Eleanor of Aquitaine: A Life by Alison Weir

  Nearly every member of Arthur's company was captured or killed. But the greatest triumph for John lay in taking prisoner not only Arthur himself, who was the chief prize, but also Hugh and Geoffrey de Lusignan. More than 250 knights,48 irrespective of their rank, were ignominiously chained together and bundled into oxcarts, then paraded as trophies along the roads leading to the Loire crossing, before being incarcerated in prisons in England and Normandy.49 Hugh de Lusignan was imprisoned in chains in a tower at Caen.

  It was a brilliant victory, the most significant in John's career, and testimony to his ability to achieve military greatness. It left him in a very strong position, with his archenemies in his own hands as hostages with which to bargain with Philip. Even Philip recognised that John now had the upper hand, and "upset by the misfortune", he withdrew his forces from the Norman border, fired and plundered Tours in vengeance,50 then returned to Paris, where he "remained inactive for the rest of the year."51

  John himself wrote to his English barons:

  Know that, by the grace of God, we are safe and well, and God's mercy has worked wonderfully with us, for on Tuesday, the feast of St. Peter ad Vincula, we heard that the Lady our mother was closely besieged at Mirebeau, and we hurried there as fast as we could. And there we captured our nephew Arthur and all our other Poitevin enemies, and not one escaped. Therefore God be praised for our happy success.

  But John, through his own stupidity, failed to consolidate his position and lost his advantage. He treated his prisoners appallingly. The Lusignans were quickly ransomed and released, after swearing fealty to John and surrendering their strongholds,52 but most of the knightly prisoners-- who could also have been ransomed to John's advantage-- were manacled in irons in his dungeons. At Corfe Castle twenty-two of them starved to death. Arthur's sister Eleanor, "the pearl of Brittany," also taken at Mirebeau, was imprisoned at Bristol Castle.53 As for Arthur himself, he was on 10 August shut up in a dungeon in Falaise Castle in Normandy54 and was never seen in public again.

  John's treatment of these captives provoked an outcry, even among his own supporters, many of whom-- including Aimery of Thouars and William des Roches-- deserted him. Aimery had been horrified to see some of his own kinsmen in chains, and William was angry because John had broken his promise. At this critical juncture, they transferred their allegiance to King Philip.

  After leaving Mirebeau, Eleanor returned to Fontevrault. Before parting from John, she had charged him, on her malediction, not to harm Arthur.55 Paulus Emilius, the biographer of Philip Augustus, claims that she interceded most forcefully on Arthur's behalf.

  Eleanor was now eighty, and had experienced enough worldly strife to make her long for the cloister. The annals of Fontevrault confirm that on her return to the abbey she took the veil and entered the community as a nun. Nevertheless, she seems to have maintained contact with her officers in her domains, and it is possible that she was permitted to leave the abbey to visit Poitiers on at least one occasion.

  In the autumn of 1202 Aimery of Thouars and William des Roches seized the city of Angers and the surrounding territory. Then they and other lords demanded Arthur's release, some threatening to transfer their allegiance to Philip until the young Duke was set free. In November, despite their promises to John, the Lusignans joined the rebel coalition.56

  John again spent Christmas at Caen, "feasting with his queen and lying in bed until dinner time,"57 to the scandal of the court. By that time, rumours were circulating that Arthur was dead.58

  22. "A Candle Goeth Out"

  John would have had every justification for executing Arthur: the young Duke had broken his feudal oath and committed treason against his overlord, had been arrested while besieging his grandmother on his uncle's territory, and had made plain his intention of invading and conquering Poitou. Yet Arthur was John's nephew, his own flesh and blood, and Queen Eleanor had exhorted the King to spare her grandson's life. Undoubtedly, John shrank from the consequences of ordering Arthur to be publicly put to death.

