The Hunt for the King 8) The Countryside Wreckers and the King

Old and new friends in Lunigiana

About an hour after leaving the Sanctuary above Mulazzo, I was in Corniglia, in the Cinque Terre, with one of my dearest and oldest friends. Stefano Castagneto has been a fundamental part of the Auramala Project right from the start, with his formidable skills in reading ancient documents and with his encyclopedic memory of the thousands of books and bibliographies he has read. His kitchen window frames a view of the Mediterranean Sea, the cliffs of the Cinque Terre and a white mountain-top church called Montenero, above Riomaggiore. But he and I were concentrated on what was on the table.

Corniglia and the Cinque Terre

Salame, cheese, bread, a kind of ravioli called pansotti in walnut sauce, local vermentino (white wine), and of course everything I had on Mulazzo, its sanctuary and the Fieschis.

“Cut me another piece of salame, I’ll be back in a moment.” Stefano disappeared into his library, and reappeared shortly with a rare-book catalogue. “Here it is, I wanted to buy it myself a few years back, but it costs more than two hundred euro. A biography of Spinetta Malaspina. He was the foremost warlord in the area back in the 1330s. The only thing we know for sure about this ‘Castle Milascio’ is that war overran it. If there was a battle concerning Mulazzo in those years, you’ll find it in this book.”

“Professor Mortimer says the battle was actually a siege, of Pontremoli. Would that make sense, Stefano?”

He thought for a moment, stroking his enormous white moustaches. The salame slice disappeared and his glass was drained. “If it was a siege, yes. The soldiers would have been there for some time, perhaps months, and soldiers need to be fed. Often it was impossible to stop them ransacking the surrounding countryside for food. Mulazzo’s mountain is an easy day’s raiding from Pontremoli if you’re hungry. The Sanctuary would have been at risk.”

After a late night yarning about old times with Stefano, the next morning I was walking through the medieval gates of Mulazzo, on my way to a meeting with two archivists and the director of the Archives and Museum of the Malaspinas of Mulazzo. Francesca Guastalli, Monica Armanetti and Dario Manfredi, respectively. A short time later we were sitting in front of the ruins of Mulazzo Castle, and they were listening open-mouthed to the story I was telling them. Finally, Monica Armanetti replied.

Entering Mulazzo
Entering Mulazzo

So the English researcher, Mortimer, essentially joined up the family dots? It was a Fieschi who wrote the letter, and the Margrave of Mulazzo was the nephew of Cardinal Fieschi, the head of the family. The Margrave of Oramala, near Cecima, where the King went next, was another nephew. The bishop here in the area of Mulazzo was the brother of the Margrave of Oramala, and the bishop of the area of Oramala was a Fieschi cousin. Put the family connections together, and the Fieschi Letter makes sense… So we might have had an English king here? This is the first we’ve heard of it!”

“I’m double checking Mortimer’s work, and trying to expand on it.” I explained. “I want to verify the information the Fieschi Letter gives. There must have been a war nearby, or directly involving Mulazzo, because the letter says he was moved to the area of Cecima due to conflict. I know there’s a biography of Spinetta Malaspina from 1940. Do you have it?”

“We don’t, but there’s rare book dealer in Bagnone, near here, who has a copy. We’ve often thought of purchasing it for our library. He’s a nice guy, I can take you there. If you tell him about the king, he might let you look at it.”

An hour later, after crossing the broad valley of the Lunigiana, we were knocking on the door of an elegant bookshop on a narrow, paved street in the walled town of Bagnone, where the medieval blends seamlessly with the modern. The gentleman in the bookshop knew Ms Armanetti well. He listened with growing incredulity to the story of Edward II. When he finally understood why we had come, he brought us the biography of Spinetta Malaspina, handling it with near-reverence.

“It’s a beautiful volume,” he told us “a supreme work of scholarship, which reports the original source documents in full, and has an exahustive analytical index. The only problem is that the signatures are unopened.” Ouch. Rare books are often worth more if unread, and one way to show that a book is unread is to leave the pages of the signatures uncut. It means that either you cut the pages open, or only one page out of every four is legible. This was where the pleading began. I was asking him to potentially reduce the value of a two-hundred-plus euro book.

Unopened signatures
Unopened signatures

“This is a fundamental moment in solving a mystery surrounding the death of a medieval king…” I began earnestly. Ms Armanetti chimed in “I’ve listened to all the evidence, and I really think there’s something in it. You don’t need to cut open all of the book, just the pages concerning the mid-1330s…”

In the end, bless him, he cut the pages.

