The Kings Who Never Were: Part II

In the second part of our look into lost medieval heirs, we’ll meet another selection of candidates who were entitled and in line to the throne but missed out on the prize. Good, bad, innocent or just not quick enough, all were real people who had their own stories to tell. We’ll begin with a young man who was probably best kept away from the responsibility of kingship, and his adversary, the woman who should have been the first English Queen Regnant. Then there’s the time when we could have had a real medieval King Arthur, and we’ll meet two of the numerous Edwards who never wore the crown.

Lost in a Done Deal: Eustace of Blois

When he was born c.1130, Eustace of Blois could never have expected to be more than a count of France. However, all this changed when he was just five years old thanks to some quick thinking by his father Stephen, Count of Boulogne and Duke of Normandy. On the death of Henry I in 1135, Stephen sidelined the king’s designated heir, Empress Matilda, by dashing across the English Channel and, with the help of his brother, the Bishop of Winchester, getting himself crowned first. Suddenly, young Eustace had gone from being the eldest son of a French noble to heir apparent to the English throne. Like other heirs, Eustace’s sudden rise in status brought him a royal education, early involvement in government and an advantageous marriage, in this case to Constance, sister of Louis VII, the King of France.

Stephen of Blois, who snatched the crown from Empress Matilda in 1135

Meanwhile, England was split into two warring factions: those supporting Matilda and those in favour of Stephen. In 1141, Eustace had the rug pulled from under him when Stephen was captured at the Battle of Lincoln and imprisoned, losing many of his supporters including those in his duchy of Normandy. Although he was freed later that year and reinstated as king, the situation was both unstable and volatile, and threats loomed all around.

At the age of seventeen, Eustace was knighted and made Count of Boulogne, and in theory, at least, he was heir apparent again. However, he had a rival: Matilda’s son, Henry Plantagenet. As the grandson of Henry I, there was no way Henry was going to give up on what he also considered to be his birthright.

Empress Matilda, the daughter and designated heir of Henry I

In the ongoing war, both sides were resorting to ever more desperate measures, and this is where Eustace’s true colours began to show. In 1149, as Henry was travelling through England to be knighted by his great-uncle, David, King of Scots, Eustace tried – and failed – to ambush him three times. In angry frustration he lashed out, not only at Henry’s supporters but at innocent bystanders as well. After attacking the lands of Henry’s nobles, he turned his wrath on the good people of Salisbury, where his men: ‘took and plundered everything they came upon, set fire to houses and churches, and, what was a more cruel and brutal sight, fired the crops that had been reaped and stacked all over the fields, consumed and brought to nothing everything edible they found’

Then he moved on to Devizes, attacking the castle and ordering his men to burn all the houses and to ‘kill those who came in their way and commit indiscriminately every cruelty they could think of’.

By now things were looking decidedly dicey for Eustace. His father, having lost Normandy to Henry’s father, Geoffrey Plantagenet, was getting on a bit, and was now becoming anxious about the future. Throughout his tumultuous reign, Stephen had appealed to successive popes to allow Eustace to be crowned alongside him, an established tradition in France. But he’d met with little progress, finally being refused outright by the Archbishop of Canterbury because he’d seized the throne from Matilda.

The coronation of King Stephen

In 1153, Henry Plantagenet came to England with an army, and faced Stephen and Eustace with their forces across the River Thames at Wallingford Castle in Oxfordshire. However, after two decades of debilitating civil war, the soldiers on both sides had finally had enough, and they refused to fight. According to a contemporary account of Stephen’s reign, the leading men ‘shrank, on both sides, from a conflict that was not merely between fellow countrymen but meant the desolation of the whole kingdom’. With the armies effectively on strike, the two sides were forced to talk, and the outcome was a treaty that ended the war. Stephen agreed that he would remain king for the rest of his life, but that he would name Matilda’s son, Henry Plantagenet, as his heir. In one easy stroke, Eustace was disinherited.

The moat around Wallingford Castle, where the warring sides finally came to terms at the expense of Eustace’s kingly future. Sadly, very little of the castle remains today, but it was hugely significant in the Middle Ages.

Incandescent with fury at his father’s betrayal, Eustace, now in his early twenties, left court for East Anglia. At Bury St Edmunds he unleashed a torrent of violence, laying waste to the lands of the abbey. But then, all of a sudden, he died. He probably suffered some kind of seizure, but contemporaries felt that he was ‘destroyed by the providence of God’, describing him as ‘an evil man, because wheresoever he came he did more evil than good’.

