The Hunt for the King 17) The meteoric decline of the House of Fieschi

Readers by now will be wondering why, given that the Fieschi Family was so powerful and so influential for several hundred years, it is not well-known to the history-loving public today. Fair question. If we compare this family with, say, the House of Borgia, one really does have to wonder. The Borgias, too, could boast two popes. The Borgias, too, commanded incredible wealth and influence, both inside the Catholic church and in terms of land ownership and business affairs. The House of Borgia remained influential for a shorter period of time, from about 1400 through to about 1650, while the House of Fieschi rose to prominence with Ugo Fieschi, around the year 1200, and remained influential at the highest level of European politics until 1547, the year of their catastrophic decline from power.  So why are the Borgias the subject of so many books, films and TV series, while the Fieschis remain relatively unknown?

No doubt, the Borgias’ reputation for flamboyant corruption and poisoning adversaries plays a part. But let’s be honest, all of the powerful families in the Middle Ages and Renaissance practiced blatant, large-scale nepotism and corruption. That’s how they stayed powerful. The Fieschis certainly did. Perhaps they were more discreet about activity that could be considered criminal. Certainly, no reports have come to us of Fieschis poisoning their adversaries, though I personally would be very surprised if that didn’t happen at least once or twice. And as for outright corruption, one need only look at Cardinal Niccolò Fieschi (1456-1524) to see that the Fieschis were just as capable of it as the Borgias. Niccolò was made Cardinal by the second Borgia Pope, Alexander VI, and over the course of his career accumulated dozens upon dozens of church benefices – in other words, incomes from church property – the length and breadth of Europe. This made him a man of extraordinary wealth and influence. It’s a sobering thought that this cardinal twice came close to being annointed pope. The first time was in the 1513 conclave, when instead Giovanni de Medici became Pope Leo X, The second time, in the 1523 conclave, Niccolò Fieschi actually received the highest number of votes in the first, sixth, seventh and ninth ballots. If he had been elected he would have been the third Fieschi pope, and who knows when, if at all, the power of the Fieschis would have declined.

The heraldic emblem of the Fieschi Family. The seated cat at the top, sports the Fieschis’ ambiguous motto ‘sedens ago’ – ‘seated I act’.

And yet, decline it did, in the year 1547, with the Fieschi Conspiracy. Gian Luigi Fieschi, an ambitious young member of the family, plotted to take control of the city of Genoa from the great Andrea Doria, one of the most successful admirals of the 16th century. GianLuigi and his conspirators, during the night of January 2, 1547, managed to surprise the Doria ships unarmed in the port of Genoa, and post their men-at-arms in key points around the city. Early on the morning of January 3, they raised the cry ‘rally to the Cat, and freedom!’ The ‘Cat’ referred to the heraldic emblem of the Fieschi Family, the seated cat. However, just as they were attempting to persuade the people to flock to their banner, the word got around that Gian Luigi, their leader, was dead. During the night-time assault on the Doria ships, he had been crossing from his own galley onto one of the Doria galleys using a wooden gangway. The gangway had fallen into the sea, and with it Gian Luigi – wearing full armour. He had drowned immediately, leaving the conspiracy without its leader.

A bust of GianLuigi Fieschi, the last charismatic Fieschi, and the cause of the family’s downfall

The revenge against the Fieschis was immediate and effective: their lands, wealth and privileges were taken from them and divided among their enemies. No other fate could so completely have ruined the family. With their power-base gone, the Fieschis disappeared from European politics, literally overnight. However, though they cannot compete with the Borgias or Medicis in terms of modern-day stardom, in 1782 Schiller wrote a play on the Fieschi Conspiracy, which has ensured a certain notoriety for the family in the German-speaking world, and a silent film was based on this play in 1921 by Paul Leni. In 1856 Giuseppe Verdi composed the opera Simon Boccanegra, based on a Spanish play by Antonio Garcìa Gutiérrez, in which one of the main characters is a Fieschi, one of Verdi’s complex and sympathetic bass roles, and a fore-runner of his greatest bass character, King Phillip II in Don Carlos.

Today, the only descendents of the House of Fieschi who can claim any sort of eminence are the Princes of Belmonte. In fact, this family derives its very claim to nobility and their estates directly from the Fieschi Family itself.


The Hunt for the King 11) The People Hiders

What are the characteristics of great people hiders?


In our last post, we answered this question by saying: organizations that can count on discipline, hierarchy, and resources spread out over many countries. Such organizations, we stated, include the military, the Catholic Church, and disciplined organized crime syndicates – Mafia.


Of these three, the Catholic Church and family-based crime syndicates have the most pertinence to the case of the Fieschi Family and Edward II. The former because the Fieschi Family boasted enormous influence within the Church. The latter, because a family-based organized crime syndicate is perhaps the closest parallell we have today to a great medieval clan like the Fieschi Family, even though the two differ in terms of social legitimacy: the Mafia operates on the wrong side of the law, whilst in the middle ages, the great noble families were the law. They were the very definition of honourable.


