The Hunt for the King 29) Two professors discuss the corrections in the Fieschi Letter

[As we continue reading Elena Corbellini and Stefano Castagneto’s conversation regarding the Fieschi Letter, we turn to the subject of the corrections present in the Letter, and what they mean. The gist of the conversation is this: both professors agree that the Fieschi Letter as we know it today is an ‘imitative’ copy of the antigraph. In other words, it was meant to be as close a representation of the antigraph as possible, in all its aspects – including corrections. In an age before photocopiers, this had to be done by hand. However, since fresh human errors would inevitably be made in the copy itself, there had to be a way of distinguishing between corrections and variations already present in the antigraph – and so intentionally recreated in the copy – and any mistakes made in the copying process. Thus, according to Stefano Castagneto, the scribe most likely used expunction marks – dots beneath words – to indicate where the correction was already present in the antigraph, while his own mistakes were struck through. Insertions in the interlinear space may be either reproductions of insertions in the antigraph, or the scribe’s own insertions, we cannot be sure. There is also a brief discussion of the word ‘vacat’ in the right-hand margin, which Castagneto believes simply indicates the absence of the authentification markings that are present for most of the other documents copied into the chartulary. Ed.]


2. Corrections present in the text: different hypotheses.

During our long conversation on the telephone, Stefano Castagneto and I discussed the part of my analysis of the Fieschi Letter that regards the corrections contained in the manuscript (see ….) which have, until now, been all but ignored by other scholars.

I shall begin with my hypothesis to explain them, and Castagneto’s opinion.

Elena Corbellini – As you read in my analysis, I proposed the hypothesis that the copy of Maguelone (M) [the artefact now known as the ‘Fieschi Letter’ and today preserved in the archives of Montpellier, Ed.] was derived from an antigraph which already contained corrections and possible variants, which were diligently reproduced in M by the copyist, who may also have added some of his own. The antigraph may therefore have been a minuta [draft, Ed.] of the definitive text, therefore a near-final ‘work in progress’, of the kind that were, in those years, often used in place of originals. Such a text may well have been in the hands of Arnaud de Verdale, and copied at his behest into this section of the Maguelone chartulary.

Stefano Castagneto – Absolutely! Why else would the copyist who made M have indicated some cancellations by striking them through, and others with expunction marks [dots beneath the words, Ed.]? I, too, believe that it was in order to distinguish the corrections that were already present in the manuscript from which he was copying, the antigraph, as you call it in your most precise analysis. This is true for the corrections indicated the with expunction marks, in my opinion. On the other hand, the additions made in the interlinear space are due to uncertainty or mistakes on the part of the Maguelone copyist, perhaps caused by unclear writing in the antigraph he was copying from.

EC – In the notes you sent Ivan you wrote: “a distracted copyist, who perhaps sometimes incorrectly read the text he was supposed to reproduce; or then again it may be that someone was dictating the text to the copyist, and that person made mistakes from time to time which were then corrected, which would also explain the corrections and cancellations. For example, at the end of the third line: after the pause, caesura, he wrote et perdidit when he suddenly realised he had forgotten an ibi, and inserted it in the interlinear space, either because his eye had outpaced his hand, or because he then mentally went back over the sentence, following the narration, and noticed the mistake. And when he was ready to start the new line and found himself about to write a long word (ad requisitionem), he realised something was missing to understand the text: exactness, precision, documentation, certainty, the need to leave no room for doubt or false readings of a text’s meaning… these are the first duties of every Notary.”

SC – Yes, I confirm what I wrote. This is the case also for the regine in the interlinear space at l.18, which seems to be another ‘final’ addition: in the sense that the copyist, after writing, reread the line and – considering the evident interest and curiosity the narration presents – noticed that the sense of that phrase did not run clearly in that point, and added that regine (‘to the queen’), almost as though ‘in brackets’. Even if she did not effectively order the assassination herself, she was the queen, and lover of Mortimer for some time. And in a hasty reading, or dictation, it is natural to read continuando (‘continuously’) instead of cum dimidio (‘and a half’) in the closing stages of a letter, as you rightly noted in your analysis. Above all because this was a rhetorical form of the gerund that was in customary use, and is by no means out of place in the closing stages of important and relevant documents.

EC – I find your hypothesis of dictation very interesting. Would distracted or hurried dictation explain, in your opinion, the ‘double reading’ at l.22 fuerat mortuus… decapitatus (‘he died… was decapitated’)? I’m inclined to see that as a variation already present in the antigraph – a text that was a ‘work in progress’, though nearly finished, with some final variations and corrections added. Among other things, this correction implies precise knowledge of what happened: the Earl of Kent was, in fact, decapitated, as befit his lineage and rank, as others indeed were not… drawn and quartered! Could the copyist in Maguelone have known about this decapitation?