Finally, with the war at an end and a better prospect as heir to the throne, England breathed a collective sigh of relief. As it was, the rest of Stephen’s life wasn’t long, because the following year he also died. Henry Plantagenet was then duly crowned king on 19th December 1154, and with him came a new royal dynasty that would rule England, for better or worse, for the next three hundred years.

Henry II, the winning heir and founder of the Plantagenet dynasty

…and a word about Empress Matilda, the lost Queen Regnant

Much of Matilda’s story has been covered above, and her life was indeed marked by the long and bitter civil war. But, of course, she too was a legitimate heir deprived of the throne, and had her first husband, Henry V, the Holy Roman Emperor, not – rather inconsiderately – died in 1125, her life may have been entirely different.

Henry I, Matilda’s father

As Henry I’s only remaining legitimate child following the death of William Adelin, the widowed Matilda was officially named as the king’s heir in January 1127. For a king to name a daughter as his rightful heir was unheard of at this time, so she would have been a ground-breaking monarch. The first noble to pledge his fealty to the new female heir was – believe it or not – Matilda’s cousin, Stephen of Blois. And as we know, when Henry I died the quick-thinking Stephen reneged on his oath and garnered enough support to seize the crown before Matilda could get her hands on it. But as the subsequent civil war shows, the cheated woman didn’t take defeat lying down. Matilda was remarkably feisty and tenacious, and she clearly wasn’t afraid to stand up and fight for what she believed in. As well as being an important military leader and strategist, she was an astute politician capable of holding her own in a heavily patriarchal world.

Matilda and her son, Henry II

But it seems that Matilda also knew, eventually, when to give up. With the treaty agreed at Wallingford, she sacrificed her claim to the crown in favour of her son’s future. Instead, she lived out the rest of her days in Normandy, where she maintained a role in the government of the duchy until her death in 1167, aged sixty-five. This extraordinary woman was buried in the Abbey of Bec-Hellouin with an epitaph that praised her only in terms of the men in her life. It read: 

Great by birth, greater by marriage, greatest in her offspring,
Here lies the daughter, wife and mother of Henry

I think Matilda deserved better than that, don’t you?

The Lost King Arthur: Arthur of Brittany

Henry II (r.1154-1189) had five sons, but the first two predeceased him. Therefore, when he died in 1189, he was succeeded by his third son, Richard I, the Lionheart. At this stage, Richard was unmarried and childless, which meant his heir presumptive (meaning the next in line until the king had his own kids) would have been his next younger brother Geoffrey, had he not died three years previously. Still, Geoffrey had left his wife, Constance, Duchess of Brittany, pregnant, and the baby arrived the following year in the shape of Arthur. It was, therefore, this infant nephew of Richard I who stood to inherit the throne should anything happen to the Lionheart. However, little Arthur was up against a ruthless older rival, Richard’s youngest brother, John.

King Richard I, the Lionheart, heir of Henry II

Young relatives could be used as a pawn in many a political game, and in 1190, Richard formally named Arthur his heir in order to seal a deal with Tancred, the king of Sicily. The infant boy was betrothed to one of Tancred’s daughters, meaning the young bride would one day rule over England. But unbeknownst to Tancred, Richard was preparing to get hitched and have children of his own. As it turned out, neither plan worked. Sicily was conquered by the Holy Roman Emperor in 1194, and although Richard did marry, he never produced a legitimate heir.  

It wasn’t long before Richard had another use for Arthur, and in 1196 he demanded that the boy be handed over to him in Normandy. However, Constance outwitted the king by having her son spirited away to relative safety at the court of Philip II of France, where he was brought up alongside Philip’s own heir, Louis.

Arthur of Brittany, paying homage to King Philip II of France

Just a few years later in 1196, Richard was suddenly and unexpectedly killed by a young crossbowman taking a pot shot at him during a minor castle siege near Limosges. Amid the shock wave this caused across Europe, the question quickly arose as to who would succeed the childless king – his nephew, Arthur, or his shifty younger brother, John? Technically, according to the rules of primogeniture, it should have been Arthur, but there were reports of a deathbed change of heart by Richard in favour of John as his heir. Moreover, aged thirty-two John was an adult, albeit a slimy one, while Arthur was only twelve. The barons divided, with many on the continent supporting Arthur while those of Normandy and England backing John.

Arthur’s nemesis, the infamous King John

The race to the throne began, strangely, from the same starting post, as John had been staying with Arthur when news of Richard’s death arrived. Constance and Philip II raised armies for Arthur, but John quickly seized the royal treasury, thereby gaining control of the purse strings, before racing across the Channel to get himself crowned. The deed was done on 27th May 1199, so now Arthur would have to try and wrest the crown from John’s head. As the conflict progressed, young Arthur stayed in France training for knighthood until he was fifteen, when he emerged confident and keen to showcase his new skills, and his credentials as the rightful king of England.

