Tuesday 29 November 2011

How To Murder Your Tudor Royal Relatives – King Henry VIII

So how many of his own relatives do you think that King Henry VIII murdered?  Well of course he would probably argue that he had them legally executed and that after all he was the king? Most of us these days would be horrified at the idea of sending one of our nearest and dearest to the block, but even now the police will always have a good look at the relatives first if someone is found dead in suspicious circumstances.  Medieval monarchs were known for being fairly ruthless when it came to removing obstacles in their path, but it has to be said that when it came to permanently taking out his relations when they crossed him, Henry Tudor was in a class of his own.  So who were these unfortunate family members who met their ends on the scaffold on either Tower Green or Tower Hill?

Henry VIII was only the second king of a new dynasty; a dynasty that was founded on a very weak claim to the throne and by defeating the previous incumbent, Richard III, at the Battle of Bosworth.  His father Henry VII had been fairly restrained when it came to executing relations, but that could have partly been due to the fact that he had not been blessed with very many.  Henry VIII was determined to secure his new Tudor dynasty which meant eliminating any possible rivals for the throne as well as filling his own nursery with healthy Tudor sons to succeed him.  History was to prove, however, that he would be rather more successful with the former than with the latter.  His father Henry VII had married the Yorkist heiress Elizabeth of York to both strengthen his claim to the throne and to bring to an end the years of military conflict that was called the ‘War of the Roses’.  Elizabeth of York came from a much larger family than her husband and those that survived into Henry VIII’s reign arguably had a stronger claim to the throne than he did.

Henry VIII

The first family victim of Henry VIII proved to be Edmund de la Pole, Duke of Suffolk who was beheaded in 1513.  Edmund de la Pole was the son of Elizabeth of York, Duchess of Suffolk, a daughter of Richard Duke of York and also sister to King Edward IV.  His elder brother John de la Pole, Earl of Lincoln had been named as the heir to the throne by Richard III, but after the Battle of Bosworth in 1485 he pledged his allegiance to the new monarch Henry VII.  He soon rebelled, however, and joined the campaign to put Lambert Simnel on the throne in 1487 and was killed at the Battle of Stoke.  This left Edmund as the most serious Yorkist claimant to the English throne, and in 1491 Henry VII allowed him to succeed to the title of Duke of Suffolk, although he was later demoted back down to being an Earl.  In 1501 he decided to shake the dust of the English court off his shoes and escaped abroad to live at the court of the Holy Roman Emperor, Maximilian.

But fate was not kind to Edmund de la Pole, as Maximilian’s son Philip of Burgundy’s ship was blown off course and stranded him on English shores during his journey to lay claim to the throne of Castile and was captured by Henry VII.  As Philip of Burgundy really didn’t have time to hang around the English Court, he entered into a bit of horse brokering with Henry, and agreed to exchange Edmund de la Pole in return for his freedom, as long as there was an agreement that the Earl of Suffolk would not be physically harmed.  Edmund de la Pole was to be safe as long as Henry VII was alive, but as soon as Henry VIII took the throne his days were numbered.  Totally lacking his father’s scruples Henry had this potential threat to his security executed in 1513, his flimsy excuse being that he needed to ensure that nobody could take it into their heads to make the Earl of Suffolk a focus for rebellion while he was away campaigning in France.