The siege of Pontremoli

I sat there for a while, carefully making notes about the movements of local warlords in the 1330s, and writing down references. There was indeed an armed conflict at Pontremoli, very near Mulazzo(1). This siege was the final act in the feud between the Rossi family and the Da Correggio family, both of Parma. The two parties had reached a peace accord in June 1335. The peace was broken on May 8th, 1336, when the Rossi family fled Parma under accusations of attempting to murder a member of the Da Correggio clan, a certain Mastino. They escaped to Pontremoli, but Simone da Correggio and his ally Spinetta Malaspina laid siege to Pontremoli one month later, on June 13th, 1336. The battle for the town lasted until late October of the same year(3).

Pontremoli today

A contemporary chronicle makes a striking statement about this conflict: it calls the attacking soldiers ‘countryside wreckers'(2). This nicely sums up why the sanctuary of Mulazzo, just ten kilometres away, would not have been a safe place anymore for Edward II, if he was there.

The only actual armed conflict in the immediate vicinity of Mulazzo in the period described by the Fieschi Letter was the seige of Pontremoli, as Mortimer states. However, Mortimer unfortunately found the wrong year for this siege. He writes that it was in the summer of 1335, but in fact it began on June 13, 1336. Moreover, he speculates that troops would have begun to gather for this siege in late 1334, and it was in this moment that Edward II may have moved from Mulazzo to Cecima. As shown above, however, it would not have been possible to predict the siege of Pontremoli before May 8th, 1336, nor gather troops for it.

The timeline of the Fieschi Letter: a new proposal

All of this is important to the story of Edward II because it means we have to reconsider the timeline for the Fieschi Letter reconstructed by Mortimer in Medieval Intrigue. Mortimer believes Edward II arrived at Mulazzo around the beginning of 1332, then at Cecima in late 1334, so that he had been in Cecima for ‘around two years’, as the letter states, in spring 1336. On April 15th of that year, Niccolinus Fieschi went to London, met Edward III in person, and was simultaneously welcomed to the Royal Council. Mortimer, indeed, believes Niccolinus may have delivered the Fieschi Letter to Edward III on that very occasion.

But now we know that the conflict which Mortimer believed caused Edward II to leave Mulazzo in late 1334 was actually in summer of 1336, after Niccolinus Fieschi went to England to meet Edward III. The text of the Fieschi Letter reveals a clue to this conundrum if we read it carefully. It says that Edward II WAS in the area of Cecima for around two years(4). In other words, at the time of writing he had already left the area of Cecima.

If we go back to the theory that it was Arnaud de Verdale who took the Fieschi Letter to the Emperor in January 1339, this would mean that Edward II must have left the area of Cecima by the end of 1338. Furthermore, a man claiming to be Edward II travelled to Koblenz in September of 1338, where he met Edward III (there will be more on this tantalizing meeting in future, but for now we’re looking at the time-line). If Edward II fled the sanctuary near Mulazzo in June 1336, and then left the area of Cecima in the late summer of 1338, reaching Koblenz in September, it explains why the letter says he had been in Cecima for ‘around two years’, and was no longer there. It fits perfectly.

Mortimer has pointed out that the style of the Fieschi Letter changes drastically at the point in which Edward II leaves Avignon. Up to that point, the description of his journey is very rich in detail. The remaining part of the letter is comparatively lacking in detail, and covers at least five years in just a few, brief lines. This abrupt change is also clear in the English translation. Mortimer has suggested that it is due to the fact that Manuele Fieschi, the author of the letter, was based in Avignon. He would have met Edward II there in person, and heard his story up to that time in detail. Manuele would later have learnt of the ex-king’s remaining odyssey from a third party, perhaps a family member. Auramala Project researchers tend to agree with this interpretation.

After much consideration, we propose that this last section of the letter, the concise summary of the ex-king’s post-Avignon travels, could have been added to an earlier version, which only followed his wanderings up to Avignon, in order to prepare the letter for use as a diplomatic tool by Verdale in his dealings with the Emperor. We propose that this ‘update’ was made after Edward II left Cecima to go to Koblenz and meet his son, thus after late summer, 1338, and before the Pope’s letter to Verdale in January 1339.

