Arthur: England’s Lost Prince

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Arthur of Brittany

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.

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King John

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.

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Arthur  of Brittany paying homage to Philip II of France

War followed.

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.

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Rouen

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:

‘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.

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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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Tracing the fortunes of the women who had a significant role to play in the momentous events of 1066, Silk and the Sword: the Women of the Norman Conquest is available from Amazon UK,  Amberley Publishing, Book Depository and Amazon US.

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©2015 Sharon Bennett Connolly

Isabel de Warenne, Countess of Surrey

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Seal of Isabel de Warenne, Conisbrough Castle

Isabel de Warenne was the only surviving child of William de Warenne, 3rd Earl of Surrey, and his wife Adela, daughter of William III of Ponthieu. When her father died on the Second Crusade to the Holy Land, in around 1148, Isabel became 4th Countess of Surrey and one of the most prized heiresses in England and Normandy, with large estates in Yorkshire.

In the same year, as part of King Stephen’s attempts to control the vast de Warenne lands during a crucial time in the Anarchy – Stephen’s battles with his cousin Matilda to control England – Isabel was married to Stephen’s younger son, William of Blois, who became Earl by right of his wife. William, it seems, was about 7 years younger than his wife, being born in 1137.

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The Warenne coat of arms

William was removed from the succession to the crown by his own father, when Stephen made a deal with Matilda’s son, Henry of Anjou, that the crown would go to him on Stephen’s death. William seems to have accepted this, and served Henry II loyally until his own death in 1159.

As their marriage had been childless, Isabel was once again a prize heiress. Although she seems to have a had a little respite from the marriage market, by 1162 Henry II’s youngest brother, William X, Count of Poitou, was seeking a dispensation to marry her. The dispensation was refused by Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury, on the grounds of consanguinity. William died shortly after – it is said, of a broken heart.

Henry was not to be thwarted on bringing the de Warenne lands into the royal family, and his illegitimate half-brother, Hamelin, was married to Isabel in 1164. Hamelin, in an unusual step, took his wife’s surname and bore the title Earl of Surrey in her right.

The marriage appears to have been highly successful. Hamelin was loyal to his brother and his nephew, Richard I, and played a prominent part in English politics whilst Richard was absent on the 3rd Crusade. He also built the highly innovative keep at Conisbrough in the 1170s and 1180s.

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The keep at Conisbrough Castle

Isabel and Hamelin had four surviving children. Their son and heir, William, would become the 5th Earl of Surrey and married Maud, daughter of the great William Marshal. There were also three daughters, Ela, Isabel and Matilda, however it is possible Matilda was Hamelin’s daughter by a previous relationship. One of the daughters – although it is not clear which – bore an illegitimate son, Richard Fitzroy, by her cousin, John (the future King John).

Isabel died at the grand age of 73, in 1203, and was buried at Lewes Priory, alongside Hamelin, who had died the previous year.

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Sources: Robert Batlett, England Under the Norman and Angevin Kings; Dan Jones, The Plantagenets; Donald Matthew, King Stephen; Medieval Lands Project on the Earls of Surrey, Conisbrough Castle; doncasterhistory.co.uk

Photos: The de Warenne coat of arms taken from Wikipedia. Consibrough Castle and the seal of Isabel de Warenne © Sharon Bennett Connolly 2015.

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My book, Heroines of the Medieval World,  is now available in hardback in the UK from both Amberley Publishing and Amazon UK and worldwide from Book Depository. It is also available on Kindle in both the UK and USA and will be available in Hardback from Amazon US from 1 May 2018.

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Article: © Sharon Bennett Connolly 2015