Monday 24 August 2015

St Patrick at Glastonbury

The story of Patrick, the Apostle of Ireland, celebrated on 17th March as a national day of Ireland, is well known; as a young man he was kidnapped from Britain and spent years enslaved as a shepherd in Ireland. Patrick eventually escaped and returned to his home before he went back across the sea to convert the Irish to Christianity. It is often said that more information survives on the disputed chronology, his place of birth and his true identity rather than his theology. Two surviving Latin works are now generally accepted to be genuine works of Patrick, namely his letter to Coroticus and the Confessio in which he states his father was named Calpurnius, a deacon, and his grandfather, Potitus, was a priest, who lived at Bannavem Taburniae. The identification of this place varies from the north west of England to Somerset in the south west.1 Patrick's home was nearby and is where he was taken prisoner, at about sixteen years of age. The rest has been completed by legend.

Glastonbury Abbey
The Glastonbury tradition claims Saint Patrick is buried at the Abbey; the Somerset monks, disputing the assertions of Downpatrick, claimed that after Patrick's episcopate in Ireland he retired to Glastonbury Abbey where he became the first Abbot. He is said to have died there and was buried next to the High Altar in the "Old Church.” The feast day of the Glastonbury Patrick is 24th August.

Controversy is no stranger to Glastonbury when it comes to sacred relics said to rest there; the Abbey is famous for the discovery of the remains of King Arthur and his Queen Guinevere in the old cemetery in 1190/91. An event that confirmed the great warrior Arthur was dead and Glastonbury was Avalon.

Much of the Patrick at Glastonbury legend comes from the Charter of St Patrick, described by modern scholars as Glastonbury's most notorious forgery and dated to around the 12th century. Significantly, it was around this time that the development of the legend of St. Joseph of Arimathea at Glastonbury began.

Chronicles and Charters 
The history of Glastonbury Abbey is said to begin with the hand of William of Malmesbury. By 1126 this highly regarded historian of mixed Norman and English descent had already completed two works, Gesta regum Anglorum (Deeds of the Kings of England) and Gesta pontificum (Deeds of the Bishops), during the next few years he wrote the Vita sancti Wulfstani (Life of Saint Wulfstan). William was then invited by the monks of Glastonbury Abbey to write the history of their house to prove the antiquity of the establishment.

William compiled De antiquitate Glastoniensis ecclesiae (Concerning the Antiquity of Glastonbury) between 1129-35, in which he wrote that on the site of the Abbey there stood a church constructed of "wattle and daub” which he called "the oldest church in England," a symbol of the ancientness of Glastonbury's Christianity. By William's time the historical origins of the Old Church (vetusta ecclesia) had been lost but legend claimed it had been built by two early missionaries sent from Rome.

No original copies of  De Antiquitate Glastoniensis Ecclesiae have survived but what we know of its original text is based on large sections that had been transcribed into the Gesta Regis Anglorum. In the second edition of the  Gesta (c.1135) William tells us that Patrick spent thirty-nine years at Glastonbury up to his death and burial there in the year 472, at the age of 111.

The earliest version of the "De Antiquitate" that has come down to us is a 13th century copy heavily interpolated by the Glastonbury monks which adds significant elaboration not present in William's original document. William's book, in its interpolated form, asserts that during the 2nd century, in response to a plea from King Lucius, Pope Eleutherius dispatched the missionaries, Faganus and Deruvianus (Phagan and Deruvius), who came to the island of Britain to preach the Gospel, “as the Charter of St. Patrick and the Deeds of the Britons attest.” And so the legend began.

St Patrick's Charter tells us that he was sent on a mission to Ireland by Pope Celestine. On his return to Britain he came to an isle called Ynswitrin (the British name for Glastonbury) and discovered a church there dedicated to the Virgin, built by 12 disciples of St Philip and St James.

Here he found several brethren well instructed in the Catholic faith. They had followed those saints that Phagan and Deruvian had left there; until the coming of Patrick in the 5th century there was an unbroken succession of twelve hermits living at Glastonbury. They had no leader and were always twelve in number in memory of the twelve companions who first settled at this spot under Joseph of Arimathea.

Patrick choose to dwell with them and they made him their chief. The brethren showed him the writings of St Phagan and St Deruvian, wherein it was contained that the twelve disciples had built the Old Church. The Charter asserts that these 12 disciples were each given pieces of land, the so-called “twelve hides” of Glastonbury.