Niccolinus Fieschi may have taken the first version of the letter, the story up until Edward II’s visit to Avignon, to Edward III in 1336. Verdale would have taken the second version, updated to his time ner Cecima, to the Emperor in January 1339. It is this second version that we know today, thanks to the anonymous scribe in Verdale’s cathedral of Maguelone, who copied it.

Ian Mortimer himself has seen the research contained in this post, and has made some thought provoking comments about it. Our next post will include a discussion of the points he makes, and a summary of the story so far.


(1) U. Dorini, Un grande feudatario del Trecento: S. M., Firenze 1940, pp 202-204. Concerning the siege of Pontremoli, Dorini makes use of various contemporary documents, including the Cortusi chronicles, and letters of Spinetta Malaspina. Spinetta Malaspina’s itinerary is a dizzying sequence of rapid movements and conflicts. In late 1335 he was involved in an attack against Pisa, before taking Sarzana in a surprise attack with a handful of men and the help of a traitor inside the town, on December 4th, 1335. In the spring of 1336 he was acclaimed governor of Lucca before turning around and leading his soldiers against Pontremoli on June 13th. In late July, while the siege of Pontremoli continued under the direction of Simone da Correggio, Spinetta was already fighting in the Marca Trevigiana, a region north of Venice, roughly 300 km away!

(2) Lit. ‘Guastatori di campagna’ Gio. Maria Ferrari, Cronaca Pontremolese, cit.: P. Bologna, La Storia di Pontremoli in Giornale Storico Letterario della Liguria, V, 1-2, January-February 1904.

(3) ‘Azzo da Correggio’, ‘Simone da Correggio’, articles by Giorgio Montecchi, and ‘Spinetta Malaspina il Grande‘, article by Franca Ragone, in Dizionario Biografico degli Italiani, Volume 67.

(4) The exact text is ‘et fuit in isto ultimo heremitorio per duos annos vel circa’: ‘and he was in this last hermitage for two years or thereabout’. The verb ‘fuit’ is past tense, meaning that at the time of writing he was no longer in the hermitage.


8 thoughts on “The Hunt for the King 8) The Countryside Wreckers and the King

  1. Wow. It does seem as though you are catching up with Edward. He appears to be fewer and fewer steps ahead. And what an amazing man to allow you to cut those pages. It is a kind of torture to know there is a book you just NEED and yet it is beyond your pocket. Hate that so much.

    I can’t wait to hear what Dr Mortimer has to say on all this, and your enigmatic reference to my dear John of Bohemia!

  2. Hi there, thanks a lot! Yes, there are moments when it gets exciting, and you think: wow, is this what Poirot and Ms Marple feel like when they fit two pieces of the puzzle together?

    That said, I wish it happened more often, and above all, I wish it was less hard work!

    I hope my reference to John doesn’t disappoint you, it’s actually about his role as a peace broker…


  3. Great blog … your work sounds as fascinating as it is valuable to history buffs. I’ve been reading through every post in “The Hunt for the King” section, and I am afraid that I don’t understand why someone might thnk that the Fieschi letter could be used as a diplomatic tool. After all, Edward III was crowned king after the forced abdication of his father — long before his alleged death — so the letter would not affect Edward III’s claim to the throne. Then, you seem to theorize that the letter would not have been used until after Edward III’s meeting with his father in Koblenz — in which case Edward III is perfectly sure that his father is alive — wouldn’t this make him more resistant to anything the Emperor might suggest, or able to explain why his father being alive doesn’t affect his claim to the throne?


    1. Dear Esther,

      Thank you very much for your comment, and your kind compliments. It’s great to see that the blog is appreciated. I’m sorry for replying so late, life has been frenetic and I don’t have much time for the blog right now.

      You raise two excellent questions/objections to the idea that the Fieschi Letter may have represented a valid instrument of diplomacy. 1) Edward II had already abdicated before allegedly being killed, so represented no threat to his son Edward III’s reign, should he really have been alive; 2) that Edward III, having met his father in Koblenz in 1338, would have been perfectly aware of his father’s survival and did not require a letter to tell him about it.

      I think the best thing is to write a short blog post replying in full, as a simple reply comment doesn’t give me the space I need. I shall post my answer very soon, in the Hunt for the King category. Thank you once again!

      Ivan Fowler.

    2. Dear Esther, I have just published a new post, answering your questions in full. Please let us know what you think! Ivan.

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