The next royal relative to meet their end courtesy of the axe was Edward Stafford, 3rd Duke of Buckingham in 1521.  The Duke of Buckingham was a cousin of Henry VIII’s mother, as he was a son of Henry Stafford, Duke of Buckingham and Katherine Woodville, who was the sister of Henry’s maternal grandmother.  His father Henry Stafford had also been executed by Richard III, so you could say that this grisly fate ran in the family.  During the reign of Henry VII, Edward Stafford has his father’s lands and titles returned to him and took an active part in the life of the court.  He married Lady Eleanor Percy and they had four children together.  All was going swimmingly until 1510 when the Duke discovered that Henry VIII was having an affair with his sister, the Countess of Huntingdon. The Countess’s enraged husband packed her off to a convent, but it is thought that Henry carried on seeing her until 1513.  The royal cousins patched up their quarrel, but around 1520 Henry VIII launched an investigation against the Duke of Buckingham on suspicion of his having been involved in treasonous activities.  He was arrested and tried in 1521 on charges of plotting the King’s death and listening to prophecies that foretold the King’s death.  It would seem that Henry VIII had already decided on the outcome of the trial, as he personally questioned some of the witnesses. The Duke of Buckingham was executed on Tower Hill on May 17th 1521, and an Act of Attainder was brought against him in 1523.

In probably what was the most infamous act of his blood stained reign, Henry VIII had another cousin, Margaret Pole, Countess of Salisbury, executed in 1541.  Margaret Pole was the daughter of George, Duke of Clarence and Isobel Neville, and her brother Edward, Earl of Warwick had been executed in the wake of the Perkin Warbeck rebellion by King Henry VII.  She was married off to Sir Richard Pole, a relative of Henry VII’s mother Margaret Beaufort, and they had five children.  For much of her life she was very much in favour at the Tudor court, and was governess to the young Princess Mary.  She fell out of favour during the reign of Anne Boleyn as she remained fiercely loyal to her royal charge, but was reinstated after the fall and execution of the queen. One of Margaret’s sons, Reginald Pole was vehemently opposed to the King’s divorce and had written to Henry VIII from Italy clearly and with great scholarship outlining his objections to the divorce and the changes in the royal succession.  He was made a Cardinal by the Pope in 1536 and named as the papal legate to England.  Henry VIII took umbrage at what he perceived as Reginald Pole’s lack of support and arrested his brother Lord Montague and his mother, Margaret Poles on suspicion of treason.

Montague was executed on Tower Hill in 1538, but his mother was held in custody at a house belonging to the Earl of Southampton until early 1539, when she was taken and imprisoned in the Tower of London. She suffered greatly while in prison, as she was by this time an elderly lady of 67, and was not even given enough clothing to keep her warm, but it was generally thought that she would eventually be released.  However, in 1541, following a rebellion led by Sir John Neville in Yorkshire, Henry VIII decided to summarily execute the Countess. The legend is that she refused to lay her head on the block as she asserted that she was no traitor and had committed no crime, and so was pursued around the scaffold by the headsman who had to hack the poor old woman to death.  However, it is also said, and perhaps more likely, that the executioner was a novice who thoroughly botched the job, hacking at the Countess’s neck and shoulders before managing to sever her head. Whichever version is the correct one, it would be true to say that Margaret Pole did not have an easy passing from this life.

So, as you can see, Henry VIII was more than prepared to eliminate any perceived or real rival to his throne and power, and being a blood relative was not enough to save your skin.  Of course, Henry VIII’s most famous victims were two of his wives, Anne Boleyn and Katherine Howard, but they probably deserve an article all too themselves!

Henry VIII image Wikimedia Commons Public Domain

Sunday 27 November 2011

Cathar Heresy – Count Raymond VI of Toulouse

During the time of the Albigensian Crusade, the most powerful nobleman in the Languedoc was Count Raymond VI of Toulouse.  When we look at momentous events in history like the Albigensian Crusade, it is sometimes only too easy to lose sight of the fact these were real people that were involved. That it was the personalities and temperaments of these individuals that helped to shape the events that unfolded around them and in the case of someone as powerful as Count Raymond, even be pivotal in deciding what happened next.
So what did it mean to be the Count of Toulouse at the end of the 12th century? Raymond was born into the mighty Saint Gilles family in 1156, at a time when the Languedoc was a prosperous and cultured region in the south west of France. It was a patchwork of petty nobles and fiefdoms, with the Counts of Toulouse holding the largest swathe of territory.  His many titles included Marquis of Provence, Count of Melgueil, Duke of Narbonne and Count of Agen. 