The twelve hermits whom St Patrick found when he arrived at Glastonbury are named as: Brumban, Hyregaan, Bren Wencreth, Bantommeweng, Adelwalred, Lothor, Wellias, Breden, Swelwes, Hinloernus and Hin. The names do not seem to be of any obvious ancestry; neither Irish, Welsh, nor Saxon. Yet, there may be some correspondence between these names and the names engraved on the larger of the two ancient pyramids of the old cemetery as recorded by William of Malmesbury.2

Glastonbury Tor
The Charter records that Patrick climbs the Tor with brother Wellias and finds a ruined “old oratory” constructed by Phagan and Deruvius in honour of St Michael the archangel, where he finds a volume containing the Acts of Apostles along with Acts and Deeds of St Phagan and St Deruvian. Following a vision Patrick appointed two brethren to be there continually;  two Irish brethren, Arnulf and Ogmar, who had come with Patrick from Ireland were the first to make their humble dwelling at that oratory.

The interpolated version of William's book tells us that Patrick spent the last years of his life at Glastonbury and died there corresponding to the Charter which ends stating the Apostle of the Irish, and the first abbot in the Isle of Avalon, was buried in the Old Church on the right hand of the altar.

Patrick was succeeded as abbot by his own disciple Benignus who had followed him from Ireland. Benignus preferred to lead a solitary life and lived as a hermit on the Somerset Levels near the site of the pre-historic lake dwellings at Meare, visiting the brethren at Glastonbury infrequently.

Later, in the mid-14th century John of Glastonbury produced his Cronica sive Antiquitates Glastoniensis Ecclesie (Chronicle of the Antiquities of the Church of Glastonbury) and elaborated the Glastonbury story even further. John provides further details in his Chronicle about St Patrick's mission to Glastonbury. John tells us that St Patrick, a nephew of St Martin of Tours, was born in Britain in 361. He was abducted at the age of sixteen by Irish pirates subsequently spending six years as a slave to a cruel Irish chieftain called Milchu. After escaping he was then sent back to Ireland in 425 by Pope Celestine I where his mission was to convert the Irish. He returned to Britain on a floating wooden altar, landing at Padstow in Cornwall. In 433 he arrived at Glastonbury and remained there as abbot until his death in 472 when he was buried in a beautiful shrine. The shrine was destroyed in the fire of 1184, his bones were then exhumed and placed in a new shrine covered in gold and silver where they were venerated until the last days of the monastery.

John also produced an imaginative pedigree for King Arthur, claiming that through his mother, was descended from Joseph of Arimathea. John's Cronica appears to be an attempt to bring together all of the available sources regarding Joseph of Arimathea's connection with Glastonbury. In so doing he introduced the Prophecy of Melkin which suggests Joseph is also buried at the Abbey, a claim which resulted in the search for Joseph's body at Glastonbury by John Blome as evidenced by a Royal Writ of 10 June 1345.

It appears that during this time new information on St Patrick was added to William's De Antiquitate in an attempt to confute the claims of Ranulph Higden (d.1364), a monk of the Benedictine abbey of St. Werburg, Chester, in his Polychronicon, which enjoyed considerable popularity, being translated into English in the late 14th century, and printed by William Caxton in the late 15th century. Ranulph argued that the Glastonbury Patrick was a later Irish bishop who died in 863 ending his days at Glastonbury and the saint of the Irish was, as the Irish claimed, buried at Down.3

The Life of St Patrick
In his introduction to De antiquitate William of Malmesbury states that he has written a Life of St Patrick, which is now unfortunately lost to us. However, John Leland, the antiquary of Henry VIII, claimed to have found a copy of two of William's books in the library at Christchurch (Hampshire). William appears to have used material from two Irish sources. The only two items that cannot be traced to these two sources seem to derive directly from Patrick's own writings such as the Confessio.

John of Glastonbury's Cronica includes material from William's De antiquitate with additions from other sources to bring the history of the Abbey up to date. The Cronica includes four passages on St Patrick which corresponds to passages in Leland's summary suggesting that William's Life of Patrick did indeed exist. Leland states he has never found the third book, and although he found two manuscripts of the work in the library at Glastonbury, they too like the Christchurch copy, were also incomplete. William may never have completed the third book but it seems probable that he intended to fill it with material connecting Patrick with Glastonbury.4

Regardless of the later additions by the Glastonbury monks, in his original writings, such as the second edition of the Gesta as we have seen above, William did seem convinced that Glastonbury possessed the majority of Patrick's relics although it is not altogether clear that he actually believed him to have been one of the early abbots. So rich was the Glastonbury collection of relics that William said it presented a “heavenly sanctuary on earth”.

