Debating our research with Ian Mortimer

In this post we will summarize the progress so far, and it is our great pleasure to also report the reactions to our work to date of historian Ian Mortimer, and in the process add meaningful details to his own fresh ideas. It is particularly exciting to receive his observations, as his research was one of the starting points for the the Auramala Project. Of fundamental importance has been Mortimer’s outstanding leap of intuition that the Fieschi Letter could be examined through the lens of Fieschi family geo-politics. He commented on our work via email after reading our last post, and the hypothetical timeline for the Fieschi Letter it proposed. Here is a complete summary of that reconstruction:
The timeline
September 21, 1327: Edward II leaves Berkeley Castle.
March 19th, 1330: the Earl of Kent is executed. Sometime after this, Edward II leaves Corfe Castle. (The Fieschi Letter states he had been in Corfe for a year and a half, though this does not correspond to the period from late 1327 to spring 1330. This may also be a copyist’s mistake.)
1330?: he travels to Ireland by ship.
133-? to 133-?: he spends nine months in Ireland.
133-? to 133-?: he travels back to England, makes his way to Sandwich, and sails to Sluys.
133-? to 133-? he travels to Normandy and then south to Avignon, where he spends fifteen days and meets Pope John XXII. Here Manuele Feischi meets him, and hears his story in great detail.
133-? to late 1334: he leaves Avignon and travels to Paris, then to Brabant, then to Cologne, then to Milan, then finally to the Sanctuary of the Madonna del Monte above Mulazzo.
April 15th, 1336: Niccolò Fieschi arrives in England, carrying a copy of the Fieschi Letter complete up to Edward II’s sojourn in Avignon. He is immediately welcomed into the King’s council.
8th May-June/July 1336: the Rossi family of Parma flees to Pontremoli, near Mulazzo. The rival da Correggio clan attacks Pontremoli to finish off their enemies, and Edward II is moved on to Cecima, near Oramala, for his safety, given that the besieging soldiers are ‘countryside wreckers’.
Spring or summer 1338: Edward II leaves Cecima under the name of ‘William le Galeys’ to meet his son, Edward III at Koblenz in early September.
January 1339: Pope, Benedict XII, corresponds with his ambassador at the court of the Holy Roman Emperor, Arnaud de Verdale. The Pope sends Verdale two secret letters to show the Emperor, one marked ‘A’ and the other marked ‘B’. One of these letters is the Fieschi Letter, updated for the occasion by Manuele Fieschi in Avignon with un-detailed, second-hand information about Edward II’s travels after leaving Avignon.
Post-January 1339: Verdale retains his copy of the  Fieschi Letter when he becomes Bishop of Maguelone. During his time as Bishop, a register of cathedral documents is started, into which the Fieschi Letter is copied (presumably by mistake).
An old man in the snow?
In the above reconstruction, the length of time between leaving Corfe Castle and the arrival in Mulazzo is around four years. This is far longer than required to complete this itinerary.
One possible explanation is that Edward II, after years as a prisoner and being now around fifty (considered aging at the time), quite simply had trouble walking. Frankly, I am 33 and have just spent the last ten days avoiding walking due to acute muscular pain in one of my legs – and I have the benefit of modern medicine, too. If I was a medieval pilgrim, with no pain-killers, I would be looking for somewhere to rest for a good while, right now. If alive, and if the Fieschi Letter is the truth, Edward II was not only aging: he had been in captivity for years, so would have grown unused to physical exercise. He may simply have taken the journey at a particularly leisurely pace, staying for some time to rest at many places on his way. Also, as Chaucer tells us in the opening lines of the Canterbury Tales, medieval pilgrims preferred to start traveling in April. Edward II may have wintered over on more than one occasion, to avoid tramping through snow-drifts and slipping over on ice. I certainly would. If he habitually wintered over from December through April, this would explain a lot. Where and how he would have done so is something we’ve considered at great length, but it will have to wait for later posts.
Ian Mortimer comments (the context of this observation is actually a different timeline, see the full text below, under ‘Birth of a fresh timeline): “It leaves a long time for him to have travelled to Brabant and Cologne from Avignon but there is no reason especially to rule that out. Also, the dates inthe letter may be incorrect; we have no way of verifying. Manuele Fieschi got the length of time he was at Corfe wrong (or so it seems to me).”
War, or the threat of war?
