John’s one remaining chance of holding Philip and the Bretons in check was to keep them in uncertainty whether Arthur were alive or dead.
Continuing Philip Breaks the Angevin Empire,
our selection from John Lackland by Kate Norgate published in 1902. For works benefiting from the latest research see the “More information” section at the bottom of these pages. The selection is presented in six easy 5 minute installments.
Previously in Philip Breaks the Angevin Empire.
Place: Plantagenet lands in France
The effect of this announcement proved at once the wisdom of Hubert and the folly of those to whose counsel John had yielded. The fury of the Bretons became boundless; they vowed never to leave a moment’s peace to the tyrant who had committed such a ghastly crime upon their Duke, his own nephew, and Hubert soon found it necessary, for John’s own sake, to confess his fraud and demonstrate to friends and foes alike that Arthur was still alive and uninjured. John himself now attempted to deal with Arthur in another way. Being at Falaise at the end of January, 1203, he caused his nephew to be brought before him, and “addressed him with fair words, promising him great honors if he would forsake the King of France and cleave faithfully to his uncle and rightful lord.” Arthur, however, rejected these overtures with scorn, vowing that there should be no peace unless the whole Angevin dominions, including England, were surrendered to him as Richard’s lawful heir. John retorted by transferring his prisoner from Falaise to Rouen and confining him, more strictly than ever, in the citadel.
Thenceforth Arthur disappears from history. What was his end no one knows. The chronicle of the Abbey of Margan in South Wales, a chronicle of which the only known manuscript ends with the year 1232, and of which the portion dealing with the early years of John’s reign was not compiled in its present form till after 1221 at earliest, asserts that on Maunday Thursday (April 3, 1203), John, “after dinner, being drunk and possessed by the devil,” slew his nephew with his own hand and tied a great stone to the body, which he flung into the Seine; that a fisherman’s net brought it up again, and that, being recognized, it was buried secretly, “for fear of the tyrant,” in the Church of Notre Dame des Prés, near Rouen. William the Breton, in his poem on Philip Augustus, completed about 1216, relates in detail, but without date, how John took Arthur out alone with him by night in a boat on the Seine, plunged a sword into his body, rowed along for three miles with the corpse, and then threw it overboard. Neither of these writers gives any authority for his story. The earliest authority of precisely ascertained date to which we can trace the assertion that Arthur was murdered was a document put forth by a personage whose word, on any subject whatever, is as worthless as the word of John himself — King Philip Augustus of France. In 1216 — about the time when his Breton historiographer’s poem was completed — Philip affected to regard it as a notorious fact that John had, either in person or by another’s hand, murdered his nephew. But Philip at the same time went on to assert that John had been summoned to trial before the supreme court of France, and by it condemned to forfeiture of all his dominions, on that same charge of murder; and this latter assertion is almost certainly false. Seven months after the date assigned by the Margan annalist to Arthur’s death — in October, 1203 — Philip owned himself ignorant whether the Duke of Brittany were alive or not. Clearly, therefore, it was not as the avenger of Arthur’s murder that Philip took the field at the end of April. On the other hand, Philip had never made the slightest attempt to obtain Arthur’s release; early in 1203, if not before, he was almost openly laying his plans in anticipation of Arthur’s permanent effacement from politics.
[1: According to R. Coggeshall, Philip virtually declared himself still ignorant on the point six months later.]
The interests of the French King were in fact no less concerned in Arthur’s imprisonment, and more concerned in his death, than were the interests of John himself. John’s one remaining chance of holding Philip and the Bretons in check was to keep them in uncertainty whether Arthur were alive or dead, in order to prevent the Bretons from adopting any decided policy, and hamper the French King in his dealings with them and with the Angevin and Poitevin rebels by compelling him to base his alliance with them on conditions avowedly liable to be annulled at any moment by Arthur’s reappearance on the political scene. If, therefore, Arthur — as is most probable — was now really dead, whether he had indeed perished a victim of one of those fits of ungovernable fury in which — and in which alone — the Angevin counts sometimes added blunder to crime, or whether he had died a natural death from sickness in prison, or by a fall in attempting to escape, it would be equally politic on John’s part to let rumor do its worst rather than suffer any gleam of light to penetrate the mystery which shrouded the captive’s fate.
[2. These were the alternative versions proposed by John’s friends, according to M. Paris.]
John’s chance, however, was a desperate one. A fortnight after Easter, 1203, the French King attacked and took Saumur. Moving southward, he was joined by some Poitevins and Bretons, with whose help he captured sundry castles in Aquitaine. Thence he went back to the Norman border, to be welcomed at Alençon by its count, and to lay seige to Conches. John, who was then at Falaise, sent William the Marshal to Conches, to beg that Philip would “have pity on him and make peace.” Philip refused; John hurried back to Rouen, to find both city and castle in flames — whether kindled by accident or by treachery there is nothing to show. Conches was taken; Vaudreuil was betrayed; the few other castles in the county of Evreux which had not already passed, either by cession, conquest, or treason, into Philip’s hands shared the like fate, while John flitted restlessly up and down between Rouen and various places in the neighborhood, but made no direct effort to check the progress of the invader. Messenger after messenger came to him with the same story: “The King of France is in your land as an enemy; he is taking your castles; he is binding your seneschals to their horses’ tails and dragging them shamefully to prison; he is dealing with your goods at his own pleasure.” John heard them all with an unmoved countenance, and dismissed them all with the unvarying reply: “Let him alone! Some day I shall win back all that he is winning from me now.”
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