Friday, January 18, 2008

The Disappearance of Arthur of Brittany

Another medieval mysterious death involves not an actual monarch, but a would-be king who had a strong claim to the throne: Arthur, Duke of Brittany (1187 - 1203).

Richard I succeeded his father Henry II, as the eldest living son, in 1189. During the next ten years Richard married Berengaria of Navarre, but spent little time with her as he was more interested in fighting a Crusade in the Holy Land. At Richard's death in 1199, the two possible claimants to the throne were his younger brother John, and his nephew, Arthur son of the late Geoffrey Plantagenet. According to the primogeniture established later in the Plantagenet dynasty, Arthur had the stronger claim, as he was the son of an elder brother, Geoffrey coming after Richard but before John. But at this time such rules of succession had not been established, and though during his reign Richard designated Arthur as his heir, the young prince was never brought to England. Arthur was born just three months after his father's death, and his distrusting mother, Constance, preferred France and the French king to the English. Consequently, she not only refused to bring Arthur to England, but then took the boy to be raised at the court of Philip Augustus of France.

At Richard's death, Arthur was only 12 years old, had never been to England and spoke only French. Before dying, Richard designated his youngest brother John as heir, and the leading barons, including William the Marshal, decided to support John's claim over Arthur's, as the lesser of two evils. John at least was a grown man, and spoke the language of the people. Yet over the next three years war raged between the two sides, with Arthur's followers and the King of France (ever ready to divide the Angevin kings, seeking any opportunity to bring Normandy and other lands back to the crown of France) supporting Arthur's claim. Many skirmishes followed, and Arthur briefly held his grandmother, Eleanor of Aquitaine, captive at her castle before she was rescued by John's reinforcements.

John captured Arthur, and held him prisoner for a while, under the care of Hubert de Burgh. John requested that Arthur be blinded and castrated so as to be no threat to his power, but de Burgh took pity on the boy and kept him safe, while attempting to hide the boy and tell John that the procedures had been done but that in the process Arthur had died. Soon the story got out that Arthur had been killed, and the people were outraged at John, so de Burgh soon confessed the truth to John, and Arthur was again shown to be healthy and alive. However, Arthur was still too dangerous for John's power, and in February or March 1203 John had Arthur moved from de Burgh's care, and sent to the new tower in Rouen where he was closely guarded by Robert de Vieuxpoint. At the end of March 1203 Arthur suddenly vanished. No one knows for sure how he died, but a later source (Annals of Margam, early 13th century) tell that in early April John slew Arthur, tied a heavy stone to the body and cast in the Seine. The body later was found by fishermen who dragged it ashore; the body was identified and secretly buried for fear of the local tyrant.

The murder of his nephew was just one of many wicked deeds attributed to King John, and the next 13 years would see more misrule, the barons' revolt and the Magna Carta (1215). Yet would Arthur have made any better king? As a teenager, Arthur was (not surprisingly) exceedingly arrogant and thought too highly of himself; as an adult he might not have been so cruel as John, but as a foreigner he would likely have populated his court with French and alienated the English who would never have accepted him and thus might have revolted against him. The name Arthur was another problem, as anyone with that name would fall short in comparison with that other, great King Arthur of legend. It is interesting to note that while a few princes were named Arthur (including also the firstborn son of Henry VII, older brother of Henry VIII) none by that name ever became king. "King Arthur" still refers only to the one and only legendary leader of Camelot.

For further reading:

Non-fiction: King John (English Monarchs) by W. L. Warren
Historical fiction: The Prince of Darkness, by Jean Plaidy

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