The Irish Connection
Why so many Irish saints feature in the Glastonbury calendars has not been answered by modern scholarship. The Irish were certainly influential in the south west of England during the early 7th century as attested by St Adhelm's letter to Heafrith berating him for yielding to Irish learning. Heafrith has been identified as Ecgfrith who later became abbot of Glastonbury.

In the entry for the year 891 the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle refers to an Irish presence in England as the result of the travels of Irish pilgrims; “Three Gaels came to King Alfred in a boat without any oars from Ireland, which they had left secretly, because they wished for the love of God to be in foreign lands, they cared not where.”

By the 10th century Glastonbury was the centre of a cult of St Patrick and destination for Irish peregrini. As a young boy, Dunstan, perhaps the Abbey's most famous abbot, studied under the Irish monks who were then at Glastonbury. The Life of St Dunstan, written c.1,000 by an author identified simply as 'B' makes particular mention of an Irish community at Glastonbury:

“Irish peregrini, as well as other flocks of the faithful, sought this aforementioned place called Glastonbury with great veneration, especially because of the renown younger Patrick who is said to lie buried in that church.5

Osbern of Canterbury's 11th century Vita S. Dunstani (Life of Dunstan) also makes mention of the  Irish peregrini “who embraced a life of voluntary exile in England, chose Glastonbury for their habitation.6

Then of course there is the tradition that Brigid followed Patrick to Glastonbury. Brigid holds a special association with Glastonbury and is depicted on Saint Michael's tower on the Tor milking a cow. Brigid also appears on the north door of the Lady Chapel in the Abbey ruins in a carved figure and has traditional connections with the Somerset town. According to Giraldus Cambrensis and John of Glastonbury, She visited Patrick at Glastonbury during the 5th century. William of Malmesbury claimed that Brigid stayed at Beckery on the western side of Glastonbury where she founded a small chapel. Near the foot of Wearyall Hill, made famous by Joseph of Arimathea and the legend of the Glastonbury Thorn, is a small hillock known as Bride's Mound. On this mound was a spring known as Saint Bride's Well. Relics, claimed to be Brigid's, including a spindle and a bell, were left at Bride's Mound where the adjacent fields are called “The Brides.

St Brigid on St Michael's Tower, Glastonbury Tor
It seems a community of holy women developed in this area, perhaps inspired by legends of St Brigid. John of Glastonbury states that on Wearyall Hill there was "a monastery of holy virgins" which is also the first reference to a women's community in the area. He then relates a story concerning the visit of King Arthur to Beckery where he had a vision of Mary. As a result of this vision, King Arthur became a Christian and changed his coat of arms from a red dragon to one showing Mary and Child. A similar episode appears in the High History of the Holy Grail.

One suggested meaning for the name “Beckery” is Beag Eire, or Bec-Eriu, "Little Ireland" as found in a charter of Henry II, “Bekeria quae Parva Hibernia dicitur” i.e. Beckery, known as Little Ireland.

It is fairly certain that there was a pre-Conquest Irish community at Glastonbury, but it remains a puzzle as to their attraction to the Somerset town; did they come to Glastonbury because of the tales of St Patrick or did their presence lead to the creation of the traditions?

Two Patricks?
Throughout the Middle Ages and even after William of Malmesbury, considered a reliable historian in his own days, endorsed some of Glastonbury's claims in his now lost Life of St Patrick, there continued to be persistent doubts surrounding the Glastonbury cult of St Patrick.

The Irish had their hagiographical tradition that there had been more than one Patrick many years before William's history was manipulated by the Glastonbury monks. In the 8th century an Irish hymn was composed which stated that “When Patrick departed this life, he went first to the other Patrick: together they ascended to Jesus the Son of Mary.”

The 10th century Clonmacnoise Chronicle records the death of Senex Patricius/Sen Phátric in 457 AD and calls him bishop of the church of Glastonbury. The early 9th century Martyrology of Tallaght lists two Patricks for 24th August; Patrick of Ros Dela and Patrick of  Armagh. Whether, this entry is meant to be the same Patrick, or two individuals, we have no way of knowing, yet it suggests that at this time there was at least a belief in two Bishops Patrick in Irish Provenance. However, some saw this as a misidentification of the apostle of Ireland with the other St Patrick (Sen Phátric) who's feast day fell on 24th August.  Who then was Sen Phátric of Ros Dela? Ros Dela has been identified with Rostalla in Ossory where the elder Bishop Patrick had a localised cult.

