Archive for January, 2010

The Surprising Lionheart

Sunday, January 31st, 2010

It is a snowy, bitterly-cold day, and this seems like a good time to do some blogging before I have to get back to the siege of Acre, where the city has finally fallen to the crusaders.  It is a relief to be able to use that term.  It was not known during the MA; they called it “taking the cross” or “pilgrimage,” the latter term certainly at odds with the modern understanding of pilgrimages!  But as I discovered when I sought to avoid it in dialogue, it is such a convenient shorthand, much more concise than “taking the cross.” 

      My blog topics seem to range all over the place, though I prefer the term “eclectic” rather than “scattershot” or “haphazard.”  Today I thought that I’d actually talk about

my new book for a change.  More specifically, Richard Coeur de Lion, for while he is

 not the only character, he does tend to dominate whenever he is on center stage—typical Angevin. 

       I’ll start by admitting that Richard was never one of my favorite kings.  I did not do much research about him for Here Be Dragons as he was a very minor character.  The impression I had was of a man who was arrogant, ruthless, a first-rate soldier and battle commander, an ungrateful son, and a neglectful king, and that is the Richard who makes a brief appearance in Dragons.   It was not until I began to do some serious research for Time and Chance and then Devil’s Brood and now Lionheart that a different Richard began to emerge.  

         In some ways, this Richard conformed to my earlier conception of the man.  He was indeed hot-tempered and arrogant and could be utterly ruthless.  He was so astonishingly reckless that it is almost miraculous he managed to live to be forty-two.  And he was, plain and simple, a military genius. 

      What else was he?   Well, I no longer agree with the infamous verdict of the 19th century historian, William Stubbs, that he was “a bad son, a bad husband, a bad king.”  I think he can fairly be acquitted of two of those three damning charges.    Although Henry II remains one of my favorite historical figures, I think Richard and Geoffrey had very legitimate grievances and I place much of the blame for their estrangement at Henry’s door.  He played fast and loose with two-thirds of Geoffrey and Constance’s rightful inheritance and never understood why they resented his machinations and broken promises.   And he made several dreadful mistakes with Richard—trying to take Aquitaine away from him and then using the crown as bait, refusing to confirm Richard’s rightful status as his heir and attempting to blackmail him into obedience.  His worst failings as a father—even more so than his blatant favoritism—were his attempts to play one son off against another, as when he used Geoffrey to bring Richard to heel, and was then shocked that an embittered and disillusioned Geoffrey would look to the French court for aid.  Sadly, he did not learn from this mistake, either, for he then sought to manipulate Richard by making him fear that John might be chosen if he did not surrender Aquitaine.  I bled for Henry, dying betrayed and brokenhearted at Chinon, but he brought so much of that grief upon himself. 

      We had an interesting discussion recently on my Facebook page about going back in time and the ethics of changing what had already occurred.   Well, I would be seriously tempted to get Henry to abandon the toxic advice he’d supposedly gotten from his mother about the best way to handle men.  According to a contemporary writer, Walter Mapp, she taught him to “keep in suspense those who were high in hope,” for “An untamed hawk, when raw flesh is often offered to it, and then withdrawn or hidden from it, becometh more greedy and is more ready to obey and to remain.”   We cannot know if this is actually true, of course.    But Henry does seem to have applied the training of his hawks to his sons, too, and the consequences were disastrous.

          Nor was Richard a bad king.  Historians today give him much higher marks than the Victorians did.   There is an excellent discussion of how Richard’s reputation has ebbed and flowed over the centuries in The Reign of Richard Lionheart by Ralph Turner and Richard Heiser, called “Richard in Retrospect.”   They astutely state that “Richard’s reputation is tied directly to the value structures of the historians writing about him”  and point out how anachronistic it is to fault him for spending so little time in England.  It was only part of the Angevin “empire,” but Victorian historians seemed unable to grasp this concept.  Turner and Heiser also remind us that warfare was a medieval king’s vocation and Richard was caught up in a bitter war with the French king, Philippe. The irony is that the very aspects of his reign that some historians have criticized—his participation in the Third Crusade and his military successes—were what his subjects most admired.   By the standards of his time, he was a successful king, and historians now take that into consideration in passing judgment upon him.

        So…was he a bad husband, though?   It is difficult not to conclude that he was.  What I find most interesting about their marriage is that he went to great lengths to take Berengaria with him on crusade, an experience that must have been shocking for a young woman of sheltered upbringing, but then spent little time with her during the last five years of his life, even though he still lacked an “heir of the body.”  So what caused this change and their apparent estrangement?  I have my own ideas about the reasons, but you’ll have to wait to read about them in Lionheart J 

       What surprised me the most about the Richard that my research revealed?  I had not realized that his health was so uncertain.  He apparently suffered from an ailment that may have been chronic malaria and nearly died twice in the Holy Land from illnesses.  Once I learned that he was so often ill, it makes his battlefield exploits all the more remarkable.  Much of what he accomplished seems to have been done by sheer force of will; for example, after nearly dying of the mystery malady “Arnaldia” at the siege of Acre, he had himself carried out to the front lines on a “silken quilt” so that he could oversee the assault and shoot his crossbow at the enemy garrison up on the city walls.