SC – It was probably already present in the antigraph. In fact, there are expunction marks beneath the words. I completely agree that this is an ‘imitative’ copy, a copy that was designed to be a ‘photocopy’ of the original text, which was certainly a minuta (draft). And that it was in the possession of Bishop Verdale is absolutely plausible, for the reasons you wrote in your analysis, and given the situation delineated by the papal letters you examined. It may have been used in the negotiations of the period, just as other copies of documents perhaps were. It was precisely the papal legates [like Verdale, Ed.], and the officers and curates sent to them as messengers, who held copies of documents of this nature, which they received in order to present them, make declarations, or even just to hint at their contents, during discussions with the person they were sent to negotiate with. [In this case, the Holy Roman Emperor Louis IV, Ed.] And they carried out these negotiations following orders given, mostly verbally, making use of their discretion, judgement, exploiting opportunities. This is where the true ability of a negotiator lay, in their savoir faire. These men had to be as trusted, as close to and trusted as possible, by those who sent them. [in this case, the Pope, Ed.] And so it is plausible that, according to how the negotiations were proceeding, they would use a given document in discussions, or decide not to; or they might hint at a given document, allude to it… on the basis of how the mission was going… As for how the negotiations actually went… it’s very unlikely that precise, certain texts exist: what we can do is compare the documents produced by the various stakeholders involved, and their intentions, (it seems to me above all the goals of the Pope and his court in Avignon…) in order to gain a better impression… And the fact that the addressee is missing may also be a case of prudence.

EC- And so it was missing in the antigraph. And speaking of ‘missing’, what do you make of that vacat in the right-hand margin? Does it indicate the absence of the addressee, the existence of another copy in the same collection, or the absence of the recognovi [the authentification markings, Ed.] which are in the same position in the other documents?

SC- To me the latter explanation seems the most likely: the authentification is missing.


[Castagneto’s final suggestion is to carefully examine and compare all the documents from the period of Verdale’s negotiation with the Emperor (autumn/winter 1338-9) produced by all the stakeholders in the negotiations: the Pope, Edward III, the Emperor, the King of France and the Bardi and Peruzzi banking houses, who were the financiers of all sides in the conflict. This is precisely what the Auramala Project will do. Ivan Fowler]



The Hunt for the King 16) Friends make the worst enemies – part two

“The scene was set for a kind of Renaissance – two hundred years early.” Professor Castagneto continues, shaking his head. “An enlightened ruler sat on the Imperial throne who was a poet, a great patron of the arts, and was doing his best to re-awaken interest in Greek and Arab learning throughout Christendom. What’s more, a friend of his, and another very learned man, had ascended to the Papal throne. But the Fieschi Pope threw away the chance.”

“How” I asked him “could the Pope have behaved differently?”

“The key to everything was the city-states of Lombardy. At that time Lombardy meant all of northern and most of central Italy. Dante even includes Tuscany in Lombardy in his writing. Well, the city-states had always defended their independence against the Emperor by siding with the Pope. That’s where the Guelph – Ghibelline divide comes from. The Guelphs supported the Pope against the Emperor, and in exchange the Pope safeguarded their independence from the Emperor in matters like taxes and military service. The Ghibellines, the pro-Imperial faction, often had their origins in the landed aristocracy, from the countryside beyond the cities. This was because they depended on the Emperor for the right to possess their fiefs. Every generation of the aristocratic families had to get their titles renewed by the Emperor, otherwise they were not legitimate. Well, the strange thing is that the Fieschis were originally one of these. The Fieschis were part of the family of the Counts of Lavagna, and Lavagna was an Imperial fief: the Emperors had given the Fieschis their title.”

“So why were the city-states the key? I don’t understand.”

“Because by the time of Frederick II, the city-states were more important than the landed aristocracy. They were richer, more influential, they were minting money in their own right, they were controlling more and more of the trade routes. In theory, they were still under the lordship of the Emperor, but only in theory. Frederick ruled in the south of Italy, and he ruled in Germany, but in the middle were the city-states of Lombardy, dividing his realm into two detached parts. He could not truly unite his Empire unless the city-states were with him. But the city-states traditionally sided with the Pope whenever an Emperor became too powerful, like the case of Frederick II. But here we had for the first time two friends on the two most important thrones of Christendom – and one of them was stupor mundi, the Wonder of the World. Can you imagine what could have happened had the Pope had worked with Frederick II, and persuaded the Lombard city-states to co-operate with him? His Empire could have truly been united, and he could have been free to foster culture, learning and the arts on a grand scale from the Mediterranean to the North Sea, for the first time since Charlemagne!”

“Sounds too good to be true.”

“Probably.” Castagneto sips from his glass of vermentino sadly. “After all, a Pope cannot be a Ghibelline, as Frederick himself said. But Fieschi should have tried!” He stabs at an imaginary Sinibaldo Fieschi in the air with his finger. “And he didn’t. He avoided every possible opportunity to make peace with Frederick II, and declared a universal crusade against him. That suited the Lombard city-states down to the ground.”


In this map of 13th century central Europe, the green of Southern Italy and the blue of the Holy Roman Empire show the theoretical extent of Frederick II's realm. In reality, the cities of northern Italy (Lombardy) only paid lip-service to him.
In this map of 13th century central Europe, the green of Southern Italy and the blue of the Holy Roman Empire show the theoretical extent of Frederick II’s realm. In reality, the cities of northern Italy (Lombardy) only paid lip-service to him.

Truly, it must be said that Frederick II did not make it easy for the Papacy to work with him. In one dramatic moment, just before Sinibaldo Fieschi became Pope, he actually took captive two Cardinals bound for Rome on Genoese galleys, together with their retinues. The conclave that elected Sinibaldo Fieschi Pope was moved from Rome to Anagni out of fear of Imperial attacks, or so it seems. The chronicles say that Frederick II rejoiced when he heard that Sinibaldo had become Pope, but if this is the case, it was wishful thinking, in my opinion.

