver her children to a king who had murdered his own nephew’. This naturally outraged the hot-tempered King John, so he seized their lands in the Welsh Marches, which caused them to flee to Ireland, where Maude and her eldest son were eventually captured trying to escape to Scotland. They were sent back to England and imprisoned in Windsor Castle, and then sent on to Corfe Castle, where they are believed to have been starved to death.  William de Braose managed to escape to France, where he is thought to have written an account of the true fate of young Arthur of Brittany, but no traces of it remains.

William Shakespeare incorporates the tragedy of Arthur of Brittany into his play King John, where the young prince is portrayed as an inexperienced youth, who has no responsibility for the fate that befalls him.  Shakespeare kills off Arthur by having him jump from the walls of the castle where he was imprisoned, while fleeing from the tyranny of his wicked uncle.  But then, wicked uncles slaying their blameless nephews was a favourite historical theme used by Shakespeare in his plays. I feel that it is unlikely that King John himself would have dirtied his hands by personally killing his nephew, but it is more than likely that it was he who ordered the boy’s death.  If Arthur had remained alive, he would have been a continual thorn in John’s side, and as the boy got older he could have made a strong alliance through marriage and built up a dynasty that would have been a constant threat to John’s power and prestige in northern France.  Arthur’s sister Eleanor of Brittany fared no better in life, as King John and then his successor and son Henry III kept her captive in England until her death at the age of 57.  The French barons were inclined to believe in John’s guilt, and used it as another reason to unite against him, eventually taking Richard the Lionheart’s mighty Chateau Gaillard and pushing John and his army back across the Channel to England. The dukedom of Brittany, which should have gone to Eleanor, was passed on to Arthur’s half-sister Alix de Thouars, who was married Peter de Dreux, creating a new Breton dynasty of rulers.

So will we ever really know what happened to poor Arthur of Brittany? Probably not, unless some amazing new discovery is made.  But written evidence from that period is scanty, and it is unlikely that new documents regarding Arthur’s fate will be uncovered now. It is possible that Arthur died of natural causes or was whisked away into hiding somewhere, but then why was his body not given the funeral due to a prince of the blood, and surely if he had gotten away at least some rumours of his whereabouts would have circulated?  So do you think that it was a case of a wicked uncle slaying his innocent nephew, or do you think that Arthur’s fate was due to other causes?


Image Wikimedia Commons Public Domain







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