A Plantagenet prince, Arthur of Brittany‘s story is one of the most tragic of the Medieval period. The posthumous son of Geoffrey, 4th son of Henry II of England, and Constance of Brittany, he was Duke of Brittany from the moment of his birth.
Constance and Geoffrey had married in 1181; their daughter, Eleanor, was born in 1184. Whilst estranged from his father Geoffrey was trampled to death while competing at a tournament in Paris, in August 1186.
Arthur was born several months later, in March or April 1187. In 1190 the two-year-old Arthur was named as heir presumptive to his uncle Richard I, king of England; Richard even arranged a betrothal for young Arthur, to a daughter of Tancred of Sicily. However, the Emperor Henry VI conquered Sicily in 1194 and the betrothal came to nothing.
Arthur was a valuable pawn for both the kings of France and England; when Richard tried to take him into his household, in 1196, his mother sent him to the French court, where he spent several months. On his return to Brittany, Constance started involving him in the government of the duchy.
On Richard’s premature death in 1199, however, Arthur was still only a child of 12; Richard’s brother, John, took the initiative, seizing the treasury at Chinon before being proclaimed Duke of Normandy at Rouen.
The great William Marshal and Hubert Walter, Archbishop of Canterbury and Justiciar of England, were instrumental in persuading the English barons to accept John as King, reasoning that John knew more of England – and was more experienced – than young Arthur.
Arthur’s claim was revived in the early 1200s when the King of France, Philip II Augustus, confiscated John’s possessions in Northern France for failing to acknowledge the French King as his overlord. Philip recognised Arthur as the rightful heir to Normandy and Anjou.
In July 1202 Arthur, and a force of knights, besieged his own grandmother, Eleanor of Aquitaine, at Mirebeau. John made a forced march to the rescue of his mother, surprising the besiegers on 31st July. One of John’s barons, William de Braose, captured Arthur on 1st August and handed him over to the King, who imprisoned him at Falaise.
His captivity was probably less than comfortable, despite his rank and familial relationship. According to William Marshal, John ‘kept his prisoners in such a horrible manner and such abject confinement that it seemed an indignity and disgrace to all those with him who witnessed his cruelty.’
Whilst imprisoned at Falaise, John ordered that Arthur should be blinded and castrated. However, Arthur’s jailer Hubert de Burgh, balked at mutilating a 15-year-old and John ordered Arthur removed to confinement in Rouen.
‘After King John had captured Arthur and kept him alive in prison for some time, at length in the castle of Rouen after dinner on the Thursday before Easter when he was drunk and possessed by the Devil, he slew him with his own hand, and tying a heavy stone to the body cast it into the Seine. It was discovered by a fisherman in his net, and being dragged to the bank and recognised, was taken for secret burial….’
Whether John committed the deed himself, or merely ordered it done, will probably never be proved; of the fact he was present there seems to be little doubt. Whichever way, the act itself has been a black mark against John for centuries.
On Arthur’s death the duchy should have passed to his older sister, Eleanor; but she was also a prisoner of King John. So it passed to his two-year-old half-sister, Alix of Thouars, daughter of Constance and her 3rd husband, Guy of Thouars.
Sources: Dan Jones, The Plantagenets: The Kings Who Made England; Robert Bartlett, England Under the Norman and Angevin Kings 1075-1225; Maurice Ashley, The Life and Times of King John; H.G. Koenigsberger, Medieval Europe 400-1500; History Today Companion to British History; Charles Phillips, Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Kings & Queens of Britain; Oxford Companion to British History; Mike Ashley, The Mammoth Book of British Kings & Queens; Douglas Boyd, Eleanor: April Queen of Aquitaine
Pictures courtesy of Wikipedia