Research for the Auramala Project has led me and my colleagues deeper into the workings of the medieval church than we had ever expected. To be fair to Sinibaldo Fieschi, he was at the helm of an immense – and immensely complicated – ship that he could not turn around at whim. Even if he had wanted to side with Frederick II, it simply wasn’t his call to make. The church was just too big, with too many vested interests across all of Europe, and too interwoven with all other forms of power, both aristocratic, and city-based. The Church absolutely had to defend its own prerogatives against the Empire, whatever the Pope’s personal feelings about the Emperor in question. In fact, as we shall see over the next few posts, the power of the Fieschi Family to a large degree was built around the prerogatives of the medieval church, and Sinibaldo Fieschi’s own legal writings were all dedicated to preserving this status quo.

Even so, like Professor Castagneto, many have dreamt ardently of the Renaissance that might have been. I dream of it too, though I doubt it was ever anything more than a mirage, even – especially – at the time of Frederick II himself. This is a modern dream of ours that he couldn’t have even entertained at the time, when the very idea of ‘Renaissance’ did not yet yet exist.

Gustave Doré's illustration of the fiery coffin containing the heretics - including Frederick II - in Dante's Inferno.
Gustave Doré’s illustration of the fiery coffin containing the heretics – including Frederick II – in Dante’s Inferno.

The Hunt for the King 15) Friends make the worst enemies

“Shameful! Absolutely shameful!” Professor Castagneto brings his massive fist down on the tagle, making our wine glasses jump. “Sinibaldo Fieschi held the Renaissance back by 200 years, and he did it betraying a friend!” My friend and mentor can get very emotional about history, as though he were personally involved in events that occurred hundreds of years ago. But in this case, many historians would agree with him wholeheartedly. Indeed, if there was ever a moment in time when the Fieschi Family literally changed the fate of civilisation, it was during the papacy of Pope Innocent IV, Sinibaldo Fieschi, and his enmity with Frederick II, ‘stupor mundi’ – ‘the wonder of the world’.


Sinibaldo Fieschi (1190 circa – 1254) was orphaned at a young age, and was raised in Parma by his uncle Obizzo, the bishop of that city. He soon went to study law at the University of Bologna, where a document of December 5, 1223, refers to him with the title ‘magister’, or Master – most likely meaning that he had begun teaching and writing as well as studying. At the same time he already held the title of papal sub-deacon. This was only the beginning of an illustrious career in which he rose to the rank of cardinal and played a major role in diplomacy for a succession of popes, until he became pope himself in 1243. It seems that, during this twenty-year period, Sinibaldo came into contact with, and even became friends with, the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II.


Sinibaldo Fieschi was a man of immense learning. He personally wrote a large number of legal texts defining the rights and responsibilities of the Papacy. His personal library was rich in texts concerning theology, law and philosophy, many of which later made their way into the library of Luca Fieschi, one of the protagonists of our story, and from his personal library into that of Manuele Fieschi, author of the Fieschi Letter. As pope, Sinibaldo demonstrated awareness of the world beyond Christendom, particularly by sending ambassadors to the Mongol Empire, at that time expanding towards its greatest ever extension. Indeed, he is widely recognised by historians as one of the great medieval popes.

Sinibaldo Fieschi, Pope Innocent IV, meets King Louis IX of France
Sinibaldo Fieschi, Pope Innocent IV, meets King Louis IX of France

Frederick II (1194 – 1250) was the grandson of Holy Roman Emperor Frederick I, known universally as ‘Barbarossa’, or Redbeard, and indeed inherited his legendary grandfather’s red hair. He was raised in the Kingdom of Sicily, of which he became king in 1198, at the age of just 4. In reality, his kingdom was not just the island of Sicily, but all of what is now southern Italy, from the Marche region down, with twin capitals in Naples and Palermo. This region was an extraordinary melting pot of cultures. In Puglia and Calabria, once Ancient Greek colonies, the people spoke Greek (some groups of people there still do today). Arab invasions and trading contacts over the years had led to a strong influx of Arabic culture. Norman invasions had also strengthened cultural links with northern Europe – to this day a nickname for people from Reggio Calabria is ‘stock fish eaters’, where stock fish is dried north sea cod. In fact, the Italian word ‘stoccafisso’ itself comes from the same root as ‘stock fish’. Frederick II was a true child of this multicultural kingdom.


Castel del Monte, in Puglia, the most famous castle built by Frederick II. In fact, some call him a medieval 'talent scout', for the numerous artists, architects and poets he patronised.
Castel del Monte, in Puglia, the most famous castle built by Frederick II. In fact, some call him a medieval ‘talent scout’, for the numerous artists, architects and poets he patronised.


Frederick proved to be an enlightened, original and daring (though temperamental) ruler, and many regard his administrative policies as precursors to modern ideals of government. At a time when Baghdad was one of the great cultural capitals of the world, he sponsored the translation of Arabic and Greek works of scholarship into Latin, and personally sent copies to European universities. He invited Arab philosophers to his court and conversed with them in person. He founded the University of Naples. Under his rule, there was the first flowering of the Italian language with the ‘Sicilian Poets’ – one of whom was Frederick himself, for he composed poetry. He is even said to have passed such common-sense  laws as ruling against trial by combat on the grounds that the best combattant would win regardless of his guilt or innocence – a far cry from the stereotype of the medieval ruler.