Do the Church and the Mafia have a history of hiding people? And if so, how do they do it? Are their methods pertinent to the fate of Edward II, and the interpretation of the Fieschi Letter?


The Church


The English word ‘sanctuary’ comes from the Latin ‘sanctus’, meaning ‘holy’. Indeed, it has the same origin as the word ‘saint’. But in modern English, ‘sanctuary’ no longer means simply a ‘holy place’, but also a place of refuge, where a person can find protection. This is because the church and monastic communities, since at least AD 392, during the reign of Emperor Theodosius the Great, gave refuge so often and so widely in medieval times that ‘holy place’ became a synonym for ‘place of refuge’, and the word ‘sanctuary’ took on it’s modern meaning. In different lands, and at different times in history, there were different laws defining exactly who could seek refuge in abbeys, how, and for how long. For example, in 14th century England most places of sanctuary could only hide people from the law for 40 days, whilst a Chartered Sanctuary like Beaulieu Abbey in the New Forest, Hampshire, could shelter people for life, in some cases. (1) (2) However, it is not an exaggeration to say that in every age, in every country in Christendom, the church and monastic communities could and did offer a place of sanctuary for those in need. In Italy, one classic tale comes from Saint Clare of Assisi, a friend of Saint Francis of Assisi. Her father disapproved so much of her desire to follow Saint Francis’ teachings that she ran away from home in 1211 or 1212, and found refuge in the Benedictine Convent of Sant’Angelo di Panzo, in Umbria.

Saint Clare of Assisi
Saint Clare of Assisi


The Mafia


A friend of mine was working as an intern at the Italian national newspaper Il Corriere della Sera on April 11, 2006. He remembers well how, just fifteen minutes before the end of his shift, the phones started ringing in a frenzy. What was going on? Soon, a cry of triumph went up: ‘They’ve arrested Provenzano!’ After no less than 43 years on the run, the top boss of the Sicilian Mafia had finally been captured. He had been one of the world’s most sought-after criminals for decades, before being captured in a farmhouse just a few kilometres from his family home. How had he managed to evade capture? He had counted on a tightly disciplined family-based, hierarchical structure, and had placed his life and security in the hands of his wife, his brother-in-law, his nephew and, according to prosecutors, an entire family of accomplices, mother, father and children all. When it comes to hiding people, as the case of Provenzano shows, such family-based organizations are second to none. In the face of simple family ties, the highest-tech gadgets in the world, and thousands of hours of investigation by the finest intelligence officers around, may all be to no avail for literally decades.


In fact, the word ‘family’ is one common synonym for an organized crime syndicate, and the term encompasses not just kin, but the trusted underlings working for the family. Similarly, medieval noble families, and in particular the Fieschi Family, not only counted on a close-knit family network to organize and perpetuate their power, but also considered their most trusted and valued servants part of their ‘familia’ (the Latin word for ‘family’). Cardinal Luca Fieschi, head of the family at the time of Edward II, counted as his ‘familia’ a group of 79 people, all of whom held positions of power within the Catholic Church, and were the brothers and cousins of lords holding fiefs throughout the Apennines between Liguria and Lombardy – exactly where the Fieschi Letter says Edward II went to live as a hermit. (3)


Familiar Ground


Mafia boss Bernardo Provenzano was not just hidden by family and trusted associates: he was hidden just a few kilometres from his family home, in the countryside around Corleone, Sicily. The obvious advantage was familiarity with the terrain, and close control of the area by the family network. And here we find one more similarity between the way in which the Mafia hides people, and the way in which the Fieschi Family may have hidden Edward II.


If we follow the conclusions of Ian Mortimer, (4) the Fieschi Letter indicates that Edward II was hidden first in a remote sanctuary of the Catholic Church in lands where Bernabò Malaspina, Luca Fieschi’s nephew, was bishop, and where his cousins were feudal overlords. Then, later, he was hidden on lands where Percivalle Fieschi was bishop, and where Niccolò Malaspina, another nephew of Cardinal Luca Fieschi’s, was feudal overlord. Like an august, legal, honourable – and untouchable – Godfather, Cardinal Luca Fieschi could have elegantly provided Edward II with a network of people hiders that the Mafia could be envious of: church-based sanctuaries, on familiar gound that was under the control of the Cardinal’s relatives both in religious and in secular terms.


At this point in the research, having gone through these thought processes, I felt that that Mortimer’s case was good enough to warrant the focus of my attention. And so, while continuing to visit archives and photograph ancient documents, I also started investigating the Fieschi Family in greater depth. A particularly exciting part of this investigation was meeting the renowned scholar of the Fieschi Family, Mario Traxino, and interviewing him. The transcription of this interview will follow in the next post, and is the perfect introduction to the Fieschi Family.



(1) I. Bau, This Ground is Holy, New York, 1985

(2) J. Charles Cox, The Sanctuaries and Sanctuary Seekers of Medieval England, London, 1911

(3) R. de Rosa, Luca Fieschi alla Corte di Avignone, Edizione Firenze Atheneum, 1994

(4) I. Mortimer, Medieval Intrigue, London, 2010