Ian Mortimer commented on our hypothesis of the move from Mulazzo to Cecima in late spring or early summer, 1336. It contrasted with his timeline, given in Medieval Intrigue, in that he proposed Edward II changed abode due to the threat of war, not the outbreak of war itself.
“I know what you mean about the suddenness of battle but I do not think you can apply that generally to the threat of war. Things may simmer dangerously for some time before the knives are out. And Cardinal Luca was not the sort of person to leave it to the last moment to make sure his investment was safe. Nor I imagine were his nephews, especially il Marchesotto [Niccolò Malaspina, Margrave of Oramala, Ed.]. I would therefore not rule out the move in 1334 as a precaution.”
We certainly believe that the Fieschi family was prudent and habitually planned well ahead. However, if we base our research on the Fieschi Letter, the only solid piece of information we have about the sanctuary near ‘Castro Milascio’ – here identified as Mulazzo – is the phrase ‘…since war overran that castle [Milascio], he [Edward II] moved on…’ The letter does not say ‘since there was the threat of war’. This begs an open question: should we take the letter at its word? If so, the only military violence that actually touched the region of Mulazzo in those years was the siege of Pontremoli, which began in June, 1336.
Furthermore, the siege of Pontremoli was two years and a few months before a man traveling under the name ‘William le Galeys’ and claiming to be Edward II met with Edward III in early September, 1338, in Koblenz. The Fieschi Letter states that Edward II stayed in the sanctuary near Cecima for ‘two years or thereabouts’ and was no longer there at the time of writing. If he had moved to the sanctuary near Cecima to escape the siege of Pontremoli in June 1336, he would have been there for two years before leaving again to reach Koblenz. We believe one great strength of our hypothesis is exactly this: it neatly ties the war that ‘overran’ Castro Milascio’ to the arrival in Koblenz of a man claiming to be Edward II, using the precise timing given in the Fieschi Letter. Last, but not least, ours is the only hypothesis we are aware of that explains the fact that the Fieschi Letter states Edward II was no longer near Cecima at the time the letter was written (or rather, updated): he had just gone to Koblenz.
But, as we will shortly see, whether we take the letter literally or interpret it as implying the threat of war, both interpretations find plausible explanations in the history of the area at the time.
Birth of a fresh timeline
Mortimer’s next bit of feedback is particularly exciting, as a new proposal emerges from it.
“Having said that, let’s imagine – for the sake of argument – that we shift everything back a year [with respect to Mortimer’s timeline proposed in Medieval Intrigue, Ed.] So Edward II moved to Oramala in late 1335 as a precaution against a war that bubbled over into violence in 1336. The internal evidence of the letter (2 years at the sanctuary near Oramala) would then date it to the second half of 1337. This would tie in with the visit of Luca’s nephew, Antonio Fieschi, to England, with two men from the Val di Magra [Lunigiana, Ed,]. I’ve often thought about that visit. Given their names (Giffredus di Groppo and Francesco Fosdinovo) and the bishop’s see (Luni), it would not have been hard for Edward III and his Italian friends to put two and two together and to work out whereabouts his father was, if he didnt already know. Certainly the Fieschi would have been cautious of giving too much away if Edward II’s location was secret at this time. On this basis, I think that that visit of Antonio Fieschi is the terminus ante quem [last possible opportunity, Ed.] for the receipt of the Fieschi letter (original copy) by its intended recipient, Edward III. If Antonio carried Manuele’s letter (the two men were co-executors of Cardinal Luca’s will, I seem to remember, so were in contact), then this would suggest the letter was written in the autumn of 1337, and the transfer of the king took place in the autumn of 1335. Possibly a little later if the ‘two years’ was a rounding up. This would suggest in turn he did not arrive at the Mulazzo hermitage until perhaps late 1332. It leaves a long time for him to have travelled to Brabant and Cologne from Avignon but there is no reason especially to rule that out. Also, the dates inthe letter may be incorrect; we have no way of verifying. Manuele Fieschi got the length of time he was at Corfe wrong (or so it seems to me).”