  Arthur had been imprisoned at Falaise in the custody of John's chamberlain, Hubert de Burgh,1 and under the guardianship of William de Braose, who was one of John's most trusted advisers and councillors. In January 1203 John had Arthur brought before him at Falaise. "The King addressed him kindly and promised him many honours, asking him to separate himself from the French King and to adhere to the side of his lord and uncle." But Arthur ill-advisedly replied with indignation and threats, and demanded that the King give up to him his kingdom of England with all the territories which King Richard had possessed at his death, since all these possessions belonged to him by hereditary right. He swore that unless King John quickly restored [them] to him, he would never give him a moment's peace for the rest of his life. The King was much troubled at hearing his words.2

  Ever suspicious, John now believed that some of his barons were secretly in league with Arthur, and went in constant dread of what might happen were Arthur to escape.

  The King asked some of his magnates what he should do about Arthur. They told him that there would be no peace while his nephew lived. With brutal candour, they "suggested that he should order the noble youth to be deprived of his eyes and genitals, so that he would thereafter be incapable of princely rule" and unable to beget any traitorous progeny. "John ordered three servants to go to Falaise and perform this detestable act," but when Arthur, "realising the dire sentence which his uncle had pronounced on him, burst into tears and pitiful complaints," two of them shrank from doing the deed. When the third insisted on carrying out his orders, Hubert de Burgh angrily sent them all away, at which "Arthur, with a sad heart, took a little comfort."3

  Hubert had defied John to spare his king the consequences of an act of which he would repent when his anger had cooled-- an act, moreover, that would surely alienate many of the barons. But he did not trust John, and in a ploy to forestall him from sending less scrupulous henchmen to do harm to Arthur, "had it announced through the castle and the whole region that the sentence had been carried out and that Arthur had died from a broken heart and from the bitter pain of his wounds." In Falaise and elsewhere, the bells tolled for his passing, and his clothes were distributed among the lepers.4

  But Hubert had not reckoned upon the men of Brittany rising in rage against John for "having performed such a detestable deed" on his nephew and causing his death, and he was forced to confess to John that the boy was in fact very much alive.5

  Many, however, did not believe Hubert. It began to be bruited about that Arthur had in fact been murdered, and rumours to that effect rapidly gained currency in Paris, Brittany, and even Poitiers during the weeks that followed.

  In January 1203 Queen Isabella found herself cut off from John and besieged at Chinon by Aimery of Thouars, who hoped to ransom her for advantageous terms. Arriving at Le Mans, a frantic John6 was informed that the roads were impassable. Fortunately, a mercenary force led by one Peter of Preaux rescued the Queen and escorted her to Le Mans two days later, to the King's immense relief. After that, John would not leave her side and lost interest in conquering his enemies.7 Roger of Wendover described him as the most uxorious of men, and claimed that his obsession with his wife made him soft and incompetent.

  In fact, John was preoccupied with the problem of his nephew of Brittany. He was most displeased with Hubert de Burgh, and in February or March "gave orders that Arthur should be sent to Rouen to be imprisoned in the new tower there, and kept closely guarded."8 On 8 March, Robert de Vieuxpoint was appointed Seneschal of Rouen and the Duke was placed in his keeping.0 At the end of March, John bought Vieuxpoint's loyalty-- and probably his secrecy-- by granting him two castles and their bailiwicks in Westmorland.10

  "Not long after that, Arthur suddenly vanished."11

  On 2 April 1203 John left Rouen and, accompanied by William de Braose and three justiciars, sailed down the Seine to his manor of Molineux, one of his favourite residences. Around this time-- and possibly on this day-- William de Braose de
clared to the King and his barons that he was now relinquishing his guardianship of Arthur and could take no further responsibility for what happened to him.12 Possibly he knew that John was planning something and did not wish to become involved or implicated in it.

  "I know not what fate awaits your nephew, whose faithful guardian I have been," he told the King, then added pointedly, "I return him to your hands in good health and sound in all his members. Put him, I pray you, in some other, happier custody. The burden of my own affairs bids me resign."13

  What really happened to Arthur is not known for certain, but a plausible account of what might have befallen him exists in the Annals of Margam, a chronicle written in the early thirteenth century by the monks of a Cistercian abbey in Glamorganshire, of which the de Braoses were patrons. William de Braose was privy to John's counsels during the months of Arthur's imprisonment, and this account may have come directly from him.14