The elder Patrick, Sen Phátric, is seen as a probable a reference to Palladius, the Roman deacon sent to Ireland in 431 by Pope Celestine, “who suffered martyrdom at the hands of the Irish, as is the tradition of the holy men of old.” Chronological difficulties in the tradition of St Patrick may have prompted the theory of two Patricks; whether the knowledge of a Patrick of Ossory offered a solution, or whether Palladius was associated with Rostalla, is unknown.7

Two Patricks appear in the kalendar composed in 970, now found in the Leofric Missal. The distinction between the two is made by the grading of the festival day; the elder Patrick, Sen Phátric, commemorated on 24th August had a graded feast, i.e. second rank, whereas Patrick whose feast fell on the 17th March was ungraded. This may suggest that the earlier tradition at Glastonbury concerned Palladius, the elder Patrick (Sen Phátric) but it was later transformed when the monks realised the benefits of possessing the relics of the greater and more prestigious saint, THE Apostle of Ireland.

Yet it seems clear that if indeed Glastonbury held the genuine relics of a Saint Patrick it was those remains of the elder Patrick, Palladius. The Bosworth Psalter, dated to the final quarter of the 10th century, had a calendar added in 988-1012 with Canterbury and Glastonbury saints which records that “Patrick senior rests in glaston”.8 The early 11th century Old English tract 'Secgan be pam Godes sanctum pe on Engla lande ærost reston' (The Resting Places of English Saints) also lists the relics of St Patrick as lying at Glastonbury. However, this fails to answer who the historian Ranulph Higden referred to as a third Patrick, as noted above, an Irish bishop who died in 863 and was buried at Glastonbury?9

In 1942 the Irish scholar T. F. O'Rahilly published a lecture entitled “The Two Patricks”. At the time the work caused enormous controversy by proposing that there had actually been two "Patricks"; Palladius and Patrick. The lecture claimed that what we now know of St. Patrick was in fact in part a conscious effort to blend the two into one hagiographic personality but in fact only confirmed what the Irish had known since the 8th century at least.10

It has been commonly accepted for centuries that Saint Patrick lived in the first half of the 5th century and died in 461. However, following years of debate between scholars it is now generally agreed that Patrick, the Apostle of Ireland was most likely to have been active in the latter half of the 5th century, d.17th March 493. While Palladius, the elder Patrick (also named Patrick Senior/Senex Patricius/Sen Phátric) was active in the earlier part of the century and may, or may not, rest at Glastonbury.11

Copyright © 2015 Edward Watson

Notes & References
1. Harry Jelley, Saint Patrick's Somerset Birthplace: A Serious Study into the Birthplace of Saint Patrick in the Fifth Century, Cary Valley Historical Publications, 1998. See: Harry Jelley, The Birthplace of St. Patrick in Somerset - Vortigern Studies website.
2. James P Carley, Glastonbury Abbey:The Holy House at the Head of the Moors Adventurous, Gothic Image, 1996.
3. John of Glastonbury. The Chronicle of Glastonbury Abbey: An Edition, Translation, and Study of John of Glastonbury's Cronica sive Antiquitates Glastoniensis Ecclesie. Ed. James P. Carley. Tr. David Townsend. Rev. ed. Woodbridge: Boydell, 1985.
4. Clark H. Slover, William of Malmesbury's "Life of St. Patrick", Modern Philology, Vol. 24, No. 1, 1926, pp. 5-20.
5. Carley, Glastonbury Abbey, p.99.
6. A distinctive tradition in the Celtic church across Britain and Ireland was the peregrinatio pro Christo, or "exile for Christ".  The peregrini were in voluntary exile, spending their life in a foreign land far from home, a lifestyle which came to be termed the "white martyrdom". It is a martyrdom in which there is no violent death as opposed to the traditional "red martyrdom" when a Christian is killed for his faith.
7. D.N. Dumville, Patrick senior and junior, pp.59-64, in Dumville and Abrams (eds.), Saint Patrick, AD 493–1993, Studies in Celtic History 13, Boydell, 1993.
8. Matthew Blows, A Glastonbury Obit List in Archaeology and History of Glastonbury Abbey, eds. Lesley Abrams and James P. Carley, Boydell Press, 1991, p.259. See also pp.218-9.
9. Carley, Glastonbury Abbey, p.104.
10. T. F. O'Rahilly, “The Two Patricks”, Institute for Advanced Studies, Dublin, 1942.
11. The Two Patricks and which, if any, is buried at Glastonbury is a complex subject. Interested readers requiring a fuller account are directed to Lesley Abrams, St Patrick and Glastonbury Abbey: nihil ex nihilo fit?, pp.233–242 in: Dumville and Abrams (eds.), Saint Patrick, AD 493–1993,