We are delighted to be able to add weight to Mortimer’s speculation above. He wonders if Edward II might have been moved to Cecima in autumn 1335. Indeed, on 4th December, 1335, Bernabò Malaspina, together with his cousin Spinetta Malaspina, seized Sarzana, 35 kilometres away from Mulazzo, with a handful of men and the help of a traitor inside the town(1). Bernabò Malaspina was the bishop of the Lunigiana and nephew of Cardinal Luca Fieschi, head of the Fieschi family. He may well have known that Edward II was in Lunigiana, and had him moved to Cecima, near Oramala, ahead of time, in case the attack on Sarzana went horribly wrong, and the violence spilled over into the surrounding countryside. If we imagine Edward II wintered over at the Fieschi-dominated Abbey of St Andrea di Borzone before arriving in the region of Oramala in the spring, it brings the rest of this fresh timeline proposed by Mortimer snugly into line with the rest of our own timeline above. We also know from a letter addressed to Luca Fieschi that a trusted agent of the Cardinal’s reached Oramala in November 1335(2). He possibly arrived there from the Lunigiana, as the letter in question is full of news concerning that region. It’s tantalizing to think: had this agent, named Giovanni Nero, gone to the Lunigiana and then to Oramala in order to oversee the move of Edward II? We eagerly await feedback from Mortimer and others on this possibility, too.
The Verdale Hypothesis revisited
Mortimer’s last comment concerns the idea that Arnaud de Verdale, papal ambassador to the Emperor, used the Fieschi Letter as a tool of diplomacy in January 1339.
“I’m not convinced that Verdale used the text of the letter in negotiations with the Emperor. His volume also contains a letter concerning Niccolinus’ Fieschi’s arrest by the king of France; clearly he was interested in the Fieschi side of things. It is possible, for example, that he heard of the survival of Edward II while on his mission in Germany (after Edward II had been taken to Cologne in 1338 under the auspices of Niccolinus Fieschi) and wanted to know more – and enquired of Niccolinus or Manuele as to the details – and copied both of the letters into his book prior to returning them (or their otherwise being destroyed).”
Here we feel obliged to defend the Verdale Hypothesis on the basis that incredibly sensitive documents like the Fieschi Letter were unlikely to be given out to satisfy mere curiosity. If we compare this with the Verdale Hypothesis, where a plausible diplomatic explanation for his possession of the letter is given within a broader historical and political context, we believe the Verdale Hypothes wins out. Interestingly, the original tip-off for that hypothesis came from opposers of the Fieschi Letter. We enjoy this irony, and believe it even adds an extra edge of credibility to the theory, as it encompasses information coming from both sides of the debate.
The second Fieschi-related document Mortimer mentions here is contained in a separate volume of the Maguelone register, copied by a different scribe, and refers to an event (a kidnapping) that was as scandalous and well-known at the time as Edward Snowden’s revelations about the NSA are today (or rather, as famous as any event could be at the time, given the mass media did not exist). The content of the Fieschi Letter, by contrast, was completely secret until its re-discovery in the 1870s.
The fundamental outcome
Readers may be wondering why we are so pleased to find evidence supporting Mortimer’s new theory (see Birth of a fresh timeline, above) even though it partly contradicts our own. To put it simply, what really emerges from all of this is that there was more than one window of opportunity in the geo-politics if the 1330s for the Fieschi Letter to be plausible in its details. That is what really counts: this debate shows that the Fieschi Letter was, and is, plausible, given the known historical context of the time.
Frustratingly, it may yet be a plausible, sophisticated lie, and Edward II really did die in Berkeley Castle. Only Phase 3 of the Auramala Project will tell. But what really matters for now is its plausibility. The Fieschi Letter was not some cheaply concocted fairytale: it would have represented a potentially devastating threat to Edward III if its contents had become widely known. Indeed, Ian Mortimer has thoroughly explored the potential consequences of this for Edward III in both Medieval Intrigue and his biography The Perfect King.
(1) Hkedikova, Zdenka, Raccolta Praghese di Scritti di Luca Fieschi, Prague, 1981
(2) Dorini, Umberto, Un Grande Feudatario del Trecento: Spinetta Malaspina, Firenze, 1940
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2 thoughts on “Debating our research with Ian Mortimer

  1. Fascinating, as ever. i look forward to your research when you bring other documents into the equation, the ones that do not rely on the Fieschi letter and tie them in with that Italian source.

  2. Thanks! Yes, we’re working on translating the documents involved so far into English. It’s taking a little time, but they will arrive! Then there are all the new documents we have found in the archives… Little by little, we’ll get there!

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