10 December, 2015

The Fieschi Letter, Edward II's Movements in 1326, and Manuele Fieschi

Probably in the late 1330s, a papal notary named Manuele Fieschi, who was appointed bishop of Vercelli in 1343, wrote a letter to Edward III explaining how his father Edward II had escaped from Berkeley Castle in September 1327.  Edward, the letter explains, went to Corfe Castle in Dorset until he heard that his half-brother the earl of Kent had been executed (on 19 March 1330) for attempting to free him from there.  The former king subsequently went to Ireland until the execution of Roger Mortimer (on 29 November 1330), then travelled through France to Avignon to spend time with Pope John XXII and ultimately, after passing through Paris, Brabant, Cologne and Milan, ended up at the hermitage of Sant'Alberto di Butrio in Lombardy, northern Italy.  He met Manuele Fieschi and told him his story (to what purpose, and why he trusted him enough to reveal his real identity, is one of the many questions raised by the letter).  You can see the Latin original text of the letter and the English translation on the Auramala Project website; please take the time to have a look.  There are numerous other posts about the letter on their site.

Much has been written about the Fieschi Letter; see for example Ian Mortimer's Medieval Intrigue, Edward III: The Perfect King and The Greatest Traitor; Seymour Phillips' Edward II; and Roy Martin Haines' King Edward II and Death of a King.  In this post I just want to express some of my (possibly random and disjointed) thoughts on the letter.  It ended up in a French archive, where it was discovered in the late 1870s; for a plausible reason how this may have come about, see here on the Auramala Project page (they have a few other posts on this subject too).  Some people assume the letter must be a later fake, but there are really no grounds for believing this.  Edward II's academic biographer Seymour Phillips does not believe that Edward survived past 1327, but is sure of the authenticity of the Fieschi Letter and that it is a genuine fourteenth-century document.

The Fieschi Letter refers to the man Manuele met and spoke to as 'your father', i.e. Edward III's father; it doesn't say 'the man claiming to be your father' or 'the man who says he is your father'.  There is nothing in the letter to suggest that Manuele Fieschi thought the man he met was anyone other than Edward II.  And even if, as some modern writers claim, Manuele was taken in by a clever impostor - a man pretending for some nefarious reason to be the late king of England, or a man suffering from a delusion that he was Edward II and genuinely believed that he was - Manuele's acceptance of him as Edward II does at the very least imply that there was some doubt in Europe as to whether Edward had died in 1327 or not.  If Manuele Fieschi had known for absolutely certain that Edward II had died in 1327, he would never have been taken in by an impostor.  Imagine someone going round Europe claiming to be Edward I after his death, or Edward III.  This would never have worked; everyone knew these kings were dead.  And Manuele didn't just hem and haw and think 'Hmmm, that's weird and interesting' and then do nothing about it.  He wrote a letter to no less a person than the king of England.  (Just to be clear, we can't prove for absolute certain that Edward III in fact received the letter, as his copy of it has never been found.)  Imagine what an unbelievably foolish crank Manuele would have looked in the eyes of one of the most powerful men in Europe if he'd written him a letter explaining how his father had survived Berkeley Castle, but Edward III knew as a sure, certain fact that his father had indeed died there, having seen his face after death and been able to identify him beyond a shadow of a doubt.  The very existence of the Fieschi Letter implies at the very least that a) Manuele Fieschi wasn't sure whether the king of England had died in 1327 at all, and b) that he had reason to believe Edward III wasn't sure whether his father had died either.  So whether you believe Edward II was alive after 1327 or not, there's surely something to the story.