       I was very surprised to discover that this man, almost insanely reckless with his own safety, was very cautious when it came to the lives of his men.  A fascinating paradox there, but one which goes far toward explaining why he was loved by his soldiers, who seemed willing to “wade in blood to the pillars of Hercules if he so desired,” according to the chronicler Richard of Devizes.  He also showed a strong sense of responsibility toward the men under his command.  The chroniclers often mention how he took measures to see to their safety and comfort, and once when his friends tried to convince him not to go to the rescue of knights greatly outnumbered by their Saracen foes, he responded, “I sent those men there.  If they die without me, may I never again be called a king.”   He then spurred his stallion into the fray and once again won against all odds—as he did time and time again until an April evening before the walls of Chalus. 

     I’d known that Richard, like all of Henry and Eleanor’s sons, was well educated, able to crack jokes in Latin, and a poet in two languages, French and the lenga romana of Aquitaine, what we know as Occitan.  Almost by accident, I discovered just how well- read he really was.  One of the chroniclers reported that when his friends had chided him for taking such risks with his life, he’d laughed and jested about changing his nature with a pitchfork.  I thought this was interesting, giving us a glimpse of his personality.  But recently I happened upon a proverb from Horace, “You may drive nature out with a pitchfork but it will still return.”   I admit it, I was impressed.  

      Richard’s sardonic sense of humor was another surprise.  I knew about his quip when he was taken to task for his exorbitant efforts to raise money for the crusade, that he’d have sold London if he could find a buyer.  And I knew, too, about his celebrated response to the preacher who’d dared to scold him for his three “daughters,”  Pride, Avarice and Sensuality; he quickly replied that he’d given his “daughters’ away in marriage, Pride to the Templars, Avarice to the Cistercians, and Sensuality to the Benedictines.   Baha al-Din, one of Saladin’s chroniclers, reported that he habitually employed a half-joking conversational style, so it wasn’t always easy to tell if he was serious or not.  He clearly inherited his father’s flair for sarcasm.  He was a bitter foe of Philippe’s cousin, the Bishop of Beauvais, a prelate better known for his prowess on the battlefield than for his preaching.  After the bishop had been captured by Richard, the Pope rebuked him for imprisoning a “son of the Church.”  Richard reputedly sent the Pope the bishop’s bloodied mail hauberk, with the comment, “Here is your son’s shirt.”

        He had good reason for loathing Beauvais, who had convinced the Holy Roman Emperor, Heinrich VI, that Richard should be treated harshly in order to break his spirit.  This surprised me, too–that for part of his captivity in Germany, he was actually kept in shackles, or as he himself later put it, “loaded down with chains so heavy that a horse would have struggled to move.”  German and English chroniclers and a letter by Peter of Blois confirm that he was indeed treated in a very unkingly manner while kept at Trifels Castle.  Perhaps that shouldn’t have surprised me so much, for Heinrich displayed a capacity for cruelty that I’ve rarely encountered in my readings about the MA.  Both Richard and Philippe were capable of being quite merciless upon occasion, but neither man could begin to compete with Heinrich in that dubious department.  When he seized power in Sicily, he dealt savagely with the Sicilians, had the former king, a child of four, taken from his mother and sent to captivity in Germany where he died soon afterward; one report said the little boy was castrated and blinded. Such was his reputation that the Duke of Austria, Richard’s initial captor, handed him over to Heinrich only “on condition he would suffer no harm to his body.”  

        What else surprised me about Richard?  That his greatest fame was as a crusader and yet he showed himself to be quite interested in Saracen culture.  In the words of Baha al-Din, “He had made friends with several of the elite mamlukes and had knighted some of them,” and he was willing to deal with the Muslims as he would have dealt with Christian foes, via negotiation and even a marital alliance.  That some of the more unlikely legends about him turned out to be true.    That notwithstanding my favorite film, The Lion in Winter, there is no real evidence that he preferred men to women as sexual partners and some evidence to the contrary.   That he may have had a second son.   Above all, that the more I learned about this man of so many contradictions, the more I could see him as the son most like Henry, surely the ultimate irony.  