The largest portion of Raymond VI’s lands he held as a vassal of the King of Aragon, but he also held lands in Provence from the Holy Roman Emperor, the King of England and the King of France. This inevitably led to conflicting loyalties and the need for a great skill in diplomacy when dealing all these different interests. At the end of the 12th century, the city of Toulouse was one of the largest in Europe, with only Venice and Rome being bigger.  It was a centre for the poetry of the troubadours, courtly love, commerce and was also very welcoming and tolerant of different cultures and religions.

So what type of person was this pre-eminent nobleman of the Languedoc? In contrast to some of the other nobles of the region, who liked nothing better than waging war, besieging castles and raiding monasteries, Raymond VI preferred using diplomacy to secure his estates and further the interests of his dynasty.  He was a cultured man and a poet, but he also enjoyed a reputation as a lecher. In this he seems to have been a chip off the old block, as he spent much of his early career stealing his father’s mistresses. His own mother, Constance, fled back to the court of her brother the King of France after Raymond’s father allegedly mistreated her and had her marriage annulled.

This was another pattern that Raymond would repeat, as he was also  to enjoy many marital adventures, marrying at least five times, and maybe even six.  His first wife was Ermessende, Countess of Melgueil, who died after only a few years of marriage in 1176. Raymond VI then married Beatrice of Béziers, a strategic match as she was a sister of Roger II Trencavel, another powerful Languedoc nobleman. They had one daughter Constance of Toulouse, who grew up to marry King Sancho VII of Navarre.  The couple divorced in 1189, with Beatrice apparently choosing to become a Cathar Perfect.

His next marriage to Bourgogne, a daughter of King Amalric II of Jerusalem, also ended in divorce in 1194. Then in 1197 he won the hand of Joan of England, who was a sister of Richard the Lionheart and the infamous King John. Joan was so impressed with her marriage she ran away from Raymond in 1199 to become a nun.  The poor lady died in childbirth shortly after, providing Raymond with his only male heir, the future Count Raymond VII of Toulouse (1197-1249). It is believed he then married a daughter of Isaac Comnenus of Cyprus, or at least had a relationship with her. The last of his wives was Leonor, a daughter of King Alfonso II of Aragon and Sancha of Castile. It would seem that being an ideal husband was not one of Raymond’s strengths.

It would seem that in the early days Raymond VI of Toulouse enjoyed a near perfect life as a medieval nobleman; he was wealthy, powerful and knew how to enjoy himself. However, there were clouds gathering on the horizon, and his nemesis would prove to be none other than the Catholic Church.  Unfortunately the Vatican would come to regard Raymond VI to be almost as big a menace as the Cathar heretics he refused to persecute.  For Raymond VI was to find himself truly stuck between the proverbial rock and a hard place and was destined to turn excommunication into an unfortunate career choice.

For in the lands of Count Raymond of Toulouse, there flourished a heresy that was anathema to the Church of Rome. This heresy was Catharism, a form of Christianity that believed the world and our material life was inherently evil and the god they worshipped was a purely spiritual being that only dwelt in the heavenly realms. As the Catholic Church was an earthly institution, the Cathars regarded it with the same suspicion they held any other material entity. Although outwardly a good Catholic, Raymond was very supportive of the Cathar cause.  Many of his own family and friends were Cathars, as were many of his retinue and vassals.  He also appointed Jews to official positions in his administration, in direct contrast to the lot of Jewish population in most of the rest of Christian Europe.

When Innocent III became pope in 1198, one of his first acts was to pardon Raymond VII, who had been excommunicated for his somewhat irregular dealings with the Saint Gilles monastery. However, Innocent III was expecting substantial rewards for this act of clemency, and that reward was for Raymond VI to start showing some real zeal for ridding his lands of the stains of Cathar heresy and also to rein in his noble’s enthusiasm for appropriating Church property and murdering priests.