Photographs © 2015 Edward Watson

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Wednesday 12 August 2015

King Arthur and the Mystery of the Round Table

Mention the Round Table and most will think of the wooden relic hanging on the wall of the Great Hall of Winchester Castle. Yet, there are a multitude of claimants to the title of King Arthur's Round Table ranging from prehistoric earthworks to the 700 year old Winchester table top.

In Caxton's Preface to Thomas Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur he responded to those who doubted Arthur's existence by citing several Arthurian relics as evidence: " may see his sepulchre in the monastery of Glastonbury.... in the castle of Dover ye may see Gawaine’s skull, and Cradok’s mantle: at Winchester the Round Table"

Winchester Round Table
Malory had made Winchester his Camelot, no doubt influenced by the Round Table in the Great Hall there and named his work, appropriately, the last great Arthurian epic, as "The Whole Book of King Arthur and His Noble Knights of the Round Table". Sixteen years later Caxton published his edition in 1485 as "Morte d'Arthur" (The Death of Arthur), naming the work simply after the last book, the title by which most of us are familiar with Malory's work today.

The Winchester as Camelot concept influenced the Tudor monarchs of Malory's time who claimed descent from King Arthur. Henry VII named his firstborn son after the legendary King, with his wife Elizabeth of York compelled to give birth to his heir at Saint Swithun's Priory (now Winchester Cathedral Priory), i.e. Camelot, on 20th September 1486. Arthur was Henry and Elizabeth's eldest child. But the young Arthur never achieved his destiny as King Arthur II; six months after marrying the young Spanish princess Catherine of Aragon, Arthur died on 2nd April 1502, at Ludlow, Shropshire on the Welsh Marches, victim of an unknown ailment.

Caxton didn't seem to agree with Malory, preferring South Wales for Arthur's capital, perhaps following Geoffrey of Monmouth, of which he added, "And yet of record remain in witness of him in Wales, in the town of Camelot, the great stones and the marvellous works of iron lying under the ground, and royal vaults, which divers now living have seen."

It is thought Caxton was referring to the Roman remains at Caerwent or the legionary fortress at Caerleon in South Wales. And here we find another Round Table; the Roman Amphitheatre, which until excavation in 1926, was a circular earthwork enclosing a  grass-covered oval hollow. Recently, in 2010, another City of the Legion, Chester, claimed their amphitheatre was the real Round Table.

Information board at Arthur's Round Table, near Penrith, Cumbria
The Round Table has a remarkable longevity in connection with the Arthurian legend; prehistoric megalithic monuments are named as such. Arthur's Round Table near Penrith in Cumbria is a Neolithic henge, dating from about 2,000 BC. We are told that this ancient earthwork has nothing to do with Arthur - but there are many prehistoric monuments associated with the King.

Often the capstone of a Welsh cromlech is named as Arthur's Table, Bwrdd Arthur. Other ancient sites bearing the same name include an ancient hillfort situated at Llanddona, Anglesey. And then there is the enigmatic earth mound at Stirling, Stirlingshire, known as  King's Knot, or Arthur's Round Table.

Yet, for all these prehistoric monuments that have attracted Arthurian names or associations, the Round Table is entirely absent from the early Welsh poetry of Y Cynfeirdd and even Geoffrey of Monmouth.

It is not until 1155 when the first mention of Arthur's Round Table appears in the "Roman de Brut" of the Norman poet Robert Wace, in what is basically a rewrite of Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia Regum Britanniae. The Chronicle, or Brut, tradition continued with Layamon, a cleric from Worcestershire in England, who produced the first English version of the Arthurian epic and said the Round Table could seat 1600 but was oddly portable. Was Layamon's Round Table a meeting place, or an assembly, that could move around the country?