  According to these annals, at Rouen, "after dinner on the Thursday before Easter," 3 April 1203, "when he was drunk with wine and possessed of the Devil, [John] slew [Arthur] with his own hand and, tying a heavy stone to the body, cast it into the Seine. It was brought up by the nets of fishermen and, dragged to the bank, it was identified and secretly buried, for fear of the tyrant, in Notre-Dame des Pres, a priory of Bee."15

  After that Easter, according to several chronicles, Arthur was seen no more by any man with a tongue in his head or the ability to scrawl a message to the world, the implication being that John had those who might have talked silenced in one way or another. "It was not safe to write of [Arthur] even when he was dead."16

  On 16 April, John wrote an open letter from Falaise to "the Lady Queen his mother" and eight of her vassals, including the Archbishop of Bordeaux, the seneschals of Poitou and Gascony, and Hubert de Burgh, which was witnessed by William de Braose: "We send to you Brother John of Valesent [or Valerant], who has seen what is going forward with us, and who will be able to apprise you of our situation. Put faith in him respecting these things whereof he will inform you. Nevertheless, the grace of God is even more with us than he can tell you, and concerning the mission which we have made to you, rely upon what the same John shall tell you thereof." A postscript, addressed to Robert of Thornham, Seneschal of Poitou, commands him "not to distribute the money we have transmitted to you, unless in the presence of our mother and William Cocus."17

  It is possible, as many historians18 assert, that this letter refers to Arthur's death, and that the important news that Brother John was to impart, first to the Queen at Fontevrault and afterwards to her chief vassals in Poitou, was too sensitive to be committed to parchment. This theory presupposes that John knew Eleanor would welcome the news: it is obvious from the tone of the letter that whatever it was would be pleasing to her. It also assumes that the Queen was a willing accessory to the murder of her own grandson, unless John led her to believe that Arthur died of natural causes. This is more likely since, the previous year, Eleanor had strongly exhorted John to spare Arthur. It is indeed possible that she had since been persuaded of the political necessity of getting rid of him, yet hardly likely that she would impute the successful accomplishment of such a murder to "the grace of God." Considering how she had suffered, by her own admission, mental torture at the memory of the fate of Arthur's father Geoffrey, she surely cannot have consented to the murder of his son. She was, after all, now vowed to the religious life and, at her advanced age, expecting to be summoned to divine judgement at any time.

  This is the only letter from John to his mother to survive, yet there must have been many others. Too much significance has perhaps been placed upon a document that may have related to an entirely different matter. The wording of the letter is insufficient to link it conclusively to Arthur's death, but if it was about this, then it is probable that John asserted that the boy died of natural causes and pointed out the very real advantages of his passing. After all, is it likely that John would have confided news of the murder to a monk, of all people, and referred obliquely to the deed in a letter addressed to nine people? It is far more plausible that the monk was sent to offer spiritual comfort for a natural bereavement, or indeed employed on an entirely unrelated errand.

  Arthur's fate remained a mystery, and many rumours and apocryphal tales circulated in the years following his disappearance. The Bretons certainly believed John responsible for his death: some said he had been killed by a hired assassin, Peter of Malendroit; others that the King had pushed him over a cliff at Cherbourg.19 The French chronicler Guillaume le Breton was perhaps nearer the truth, claiming that in the middle of the night on the eve of Good Friday, John sailed up the Seine to Rouen in a small boat-- presumably returning from Molineux-- and moored it by a small postern door at the base of the new tower. He ordered his nephew to be brought down to him, then dragged him into the boat and sailed away. Arthur begged for mercy, but the King seized him by the hair and ran him through with his sword. He then weighted the body and threw it into the Seine. This account tallies in many respects with that in the Annals of Margam.

  A Breton tradition claims that John was denounced as Arthur's murderer by the lords of Brittany in a special assembly in 1203,20 but there is no contemporary evidence for this. In 1204 Philip of France heard a rumour that Arthur had been drowned.21 Twelve years later, after both John and Philip were dead, Louis VIII of France tried to make political capital out of the murder by claiming that Philip had called John to account and had his court condemn him for it.22 Again, no contemporary source corroborates this assertion, and Pope Innocent in fact pointed out to Louis that Arthur had been a traitor who had been caught while harrying his grandmother.22

  It is clear that Philip was for a time as ignorant of the boy's fate as everyone else. It has been claimed that he found out the truth after 1210, when William de Braose, after inexplicably incurring John's displeasure, was exiled and obliged to flee to the French court, but this seems unlikely, since he never made public what he was supposed to have found out, or exploited it for political advantage.

