We’re now going to leave aside our in-depth analysis of the Fieschi Letter and finally take a look at the identity of the man who probably wrote it. As we have said, very few commentators doubt that it was written by Manuele Fieschi, we ourselves have found no reason to doubt it, so we will proceed to consider him the true author of the text, and try to understand who he was.
How we know what we know about Manuele Fieschi
In order to write in an informed way about Manuele Fieschi, I have personally examined approximately 800 papal letters from the reigns of Pope John XXII and Pope Benedict XII, in easily consultable printed editions (in Latin). Together with Stefano Castagneto and Elena Corbellini, we have also examined several hundred original documents in the Capitulary (Cathedral) Archives of Vercelli, Genoa and Bologna and the State Archives of Biella. Further assistance has come from the Vatican Secret Archives. For nearly two years I searched in vain for a complete copy of his last Will and Testament: I still haven’t found it, though I have pieced together much of what it must have contained from incomplete fragments, discovered after leafing through seemingly unending archival documents in various cities. In fact, though I have discovered in the order of 600 documents that concern Manuele in some form or another, most of which are papal letters, in order to find them I, Castagneto and Corbellini have examined at least 10,000 documents, perhaps twice that. No one was counting!
This was not just an obsessive search for biographical information about an obscure papal functionary. Together with the analysis of the Fieschi Letter, this is perhaps our most important contribution to the debate over the true fate of Edward II. Many authors have piled conjecture upon conjecture as to Manuele Fieschi’s motivations in writing his famous letter. Paul Doherty in his 2003 book Isabella and the Strange Death of Edward II, is the writer who, before us, has dedicated the most time and attention to Manuele Fieschi. Sadly, his lengthy dissection of the Letter, purporting to know the mind of Manuele, his motivations and his methods, depicts him as a scheming, immoral, self-aggrandizing priest in need of cash and benefices and willing to blackmail a distant king (Edward III) and his mother (Isabella of France) in order to get them. Doherty’s analysis not only claims to be mind-reading, but displays total ignorance of a) Latin, b) the functioning of the medieval church and c) the Fieschi Family. As a senior member of this family and a high ranking employee of the Pope, Manuele no doubt had far healthier finances than the English crown… Edward III was more likely to have asked him for a bit of cash than the other way round! Oh, if only Doherty had actually read something about the workings of the 14th century church before writing… It will take time, but I will come back to Doherty’s analysis little by little over the next few posts and show why it is so profoundly inept.
While Doherty’s “analysis” is by far the worst researched, it is certainly not the only one to approach Manuele through conjecture. Even the great Seymour Phillips himself is guilty of this: in his 2010 biography of Edward II, the most complete treatment of the subject to date, and a work of such high scholarship that I could only dream of, he lets his guard down when discussing Manuele Fieschi. He suggests that he was deceived into writing the Fieschi Letter by an impostor pretending to be Edward II. As we will show over the next few weeks, it is absolutely certain that Manuele Fieschi could not have been fooled by an impostor. He had numerous ways in which to verify the identity of the man he was talking with, and not only. Our research shows that he also had the tools to personally verify every single detail of the account in the Letter, except perhaps one or two. This is one reason we did this research: in order to answer the question ‘If Manuele Fieschi wrote the Letter, could he have been fooled by impostor?’ And, after years of work, we can answer with a resounding ‘No!’
Ian Mortimer, whose groundbreaking research was the starting point for our own research, says very little about Manuele Fieschi in his Medieval Intrigue. The great strength of Mortimer’s work lies in understanding the spread and significance of the Fieschi Family. In revealing this ‘clan-like’ organisation, and realising that the clan chief was Cardinal Luca Fieschi, Mortimer leaps from Manuele Fieschi to Cardinal Luca andthe entire Fieschi syndicate, a powerful, widespread and highly structured organisation at the time. There is no doubt in my mind that this is indeed the true key to understanding the Fieschi Letter, but at the same time it is a deductive leap made from the actual signature on the page, that of Manuele himself. Furthermore, although the contents of the Letter do indeed hint at the Fieschi power network, once one knows what it was and how it worked, only one member of the clan is directly named, Manuele himself. Of course, at the time to name one Fieschi was to name them all, but we cannot expect modern readers to take our word for that. And so, we said to ourselves at the start of our research, it’s time the world really found out just who Manuele Fieschi was.
Essentially, the Auramala Project team has gone the extra mile, has found the documents, and done the research, and we are now ready to publish, firstly a biography of Manuele Fieschi (as complete as possible given the sources) and secondly examine how, even without taking the Fieschi Family syndicate into account, Manuele by himself can easily account for everything written in the Letter. Then, by further investigating the extent and workings of the syndicate through Manuele Fieschi (as we will see, his role in the family was one of networking, cohesion, bringing together of family interests), our research adds enormous confirmation and weight to Ian Mortimer’s brilliant hypothesis.