Mirebeau Castle, on the border between Anjou and Poitou, was being held for John by Eleanor of Aquitaine, Arthur’s elderly grandmother, and in a bold move Arthur struck out to attack it. When Eleanor appealed for help, John dropped everything and beat a speedy path, troops and all, to Mirabeau’s door. Taking Arthur’s forces by surprise he attacked early on the morning of 1st August 1202, and secured what was to be his only true military success. Arthur was captured and taken to Falaise Castle in Normandy, where he was imprisoned. Some say John ordered that the boy be mutilated so he could never threaten his rule again, but that the assault was blocked by Arthur’s appalled guard.

Falaise Castle in Normandy, where Arthur was imprisoned, and most likely died

Although we don’t know for certain what happened to Arthur, two rather similar contemporary accounts strongly suggest that he met a grisly end. One claims to have got the story directly from Arthur’s gaoler, stating that the boy was kept prisoner until the night of 3rd April 1203, when the king was staying at Falaise. After dinner, John went to Arthur’s cell and: ‘drunk and possessed by the devil, he slew him with his own hands, and tying a heavy stone to the body cast it into the Seine’. Unfortunately for Arthur, there’s good evidence that points to the story being true, not least John’s notoriously cruel and vicious temperament. Either way, Arthur was never seen again.  

It’s another of those great ‘what if’s’ of history. If Richard I’s death hadn’t been so untimely and he’d ruled for longer, Arthur would have had time to grow up and things may have worked out rather differently. As it was, once he’d vanished into the confines of Falaise Castle, our chance of having a real medieval King Arthur was lost forever.

Arthur of Brittany, the King Arthur who never was…

The Two Lost Edwards of Edward III

There seems to be an inordinate number of lost royals named Edward and, in fact, quite a few not lost ones as well. But in this case, we have two in quick succession, both direct descendants of Edward III but both of whom predeceased their fathers: Edward of Woodstock, later known as the Black Prince, and his son, Edward of Angoulême.

King Edward III and his son, Edward of Woodstock, later to be known as the Black Prince

Edward, the Black Prince (1330-76) is well known to history as the young, talented and chivalrous knight who fought and triumphed for his father, Edward III, at the battles of Crecy (1346) and Poitiers (1356) during the Hundred Years War with France. Generous to a fault and a lover of luxury and noble sports, the prince was the oldest of the king’s five surviving sons, and as such he was first in line to the throne. In 1361 he married Joan, the ‘Fair Maid’ of Kent, and in 1365 the couple celebrated the birth of their first child, a son, also named Edward, born in Angoulême in Gascony. The king was delighted, and arrangements were made for suitably lavish celebrations. Baby Edward was baptized in March 1365 at the Chateau d’Angoulême, with 154 lords and 706 knights in attendance and thousands of horses stabled, all paid for by the Black Prince. The bill for candles alone came to over £400. The celebrations included feasting and ‘splendid tournaments’, a fitting welcome to the world for a baby who was now second in line to the English crown.

Edward of Woodstock cut his knightly teeth on the battlefield at Crecy in 1346

So now there were three Edwards in a row: Edward III would be followed by Edward of Woodstock, the Black Prince, who would then be succeeded by Edward of Angoulême. But things, of course, didn’t work out like that. Following a campaign in Spain in 1367 the Black Prince fell ill, either from dysentery or malaria, and would never fully recover. Worse was to come when he returned to Joan in Bordeaux in 1370, only to discover that little Edward had died, aged only five, probably of the Plague. Grief-stricken and broken, Edward returned to England in 1371. His health was declining further, but he struggled on for another five years, involving himself in politics rather than war, until his body finally gave out and he died, aged forty-six, in 1376.

The tomb of Edward, the Black Prince in Canterbury Cathedral, where he was buried in 1376

In a few short years England had been deprived of two future King Edwards. What’s more, Edward III himself died soon after his son and grandson, in 1377. And so it was the Black Prince’s second son, Richard, who succeeded to the throne, beginning a disastrous reign that led to another brutal and protracted civil war that we now call The Wars of the Roses. It’s an intriguing thought that, if either Edward had lived on, England’s story would have taken a very different path indeed…

I hope you’ve enjoyed our trip through the Middle Ages to meet some of England’s kings who never were. Of course, these days we don’t have to watch brothers, cousins, and nephews fighting and slaughtering their way to the throne, although it does seem that some royal relatives feel the pen is mightier than the sword. Still, it was good to see that King Charles III’s coronation, with all it’s great medieval customs and traditions, went off without a hitch, and I wish him and Queen Camilla a very happy, and peaceful, reign.