The Hunt for the King 30) Was the Fiecshi Letter Written by a Lawyer?

The real, historical Manuele Fieschi, was a papal notary. This means he was a professional lawyer in an extremely prestigious position, responsible for producing documents – both ecclesiastic and diplomatic in nature – for the Pope himself. In other words, a highly trained legal professional, carrying enormous responsibility.

Some historians have argued that the Fieschi Letter was not actually written by the real, historical Manuele Fieschi. Foremost among these is Roy Martin Haines, in his 2003 book King Edward II: Edward of Caernarfon, his life, his reign, and its aftermath, 1284–1330. He comments that the Fieschi Letter looks like part of a wider attempt to establish a cult of sainthood for the dead Edward II, and that “Its attribution to Fieschi is conceivably yet another carefully contrived circumstantial detail. […] Fieschi’s name may have been ‘borrowed’ to lend authenticity to the whole affair.” (Pg238) Haines does not stop there: he justifies his claim that the Fieschi Letter was not written by Manuele on the grounds that the style of writing does not seem to be consistent with the profession of Manuele Fieschi – a papal notary.

Part of Haines’s argument is linguistic in nature, and we will come back to that in later posts. We will also come back to the question of whether or not the Letter may have been part of an attempt to sanctify Edward II. For the moment, lets focus on the underlying question: is Fieschi Letter the work of Manuele Fieschi? Is it plausibly the work of a papal notary?

Firstly, it must be said that most historians looking at this issue do not question that Manuele Fieschi was the true author of the Letter. For example, Seymour Phillips in his 2010 biography Edward II believed that Fiecshi wrote the Letter, but was deceived in doing so by an impostor claiming to be Edward II. Mark Ormrod does not question the authorship in his 2011 biography Edward III. So, Haines is in the distinct minority in this respect, but it raises an interesting and important question nevertheless.

Over the last few months, a British sollicitor, historian and genealogist called Kevin McKenzie (see here for his contribution to the fascinating book May We Be Britons: a History of the McKenzies) has become a contributor to our crowd-researching project. He has made some extremely valuable contributions, one of which clearly demonstrating some of the advantages of the crowd-researching approach – the people involved can bring insights from other professions, not just history. In his daily life, Kevin is a sollicitor, and it was as a legal professional that he noticed something important about the Fieschi Letter: it has a definite ‘lawyerly’ sound to it. There is something ‘sollicitor-like’ to the way it is written. As Kevin wrote:

I see that the letter begins with the opening words:  “In the name of the Lord, Amen” and that its concluding words make clear that it was a draft prepared with the intention of having affixed to it the seal of Manuele Fieschi.  The affixation of a seal to a document appears to me to have been the equivalent at the time of swearing a document.  Compare for instance the affixation of the seals of the homagers to the 1296 Ragman Roll* as evidence of their oath of allegiance to Edward I.

This seems to me therefore to be tantamount to a document intended to be sworn by the possessor of the seal referred to in the document’s concluding paragraph UNDER OATH – and given the opening words of the letter, the affixation of Manuele Fieschi’s seal to it would have been tantamount also to blasphemy if he as the sealer of the letter was uncertain as to its contents or knew its contents to be definitely or possibly untrue.

And on the subject of circumspect lawyerly language, the use of the bare simple words “your father” and the bald unadorned “he” and “him” when referring to Edward II – rather than, say, “King Edward your father” or “His Highness your father” or “His Highness” etc seems to have been an obvious legal means of avoiding the diplomatic embarassment and potential grave offence of using the wrong mode of address when referring to the oddity (without legal precedent at the time) of a king who had abdicated/been deposed – and to make matters even more horrendously complicated, in doing so addressing a king who was the son of that deposed king during the lifetime of the deposed king!  These words therefore surely indicate that the writer used this term “your father” (without more) deliberately for this precise reason.  They therefore surely support the genuineness of the letter.

From an illuminated medieval manuscript: a notary drawing his signum tabellionis at the bottom of a legal document (perhaps an instrumentum). The signum tabellionis was the individual mark as a notary, identifying him, and was a frequent alternative to affixing a seal. In the top left the first letter of the document is also highly elaborate. This, too, could identify the individual notary or scribe, as Elena Corbellini has already discussed in her analysis of the Fieschi Letter.

And so we have a modern day lawyer appreciating the lawyerly skill with which the Fieschi Letter was composed, and noting that it is essentially a formal declaration, or testimony, made under holy oath – ‘In the name of the Lord’.

This aspect of the Letter was first noticed three years ago by Stefano Castagneto, whom readers have met in the last two posts. As a regular reader of medieval legal documents, and in particular those written by Genoese notaries, he immediately commented that the Fieschi Letter had tell-tale signs throughout it that it was, in fact, written by a notary, and that it is both a letter and, at the same time, a legal declaration, an instrumentum, as these notary-written legal documents were known. The proof of this is in the formal composition of the Letter. A quick explanation for readers who, like me before beginning this research, don’t really know what this means. Formal composition is the way a document is made up, what parts form it, and in what order. For example, an essay may have a ‘tripartite’ (three-part) composition, with introduction, discussion and conclusion. Letters, particularly formal letters, have headers, addressee, sender, salutation, main body, complimentary closing, signature, and so forth. Legal documents have their own, often complex, formal compositions. So, what about the Fieschi Letter? How is it constructed, and is this composition appropriate for the time, and for what it claims to be: the letter of a papal notary to an English king, containing testimony of extraordinary events?

Elena Corbellini invited Stefano Castagneto to analyse the formal composition of the Fieschi Letter, and the next two posts will concern just that.

Ivan Fowler.


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