The local churchmen, however, were themselves a problem and Raymond VI was a great friend of one its most degenerate members, Raymond of Rabastens, the bishop of Toulouse. This enterprising clergyman had managed to bankrupt his diocese by paying mercenary troops to wage war against his own flock, which did nothing to endear him to his superior in Rome and did nothing to boost Raymond’s reputation either.

Events began coming to a head in 1207. The petty nobility of the Languedoc, who were vassals of Raymond, were busy fighting amongst themselves and employing mercenaries to do so. They were also in conflict with their liege lord, Raymond.  A papal legate, one Peter of Castelnau, travelled among these nobles exhorting them to drop their private wars and turn their energies towards persecuting the Cathars instead.  They agreed to this demand, but Raymond refused. He had no stomach for persecuting his own people and moreover, needed the paid mercenaries to achieve his territorial ambitions.

His punishment was to be excommunicated once again, which office the papal legate Peter of Castelnau performed in front of a large crowd, publicly humiliating Raymond. Unfortunately, being excommunicated meant that, in theory, Raymond VI was now once more beyond the pale and that his nobles and followers were no longer under any obligation to their liege lord.  To get out of this bind, Raymond made the promise he would rid his lands of both Cathar heretics and mercenaries, which led to him being restored to favour in August 1207.

However, it soon became apparent to the Pope that Raymond had no intention of fulfilling either promise and a list of his offences against the Church was drawn up. This extensive list of misdeeds included stealing Church property, being a Cathar sympathiser, allowing Jews to hold public office and not showing senior clergymen their due respect. He was once more excommunicated, so he invited the papal legate Peter of Castelnau to spend some time at his estates in Saint Gilles so he could renegotiate his position.

These negotiations, predictably, did not go well and culminated in Raymond threatening his papal guest in front of witnesses. Peter de Castelnau left in high dudgeon, but unfortunately for Raymond, disaster struck when he was murdered on the road by an unknown assailant. The identity of the murderer was never discovered, but it more than suited the Church to make Raymond VI responsible for this crime, although he was never tried for it. 

The murder was the spark Pope Innocent III needed to spur the monarchs and nobility of northern Europe into action.  In 1209 a Crusade was amassed to march south on the Languedoc and, although Raymond VI protested his innocence, he had to voluntarily subject himself to a public whipping in the square at St Gilles in order to have his excommunication revoked. He was also ordered to get on with eliminating the Cathars, purge his retinue of Jews, renounce any of his rights to the monasteries on his land, and make an apology to any clergymen that he had upset.

In order to protect his estates, Raymond VI reluctantly gathered together a fighting force and joined the Crusade; his logic being that if he was with the advancing army they would give his lands a wide berth. To say this move did not go down well with the other large landowners of the Languedoc, such as the Trencavels, was an understatement as it meant the Crusade would inevitably concentrate their efforts on their lands instead.

The towns of the Languedoc were besieged and fell one by one. First Béziers was sacked and the inhabitants were massacred and then Carcassonne was taken by trickery.  At the end of the campaigning season the ruthless northern baron, Simon de Montfort was named the new Viscount of Béziers and Carcassonne.  Raymond VI returned to Toulouse, where he still refused to persecute the heretics and also gave sanctuary to Cathars fleeing from the lands of Simon de Montfort, who was zealous in upholding his Catholic duty when it came to matters like heresy. Rather predictably, this led to Raymond once more being excommunicated in 1209. To make matters even worse, the civic government of Toulouse was also excommunicated and the city placed under interdict, so no religious sacraments could be carried out.

