Saturday 2 February 2013

How to Murder Your Medieval Royal Relatives

You would think that being a member of the royal family would set you up for a life of luxury and security wouldn't you?  Well you would be wrong as being a royal in history has sometimes been a very hazardous occupation, especially if you were a royal child.  If we travel back to medieval times and take a look at the history of the English royal family, you will soon discover that family feuds were common and that several members of the Plantagenet family were murdered or disappeared in mysterious circumstances.  So let us have a look at some of these unfortunate royals and find out a bit more about their tragic fates.

King John's Tomb in Worcester Cathedral
King John's Tomb in Worcester Cathedral

Shortly after the Norman Conquest, King William II, better known as William Rufus because of the ruddy appearance of his face, was one of the first to meet with an untimely end.  This unfortunate monarch was out hunting on a summer’s day in 1100 in the New Forest when an arrow pierced his chest and killed him.  Things being what they were back then, as soon as they realised that their monarch was dead, the rest of the hunting party, which included his brother Henry, promptly departed, rushing off back to secure their own estates leaving William Rufus’s corpse lying on the forest floor.  Even the young Prince Henry high tailed it to Winchester to make sure that he would get his hands on the royal treasury before anybody else could claim it and then went on to London where he had himself crowned King of England within a few days. The contemporary chroniclers claimed that it had not been murder, but had just been an unfortunate hunting accident, but as William Rufus had not been a popular king, either with his barons or the Church, it was perhaps inevitable that rumours would abound that William Rufus had been murdered. It was recorded that it fell to a man called Purkis, who was a local charcoal burner, to rescue the royal corpse and take it on his cart to Winchester.

King John enjoys a generally bad reputation even for a Plantagenet king, as he has been widely vilified through the tales of Robin Hood, the outlaw who robbed the rich to give to the poor, as the wicked prince who was trying to steal the crown of his hero brother, King Richard the Lionheart.  King John probably deserves a lot of this evil legacy, as he spent a lot of time waging war and generally trying to get one up on his elder brothers and fairly regularly fell out with the Pope to the extent that he would be excommunicated and the whole country of England placed under interdict. However, it was the mysterious disappearance of his young nephew Arthur of Brittany that could have been the most nefarious deed of his unsavoury career.  Arthur of Brittany was the posthumous son of John’s elder brother Geoffrey Duke of Brittany, who had been killed in a tournament.  A fatherless royal child in possession of vast estates, fortune and titles would always have the wolves circling, and young Arthur became a pawn in the power games between John, Richard the Lionheart and King Philip II of France.  After Richard the Lionheart’s death, John managed to seize the throne of England, but as Arthur of Brittany had declared himself a vassal of the King of France, the French nobility were keen to place the English crown on Arthur’s head instead.  The new King John was forced to invade France in 1202 to combat this threat and, under the terms of the treaty of Le Goulet, Arthur of Brittany was forced to change his allegiance and acknowledge King John of England as his overlord.

King John fairly swiftly fell out with the French King again, and the Philip II gave his territories of Normandy and Anjou to young Arthur.  Even though he was still only a young teenager, Arthur of Brittany decided to assert his authority in his lands by besieging his own grandmother, the indomitable Eleanor of Aquitaine, in the castle at Mirebeau.  Eleanor of Aquitaine managed to alert King John to her peril and he raced to rescue her and imprisoned his young nephew at the same time.  The youthful prince was first imprisoned at Falaise in Normandy under the stewardship of William de Braose and the following year he was sent to captivity in the castle at Rouen.  Sometime in April of 1203, Arthur of Brittany mysteriously vanished, never to be seen again.  Although nothing was ever proved or officially recorded, the finger of blame was pointed squarely at King John, with rumours saying that the English monarch had killed his young nephew in a drunken rage and then thrown his body in the Seine, or that Arthur had been blinded and the gelded by the King’s agents and had died of shock and blood loss.   Again we shall probably never know the truth of the matter, but if King John did not murder his nephew, what did happen to poor Arthur of Brittany?