  Fifty years after Arthur's disappearance, the great chronicler Matthew Paris still did not know what had happened to him, and could only voice the pious hope that John had not had him murdered.

  In the spring of 1203, the rumours alone were sufficient to condemn John. "Opinion about the death of Arthur gained ground, 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 and entertained the deepest enmity for him."24

  In the eyes of his disillusioned vassals, John was a guilty man, and they began to desert him. The lords of Maine defected to Philip, and Le Mans fell to the French. In Brittany, Arthur's subjects rose in revolt at the assumed murder of their duke, and their defection cut Normandy off from Poitou, which had remained loyal, and left it more vulnerable to Philip's aggression.

  Although they grumbled at the burdensome taxation imposed upon them, many of the Norman magnates held property on both sides of the Channel, and had every reason to support John. The duchy was well fortified along its frontiers and guarded by a ring of castles, chief of which was Chateau Gaillard. Had John bestirred himself at this time, he could have held on to Normandy, but he seemed to be in the grip of a strange inertia.

  That spring, Philip advanced along the Loire and took the great fortress of Saumur. Chinon held out against him, so he swung north and marched unopposed into Normandy, taking town after town: Domfront, Coutances, Falaise, Bayeux, Lisieux, Caen, and Avranches-- those great bastions of Angevin power-- all fell to him.25 At the same time, the Bretons attacked the southwestern borders of Normandy.

  John asked for a truce, but Philip offered impossible terms, being determined only on conquest.26 When messengers came in urgency to John, beseeching him to rise up and give the French King the trouncing he deserved, the King shrugged and said, "Let him alone. Some day I will recover all I have lost."27 By then many of his disgusted Norman vassals were willin
gly transferring their allegiance to Philip.

  By August most of the eastern reaches of the duchy were in Philip's hands, including Vaudreuil, which was only twelve miles from the capital, Rouen. In September the French King cast covetous eyes on the mighty Chateau Gaillard, which held the key to Rouen's defences, and laid siege to it. "In the meantime, King John was staying inactive with his queen at Rouen, so that it was said that he was infatuated by sorcery, for in the midst of all his losses and disgrace, he showed a cheerful countenance to all, as though he had lost nothing."28

  Late in September he finally roused himself and attempted to relieve Chateau Gaillard by night, sailing with an armed force up the Seine from Rouen, but having miscalculated the tides, he was forced to withdraw after suffering heavy casualties. Hoping to divert Philip, he harried the borders of Brittany, but without success. In desperation he made erratic and inept attempts to recoup his losses in Normandy,29 to no avail. After these failures, many hitherto loyal Norman barons lost faith in him entirely and decided that they would be better off under French rule.

  By the autumn Philip had made such inroads into Normandy that it was clear that John would never recover what had been lost. The defection of so many vassals had dramatically cut his revenues, and he could no longer afford to pay the mercenaries upon whom he had increasingly come to rely.30 Belatedly, he became aware of the desperate reality of the situation, and when William the Marshal counselled him to abandon the struggle, he retorted, "Whoso is afraid, let him flee. I myself will not flee."31 Tragically, it was months too late for such bullish heroism.

  By the beginning of December the only parts of Normandy remaining in John's hands were the capital Rouen, Chateau Gaillard (which was still holding out valiantly against Philip), the Cotentin, Mor-tain, and the Channel coastlin. Internally, these regions, deprived of firm leadership, were degenerating into anarchy. Yet on 6 December, giving his word that he would soon return to the war-torn duchy, the King sailed for England with the Queen and William the Marshal "to seek aid and counsel of the English barons"32 and to raise men and money." The English, however, had learned of John's ineptitude, his capriciousness, and his cruelties, and they had heard the rumours about his treatment of his nephew; many lords were therefore not prepared to support him. Some with Norman estates preferred to transfer their allegiance to Philip. In despair, John kept a miserable Christmas at Canterbury.

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