A double tip-off
The research contained in this post was triggered by a curious tip-off that came from a 2003 review of Ian Mortimer’s The Greatest Traitor on the Guardian. The review was written by Jonathan Sumption, author of a series of histories of the Hundred Years War, who observes of the Fieschi Letter: “Its explanation almost certainly lies in the fact that the bishop of Maguelone, in whose register it was found, was in Germany at the time. He had been sent there by the pope, who strongly disapproved of the Anglo-German alliance, and his instructions were to disrupt it.” Up until July of this year, I had only come across this explanation here, and in the Wikipedia article on the Fieschi Letter (and in pages that quote the Wikipedia article), first posted in 2007, which appears to have taken the theory from Sumption’s review, as I have found no mention whatsoever of the theory anywhere else, not even in Seymour Phillips’ most thorough précis of the literature. Then, in July I visited Berkeley Castle and had a very pleasant lunch (ham, eggs and chips, with a wonderful, aromatic, local pale ale) with, among others, a member of the Berkely family and the castle archivist, David Smith, who mentioned this theory again. By that time, Auramala Project researchers were already trawling through Papal letters concerning the bishops of Maguelone, and this is what we found:
1338: Edward III is in Flanders with his army, courting Imperial allies at the beginning of the Hundred Years War
In September, 1338, King Edward III received the status of Vicar-general of the Holy Roman Empire from Emperor Louis IV. This was a part of his opening strategy at the beginning of the Hundred Years War. A month later he used his new position to issue a summons to the various dukes, counts and princes of Flanders that came under the overlordship of the Emperor. Among these rulers there was a bishop: the Bishop of Cambrai. This is because Cambrai was, at that time, a form of miniature state known as prince-bishopric, where the bishop was not only a spiritual ruler but also a secular one. But the secular borders of his rule did not coincide exactly with the spiritual dioceses pertaining to Cambrai. Indeed, the spiritual diocese of Cambrai extended into the neighbouring Duchy of Brabant as far as Brussels. The secular state based around Cambrai, known as the Cambrésis, was much smaller. As a diocese, Cambrai was under the archbishop of Reims, in France, and of course under the Pope. But as a secular state, it was under the overlordship of the Holy Roman Emperor. Cambrai became a hotspot at the beginning of the Hundred Years War, in part because it lay on the path towards France.
Edward III knew that the Bishop of Cambrai leant strongly towards the Papacy and France, and would never answer his summons. It seems he probably wanted to lead his new Imperial allies of Flanders against Cambrai, but needed a good excuse to do so. By summoning the bishop Edward III may have been deliberately creating a diplomatic incident in order to have an excuse to invade the Prince-bishopric. Soon afterwards, when the deadline for the summons came and went and the Bishop did not come, Edward III and the Emperor accused the Bishop of Cambrai of treason against the Empire.
One of Edward III’s Flemish allies was the brother of his wife Philippa, Count William II of Hainaut (another sister was married to the Emperor himself: it was a close knit, family affair). In december, Count William made a short-lived raid into the territory of the Cambrésis, seizing several castles and destroying farmland. This incident set off a flurry of Papal letters. Let’s pick up the thread at the beginning of the year 1339.(1)
The Pope’s letters
January 12th: Pope Benedict XII(2) establishes that the charges made against the Bishop of Cambrai by the King of England and the Emperor are null and void, and warns both rulers against invading Cambrai, on risk of excomunication. Note: Emperor Louis IV ‘the Bavarian’ had already been excomunicated by the previous Pope, John XXII, in October 1327, for siding with the Franciscan Order in a controversy with the Papal Curia in Avignon concerning the dogma of the Poverty of Christ (this controversy lies at the heart of Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose (Ed.))
January 13th: the Pope sends letters to the Bishops of Tournay and Liege, exhorting them to excommunicate the soldiers who had invaded Cambrai a month earlier, and on the same day dispatches another letter to William of Hainaut, ordering him to pay damages to the Bishop of Cambrai for what his troops did.
January 23rd: the Pope writes to his legates (a legate is essentially a Papal ambassador (Ed.)) Cardinals Bertrand de Montfavence and Pedro Gomez de Barroso, who are engaged in talks with French and English ambassadors at Arras in an attempt to broker a peace treaty between France and England and avert war. He orders them to pursue peace for the good of all Christianity, or at least truces that give the impression of peace, and to go to the King of France in person, if necessary, to persuade him of the importance of the peace talks.
January 23rd: the Pope sends a littera clausa (‘closed letter’, or confidential letter (Ed.)) to Arnaud de Verdale, a highly trusted associate of the Pope’s, who had carried out extremely delicate work for the pontiff in the past(3). The letter is sent to Verdale at the court of Emperor Louis, where he is the Papal legate. Among other things (it is a very long letter) the letter informs Verdale that “to him (the Emperor) We will write with two letters together, in the manner of the attached cedula. First you must present him one of the two (letters (Ed.)) that We send, marked A on the back, and, once you have received his response, concerning those things for which We have sent you, and in the form in which We have spoken to you, and then written to you by letter, without any observed transgression, the other letter, marked B on the back, you shall present to him, and obtain, if you can, an answer from him concerning what it contains. Having received a definitive answer concerning this, or not having received it, hurry back to Us to refer to Us about the aforesaid business, and about any detail you have noticed and to inform Us fully and with the greatest clarity.” (Neither ‘letter A’ nor ‘letter B’ are transcribed among the papal documents Ed.)
There follows the cedula, another extended document, of which we report the following passage: “the secret letter which earlier you sent Us, We have examined, and We have deliberated in secrecy upon its content with certain brothers of ours, and it is apparent to all of us that no honorable, useful or pursuable option is offered to us by him (the Emperor (Ed.)). ”
Three months after these events, Verdale became Bishop of Maguelone. During his time as bishop there, cathedral officials began work on the register in which the Fieschi Letter was found.
In the next blog post we will explore some of the possible implications of Pope Benedict XII’s letter to Verdale. In the meantime we would like to allow readers to ponder the matter without ‘interference’ from our own interpretations.
(1) de Sturler, J, Paris, 1936, Les Relations Politiques et les Echanges Commerciaux entre le duche de Brabant et l’Agnleterre au Moyen Age and Sumption, Jonathan, University of Pennsylvania Press, 1999, The Hundred Years War 1: Trial by Battle
(2) Daumet, Georges, 1899-1920, Benoit XII (1344-1342) ; Lettres closes, patentes et curiales se rapportant à la France
(3) Fisquet, Honoré, Paris, 1899, La France pontificale (Gallia christiana), histoire chronologique et biographique des archevêques et évêques de tous les diocéses de France