One very important thing to bear in mind about Manuele is that he wasn't a humble, ignorant, illiterate, credulous peasant who never set foot outside his small Italian village and who could have been easily duped into thinking some random man he met was the former ruler of a distant kingdom he knew nothing about.  He came from a powerful noble family, the Fieschi, which produced two thirteenth-century popes and seventy-two cardinals, and also exercised considerable secular influence in Genoa and across much of northern Italy.  Manuele was a lawyer, to Pope John XXII and his successor Benedict XII, no less.  Some English writers act as though 'papal notary' means nothing, as though Manuele was a minor clerk sitting in a dusty office with dozens or hundreds of other minor clerks, basically just a pen-pusher.  The pope only had five notaries (thanks to Ivan Fowler of the Auramala Project for this info), and Manuele was one of them.  He held benefices in England - he was a canon of York, for example - and although he may never actually have visited the country, it wasn't a place he knew nothing about.  His first cousin Percivalle Fieschi was bishop of Brescia then bishop of Tortona, he himself became bishop of Vercelli in 1343, his second cousin once removed Luca became a cardinal in 1300, and the Fieschi men who didn't enter the Church were counts of Lavagna.  Cardinal Luca and his brothers and nephews were kinsmen of Edward I and II and always acknowledged as such, and Luca and Edward II corresponded on occasion.  They met in person and spent time together in York in 1317 when John XXII sent Luca and another cardinal to England to negotiate between Edward and Robert Bruce.  Accompanying Luca on that visit, one of the members of his retinue, was his kinsman Percivalle Fieschi, who therefore saw Edward II.  Percivalle knew first-hand what Edward II looked like.  Percivalle was Manuele's first cousin.  Percivalle in Tortona was very near the hermitage of Sant'Alberto di Butrio, where Manuele told Edward III his father ended up (see map below), and in fact it lay in his diocese.  In the 1330s when Edward II would have been at Sant'Alberto, the owner of the castle of Oramala, in the same valley (the Staffora valley) as the hermitage, was Cardinal Luca Fieschi's nephew Niccolo Malaspina.  It was well within Manuele's power to check the identity of the man he met presenting himself as Edward II, by the simple expedient of asking his own first cousin just down the road.  It's also possible that Manuele himself saw Edward in England during his reign and thus would have been able to recognise him himself, but not certain.  He knew other men well who would have recognised Edward of Caernarfon, including his kinsman Cardinal Luca Fieschi, who was alive until January 1336, and there was also Luca's nephew Niccolo Malaspina at nearby Oramala.  At any rate, the idea that a man of Manuele's calibre, a highly-born and well-connected lawyer of the pope himself, would go off and tell the king of England that his father was alive if the story was nonsense, when the man's identity was so easy for him to check with his own family never mind anyone else, is absurd.




At least one modern writer has claimed that Manuele was trying to blackmail Edward III so that the English king would give him more benefices in England.  Again we run into the problem that blackmail could only possibly have worked, and Manuele knew that it could only possibly have worked, if there was some doubt in Edward III's mind as to whether his father was really dead or if he knew that he wasn't.  Blackmail only works if there is something someone wishes or needs to be kept secret.  And besides, to suggest that Manuele Fieschi of all people needed to blackmail anyone for influence or position is frankly also absurd.

The good people of the Auramala Project in Pavia, linked above, are doing great work on the Fieschi Letter and are painstakingly searching Italian archives in the hope of finding confirmation of its narrative.  This is important work, and I'm so thrilled that they're doing it.  As for what the letter says about Edward II's movements prior to his alleged escape from Berkeley Castle, which is far more in my own line of work, here it is (translation from the Auramala Project site):

"First he says that feeling England in subversion against him, afterwards on the admonition of your mother, he withdrew from his family in the castle of the Earl Marshal by the sea, which is called Chepstow. Afterwards, driven by fear, he took a barque with lords Hugh Despenser and the Earl of Arundel and several others and made his way by sea to Glamorgan, and there he was captured, together with the said Lord Hugh and Master Robert Baldock; and they were captured by Lord Henry of Lancaster, and they led him to the castle of Kenilworth, and others were kept elsewhere at various places; and there he lost the crown by the insistence of many. Afterwards you [Edward III] were subsequently crowned on the feast of Candlemas next following. Finally they sent him to the castle of Berkeley."

What's especially interesting about this is the fact that Edward and his few remaining allies sailing from Chepstow and being at sea (literally and metaphorically) for five days in October 1326 appears neither in the chancery rolls nor in any chronicle, and is known to modern historians only by the chance survival of Edward's last chamber account, which is now held at the library of the Society of Antiquaries in London.  None of Edward's chamber accounts survive at all from the beginning of his reign in 1307 until late 1322, and then only in fragments until the last one of June 1325 to October 1326, which is complete.  Without this fortuitous survival, we'd have no way of knowing that the Fieschi Letter is correct on this point.