The chronicles claim that Frederick II referred to Sinibaldo Fieschi as a friend. And yet, Sinibaldo was soon to  announce a universal crusade against Frederick… (To be continued…)

The Hunt for the King 9) Pope Benedict XII’s Letter to his Legate, Arnauld de Verdale, at the court of Emperor Louis de Bavaria, January 1339

A long-promised letter

Months have now passed since I promised to publish a full translation of Pope Benedict XII’s letter to Arnauld de Verdale in January 1339. This document speaks of a letter which may well be the Fieschi Letter. To remind readers, Verdale was the Pope’s ambassador (legate) at the court of the Emperor, Louis IV (Louis de Bavaria in the letter). Edward III of England had just forged an alliance with the Emperor in aid of the coming war against France. The Pope was trying to prevent this war, and the Fieschi Letter would have represented a powerful diplomatic tool for him in this context. The Fieschi Letter was found among in a register of papers of the Cathedral of Maguelone, where Verdale became bishop just a few months later. We therefore believe it is possible that the Fieschi Letter was used in the context of these diplomatic negotiations with the Emperor, and that Verdale kept a copy of it when he went to Maguelone. Indeed, as you will read, the Pope’s letter mentions two letters, marked A and B, that Verdale was to present to the Emperor. Was one of them the Fieschi Letter? If so, perhaps one day, searching among the papers of the Imperial court of the time, traces of the Fieschi Letter could emerge.

Here follows the translation of the letter and the attached cedula, followed by a comment

NOTE – The Pope refers to himself in the first person plural (We/Us/Our), always given capital letters, while pronouns referring to the Emperor (He/Him/His) are similarly given capital letters.

560 Avignon 23/01/1339 Benedict XII – that which Arnauld de Verdale, his legate, shall reply to any requests made by Louis de Bavaria. (Close Letters, Vatican Register 134, no cccxciv [414 verso]

To our beloved son, Master Arnauld de Verdale, dean of the church of St Paul of Fenouillet, diocese of Alet, our chaplain.

Having fully understood those letters that you and the Magnificent Lord Louis de Bavaria recently sent to Us, We will write two letters to Him of the same form contained in the attached document [cedula] enclosed with the present documents, and We desire that firstly you present Him the letter marked ‘A’ on the back, and having received from Him an answer about that for which we sent you, and about the substance of that which We told you in person and then later in letters, without any transgression observed in anything, then, presenting him the other letter marked ‘B’ on the back, you shall obtain from him, if you can, an answer concerning its contents. Truly, therefore, having obtained or not obtained in some way this second answer, if you will have awaited it, hurry back to Our presence, to make Us aware of said answer and of everything concerning the above, and every singular fact, you shall inform Us fully. Nevertheless, should you require anything, for which accordingly with Our intentions you deem it necessary to remain some days further, make sure to let Us know, so that you can receive Our answer as to this, so that you will know whether you must remain further for this or return, thus We desire that you do not in any way remain to concern yourself with other dealings with Louis or any other person of His following without Our special mandate to do so. Concerning the rest, since it is neither fitting nor honorable for the Roman Curia to place its trust in wicked men, those [men] of whom you made mention in your letters, we will make no concessions to them, if however, solicitous of their own wellbeing these men, who have most need of the Lord’s forgiveness, freely and willingly come to the Holy See to most humbly beg pardon and mercy, We will kindly and honorably, in the degree to which they are worthy, deal unto them strict justice, tempered by the unguent of pity.
Redacted in Avignon, ten days before the Kalends of February, in the Fifth Year [of Our reign]

++Here follows the gist of a certain paper cedula in which is given an answer to the content of a letter that Master Arnauld de Verdale sent the Pope, and which was included with the copies of the two Papal letters sent to Louis de Bavaria, and the letter sent to Arnauld de Verdale, transcribed above.++

