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.
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 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. 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
Coming next month!
Arthur’s story features in Ladies of Magna Carta: Women of Influence in Thirteenth Century England which will be released in the UK on 30 May 2020 and is now available for pre-order from Pen & Sword, Amazon UK and from Book Depository worldwide. It will be released in the US on 2 September and is available for pre-order from Amazon US.
Also by Sharon Bennett Connolly:
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 UK, Amberley Publishing, Book Depository and Amazon US.
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 UK, Amazon US and Book Depository.
©2015 Sharon Bennett Connolly