Further development in Arthurian Romance sees Joseph’s Grail Table at Cardoel, said to have been a prototype for the Round Table, made by Embreis (Merlin). The Round Table passes to Gwenhwyfar's father which Arthur then inherits as her dowry.

The Grail Table
Robert De Boron and the Vulgate Cycle identify Arthur's father, Uther Pendragon, as being responsible for the actual construction of the table, after hearing Merlin's tales of St. Joseph of Arimathea and the Grail Table. The table of the Grail stories has twelve seats and one empty place to mark the betrayal of Judas, known as the 'Siege Perilous,' but in Merlin's table the seat was reserved for the most pure of knights who would sit there after attaining the Grail.

The Winchester Round Table has been dated to 1250–1280, during the reign of Edward I, an Arthurian enthusiast. The current paintwork was done by order of Henry VIII during the first quarter of the 16th century. As we have seen the table at Winchester was inspirational to Thomas Malory and believed to have been a genuine historical relic in his day.

In the next few posts we will explore some of these concepts of Arthur's Round Table in greater detail.

Copyright © 2015 Edward Watson

King Arthur's Round Table Eamont Bridge, Cumbria

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Saturday 1 August 2015

The Disappearance of Arthur, Duke of Brittany

The Princes in the Tower
After the discovery of Richard III's remains in 2012, the re-interment at Leicester Cathedral in March 2015 was attended by the Archbishop of Canterbury and senior members of other Christian denominations along with members of the Royal family. Calls for a full state funeral for the last of the Plantagenet kings, a dynasty who had ruled England since the accession of Henry II in 1154, culminating in re-burial at Westminster Abbey, were rejected.

A dark cloud persists over Richard's rise to power and his brief reign. Shakespeare portrayed him as the hunchback King, a villain who murdered his way to the throne. The Elizabethan playwright refers to the legend of the 'Princes in the Tower', the disappearance of his young nephews and rivals to his throne.

Richard, then Duke of Gloucester, was appointed to look after his nephews, 12-year-old Edward V and his 10-year-old brother Richard, the only sons of Edward IV of England.  As Lord Protector he was to prepare the young Edward for his coronation as king. However, Richard took the throne for himself and the boys disappeared without trace in the Tower of London in 1483.

The mysterious disappearance of the Princes in the Tower tends to overshadow a similar story of the disappearance of a young Plantagenet Prince two hundred and eighty years earlier. The disappearance of the 16 year old Prince Arthur, Duke of Brittany, in 1203 by his uncle King John who seized the throne.

Our story begins with the death of Richard I, “the Lionheart", (Coeur de Lion) in 1199.

A Family at War
Richard was the second eldest son of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine. Richard had joined his family in a rebellion against their father, the King, in 1173. Eleanor is suspected of manipulating her sons, Henry, Richard, Geoffrey to revolt against their father; the three brothers made an oath at the French court that they would not make terms with Henry II. The youngest son, John, was only five years old at the time and remained in England. In 1183 the elder brother Henry died, leaving Richard heir to the throne. King Henry II wanted to give Aquitaine to his youngest son, John but Richard refused and, in 1189, joined forces with Philip II of France against his father, pushing him to a premature death in July of that year.

Prompted by Saladin's capture of Jerusalem in 1187, Richard 'took the cross' and finally departed for the Holy Land  in 1190. On his return from Crusade he spent the last five years of his reign, 1194-99, in intermittent warfare against his former ally Philip II. While besieging the castle of Châlus in central France he was hit in the neck by a crossbow bolt and the wound became infected. He died on 6 April 1199 and was buried at Fontevraud near his father. Richard's death gave his younger brother John opportunity to grasp power, but he would not find it easy to gain control of his father's empire.

John attempted to claim the Angevin treasure and the castle at Chinon to install his power. But, in the local custom, the son of an older brother was preferred as claimant to the throne. Arthur, son of Geoffrey of Brittany, was recognised as the heir thus depriving John of the Angevins' ancestral land.

Prince Arthur was the son of Constance of Brittany and Geoffrey Plantagenet, Duke of Brittany, the brother of Kings Richard and John, and third son of Henry II, younger than Richard but older than John. In August 1186 Geoffrey died in a jousting accident leaving his wife Constance with two young daughters and pregnant with a third child. In the following March Constance gave birth to a son, Arthur. One of Arthur’s sisters, Maud, died in early childhood while his other sister, Eleanor, was known as the Fair Maid of Brittany.