Together with certain Brothers of Ours, rightly just a few, We carefully examined the secret letters which you recently sent us by … Our courier, and deliberated upon their contents, and when that deliberation was had, neither to Us nor to Our Brothers did it seem that any honorable, useful or indeed feasible course of action is offered to us by the Emperor.
Firstly, where touching upon, above all things, those things both arisen and yet to arise that are disputed between Him and … the King of France, Our desire is to be prepared for everything, though this may seem absurd and inconvenient, when every dispute is born between them, if not the issue of the Empire, concerning which Ludovicus himself does not admit to have no right, and concerning which He desires reconciliation with Us and with the Church, for which fact before said reconciliation is made, We will benevolently receive His submission, there being no prejudice nor indecency in this for Us or for the Church. And it follows in said course of action, that as soon as He has been welcomed into Our graces, and the said King [of France] on his part will want to choose Us … and the King of England will choose Louis, and a compromise is reached concerning all the things disputed between them [the King of France and the King of England] and thus the war is stopped by a truce, as it will be seen must be done, it would not be honorable for Us should we restore that war between these kings, as we were able to, as behooved us, avoid it [war] and, saving our good conscience, we intend to avoid it. However, though this course of action seems feasible, when the King of France asserts that the King of England is his vassal, and the King of England has the havit of negating this, it is not easy therefore for the King of France to have good judgement concerning this fief over which the dispute between them has arisen, nor desire to reach a compromise, in fact, in general, according to that which We have understood, and which the King of France knows, in every discussion the said King of England makes great requests, and it cannot be thought that the King of France will make a compromise. Thus, if this course of action will come to pass, in this a just usefulness will be had in the reconciliation of said Louis, and a great force and deliberation will it carry. And if in the interim the wars do not cease, it will be seen to be of too little benefit, on the contrary, though there be doubt as to the outcome of the battle, in the meanwhile other acts of war may occur that will prove difficult to defuse, and should all these cease and a compromise, as stated, be reached, it will not be easy for Us nor for Louis to arrive at the same place. So, bearing in mind the above, and many other considerations made and deduced, we omitted to explain this course of action to the King of France. But if Louis sends his ambassadors to us to accord reconciliation, and the King of England sends his, with full powers to accord peace with the King of France, We will write most effectively to the King of France, convincing him to agree on this peace, and we will make every effort so that peace and reconciliation achieve their positive effects, so that all that is grave and hostile in this matter, war, and the uncountable ills that come of it, disappear and end immediately and Our course of action will be seen to be feasible and honest. You, bearing in mind what is said, will realize what you must say in answer to Louis, and how [you must say it], and no other course of action being worthy, with the prudence lent you by God in his grace, do not allow yourself to become involved in other matters, and as soon as you have an answer to that which We sent you for, hurry back to Us.



Interpreting this letter, and in particular the cedula that follows it, is extremely difficult. Firstly, the language used is highly convoluted and diplomatic. Furthermore, these documents often refer to previous communication by word of mouth, which was obviously far more secure than written correspondence. Since we can only guess at what other information was exchanged in the private conversations mentioned, at times it is difficult to interpret the meaning of this letter, so we are essentially limited to conjecture.

Regarding the two letters, A and B, since the Pope writes ‘present Him the letter marked ‘A’ on the back, and having received from Him an answer about that for which we sent you,’ it would seem that letter A related to the matter for which Verdale had originally been sent to the Emperor, presumably the coming war and how to prevent it (as the entire document, especially the cedula, concerns this issue). Concerning letter B, the Pope writes ‘you shall obtain from him, if you can, an answer concerning its contents. Truly, therefore, having obtained or not obtained in some way this second answer, if you will have awaited it, hurry back to Our presence, to make Us aware of said answer’. That ‘if you can’ makes one think of a letter concerning a matter that the Emperor may or may not a) be aware of; b) have information concerning; c) have an opinion of. The story told in the Fieschi Letter could fit the bill. It seems probable to us that, if one of these letters truly was the Fieschi Letter, it was letter B.

Concerning the cedula, from this rather long and convoluted document it seems that Pope Benedict XII hoped to initiate a course of action (‘via’ in the original Latin, which literally means ‘road’ or ‘way’) that was two-fold. First, he wished Louis de Bavaria to seek reconciliation with the Holy See. After which, if the King of France ‘chose’ the Holy See, and Edward III of England ‘chose’ the Emperor, he hoped to negotiate a peace accord between France and England, with the help of the Emperor. We might infer that ‘choosing’ the Pope for France and ‘choosing’ the Emperor for England meant choosing a ‘higher authority’ to represent them in negotiations. It is clear that Verdale was not there to disrupt the alliance between England and the Empire, but to use it in order to avoid war. It is clear that avoiding war is, in fact, the Pope’s main concern in this document, and that he hopes the Emperor will assist him.

If one of these letters was the Fieschi Letter, how would it have helped the Pope avoid war? We believe his message may have been: ‘Edward III of England is vulnerable, and could be dethroned in favour of his father. Why don’t you try to make him see sense and back down, before this comes to pass?’

The Hunt for the King 5) The Verdale Hypothesis Part Two

Just a coincidence?

The catalogue of the Montpellier Archives states that the cathedral register of Maguelone, containing the Fieschi Letter, was compiled under the episcopate of Arnaud de Verdale (1339-1352) and completed under Gaucelm de Deaux (1367-1373).

Our last post shows that, in January 1339 (some few months before becoming bishop of Maguelone), Verdale was exchanging ‘secret letters’ with Pope Benedict XII. This occurred in the context of the beginning of the Hundred Years War between France and England, a new alliance between England and the Holy Roman Emperor, and strong disapprovement on the Pope’s part of the actions of England’s king, Edward III.  Indeed, Verdale was at the court of the Emperor as papal representative at the time.

Pope Benedict’s letter to Verdale (the full letter is reported at the end of this post) mentions at least three secret letters. In chronological order: Verdale had already sent one secret letter to the Pope, and with his reply to Verdale the Pope in turn sent two secret letters, one marked A and the other marked B, which Verdale was to show to the Emperor one after another. Verdale’s instructions in the rest of this particular letter were not, as Sumption states, to ‘disrupt’ the alliance between the Emperor and King Edward III, but to work towards peace between England and France.

At this point, it is difficult not to imagine that at least one of the these secret letters may have been the Fieschi Letter. After all, it would be an incredible coincidence that the Fieschi Letter was subsequently copied into a register initiated by Verdale himself. It is tempting to think that Verdale carried the letter back with him when he returned to become bishop of Maguelone, and that years later it somehow ended up in a pile of unrelated papers, and was copied into the register along with all the others.