       Well, those are my thoughts about Coeur de Lion.   Here is my question of the day.  Who would you choose as your favorite ruler?   And your least-favorite?   You are not restricted to the MA, and we are not necessarily talking about “great” kings or queens, though you can certainly add them to the list.  For me, it would be a dead-heat between Henry II and Llywelyn Fawr, with Charles II coming in third, and then the Yorkist kings, Edward IV and Richard III, Eleanor of Aquitaine, Llywelyn ap Gruffydd, Elizabeth Tudor,  and Owain Glyn Dwr, not necessarily in that order.   

       Lastly, I am delighted to be able to post here a fascinating article by Malcolm Craig, Proving Matilda, in which he sets forth his evidence for the existence of a second daughter for Geoffrey and Constance.  Thank you so much for agreeing to share this with us, Malcolm.


January 31, 2010


Proving Matilda

Sunday, January 31st, 2010

My senior thesis at Harvard (1967) was a study of the brief career of Geoffrey, duke of Brittany from 1181 to 1186.  He ruled Brittany iure uxoris, through his marriage to Duchess Constance, heiress of Duke Conan IV.  Two children of Geoffrey by Constance are well known.  Arthur, Geoffrey’s posthumous son, was captured by his uncle, King John, at Mirebeau in August 1202.  Arthur never emerged from captivity, and he was probably murdered at the beginning of April 1203, aged 16.  His sister Eleanor was also captured at Mirebeau.  She lived on in custody in England until her death in 1241.  From my work on the senior thesis, I knew that Ralph de Diceto, Opera Historica, had said that Geoffrey left two daughters and that Dom Gui Alexis Lobineau, in his Histoire de Bretagne published in 1707, had identified the second daughter as “Mathilde.”  I kept this information in the back of my mind.


In October 1973, my wife and I traveled to France, where I spent the better part of a year doing research under a French Government Fellowship.  We lived in Brittany, in the city of Rennes.  It was there, in January 1974, that I came across the charter, published by the 19th century Breton historian Arthur de la Borderie, that provided proof of the existence of the second daughter, Matilda.  This charter records a confirmation and donation by Duchess Constance to the abbey of Saint-Gildas de Rhuys in May 1189.  The donation was made for the salvation (“pro salute”) of the soul of the duchess and the souls of her father Conan, her husband Geoffrey, and her daughter Matilda.


When we visited London in February 1974, Allys and I had lunch with Pofessor and Mrs. Martin Havran near the British Museum.  I told Professor Havran, who had been on my Ph.D. orals committee at the University of Virginia, about my recent discovery.  He suggested that I write an article and submit it to the Bulletin of the Institute of Historical Research, whose editor he knew well.  In order to substantiate the validity of my proof of the existence of the second daughter of Geoffrey and Constance, I needed to examine the original document, if it existed, or the copy or copies upon which its publication was based.  Now French friends helped me out. Francis and Anne-FranVoise Le Breton, from whom we rented our apartment in Rennes, loaned us one of their automobiles.  In early May, we drove to Vannes, and I visited the Archives du Morbihan, where there were two copies of the charter, made circa 1300 and in 1664.  The director of the Archives, Mlle FranVoise Mosser, was very helpful to me. 


There was a third (17th century) copy of the charter at the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris.  After an exchange of correspondence, I was invited to visit the contemporary Breton historian, Hubert Guillotel, at his parents’ country house, north of Rennes.  In late May, I drove (in a Le Breton car again) to the former abbey of la Vieuville, near the village of Épiniac.  Robert Guillotel had bought the ruined monastery in 1938 (before son Hubert was born) to save it from demolition.  M. and Mme Guillotel and their historian son were gracious hosts, and Hubert agreed to meet me at the Bibliothèque Nationale on June 12.  The Guillotels told me that writing to the B.N. would be a waste of time.  Allys and I spent two days in Paris on our way back to the States, then another day in Luxembourg before catching our flight on Air Bahamas.  Sure enough, Hubert was there to greet me and guide me through the B.N.’s less-than-friendly bureaucracy.  I worked in the manuscript room that afternoon (closed at 5 P.M.), then all day on the 13th.  Besides the third copy of the charter, I was able to examine other documents that were relevant to my research.  On the evening of the 12th, Hubert walked back to our hotel with me and met Allys, who had missed out on the trip to la Vieuville.


After working on Cape Cod in the summer of 1974, we were back at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville in September.  After examining relevant published material, I wrote my draft of the article.  True to his word, Professor Havran helped me submit the draft to the BIHR, and it was accepted for publication.  Entitled “A Second Daughter of Geoffrey of Brittany,” it was finally published in 1977, in volume L, on pages 112 to 115.  By that time, we had returned to Tallahassee, where Allys had begun work on her M.F.A. in Art.  In 1999, the charter that proves the existence of Matilda of Brittany was published in a new edition by Judith Everard and Michael Jones, The Charters of Duchess Constance of Brittany and her Family, 1171-1221, charter number C20.


