A tragic but often overlooked story of a prince and princess and a wicked uncle is that of Arthur and Eleanor of Brittany. (Two later boys who may or may not have been killed seem to elicit much more sympathy, probably at least in part due to a certain play and some maudlin Victorian art!) King John gets a bad rap (“Foul as it is, hell itself is made fouler by the presence of King John,” chronicler Matthew Paris wrote in the 1230s!), but it is interesting that his ineptitude as a ruler seems to be treated as a far greater crime than some of his misdeeds.
Arthur was the son of Geoffrey Plantagenet, younger brother of Richard Lionheart and older brother to John Lackland, and his wife the heiress Constance of Brittany. Arthur did not have the best start in life being born posthumously, his father having died shortly before his birth in either an accident at a joust or from a sudden heart attack. Geoffrey was only 27 when he died and was buried in Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris.
As Geoffrey was older than John, his child was technically in line to the throne of England and in 1190 Richard I named the three-year-old Arthur as his heir, since he had no sons of his own. This designation bypassed Richard’s younger but adult brother, John. Richard repeated the nomination of Arthur as heir in 1196, at the same time, Arthur’s mother Constance proclaimed her son as duke of Brittany.
Bad luck followed, however—Ranulf de Blondeville, Arthur’s own step-father through his mother’s remarriage, abducted his estranged wife Constance, and King Richard had to advance on Brittany to free both Arthur and his mother. Constance then fled her husband and was granted an annulment.
Later, in 1199, when Richard realised he was dying after being struck by an arrow during the siege at Chalus-Chabrol, the king suddenly did a hasty about-face and changed his nomination for the succession from Arthur to John—he had changed his mind on his deathbed, fearing that the Duke of Brittany was far too young to rule a country.
John was crowned king, but the French, who preferred Arthur’s claim, rose up to support the young boy of twelve. He marched with an army to Anjou but to little effect.
In 1200, a treaty was signed between King John and Phillip II of France, which finally quashed Arthur’s claims to the throne forever. Within a short while, the young boy and his supporters were in open rebellion, even besieging Arthur’s own grandmother, the indomitable Eleanor of Aquitaine, in her castle of Mirebeau.
John arrived at Mirebeau with an army of his own, however, and Arthur was captured and taken to the Castle of Falaise where he was placed in the care of Hubert de Burgh. It was said that at this time John ordered that Arthur be castrated and blinded. However, de Burgh refused and kept the young prince safe.
A short while later, Arthur was taken from de Burgh’s protection at Falaise and moved on to Rouen castle…and this was where he disappeared in or around April 1203.
The Margam Chronicle states :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, 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 recognised, was taken for secret burial, in fear of the tyrant…
While some of the above description relating to the murder may be nothing more than monkish exaggeration, it is interesting to note that Maud de Braose,wife of William de Braose, who was working closely with John at the time of Arthur’s disappearance, dared to accuse John to his face of murdering Arthur of Brittany.
Needless to say, making this open accusation to a man like John did not go well for Maud—or for her son William. After fleeing to Ireland, where they were eventually captured, they were both imprisoned in a castle, mostly likely Corfe, and starved to death. Rumours abounded that in a desperate attempt at survival Maud ate her dead son’s cheeks…
Arthur was not the only tragic child of Geoffrey and Constance who suffered at the hands of King John. He had a sister Eleanor who was so beautiful she was known as the Fair Maid of Brittany. Even though she was female and the barons were not particularly supportive of her claim, John feared her closeness to the throne and hence kept her as a prisoner, moving her from castle to castle and displaying her occasionally to prove she was still alive. Her main place of imprisonment seems to have been Corfe; she was in residence there when John starved 22 knights to death when they tried to escape the dungeons.
Although captive, she was not treated particularly badly, having several maids, decent if bland clothes, and was probably able to ride out on occasion although under close supervision.
However, her imprisonment went on for 39 years, long after John’s death and into the reign of his son Henry III, even though she had committed no crime, and had never been tried or sentenced. John had decreed upon his deathbed that she must remain imprisoned for life.
Eventually, however, after her child bearing years were over, Henry III permitted her to join a convent and become a nun. When she died, she was first buried in Bristol, but later, in accordance with her own final wishes, reburied in Amesbury abbey in Wiltshire.
Her final choice of burial site is interesting. The Abbey Church of St Mary and St Melor has an unusual dedication, seen only in one other place outside Brittany.
St Melor was a young Breton prince, who was first mutilated and then murdered by his uncle. His relics lay on the high altar in Amesbury Abbey, where they had been brought by Dark Age monks.
Choosing to be buried in a church dedicated to this martyred, murdered boy, in proximity to the remains of a saint who had died in circumstances almost identical to those of her brother, may have been the Fair Maid of Brittany’s last act of defiance.
+Today Eleanor’s grave is lost, another victim of the Reformation. However, before the high altar in the church of St Mary and St Melor, geophysics have shown that two grave cuts still exist deep beneath the flagstones.
It is certainly quite possible that one of these belongs to this tragic Plantagenet princess.
Amesbury Abbey-high altar and corbels.