Maguelone Cathedral. It was here that the Fieschi Letter was copied into the register where Alexandre Germain found it in the 1870s.

Royal Blackmail?

What could have been the purpose of sending the Fieschi Letter to Verdale, if indeed one of these secret letters was the Fieschi Letter? Some commentators on the Fieschi Letter have proposed that it was a tool of blackmail. If we simply read the Pope’s letter to Verdale, in which his instructions are to encourage reconiciliation and the peace process, it is not immediately clear how the Fieschi Letter may have been useful to him. But if we consider the wider context of alliance between Edward III and the Emperor at the outbreak of war between Edward III and France, it seems at least possible that Verdale was either seeking to break off this alliance, or asking the Emperor to use his influence with Edward III to convince the English king to back down and go home.

To put it very simply, Fieschi Letter could have been used to tell the Emperor “your ally, Edward III, may not even be the legitimate king of England, given that his father, Edward II, is actually still alive. Why don’t you break off your dealings with him before the news gets around, or if you do want him as your ally, why don’t you convince him to back down and leave the French alone?”

Our research reveals that Manuele Fieschi, purported author of the Fieschi Letter, was present throughout this period at the Papal court, working as Papal notary (there will be future posts concerning Manuele Fieschi in detail) (1). It would have been perfectly possible for him to write the letter for the Pope, for this use.

Frustratingly, none of this tells us anything about the truthfulness of the Fieschi Letter itself.  Quite the opposite, it begs an unanswerable question: would the Pope bluff with a matter of such extreme importance?

The Question of Timing

Auramala Project researchers think it is fair to say that the Fieschi Letter in its present form – the document copied into the register of Verdale’s  See of Maguelone – may have been a tool of Papal diplomacy in January 1339. This means that the events it describes could have unfolded over the period September 1327 (‘death’ of Edward II) to December 1338 at the latest. This dos not fit in with the timing proposed by Ian Mortimer in Medieval Intrigue, who believes that the Fieschi Letter may have been delivered to Edward III in 1336 by the Genoese ambassador Nicolinus Fieschi. However, Mortimer’s comparatively shorter timescale is based on incorrect information about events occurring in the interim in Italy.

Over the next two posts we will start investigating the Italian side of the Fieschi Letter, and we will correct some misinformation in Mortimer’s book.

(1) Manuele Fieschi’s continuous presence at the Papal court of Avignon is attested by his role as guarantor of newly-conferred church benifices, as will be explored in later posts. As late as the mid 1340s, when he was bishop of Vercelli, Manuele Fieschi was writing to his diocese from Avignon. These documents are to be found in the archives of Vercelli and Biella.

Here follows the letter from Pope Benedict XII to Arnaud de Verdale, 23rd January, 1339. Daumet, Georges,  1899-1920, Benoit XII (1344-1342) ; Lettres closes, patentes et curiales se rapportant à la France

Pope to Verdale 1

Pope to Verdale 2Pope to Verdale 3

The Hunt for the King 4) The Verdale Hypothesis

A double tip-off

The research contained in this post was triggered by a curious tip-off that came from a 2003 review of Ian Mortimer’s The Greatest Traitor on the Guardian. The review was written by Jonathan Sumption, author of a series of histories of the Hundred Years War, who observes of the Fieschi Letter: “Its explanation almost certainly lies in the fact that the bishop of Maguelone, in whose register it was found, was in Germany at the time. He had been sent there by the pope, who strongly disapproved of the Anglo-German alliance, and his instructions were to disrupt it.” Up until July of this year, I had only come across this explanation here, and in the Wikipedia article on the Fieschi Letter (and in pages that quote the Wikipedia article), first posted in 2007, which appears to have taken the theory from Sumption’s review, as I have found no mention whatsoever of the theory anywhere else, not even in Seymour Phillips’ most thorough précis of the literature. Then, in July I visited Berkeley Castle and had a very pleasant lunch (ham, eggs and chips, with a wonderful, aromatic, local pale ale) with, among others, a member of the Berkely family and the castle archivist, David Smith, who mentioned this theory again. By that time, Auramala Project researchers were already trawling through Papal letters concerning the bishops of Maguelone, and this is what we found:

1338: Edward III is in Flanders with his army, courting Imperial allies at the beginning of the Hundred Years War

Europe in the 14th century. The Holy Roman Empire is in the centre, in white.
Europe in the 14th century. The Holy Roman Empire is in the centre, in white.

In September, 1338, King Edward III received the status of Vicar-general of the Holy Roman Empire from Emperor Louis IV. This was a part of his opening strategy at the beginning of the Hundred Years War. A month later he used his new position to issue a summons to the various dukes, counts and princes of Flanders that came under the overlordship of the Emperor. Among these rulers there was a bishop: the Bishop of Cambrai. This is because Cambrai was, at that time, a form of miniature state known as prince-bishopric, where the bishop was not only a spiritual ruler but also a secular one. But the secular borders of his rule did not coincide exactly with the spiritual dioceses pertaining to Cambrai. Indeed, the spiritual diocese of Cambrai extended  into the neighbouring Duchy of Brabant as far as Brussels. The secular state based around Cambrai, known as the Cambrésis, was much smaller. As a diocese, Cambrai was under the archbishop of Reims, in France, and of course under the Pope. But as a secular state, it was under the overlordship of the Holy Roman Emperor. Cambrai became a hotspot at the beginning of the Hundred Years War, in part because it lay on the path towards France.