Notice that the Fieschi Letter says that Edmund Fitzalan, earl of Arundel, was with Edward at Chepstow.  Edward's academic biographer Seymour Phillips in his magisterial work Edward II (2010), p. 591, says that Arundel was in fact not with Edward at this time and had left the king before he reached Wales, but unfortunately he doesn't cite a source for this claim, and I've never been able to find one.  I haven't seen anything which definitely places the earl elsewhere or which tells us where he was after Isabella and Roger Mortimer's invasion, only that he was executed in Hereford on 17 November 1326.  Arundel was beheaded on that day with two men named John Daniel and Robert de Micheldever.  Edward II, at Gloucester, ordered John Daniel on Friday 10 October 1326 to "levy all the fencibles in his bailiwick and have them at Gloucester by Wednesday next."  (Patent Rolls 1324-7, p. 326; Close Rolls 1323-7, p. 651)  So John Daniel was going to join the king, or at least was ordered to, a few days before Edward sailed from Chepstow.  This may mean that the earl of Arundel therefore was with Edward as well, though admittedly this is pretty thin evidence.  It's really difficult to find out where the earl of Arundel actually was in October and the first half of November 1326; the last mention I can find of him in the chancery rolls is on 2 August 1326, and he's not named in Edward's surviving chamber account (the sole piece of evidence which confirms the king's sailing from Chepstow) at this time.  That doesn't necessarily prove anything, however: other men definitely with Edward at this time are not named in the account in the autumn of 1326 either, including Hugh Despenser the Younger (his confessor Richard Bliton is mentioned, but not he himself), Simon of Reading and Robert Baldock.  The Fieschi Letter is correct that the earl of Arundel was no longer with Edward when he was captured in South Wales on 16 November 1326 (the day before Arundel was executed in Hereford).

The Fieschi Letter is accurate in its details up to the coronation of Edward III in early 1327.  Then it states:
"Afterwards the servant who was keeping him, after some little time, said to your father: Lord, Lord Thomas Gurney and Lord Simon Bereford, knights, have come with the purpose of killing you. If it pleases, I shall give you my clothes, that you may better be able to escape. Then with the said clothes, as night was near, he went out of the prison; and when he had reached the last door without resistance, because he was not recognised, he found the porter sleeping, whom he quickly killed; and having got the keys of the door, he opened the door and went out, with his keeper who was keeping him."

There is no way of knowing for sure, of course, whether or to what extent this account of Edward II's escape from Berkeley Castle is correct.  One could express doubt at the notion that he might simply have walked out of the castle by the simple expedient of killing a porter, though in fact Sir Robert Walkfare, a Contrariant imprisoned at Corfe Castle by Edward in the 1320s, did exactly that. (Patent Rolls 1327-30, p. 42).  Surely, though, there would be considerably more security for the former king, of all people, especially as the Dunheved group had already successfully, albeit temporarily, freed Edward from custody at Berkeley.  And who was the 'keeper' with him, and what became of him?  Was Edward perhaps allowed to escape?  So that years later, he genuinely thought he had, but in fact his 'escape' was part of a plot to present him as dead when in fact he wasn't, but being held somewhere else?  But I'm getting into the realms of fantasy here.  It is worth pointing out, however, the strong association of Edward II with Corfe Castle after his capture: his half-brother the earl of Kent thought he was being held there in 1330, several chroniclers including Adam Murimuth thought he was there at some point, and the author of the Brut even thought he'd been murdered there.  There is nothing in any official source to confirm that Edward was ever held at Corfe, but his joint custodian Sir John Maltravers was there in September 1327 on 'the service of the king's father,' i.e. Edward II.

