The Hunt for the King 6) A mysterious castle

Where is ‘Milascio’?

At the end of June this year, I was with my family for a long weekend in Calabria. As we passed from dinner to dinner, friends’ house to friends’ house, Edward II was always at the back of my mind. I knew that during July I was going to be officially dealing with the Fieschi Letter, and nothing but the Fieschi Letter, for one month of intensive travelling and research, a true quest for evidence. I was mentally preparing myself for the task by memorising as much of the letter as possible. In particular, I had to concentrate on the part that mentions places in Italy that Edward II supposedly lived in. But there is a fundamental enigma in this section of the letter: it names a place that is difficult to identify – a certain ‘Milascio Castle’. Various historians over the years have put forward hypotheses as to where Milascio Castle  is, based on the idea that the scribe who copied the Fieschi Letter, or somebody else involved in its creation, simply spelt the word in a way unfamiliar to us today. (I will look at some alternative theories in a later post. Believe it or not, they are a fascinating journey through the experiences of English, American, and even Hungarian gentlemen adventurers of the past, and well worth the yarn. They even include a visit to Little Big Horn on the day of Custer’s Last Stand.)

So, what does the Fieschi Letter tell us about this mysterious  Milascio Castle?

“…and from Milan he entered a hermitage of  Milascio Castle in which hermitage he stayed for two years and a half and because said castle war overran, he changed himself (lit) to Castle Cecima, to another hermitage of the diocese of Pavia in Lombardy.” (In reality, Cecima was a fief of the Bishop of Pavia, but inside the Diocese of Tortona. However, Pavia was also the nearest important city to mention) (1). So, we know that he entered Castle Milascio after departing from Milan, and that war overran it two and a half years after Edward II arrived there. And that, unfortunately, is all.

Mortimer’s approach

The town of Mulazzo today.
The town of Mulazzo today.

All of these thoughts were going through my mind while I was in Calabria, and I was reviewing the various hypotheses about where Milascio was.  In particular, I was concerned with a theory put forward by Ian Mortimer in his book Medieval Intrigue (2). He observes that Milascio could be a town and castle known today as Mulazzo, in the extreme north of Tuscany, in a broad river valley called the Lunigiana.

In brief, Mortimer’s reasoning is essentially as follows: the Letter bears the name of Manuele Fieschi, papal notary. Manuele Fieschi was a member of an extended family, the Fieschis of Genoa, and the head of the family at that time was a powerful cardinal, Luca Fieschi, a second cousin of Manuele Fieschi. Cardinal Luca  had promoted the careers in the clergy of many family members. These included Manuele, but also Manuele’s first cousin, Percivalle Fieschi, and Luca’s nephew by his sister, a man called Bernabò Malaspina. Percivalle Fieschi was bishop of Tortona, whose diocese included Cecima, the other location mentioned in the Letter. Bernabò Malaspina was bishop of the Lunigiana, where Mulazzo Castle is located (3). Therefore, Mortimer argues, Manuele Fieschi and his family could have been responsible for hiding Edward II in regions over which they had some degree of control, such as Tortona and the Lunigiana. There is a lot more detail on this in Mortimer’s book, this is just the gist.

Today the Lunigiana region is the extreme north of Tuscany, bordering with Liguria and Emilia Romagna.
Today the Lunigiana region is the extreme north of Tuscany, bordering with Liguria and Emilia Romagna.

I liked Mortimer’s approach, but realized that there was a potential flaw. The Letter does not just talk about a castle, but about a hermitage. Was there a hermitage near Mulazzo that could fit the bill? A hermitage (‘heremitorium’ in Latin) could be anything from a small abbey to a priory, or even a cave in the woods where a single hermit lived. I started ducking away between courses during long Calabrian lunches. With a belly-full of macaroni, but before the roast kid arrived, I googled every combination that came to mind of Mulazzo and modern Italian synonyms for the Latin ‘heremitorium’. When I tried ‘Mulazzo Santuario’ I got lucky. There was a medieval ‘sanctuary’ of the Madonna on the mountain of Mulazzo itself.