Brabant and Cambrai in medieval times

Edward III knew that the Bishop of Cambrai leant strongly towards the Papacy and France, and would never answer his summons. It seems he probably wanted to lead his new Imperial allies of Flanders against Cambrai, but needed a good excuse to do so. By summoning the bishop Edward III may have been deliberately creating a diplomatic incident in order to have an excuse to invade the Prince-bishopric. Soon afterwards, when the deadline for the summons came and went and the Bishop did not come, Edward III and the Emperor accused the Bishop of Cambrai of treason against the Empire.

One of Edward III’s Flemish allies was the brother of his wife Philippa, Count William II of Hainaut (another sister was married to the Emperor himself: it was a close knit, family affair). In december, Count William made a short-lived raid into the territory of the Cambrésis, seizing several castles and destroying farmland. This incident set off a flurry of Papal letters. Let’s pick up the thread at the beginning of the year 1339.(1)

The Pope’s letters

Pope Benedict XII’s tomb in Avignon

January 12th: Pope Benedict XII(2) establishes that the charges made against the Bishop of Cambrai by the King of England and the Emperor are null and void, and warns both rulers against invading Cambrai, on risk of excomunication. Note: Emperor Louis IV ‘the Bavarian’ had already been excomunicated by the previous Pope, John XXII, in October 1327, for siding with the Franciscan Order in a controversy with the Papal Curia in Avignon concerning the dogma of the Poverty of Christ (this controversy lies at the heart of Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose (Ed.))

January 13th: the Pope sends letters to the Bishops of Tournay and Liege, exhorting them to excommunicate the soldiers who had invaded Cambrai a month earlier, and on the same day dispatches another letter to William of Hainaut, ordering him to pay damages to the Bishop of Cambrai for what his troops did.

January 23rd: the Pope writes to his legates (a legate is essentially a Papal ambassador (Ed.)) Cardinals Bertrand de Montfavence and Pedro Gomez de Barroso, who are engaged in talks with French and English ambassadors at Arras in an attempt to broker a peace treaty between France and England  and avert war. He orders them to pursue peace for the good of all Christianity, or at least truces that give the impression of peace, and to go to the King of France in person, if necessary, to persuade him of the importance of the peace talks.

January 23rd: the Pope sends a littera clausa (‘closed letter’, or confidential letter (Ed.)) to Arnaud de Verdale, a highly trusted associate of the Pope’s, who had carried out extremely delicate work for the pontiff in the past(3). The letter is sent to Verdale at the court of Emperor Louis, where he is the Papal legate. Among other things (it is a very long letter) the letter informs Verdale that “to him (the Emperor) We will write with two letters together, in the manner of the attached cedula. First you must present him one of the two (letters (Ed.)) that We send, marked A on the back, and, once you have received his response, concerning those things for which We have sent you, and in the form in which We have spoken to you, and then written to you by letter, without any observed transgression, the other letter, marked B on the back, you shall present to him, and obtain, if you can, an answer from him concerning what it contains. Having received a definitive answer concerning this, or not having received it, hurry back to Us to refer to Us about the aforesaid business, and about any detail you have noticed and to inform Us fully and with the greatest clarity.” (Neither ‘letter A’ nor ‘letter B’ are transcribed among the papal documents Ed.)

There follows the cedula, another extended document, of which we report the following passage: “the secret letter which earlier you sent Us, We have examined, and We have deliberated in secrecy upon its content with certain brothers of ours, and it is apparent to all of us that no honorable, useful or pursuable option is offered to us by him (the Emperor (Ed.)). ”

Three months after these events, Verdale became Bishop of Maguelone. During his time as bishop there, cathedral officials began work on the register in which the Fieschi Letter was found.

In the next blog post we will explore some of the possible implications of Pope Benedict XII’s letter to Verdale. In the meantime we would like to allow readers to ponder the matter without ‘interference’ from our own interpretations.

(1)  de Sturler, J, Paris, 1936, Les Relations Politiques et les Echanges Commerciaux entre le duche de Brabant et l’Agnleterre au Moyen Age and Sumption, Jonathan, University of Pennsylvania Press, 1999, The Hundred Years War 1: Trial by Battle

(2) Daumet, Georges,  1899-1920, Benoit XII (1344-1342) ; Lettres closes, patentes et curiales se rapportant à la France

(3) Fisquet, Honoré, Paris, 1899,  La France pontificale (Gallia christiana), histoire chronologique et biographique des archevêques et évêques de tous les diocéses de France

Introduction to the hunt for the King 2) The nemesis of the church

Like the last one, this post is designed to help set the scene for the research into the Fieschi Letter, and help readers understand the forces at play in the complex world of politics, power and intrigue that surrounded the fate of Edward II. This is a look at a medieval institution that is crucial to fathoming what is going on in the story of Edward II’s ‘afterlife’: the Holy Roman Empire, the nemesis of the church.

