Duke of Brittany (1194-1203)
Born 1187 Died 1203

How England was almost ruled by King Arthur

Arthur was the son of Geoffrey Plantagenet the fourth son of Henry II, and Constance of Brittany the only daughter of Conan IV, Duke of Brittany. Through his mother Constance, Arthur was heir to the Duchy of Brittany, and he was also through his father one of the potential heirs to the English throne. Although his grandfather Henry II had a number of sons, the eldest son Henry died of a fever in 1183, leaving his second son Richard to succeed him in 1189.

Since Richard had no children and Geoffrey, Henry II's fourth surviving son and Arthur's father had been fatally wounded in a tournament in Paris in 1186 some months before Arthur's birth, by the strict application of primogentiture this made Arthur the heir presumptive to the English throne. Indeed when his uncle Richard went off on crusade in 1190, he formally named Arthur as his heir, although since Arthur was only three at the time, this may have been more of a political manoeuvure designed to forestall any potential conflict at home, rather than a serious attempt to determine the succession.

Any claim that Arthur might have had on the English throne was essentially theoretical at this time, since there remained the possibility that Richard's might one day have an heir. Arthur therefore spent his childhood in preparation for his undoubted future as Duke of Brittany. Indeed the very choice of the name Arthur (insisted on by his mother much to the annoyance of her Plantagenet relations who wanted Henry) was designed to appeal to his Breton subjects with its potent mythic connotations.

Whilst the Bretons were keen to assert their independence, Henry II was just as keen to maintain their traditional subservience and in 1187 he pressurised Constance into marrying Randulf de Blundeville, Earl of Chester. Richard I later tried much the same thing by insisting that he should be Arthur's guardian, but his subsequent departure on crusade in 1190 allowed Constance more freedom of manouever. Arthur was senr to be raised at the court of Philip II 'Augustus' the king of France, and later formally proclaimed as Duke of Brittany by an assembly of barons and bishops at the age of seven in 1194. In 1196 Richard made an attempt to invade Brittany but was defeated in the following year and soon reached an accomodation with Constance.

How the succession was finally decided

Richard of course, never had a son and on the 6th April 1199 he was mortally wounded while laying siege to Chalus castle in the Limousin. Whilst on his death-bed Richard named his brother John as his successor, preferring the claims of his rather dubious brother over his nephew Arthur who at twelve years of age, might have been regarded as to inexperienced to take on the responsibilites of a king. This in itself was not necessarily sufficient to guarantee John's succession as much depended on what level of support the rival candidates for the throne could command from their often cantankerous and self-serving subjects.

As it happended, John was in Brittany with Constance and Arthur at the time the news of the king's death arrived. Whilst John rushed off to take control of the treasury at Chinon, Constance organised an army, and took control of Angers where an assembly of barons from Anjou and Maine duly declared their support for Arthur. She then attempted to capture John at Le Mans in Maine, but he slipped through her grasp and escaped to Normandy.

Now although Arthur had the support of Brittany, Anjou and Maine, he was regarded with suspicion elsewhere, particularly in England, where he was regarded as too French (his upbringing in the French Court), too young and too much under the influence of his mother. John was therefore able to win the support of the Norman barons and was formally invested as Duke of Normandy at Rouen on the 25th April 1199. He then crossed to England and with the support of William Marshal, (Earl of Pembroke and Marshal of England) and Hubert Walter, the Archbishop of Canterbury he was able to secure the throne and was crowned at Westminster on the 27th May 1199.

Later that same year John was back in France in an attempt to secure the remainder of his Angevin inheritance. The French king tried to insist that John surrender Anjou and Maine to Arthur, but John made his own deal with Arthur and his mother. Accepting as a fait accompli John's position as king, they resigned themselves to a peaceful enjoyment of Brittany. Thus John was able to conclude a treaty with the French; they recognised his rights to Normandy and Aquitaine etc, whilst John recognised Philip II as his feudal overlord in respect of his French possessions.

Although these diplomatic initiatives earned John the nickname of 'Softsword', they represented a fairly sensible resolution to his. difficulties. They allowed John to largely secure the Angevin Empire created by his father and established friendly relations with both his former rival for the crown and Phillip II of France.

How it all fell apart

The trouble began when king John divorced Isabel of Gloucester and then abducted and married Isabella, the heiress of Angoulême on the 24th August 1200. Isabella was already betrothed to a Hugh de Lusignan of Poitou, and Hugh complained to the French king as his ultimate if rather nominal overlord. After some dilpomatic toing and froing, John was eventually summoned to appear before Philip and his refusal to appear led the French king to announce the forfeiture of all John's French fiefdoms.

Arthur, whose mother had died in 1201, and was now at fifteen sole ruler of Brittany, was keen to take advantage of this new opportunity and was soon paying homage to Philip. The French king duly formally recognized Arthur's right to Brittany, and declared him John's successor in Anjou, Maine and Poitou. Such pronouncements were all very well, but they needed to be put into effect by military action. Arthur therefore invaded Poitou, where he could rely on support from the disgruntled Lusignan family. There he was opposed by his grandmother Eleanor of Aquitaine who organised the defence of what was, after all, her family's lands which she had brought to the English crown when she married Henry II.

Initially Arthur got the better of her, and laid siege to Eleanor at the castle of Mirebeau, just north of Poitiers. Arthur was happily engaged in the business of reducing the castle and had his grandmother trapped in the castle keep when John sent an army under the command of one William de Braose to intervene. At the resulting Battle of Mirebeau-en-Poitou on the 1st August 1202 de Braose succeeded in breaking the siege, rescued Eleanor and captured Arthur to boot. The unfortunate Arthur was placed in chains and carried off to Falaise in Normandy.

The Prince in the Tower

Thereafter Arthur disappeared from view, and his precise fate remains unknown.

One man that very likely knew was William de Braose who it was later said was granted the Marcher Lordship of Gower in Wales in February 1203 as an inducement to keep his mouth shut. As the Annals of Margam Abbey were to record;

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 recognized, was taken for secret burial.

This of course, may simply be hearsay, although it is likely recording a tale that emanated from a source linked to de Braose (Margam Abbey lay within Glamorgan which was also held by William between 1203 and 1207.) The general opinion remains that Arthur was indeed killed by, or on John's orders, most likely sometime in April 1203. This was certainly the opinion at the time and the estates of Brittany who met at Vannes later in 1203 called on Philip II to avenge the death of their duke Arthur.

The murder of the young Arthur was to be the last straw as far as many of John's French subjects were concerned. Much of the nobility of Brittany, Anjou and Maine turned against him and even within Normandy he rapidly lost support. By the end of 1204 John had lost Normandy, Anjou and much of Poitou to Phillip II. The loss of Normandy was to have far reaching effects on John's subsequent reign, provoking rebellion in England and resulting in the Great Charter of 1215; arguably this is Arthur's legacy to the world.


SOURCES

  • The 1911 Encyclopedia Brittanica entry for ARTHUR I, DUKE OF BRITTANY
    See http://1911encyclopedia.org/index.htm
  • Richard Cavendish Arthur of Brittany captured: August 1st, 1202 from History Today, August, 2002 at http://www.findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m1373/is_8_52/ai_90164037
  • JOHN (King of England) http://lego70.tripod.com/england/john.htm
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