I kept reading, and nearly jumped with joy: the sanctuary was originally a priory founded by monks of an Abbey called Sant’Andrea di Borzone, very close to Lavagna, the city where the Fieschi family originally came from, and where they controlled most of the lands as feudal overlords. This Abbey was presided over by a string of Abbots from the Fieschi family and a secondary branch of their family, the Ravaschieri-Fieschi. The sanctuary on the mountain of Mulazzo was a dependancy of the Abbey of Sant’Andrea(4). Mortimer’s theory had found very strong corroboration: if we follow the reasoning that the Fieschi Letter describes places where the Fieschi family held control, Mulazzo fits perfectly as the true location of Milascio. There was a small priory, a hermitage, on the mountain above the castle, with a strong link to the Fieschi family, and both castle and priory were within the jurisdiction of Bernabò Malaspina, nephew of Cardinal Luca Fieschi and bishop of Lunigiana.


The path through the woods to the Santuario della Madonna di Mulazzo. Did Edward II step on these stones?
The path through the woods to the Santuario della Madonna di Mulazzo. Did Edward II step on these stones?

On the night of July 2nd I boarded a sleeper train in Reggio Calabria, and woke up at 7 o’clock the next morning at La Spezia, the sea port of the Lunigiana. After a quick cappuccino and a change of clothes in a pleasant city cafe, I was at a hire car agency receiving the keys for a little Fiat 500 that was going to take me where I knew I had to go: the mountain of Mulazzo. After a drive through the woods admiring the breathtaking scenery of the Lunigiana, between the Apuan Alps and mountains of Liguria, I was walking along a wooded trail toward the Santuario della Madonne del Monte di Mulazzo. I reflected that I was probably the first person involved in research on the mystery of Edward II to step foot in this sanctuary, that may well have been his place of refuge for two and a half years. It was quite an emotion.

The Santuario today, with the Apuan Alps in the distance.
The Santuario today, with the Apuan Alps in the distance.

And partial deflation…

And then, checking through Mortimer’s Medieval Intrigue again, there it was: the sanctuary of the mountain of Mulazzo, hidden away in a note (n.106, pg 226)– Mortimer had found it too. Oh well, so much for the emotion of discovery! But, it seems, he had not discovered the link between this sanctuary and Sant’Andrea di Borzone, and the Fieschi family. And this connection strongly corroborates Mortimer’s finding. Not only, it also opened up a whole new line of research for the Auramala Project: the Fieschi family’s links to monasteries, abbeys and their dependancies, forming a vast network across Europe.

In the next post we will follow up by taking a look at the war mentioned in the Fieschi Letter in relation to ‘Milascio’, warefare in general in the area at the time, and how this relates to the timeline of the Fieschi Letter. We will also meet the archivists of Lunigiana.

(1) Cavagna Sangiuliani, Pavia, 1906, Cecima, la storia, gli statuti, le leggende

(2) Mortimer, Ian, London, 2010, Medieval Intrigue (See: Chapter 6, Edward III, his father and the Fieschi)

(3) Ameri, Gianluca and di Fabio, Clario, Milano, 2011, Luca Fieschi, cardinale, collezionista e mecenate (1300-1336)
(4) Brizzolara, Giovanni, 1891, S. Per d’Arena, Storia dell’Abbazia di Sant’Andrea di Borzone and Moggia, Carlo, 2004, Roma, Sviluppo Patrimoniale di un ente monastico ligure: Sant’Andrea di Borzone

7 thoughts on “The Hunt for the King 6) A mysterious castle

  1. Thank you Kathryn! Yes it was very exciting. And beautiful places, too. You can really imagine, if war hadn’t been a problem, the tranquillity of life there.

  2. The war is of interest, can’t find anything about it myself, but really, really hoping it involves the Luxembourg family who had interests in the area. Probably wishful thinking…

  3. Thank you Little Angelic Rose, the war in question was part of an ongoing conflict between families who supported the papacy those who supported the Emperor, but by this time in Italian history it was more about which family was boss. It came down to the della Scala Family of Verona and the Visconti Family of Milan fighting out the top-dog position in northern Europe. But the good news for you is that John of Bohemia was heavily, and heroically involved (who later died a legendary death at th Battle of Crecy). Was he involved with of the Luxembourg dynasty?

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