Arthur of Brittany Captured

Arthur of Brittany was captured on August 1st, 1202.

The first misfortune in Arthur of Brittany’s short life was to be born without a father. He was the posthumous son of Geoffrey Plantagenet, fourth son of Henry II, by Constance, heiress of the Dukes of Brittany. Geoffrey was fatally wounded in a tournament in Paris and the baby was born afterwards, in 1187. The Plantagenets wanted him christened Henry after his grandfather, but Constance named him Arthur for the legendary King Arthur, a name to conjure with among the Bretons. Unfortunately, he had been born into a nest of hornets and he was done no favours when his uncle Richard Coeur de Lion, setting off on crusade in 1190, named Arthur as his heir. This was presumably because a child of three was not likely to be a focus of plots, but the choice was a challenge to Arthur’s other uncle, Richard’s younger brother John. Constance later sent Arthur to be reared in the household of the King of France, Philip II Augustus, who was keeping a shrewd and predatory eye on the situation.

As it happened, John was in Brittany with Constance and Arthur in April 1199 when the word came of the death of Richard, mortally wounded while besieging the castle of Châlus. On his deathbed he had named John his heir, but the rules of inheritance were still fluid and there were genuine doubts about who was the rightful successor. John immediately rode for Chinon, where the Angevin treasury was kept, while Constance sent a Breton army to take control of Angers, in Anjou, where a meeting of barons from Anjou and Maine duly declared for Arthur. The Breton army and a French force marched on Le Mans in Maine and almost caught John, but he got away and retreated to Normandy. There and in England he was accepted as Richard’s successor, though without noticeable enthusiasm.

It was of course in Philip Augustus’s interest to weaken John’s grip on the Plantagenet empire and when he and John met to negotiate in August, Philip demanded Anjou and Maine for Arthur. John declined, but diplomatically made peace with Constance and Arthur, and then signed an agreement with Philip, whom he acknowledged as his overlord for his French possessions. His preference for a peaceful solution earned him the derisive nickname ‘Softsword’.

The agreement recognised that Arthur was his uncle’s vassal for Brittany and the two were still on friendly terms when Constance died in 1201. By then, however, there was trouble for John in Poitou where he had offended the powerful Lusignan family, who rebelled and appealed to Philip Augustus. After complicated manoeuvering on both sides, in 1202 King Philip announced that John had forfeited the Plantagenet fiefs in France. He knighted Arthur and declared him John’s successor in Anjou, Maine and Poitou. Arthur duly did Philip homage and in July he invaded Poitou while Philip attacked Normandy. At the end of the month Arthur and his Poitevin allies were at Mirebeau, north of Poitiers, where they trapped Eleanor of Aquitaine, John’s mother and Arthur’s grandmother, in the castle keep. John’s men stormed the castle at daybreak, rescued the indomitable Eleanor and captured Arthur and two of the Lusignans.

Arthur was seized by William de Braose, lord of Brecon, who delivered him to John. Heavily fettered, he was taken to Normandy and imprisoned at Falaise, where he disappeared from view. Almost certainly, John had him murdered, as was believed at the time. There was a story, which Shakespeare picked up long afterwards, that Hubert de Burgh, in charge at Falaise, refused to obey John’s orders to have the fifteen-year-old boy castrated and blinded, which would have finished him as a rival. According to the tradition in the Braose family, who afterwards fell out with John, Arthur was moved to Rouen, where John killed him in a drunken fury and threw the body into the river. Meanwhile in France matters went from bad to worse for John and by the end of 1204 he had lost Normandy, Anjou and much of Poitou.