So moving up through the centuries, King Edward II was an ineffectual King of England, who was prone to having unpopular favourites and could not keep control of his barons.  He was married to Isabella of France who, when on an official trip to France, met an exiled English baron called Roger Mortimer, and became his mistress.  The new power couple decided that they had had enough of the dithering King Edward II and his latest favourites the Despensers, and invaded England in 1326. Their army met with little resistance, and they easily took over the country, capturing the Despensers and King Edward in the process.  The Despensers were summarily executed and Edward was imprisoned in Berkeley Castle.  Edward II was deposed in favour of his young son, who became King Edward III.

Tomb of King Edward II in Gloucester Cathedral
Tomb of King Edward II in Gloucester Cathedral

Although he was in captivity, Edward II still posed a threat to the new administration and he was found murdered on 11th October 1327, supposedly by agents of Queen Isabella and Roger Mortimer.  Contemporary chroniclers stated that the unfortunate Plantagenet monarch had either been strangled or suffocated, but in later years a rather more lurid legend grew up that Edward II had been killed by having a red-hot poker thrust into his nether parts.  This gruesome story has never been substantiated and there are historians that argue that, in fact, Edward II was not killed in Berkeley Castle at all but survived in exile on the Continent until around 1341.  But what goes around comes around as they say, and in time the young monarch Edward III grew tired of being dominated by his powerful mother and her lover, so in 1330 he seized Roger Mortimer and had sent him to the Tower of London. Roger Mortimer was accused without even getting a trial and was taken to Tyburn where he was hung, drawn and quartered as a common traitor.

Of course the biggest, baddest, wickedest uncle of them all, at least according to William Shakespeare, is King Richard III, who stands accused by history of murdering his two young nephews, known as the Princes in the Tower.  Before the death of his big brother, King Edward IV, in 1483 he had enjoyed an entirely untarnished reputation.  Unlike his brother George of Clarence, he had always remained loyal to his brother and worked hard in the North at keeping England’s border with Scotland secure.  However, he was not a fan of King Edward’s wife Elizabeth Woodville, and was highly suspicious of the lands and titles that she induced her husband to shower onto her large and rapacious family.  Edward IV’s death in 1483 was both premature and unexpected, and as Richard III had been named Lord Protector, he hastily assembled an army and marched south to meet up with his young nephew, who was now the new King Edward V and was being escorted to London by his maternal uncle Anthony Woodville, Earl Rivers.  

Richard had Anthony Woodville arrested and then executed and took his nephew to the Tower of London, the traditional lodging place of English kings before their coronation. The widowed queen, Elizabeth Woodville, had fled into sanctuary with her younger son and daughters, but Richard persuaded her to allow Richard of York to join his older brother at the Tower.  Both the young lads were reported being seen around the Tower of London and playing in the gardens and preparations for Edward’s coronation proceeded.  However, just before the coronation, Richard seized the crown for himself and was crowned as King Richard III.  Sightings of the two young princes began to dwindle and rumours started to fly that they had been murdered to make the throne safer for their uncle.  However, although their supposed murder has been carefully investigated by many historians, there has never been any concrete evidence come to light that Richard III murdered the Princes in the Tower.  In fact, there is no real evidence that they were killed at all, and many stories circulated about their continued existence and several pretenders, such as Lambert Simnel and Perkin Warbeck, came forward to declare that they were one or other of the boys.

So as you see, being a medieval royal in England could prove fatal and it was your own royal relatives that you had the most to fear from.  It wasn’t only uncles and wives that could be murderous; Henry IV locked his first cousin Richard II up in Pontefract Castle after he seized the throne and reportedly starved him to death.  So next time that you bemoan how ordinary your life is, remember that there is nothing romantic or exciting about being murdered, however exciting we think that these historic tales are.

King John Tomb image Wikimedia Commons Public Domain
King Edward II image Wikimedia Commons Public Domain

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