As a sad footnote, I have discovered through the Internet that Hubert Guillotel died in June 2004, ten days short of his 63rd birthday, much too soon.  I had corresponded with M. Guillotel into the early 1980s, when my active academic work ended with a full-time job and growing family responsibilities.     





Demon Spawn is Dead

Thursday, January 14th, 2010

     I am sorry it has taken me so long to post this new blog, but life has gotten very chaotic in the past month.  My beloved German Shepherd, Cody, has been waging a gallant but inevitably losing battle against old age, and he took a sudden turn for the worse just before Christmas.  It was touch and go for a while, but I am happy to report that he has rallied dramatically after getting a cortisone shot.  It now looks as if he ought to have more good days ahead of him; I can’t be sure of his exact age because he was a rescue, but he has to be about eleven, which is old for such a big dog.  The curious and my fellow dog lovers can admire him on my website—the George Clooney of canines, without a doubt.

       Then I was ill for a while, and just when life seemed about to get back to normal, Demon Spawn struck again.  This is the computer once known as Merlin, a truly evil entity.  My friend Lowell, who is to computers what Mozart is to music, rebuilt Demon Spawn just before I left for France, and then I had to do it a second time, under his patient tutelage, in November.   But his links to the Dark Side were apparently too strong to resist and all of my threats were for naught; I’d taken to whistling “When the Macs come marching in” whenever I rebooted, in hopes of reminding him of the precariousness of his position, to no avail.   This last crash was a fatal one; he will not be mourned.  Fortunately I’d set up my back-up  computer downstairs at Christmas when Cody could no longer climb the stairs to my office, and I am now able to work on it.  Lowell thinks that Demon Spawn can still be rehabilitated, possibly via a new hard drive, but then he believes no computers are beyond redemption.   As for me, I have always joked that Mac users sound like a cult, but I think it is one I am almost ready to join.   Any Mac users out there—feel free to weigh in.  The response on my Facebook page was overwhelmingly positive; it seems that Mac users love their computers as much as Cody loves ice cream.

        Again, apologies for taking so long to hold the drawing.  The winner is Mike, who posted on December 22nd.   If you send me your address, I will put a signed copy of the British edition of Devil’s Brood in the mail for you.   I have already responded to a number of your comments for the Holiday Giveaway blog, but for those I’ve missed, I’ll catch up in the next blog.  This one is going to be rather brief, at least by my standards, because I wanted to get it up ASAP.   

        I would urge all of you to go to my Facebook Fan Club page when you get a chance; you do not have to belong to Facebook to access it.   Readers have been posting some of the most spectacular photos I’ve ever seen, mostly of Wales, but some of France, too.  There are breathtaking shots of Dolwyddelan Castle in the snow and of the haunting ruins of Dolbadarn Castle.  There are also wonderful photos of Fontevrault Abbey and the effigies of Henry, Eleanor, and Richard.  Here is the link.

        I am glad to report that all of the recent chaos has not affected Lionheart.  In fact, I just finished a key chapter at the siege of Acre, where the mystery malady Arnaldia rears its ugly head.  This struck down both Richard and the French king, Philippe, soon after Richard’s arrival.   Philippe had a milder case, but Richard came very close to death.  When he was finally on the mend, he had himself carried out to the siege on “a silken quilt” so he could fire his crossbow at the Saracen garrison up on the city walls.  That is interesting because crossbows were not a weapon ever used by the highborn back in England or France, but apparently the rules were different in the Holy Land.  What is fascinating about Arnaldia is that it defies diagnosis after 819 years; we simply don’t know what this ailment was.  The chroniclers report that men ran a high fever, suffered great pain in their joints, lost their hair and nails.  It has sometimes been suggested that it was scurvy, but that does not fit, especially for Richard, as he’d just spent a month in Cyprus, where he’d had access to a very healthy diet.  Other suggestions include typhoid fever, which seems more likely to me.   Several people with impeccable medical connections have promised to see if they can solve this mystery at long last; I will let you  know if there are any developments.

       This message now is for Steve and the young woman who wants to study in Wales and asked me for book recommendations.  Both of your e-mails were lost when Demon Spawn spiraled down into the dark.  So if you see this, as I hope you do, please e-mail me again.  This is true, too, for anyone who e-mailed me in the first week of the new year.

       We had a very interesting discussion recently on my Facebook page when an Australian friend, Fiona Scott-Doran, posted an intriguing question:  If you had the power to go back in time, would you act to change history?    This proved to be fascinating, with a split between the “activists” and those who would follow Star Trek’s Prime Directive never to interfere.   As for me, my head would tell me not to “meddle,” but I think I would have found the temptation to be irresistible.  So…that is my question for you all until I get the next blog up.   If you could go back in time, what would you do?  And if you are in the “activist” camp, what events in the MA would you like to change and why? 

January 14, 2010