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.


Letter to the editor of ‘The Gloucester Citizen’

Dear Editor,

concerning the article ‘Murder Cold Case‘ by Ben Falconer, which appeared on December 02, 2013;
all of us here at the Auramala Project wish to thank your paper for running a story on the work of the Project and the ‘cold case’ of Edward II. Thanks also to Ben Falconer, the author of the article, for quoting our blog and mentioning its main aims and ambitions.
Regrettably, a small amount of misinformation crept into the article.
The article states that there are believed to be two skeletons in the ‘Italian’ tomb. In truth, the tomb is open and is empty, though a single skull fragment seems to have been found in it when it was opened, sometime around the year 1900.
Mr Falconer’s article also extensively quotes Mr David Smith, Berkely family archivist. Since Mr Falconer did not seek our answer to Mr Smith’s comments directly, before publishing, we wish to reply here. I personally met Mr Smith for a very pleasant lunch at Berkeley in July of this year. We had a lively conversation, and in fact I heard all of the views he expressed to Mr Falconer on that occasion, directly from Mr Smith.
Concerning the idea that virtually everybody believes the Fieschi letter is a forgery, a quick look around internet will tell readers this is highly debatable.
Mr Smith claims that, had the king really lived on after his ‘official death’, news of this would have traveled. But, if Edward II did live (and we do not claim to know the truth, you would need a time-machine to find out for sure) the evidence points to him living out the rest of his days in small monasteries as an anonymous hermit, possibly under the protection of an extremely powerful and well organized family, the Fieschi family of Genoa. Their influence ran very deep at a truly international level, and they had a long-standing association with the Malaspina family, who controlled the area indicated in the Fieschi letter, a valley in the Apennines of the Province of Pavia. Readers should know that this is exactly the same family and the same location chosen to hide another high ranking fugitive from would-be assassins in 1512:  Cardinal Giovanni de Medici, who later became Pope Leo X. Such families, in control of locations like these, were probably able to keep just about anything quiet, if they really wanted to.
Mr Smith continues by stating that the Latin of the Fieschi letter is ‘corrupt’, and that a papal notary like Manuele Fieschi, the purported author of the letter,  would never have used corrupt Latin. However, Medieval Latin was ‘corrupt’ (actually, I prefer the term ‘erratic’)  by its very nature. Auramala Project researchers have examined literally hundreds of papal letters: written, that is, by papal notaries or by the pope himself, from the era of the Fieschi letter. All of them, without exception, use ‘corrupt’ Latin. The Latin of the time was corrupt, everywhere, and that’s all there is to it. Let me give you an example that is close to home for Gloucestershire readers: in October 1330, Thomas, Lord Berkeley, was brought before parliament on charges of being ultimately responsible for Edward II’s well-being on the night he was (supposedly) murdered. He made a statement to parliament in his native tongue, Anglo-norman French, which was written down by the minute-taker in Latin. The minutes record that he said he had “heard nothing of his (Edward II’s) death until this present parliament”. The exact words in the parliament minutes are “nec unquam scivit de morte sua usque in presenti parliamento isto”. The use of ‘sua’ for ‘his’ is incorrect, by the standards of Latin grammar. It should be ‘illius’ or ‘eius’, not ‘sua’. But in Medieval Latin, such questions of form and grammar are largely ignored. Are we to conclude that the medieval English parliamentary rolls are forgeries?
Lastly, Mr Smith goes on to claim that the letter only survives as a copy that was created 30 years after Edward II died. This is partially true, however, the correct window of opportunity for the creation of the copy is from 1339 to 1368, so from 12 to 31 years after the king supposedly died. If the story of his survival were correct, however, it would mean the letter was actually possibly copied while he was still alive, or soon after.
Thank you once again for running the article on theAuramala Project, and for bringing our hard work to the attention of the Gloucestershire public.
Yours sincerely,
Ivan Fowler.