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. It was during an estrangement from his father Geoffrey that 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.
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. Two of the three messengers dispatched to carry the order ran the other way, but one reached Falaise. However, Arthur’s jailer Hubert de Burgh, balked at mutilating a 15-year-old, saying that John would regret the order, though word was put out that the deed had been carried out, in the hope that the news would quell insurrection in Brittany.
Arthur was later removed to confinement in Rouen.
King Philip and the nobility of Brittany continued to press for the release of the young duke, but John had other ideas. It was in Rouen, at Easter 1203, most likely on 3rd or 4th April, that Arthur was put to death. A chronicler of the Cistercian monastery of Margam, Glamorgan, described the murder:
“The King of the French took the castle of Chinon, and afterwards all the garrisons of Normandy, Anjou, and the city of Poitiers, with other castles, fortified towns and cities, as he so willed it – for this reason; when king John had captured Arthur, he had him kept alive in prison for some time, but finally, in the great tower at Rouen, on the Thursday before Easter, after his dinner and when drunk and possessed by the devil, he killed him by his own hand, and, after a large stone had been tied to the body, threw it in the Seine. It was discovered by a fisherman in his net and recognised when it was brought to the riverbank, and, for fear of the tyrant, secretly buried at the priory of Bec, which is called Notre Dame des Pres.
When the aforesaid king of the French heard the news of this and knew for certain that Arthur had been killed, he had his killer John summoned to the court of France, as was customary with dukes of Normandy, to answer for the murder of such a great man and to defend himself if he could; of such a great man, say I, for he was the legitimate heir of England, the count of Brittany, and the son-in-law of the king of France. John, fully aware of his evil deed, never dared to appear before the court, but fled to England and exercised a most cruel tyranny over his people until he died. When he never came to answer for the death of Arthur or to defend himself, judgement was given against him by the king’s court, and he was deprived of all his titles, in all the lands and honours which he held of the French crown; this was an incontrovertible and just sentence.”
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 and would be held in confinement in England for the rest of her life. 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
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Defenders of the Norman Crown: The Rise and Fall of the Warenne Earls of Surrey tells the fascinating story of the Warenne dynasty, of the successes and failures of one of the most powerful families in England, from its origins in Normandy, through the Conquest, Magna Carta, the wars and marriages that led to its ultimate demise in the reign of Edward III. Defenders of the Norman Crown: Rise and Fall of the Warenne Earls of Surrey is now available from Pen & Sword Books, Amazon in the UK and US, Bookshop.org and Book Depository.
1 family. 8 earls. 300 years of English history!
Also by Sharon Bennett Connolly:
Ladies of Magna Carta: Women of Influence in Thirteenth Century England looks into the relationships of the various noble families of the 13th century, and how they were affected by the Barons’ Wars, Magna Carta and its aftermath; the bonds that were formed and those that were broken. It is now available in paperback and hardback from Pen & Sword, Amazon, Bookshop.org and from Book Depository worldwide.
Heroines of the Medieval World tells the stories of some of the most remarkable women from Medieval history, from Eleanor of Aquitaine to Julian of Norwich. Available now from Amberley Publishing and Amazon, Bookshop.org and from Book Depository worldwide.
Silk and the Sword: The Women of the Norman Conquest traces the fortunes of the women who had a significant role to play in the momentous events of 1066. Available now from Amazon, Amberley Publishing, Bookshop.org and Book Depository.
Alternate Endings: An anthology of historical fiction short stories including Long Live the King… which is my take what might have happened had King John not died in October 1216. Available in paperback and kindle from Amazon.
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©2015 Sharon Bennett Connolly
Lol welcome to the family…….
Great post. Very informative.
Thank you, Kristie
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Hi just a quick question, which source was your quote from Marshal about the conditions of John’s prisoners from? I haven’t seen it before and it seems out of character for him so I’d love to know where it came from. Great post too.
Hi and thank you. Marshal’s quote was in Dan Jones’ book, The plantagenets:The Kings who made England.
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Thanks, I’ll have to have a look. I don’t have a copy and I’d love to know where he got it I’ll have to find one in the library.
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Too bad they didn’t back Arthur instead of John esp since Marshall took on Henry III years later as a child. Might have seen a much better king!
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Maybe Gloria. But I think the barons were thinking ‘better the devil you know’. They probably thought John would be more capable of holding off the French. As it was, it didn’t work out that way and it does get you wondering how England would have been under Arthur. His reign couldn’t have been much more disastrous than John’s, surely? But…if not for John, we wouldn’t have the Magna Carta. Interesting thought…
Yes, I have always wondered what would have been England’s future been if Arthur had been king, instead of John. Or, even if Richard had not died. Ah, Well, such is history and the ‘what if’s of life. That’s why we have Allison Weir and readers like us!
Indeed Suzie. I find the ‘what could have been’ just as fascinating as what actually happened. Poor Arthur. Sharon 🙂
Another great article! I would like to write a novel featuring Maud de Braose when I am done with my current project, so this incident will be a key element.
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Thanks Samantha. She is truly fascinating. I look forward to reading your novel on Maud – her story deserves to be told. Let me know when you’ve finished it – I’ll be more than happy to review it for you. 🙂
Thanks! I have to finish with Margaret Pole first. She’s being a bit shy.
Sounds interesting. My tbr pile will be a mountain before long! 🙂
Very interesting post. It is hard to imagine the awful things that were done behind the glamour of living in a castle.
Thank you Laura. Yes, it’s nice to read about history – but I’m not sure I’d want to live there, far to dangerous!
Reblogged this on History's Untold Treasures and commented:
H/T History, the Interesting Bits
Thank you 🙂
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You’re welcome! And thanks for letting me share! 🙂