Introduction to the hunt for the King 2) The nemesis of the church

Like the last one, this post is designed to help set the scene for the research into the Fieschi Letter, and help readers understand the forces at play in the complex world of politics, power and intrigue that surrounded the fate of Edward II. This is a look at a medieval institution that is crucial to fathoming what is going on in the story of Edward II’s ‘afterlife’: the Holy Roman Empire, the nemesis of the church.

Charlemagne started everything: back in the late 700s, he dreamt of re-creating the Western Roman Empire, but as a new, Holy Empire, with the approval and support of the Pope. The ironic thing is that this was a new ‘Roman Empire’ created and ruled by the descendants of some of the ‘barbarians’ who destroyed the original. It is also ironic, given its later history, that it started out in perfect symbiosis with the church. In fact, Charlemagne served the Pope well by conquering the kingdom of the Ancient Lombards, whose capital was Pavia, and removing their chokehold on Rome.

Charlemagne's Empire
Charlemagne’s Empire at its various stages of evolution

Charlemagne managed to unite much of what is now central and Western Europe, at least for a while. He also provided a legendary figure who, together with King Arthur, provided medieval Western Europe with a second set of universal reference points. Together with the Bible and Christian literature, the chivalrous tales of Charlemagne’s paladins and of Arthur’s knights were cultural constants across time and space in the latter middle ages. Still today, all-but-illiterate Sicilian puppet masters can recite Ariosto’s rendering of the deeds of Orlando (Roland) by heart – that’s thousands upon thousands of lines.

About six years ago I got a taste of this first hand when I spent a few days exploring eastern Sicily with my sister in December. For two people like us, with a pronounced sweet tooth, it was paradise. We literally rolled from one pasticceria to the next, from one round of cassata and Pantelleria passito wine to the next… One evening, in Siracusa, we rolled down a magical old alley, probably largely unchanged since the days the ancient Greeks ruled the island, and found ourselves in front of a colourful puppet theatre, where a line of parents and their young children were eagerly awaiting tickets for the next show, starting in ten minutes. Why not? We shrugged, and got in line.

Sicilian puppets of Charlemagne (left) and Orlando (Roland), from the Catania City Council website

It was a truly memorable experience. The puppets were exquisitely crafted, their costumes were worthy of Parisian catwalks, the music was captivating, and the story timeless. Evil magicians summoned up magic whirlwinds that transported paladins to remote castles where they challenged wicked knights to duels in order to rescue beautiful damsels in distress. When Orlando won his duel with a fell stroke, the head of his puppet-rival literally went flying off, rolling across the stage with a great noise, and we all jumped in our seats! Magnificent. And at the end of it all, Orlando bowed before his Emperor, receiving the thanks of Charlemagne himself. We could well imagine a medieval audience listening to those very same stories with the same sense of awe, seven hundred years ago.

Medieval Puppet Show
Three women watch a puppet show, from a medieval manuscript

After Charlemagne, no one ever quite managed to unite so much of Europe again. Nevertheless, all through medieval history a long series of Germanic kings attempted to re-create Charlemagne’s Empire, with varying degrees of success, and in so doing created an ocean of trouble that literally stretched from Sicily in the south to the Baltic Sea in the north. And what is right in the middle? Why, Rome, of course, and the Pope.  The Popes and the Emperors couldn’t really be expected to get along. Being the two most powerful men on the continent, how could they?

Things came to a head in the 1100s, when the Pope of the time backed one Germanic dynasty (Lothar of Bavaria) to inherit the imperial Crown, against another powerful Germanic family (Conrad of Swabia). The church-backed faction was based in Welf, and their rivals were based in Castle Wibelingen. The Italians of the time (Italy didn’t exist yet, so the term ‘Italians’ is actually out of place, but we will use it for simplicity’s sake) were the ones who suffered the most from the conflict, and they couldn’t pronounce either of the two Germanic names. Welf became ‘Guelfi’ and Wibelingen became ‘Ghibellini’, and this was the birth of the Guelph and Ghibelline factions, supporting the Pope and the Emperor respectively.  With the support of Pavia, Cremona, and Pisa and several other cities, Emperor Frederick I (Barbarossa, or Redbeard) soon eliminated his Germanic rival dynasty and did his best to eliminate the Pope, too, for opposing him. How? By having a new Pope elected – naturally a personal friend of his. In his home-away-from-home, Pavia, Barbarossa called a college of Cardinals together and had an anti-pope appointed. Milan rebelled against his authority, and Barbarossa promptly annihilated it in 1162. He razed much of the city to the ground, destroyed its walls and towers and castle, and removed it’s most precious religious relics, the bones of the Three Kings in the Basilica of Sant’Eustorgio, and delivered them to Cologne, where they remain in a magnificent shrine to this day. These relics, and their double shrine in Cologne and Milan, were later to play an important role in the story of Edward II. Also, the Abbey of Sant’Alberto di Butrio is not only legendary as the ‘other’ burial place of Edward II – but also as the keeper of the bell that called the Lombard League into battle against Barbarossa at Legnano, in 1176.  When Barbarossa was an old man, he allied with King Richard the Lionheart of England for the Third Crusade, but drowned in the Aleph River in the Middle East before seeing the Holy City of Jerusalem.

The Basilica of Sant’Eustorgio of Milan, where the shrine of the Three Kings was kept until Barbarossa sacked Milan.

The conflict between Pope and Emperor continued down through the generations.  Among the Emperors, my personal favourite (most people’s favourite) is Frederick II, ‘stupor mundi’ (the Wonder of the World), without a doubt one of the most fascinating personalities in world history. It’s no coincidence that the Pope he came into conflict with in the early 1200s was, yes, a member of the Fieschi family. This is the first lesson we here at the Auramala Project learnt about the Fieschi family: they moved at the very highest levels of international politics, power and religion. Two popes and a host of cardinals, bishops, abbots, feudal overlords, merchant princes, admirals and even princes all came from this family. As we shall discover, if anybody in 14th century Europe had the means, motive and opportunity to hide Edward II after 1327, it was the Fieschi family. But all this is to come…

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