Episode 11: Arthur, Duke of Brittany, mysteriously disappears

John began his reign well and landed with an army in Normandy where won skirmishes and sieges against Philip II of France. It all went badly wrong when his nephew, Arthur, duke of Brittany, mysteriously disappeared while under John’s protection at Falaise Castle. He was murdered, some even saying by John’s own hand.

We have already said that John made a good start to his reign, recapturing castles in the western provinces of his empire, Brittany being the most important. He also retained most of his brother's advisers and commanders, and promised to address any wrongs by his brother Richard - on which the chronicler, Roger of Wendover, remarked, 'and thus all strife and contention in England were set at rest.'

A tax of three shillings on the hide was levied in early 1200 enabling John to return to his duchy of Normandy with a large army. On news of this, the king of France halted all sieges and withdrew from the province and it appeared that the two King John might be entering on a period of peace with King Philip from a position of strength. Both had divorced their first wives and remarried, each supporting the other politically against considerable ecclesiastical opposition.

As we noted, Evreux was one of the first of the French king's conquests on Richard's death. He gave this town back to John, together with all of his conquests in the duchy over the previous eighteen months. On this latest visit, John did homage to Philip for Normandy, and then Philip, as feudal overlord, watched Prince Arthur doing homage to King John, at Vernon, for the duchy of Brittany. Beware such a French king bearing gifts.

Philip's surrender of lands and castles was pre-arranged so that King John could re-grant them to Louis, heir to the French throne, who was marrying John's niece, Blanche, daughter of King Alphonso of Castile. This was a nice marriage portion if you could get it, and there is no explanation why John agreed to it.

The king of England had come to Normandy accompanied by his army, with commanders who had served the Lionheart and who had victory in their blood from the crusade and war against Philip. John himself had worsted the king of France already. His doing homage for Normandy was a feudal detail. Arthur's homage for Brittany, with the king of France looking on, was much more important in the court of European public opinion.

Philip II had restored John's castles and towns. Now for no explicable reason John had returned these, including lands in the Vexin, an open road into the heart of the duchy, the fulcrum of William the Conqueror's overthrow of the Anglo-Saxon monarchy at Hastings in 1066. Philip's reasons for his apparent sweetness and light became clearer in the following year, 1202. The two kings quarrelled over Prince Arthur, duke of Brittany, still a client of the French king. Philip unexpectedly required John to hand over Normandy to Prince Arthur, together with all his other French possessions, to which the English gave a resounding 'non!' Arthur was by now 15, a man to medieval thinking.

Philip gave Duke Arthur 200 knights and sent him west to re-conquer Poitou, but on the way heard that Queen Eleanor was staying at Mirabeau castle, near Poitiers. Arthur besieged her, no matter that she was his grandmother. It will be remembered that she was also John's mother. A message was got out to King John who turned up with a large element of his army.

Roger of Wendover records the events:
Travelling by night and day, he accomplished the long distance quicker than is to be believed... When the French and the people of Poitou learned that the king was on his way, they went out with a pompous array to meet him, and give him battle; but when they met each other in battle order, and had engaged, the king bravely withstood their turbulent attacks, and at length put them to flight, pursuing them so quickly with his cavalry, that he entered the castle at the same time as the fugitives (he was chasing)... In the conflict there, two hundred knights were taken prisoner, and all the nobles of Poitou and Anjou, with Arthur himself... (He) secured his prisoners in fetters and shackles... The king sent some of them to Normandy, and some to England, to be imprisoned in strong castles, whence there would be no fear of their escape; but Arthur was kept at Falaise under close custody. Most would be ransomed.

When Philip II got news of the defeat at Mirabeau, he withdrew from his siege of Arques-la-Bataille, in Upper Normandy, when another element of the English army appeared. John went to meet his nephew at Falaise. The king made generous offers to the duke to break his alliance with the French and make another with 'his lord and uncle'.

Arthur may have been deemed an adult, but dissimulation does not seem to have been part of his education or something that he might have picked up from King Philip. He demanded that John give him the kingdom of England with all the territories held at Richard the Lionheart's death, since all those possessions belonged to him by hereditary right, he affirmed with an oath, that unless King John quickly restored the aforesaid territories to him, he should never enjoy peace for any length of time.

The king was much troubled at hearing these words, and gave orders that Arthur should be sent to Rouen, to be imprisoned in the new tower there, and kept closely guarded; but shortly afterwards the said Arthur suddenly disappeared. Perhaps to make even more sure of his own claim to throne and territories, John went back to England and was crowned yet again with Queen Isobel by Hubert, archbishop of Canterbury. He sailed once more for Normandy where, On his arrival there, an opinion about the death of Arthur gained ground throughout the French kingdom and the continent in general, by which it seemed that John was suspected by all of having slain him with his own hand; for which reason many turned their affections from the king from that time forward, wherever they dared, and entertained the deepest enmity against him.

It seems unlikely that John killed his nephew himself, but he must have authorized it for, surely, not even the most loyal of supporters would have done this otherwise. At the time, Arthur was heir to John's throne and other territories, grandson of the queen mother Eleanor, and John's nephew. Aethelred II was thought to have caused the murder, in 978, of his predecessor, Edward the Martyr, who was canonized, and never recovered from this suspicion.

As we have seen, King Henry I was careful, once he had his elder brother Robert Curthose in his power, not to kill him, but to hold him prisoner for many years until he died naturally.

Henry II had faced rebellions by most of his sons at one time or another, but he killed none of them. Royals did not kill other members of the family. It set a bad precedent. For that matter, even rebellious barons and earls were generally spared death except by the chance of battle. Rebels were sometimes even restored, or their heirs were. The upper class stuck together on this point until the 14th century, when a senior member of the royal family was judicially hanged in 1322.

For the remaining Middle Ages, royal dukes and earls were executed or murdered, and three kings assassinated. King John had broken an unwritten golden rule: he had killed a close member of his family and his heir. If this sort of thing could happen to royals, what could not happen from now on to earls and barons? Of course, many turned against John, rightly seeing themselves threatened, as John would demonstrate by shedding their blood, the blood of their wives, and the blood of their children.

For inexplicable reasons, John gave up his reasonably successful campaign against the king of France and returned to England, leaving the field open to King Philip who needed no further invitation.

© Robert Smith, Manorial Society of Great Britain