When King Richard the Lionheart left for the Crusades in 1190 he designated the young Arthur as heir to the throne of England and the English held French territories should Richard not return. In 1196 Richard again named Arthur as his heir. However, on his deathbed in 1199, Richard is claimed to have changed his mind and declared his younger brother John as his heir, apparently fearful that Arthur, at just 12 years old, was too young to become king.

John's rule was limited to Normandy and England; he was made Duke in April 1199 in Rouen, Normandy, and later crowned as King of England in May at Westminster Abbey. He left his mother, Eleanor, controlling Aquitaine. Consequently, support for the two heirs to the Angevin throne was divided with the majority of the English and Norman nobility supporting John’s claim, while the French supported Arthur’s; it wasn't long before war broke out between John and Arthur.

John went to Normandy to negotiate a truce with Philip II. William des Roches, a strong supporter of the king and protector of Arthur, switched allegiance and handed over Arthur to John. Yet, Arthur managed to escape and join Philip II's court. At this time many French nobles decided to join the crusade in 1199 and deserted John's court. John's dominant position was short-lived and he had no option but to accept the Treaty of Le Goulet in 1200 in which Philip II was confirmed over the lands he had taken in Normandy joined by further concessions in Auvergne and Berry. John was recognised at the head of Anjou.

Arthur with his Lusignan allies attacked Poitou, while Philip II attacked Normandy and captured many castles on the frontier. John was in Le Mans at this time and moved south. However, John's fortune was to change in 1202. On 1st August that year John's forces took Arthur by surprise, capturing him and along with Hugh X of Lusignan and 200 French knights. Arthur was imprisoned in the Chateau de Falaise in Normandy, the birthplace of William the Conqueror, Duke of Normandy.

Chateau de Falaise (Wikimedia commons)
The Mystery of Arthur's Disappearance
At Chateau de Falaise Arthur was guarded by Hubert de Burgh. According to the chronicle of Ralph of Coggeshall, John issued orders for Arthur's jailers to blind and castrate him but Hubert refused to let the young prince be mutilated.

The following year, Arthur was transferred to Rouen Castle and subsequently vanished in April 1203. Arthur's disappearance gave rise to various stories; one was that Arthur's jailers feared to harm him, and so he was murdered directly by King John and his body dumped in the Seine. The Margam Annals provide the following account of Arthur's death:

"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 ['ebrius et daemonio plenus'], 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, in fear of the tyrant, to the priory of Bec called Notre Dame de Pres."

Following Arthur's disappearance William de Braose rose in John's favour and was awarded new lands and titles in the Welsh Marches; de Braose was obviously suspected of complicity in Arthur's disappearance. Many years later de Braose fell out of favour and came into conflict with King John, his wife Maud directly accused John of murdering Arthur. Subsequently, Maud and her eldest son were imprisoned in Corfe Castle in Dorset and allegedly starved to death. William de Braose fled to France where he is claimed to have published a statement on what happened to Arthur but no copy has survived.

Arthur's sister Eleanor, the Fair Maid of Brittany, was imprisoned by John in 1202 and kept under house-arrest until her death in 1241. Her imprisonment has been referred to as the ‘most unjustifiable act of King John’ after she spent some thirty years or so in confinement in various Castles in England.

End of an Empire
King John's complicity in Arthur's death is seen as the major single cause of the dismembership of the Angevin Empire, originally established by Henry II of England, Count of Anjou and Duke of Normandy, during the late 12th and early 13th centuries. The lands of the House of Plantagenet extended over roughly half of medieval France, all of England, and parts of Ireland and Wales, an area stretching from the Pyrenees to Ireland.

King John was defeated in the Anglo-French War (1202–14) by Philip II of France which left the empire split in two, with John losing many French provinces, including Normandy and Anjou. By the time King John and Philip II finally agreed to a truce in 1206, the "Angevin Empire" had been reduced to only Gascony, Ireland, and England.

Curiously, following the disappearance of Arthur Duke of Brittany and the later death of Arthur Prince of Wales, the eldest son of Henry VII and elder brother of Henry VIII, in 1502 of a mystery illness, no one of that name has ever survived to become king; "King Arthur" uniquely refers to the one and only legendary Dark Age leader of battles who rallied the Britons during the onslaught of the Anglo-Saxon invaders.

Copyright © 2015 Edward Watson

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