Raymond and his advisors travelled to Rome to plead their case directly with Pope Innocent III, who partially restored Raymond back to ecclesiastical favour and ordered a tribunal to be set up to investigate. The tribunal had been ordered by the pope so that Raymond VI would have a chance to exonerate himself, but the papal legate Arnold Amaury had no intentions of letting Raymond off the hook lightly or with any dignity. He spoke first at the tribunal, and put forward a defence that Raymond should not be allowed to speak, as he had been proven to be a liar and a perjurer. Raymond was not given the chance to defend himself and was punished by having his excommunication indefinitely extended. 

To support Raymond VI, who was his vassal, King Pedro II of Aragon totally bypassed the rightful Trencavel heir and recognised Simon de Montfort as his vassal in his place. The implicit deal was that by making this conciliatory gesture, the papal legates should return the favour by restoring Raymond to his lands and the full favour of the Catholic Church.  However, Arnold Amaury the papal legate, was not prepared to play the game and handed Raymond VI a document containing terms that left him and King Pedro literally stunned.

The legate demanded that all of Raymond’s property and possessions were forfeit to the Crusaders, that Raymond was to demolish all of his castles and strongholds, that Raymond and his subjects could only partake of one meal containing meat a week and that they all had to dress in rough, brown robes. And the real sting in the tail was that Raymond was to take himself off to Palestine and remain there until the Church allowed him to return.  Not surprisingly these terms were not acceptable to Raymond VI and he rode back to his estates, never to join the Crusade again.  Equally not surprising was the fact that Raymond was excommunicated again.

Seal of Raymond VI of Toulouse

During the campaigning seasons of 1211 and 1212, Simon de Montfort and his force of Crusaders rampaged through the lands around Toulouse burning, destroying and massacring. Eventually in 1215 Simon de Montfort besieged the city of Toulouse itself, which led to Raymond VI having to accept the insulting conditions laid out by the papal legates.  He had his lands taken off him and he had to flee to the sanctuary of the court of his former brother-in-law, King John of England. However, such was the depth of papal spite against the beleaguered Count of Toulouse that the Pope threatened King John with excommunication if he continued to harbour him, so Raymond was soon sent packing from the English court.

Raymond decided to once more plead his case directly to Pope Innocent III and went to Rome to attend the Fourth Lateran Council accompanied by Raymond Roger of Foix. The Pope initially was sympathetic to Raymond’s pleas and he started to believe there might be a positive outcome. But the usual behind scenes politics took place and the outcome was that Raymond was forced to hand over his lands and possessions to Simon de Montfort. The only consolation he was given was that he retained the titles of Marquis of Provence and Beaucaire for his son and heir.

Once more an exile, Raymond VI sought sanctuary at the court of Aragon where he amassed an army and retook his city of Toulouse in 1217. Simon de Montfort and the Crusaders besieged the city in 1218 in an attempt to gain it back, but the mighty warrior that was Simon de Montfort was killed in June of that year. A major thorn in Raymond’s side was now gone and de Montfort’s son Amaury was not the fighting machine his father had been. 

So by the time of Raymond’s death in 1222, he managed to retake most of his lands.  However, because his last excommunication had never been lifted, he had had to abdicate in favour of his son before his death or his estates would have been forfeited.  The final indignity of Raymond VI’s life was that because of his excommunication at the time of his death he was denied a Catholic burial – a truly Christian act!

‘May you live in interesting times’ is a Chinese curse, and Count Raymond VI of Toulouse certainly enjoyed some very interesting times in his life. As the Catholic Church saw it, he had brought it all on himself because he refused to light the bonfires for the Cather heretics to roast on across his domains.  But although Raymond VI had to duck and dive at times and make promises he had no intentions of keeping, surely this was more honourable than persecuting his own family, friends and vassals for their religious beliefs?

Raymond VI may have been a lecher, paid mercenaries to do his dirty work and was happy to help himself to Church property, but he was also a tolerant man who refused to bow to any pressure to persecute heretics, even if this put him beyond the favour of the established Catholic Church for eternity.

Image Raymond VI of Toulouse Wikimedia Commons Public Domain