Notice that Edward, assuming it was indeed he who met Manuele Fieschi, claimed that Sir Thomas Gurney and Sir Simon Bereford were coming to murder him.  Gurney was indeed one of the two men convicted at the parliament of November 1330 of Edward II's murder, but the other was William Ockley, not Bereford.  Then again, Simon Bereford was executed at Christmas 1330 on the grounds that he had aided Roger Mortimer, earl of March, in all of Roger's felonies.  One of the fourteen charges against Roger was that of having had Edward removed to Berkeley Castle to have him killed, so one might argue that Bereford was indirectly accused of complicity in Edward II's death, and Edward might have heard of Bereford's execution and assumed that it was in connection with his supposed murder.  Thomas Gurney and Simon Bereford were knights, and certainly Edward knew who they both were.  The name of William Ockley, however, who was merely a man-at-arms, would have meant nothing to him.  Correctly, the Fieschi Letter does not name Sir John Maltravers, Edward's joint custodian with Thomas Berkeley in 1327, as one of the men coming to murder Edward just before his escape from Berkeley Castle; several fourteenth-century chroniclers identified him as one of the murderers, even the usually well-informed royal clerk Adam Murimuth, but Edward III never once accused in Maltravers' very long life (he lived until 1364) of any involvement in his father's death.

There are some issues with the Fieschi Letter, but as a piece of evidence that Edward II survived long past after his supposed murder in September 1327, it's impossible to dismiss lightly.  When taken in conjunction with the Melton Letter of January 1330 in which the archbishop of York stated outright that Edward was then alive and in good health, the earl of Kent's 1329/30 plot to free Edward which was supported by at the very least a few dozen and probably many hundreds of men, Edward III spending time with a man claiming to be his father in 1338, and Lord Berkeley's strange words to the November 1330 parliament, we can see that there is an extremely strong case for taking the possibility of Edward II's survival past 1327 very seriously.

4 comments:

sami parkkonen said...

Fantastic stuff again! Thank you, Kathryn.

As for the mysterious keeper: now if the castle belonged to Thomas Berkeley, wasn't he the keeper? That would explain couple things. 1. Why Edward II was able to escape and 2. Why Edward III did not kill sir Thomas.

If he helped Edward II to escape he might have saved his neck by doing so and could therefore state in front of the whole audience in his trial that he had not known Edward II being dead before the accusations.

And if Edward III knew by now that his father was alive somewhere (of which we have some indications that he did) he most likely would have known that Thomas had helped his father to escapem or at least allowed him to go, and therefore had even stronger motive to let him go unpunished as he did.

As for the extortion issue: Now if this letter was intented to be an instrument of extortion of Edward III I think once he was sure his father had died, he would have gone after all of those he would suspect being part of any extortion. Edward III was not a man to be double crossed or insulted. He had his fathers temper and his grandfathers ruthlesness so if there had been somekind of mysterious extoprtion scheme going on, once the threat would have passed I'm pretty sure Edward III would have done something for any one he could have captured, any holdings and titles in England etc.

Well, just speculation but if the keeper was sir Thomas that would explain couple some things which followed the down fall of Mortimer.

Anonymous said...

Great post as usual. IMO, Edward III definitely had doubts about his father's death -- letting Mortimer's grandson marry into the royal family does not sound like something he would do if Mortimer killed his dad.

Esther

Ivan Fowler said...

Wonderful post, Kathryn, and such an honour to be quoted by you! Thank you so much! I really enjoyed reading it.

If I may comment on the two things Sami Parkkonen commented, I agree it would definitely be an excellent solution to the conundrum if Thomas Berkeley was intended by "keeper". Unfortunately, the exact term in the Fieschi Letter used is 'porterius', literally doorkeeper, or doorman. It would be very strange to refer to a lord as such, and not as a 'dominus' (lord) or 'comes' (count) at least. Pity! I like the point you make about Edward going after any extortioners. In fact, the Fieschi family continued to enjoy royal favour in England, including Manuele Fieschi in person. My colleagues and I at the Auramala Project are working on a more subtle, nuanced explanation than extortion or blackmail in the common sense - I've mentioned it to Kathryn - but I fear it may be months before we manage to publish it on the blog. We need to check and double check everything so carefully, and there are so many documents to take into account!

Anerje said...

As you know, I'm fascinated by your research, and anyone else's, into the Fieschi letter. I really appreciate all the hard work done by researchers into the letter. As you say, taken in conjunction with the letter from the Archbishop of York and Kent's rebellion, it seems very believable. To me, the Fieschi letter seems too incredulous to be a complete invention - what could Fieschi hope to gain from such a letter? I look forward to the continued research!