Charlemagne started everything: back in the late 700s, he dreamt of re-creating the Western Roman Empire, but as a new, Holy Empire, with the approval and support of the Pope. The ironic thing is that this was a new ‘Roman Empire’ created and ruled by the descendants of some of the ‘barbarians’ who destroyed the original. It is also ironic, given its later history, that it started out in perfect symbiosis with the church. In fact, Charlemagne served the Pope well by conquering the kingdom of the Ancient Lombards, whose capital was Pavia, and removing their chokehold on Rome.

Charlemagne's Empire
Charlemagne’s Empire at its various stages of evolution

Charlemagne managed to unite much of what is now central and Western Europe, at least for a while. He also provided a legendary figure who, together with King Arthur, provided medieval Western Europe with a second set of universal reference points. Together with the Bible and Christian literature, the chivalrous tales of Charlemagne’s paladins and of Arthur’s knights were cultural constants across time and space in the latter middle ages. Still today, all-but-illiterate Sicilian puppet masters can recite Ariosto’s rendering of the deeds of Orlando (Roland) by heart – that’s thousands upon thousands of lines.

About six years ago I got a taste of this first hand when I spent a few days exploring eastern Sicily with my sister in December. For two people like us, with a pronounced sweet tooth, it was paradise. We literally rolled from one pasticceria to the next, from one round of cassata and Pantelleria passito wine to the next… One evening, in Siracusa, we rolled down a magical old alley, probably largely unchanged since the days the ancient Greeks ruled the island, and found ourselves in front of a colourful puppet theatre, where a line of parents and their young children were eagerly awaiting tickets for the next show, starting in ten minutes. Why not? We shrugged, and got in line.

Sicilian puppets of Charlemagne (left) and Orlando (Roland), from the Catania City Council website

It was a truly memorable experience. The puppets were exquisitely crafted, their costumes were worthy of Parisian catwalks, the music was captivating, and the story timeless. Evil magicians summoned up magic whirlwinds that transported paladins to remote castles where they challenged wicked knights to duels in order to rescue beautiful damsels in distress. When Orlando won his duel with a fell stroke, the head of his puppet-rival literally went flying off, rolling across the stage with a great noise, and we all jumped in our seats! Magnificent. And at the end of it all, Orlando bowed before his Emperor, receiving the thanks of Charlemagne himself. We could well imagine a medieval audience listening to those very same stories with the same sense of awe, seven hundred years ago.

Medieval Puppet Show
Three women watch a puppet show, from a medieval manuscript

After Charlemagne, no one ever quite managed to unite so much of Europe again. Nevertheless, all through medieval history a long series of Germanic kings attempted to re-create Charlemagne’s Empire, with varying degrees of success, and in so doing created an ocean of trouble that literally stretched from Sicily in the south to the Baltic Sea in the north. And what is right in the middle? Why, Rome, of course, and the Pope.  The Popes and the Emperors couldn’t really be expected to get along. Being the two most powerful men on the continent, how could they?

Things came to a head in the 1100s, when the Pope of the time backed one Germanic dynasty (Lothar of Bavaria) to inherit the imperial Crown, against another powerful Germanic family (Conrad of Swabia). The church-backed faction was based in Welf, and their rivals were based in Castle Wibelingen. The Italians of the time (Italy didn’t exist yet, so the term ‘Italians’ is actually out of place, but we will use it for simplicity’s sake) were the ones who suffered the most from the conflict, and they couldn’t pronounce either of the two Germanic names. Welf became ‘Guelfi’ and Wibelingen became ‘Ghibellini’, and this was the birth of the Guelph and Ghibelline factions, supporting the Pope and the Emperor respectively.  With the support of Pavia, Cremona, and Pisa and several other cities, Emperor Frederick I (Barbarossa, or Redbeard) soon eliminated his Germanic rival dynasty and did his best to eliminate the Pope, too, for opposing him. How? By having a new Pope elected – naturally a personal friend of his. In his home-away-from-home, Pavia, Barbarossa called a college of Cardinals together and had an anti-pope appointed. Milan rebelled against his authority, and Barbarossa promptly annihilated it in 1162. He razed much of the city to the ground, destroyed its walls and towers and castle, and removed it’s most precious religious relics, the bones of the Three Kings in the Basilica of Sant’Eustorgio, and delivered them to Cologne, where they remain in a magnificent shrine to this day. These relics, and their double shrine in Cologne and Milan, were later to play an important role in the story of Edward II. Also, the Abbey of Sant’Alberto di Butrio is not only legendary as the ‘other’ burial place of Edward II – but also as the keeper of the bell that called the Lombard League into battle against Barbarossa at Legnano, in 1176.  When Barbarossa was an old man, he allied with King Richard the Lionheart of England for the Third Crusade, but drowned in the Aleph River in the Middle East before seeing the Holy City of Jerusalem.

The Basilica of Sant’Eustorgio of Milan, where the shrine of the Three Kings was kept until Barbarossa sacked Milan.

The conflict between Pope and Emperor continued down through the generations.  Among the Emperors, my personal favourite (most people’s favourite) is Frederick II, ‘stupor mundi’ (the Wonder of the World), without a doubt one of the most fascinating personalities in world history. It’s no coincidence that the Pope he came into conflict with in the early 1200s was, yes, a member of the Fieschi family. This is the first lesson we here at the Auramala Project learnt about the Fieschi family: they moved at the very highest levels of international politics, power and religion. Two popes and a host of cardinals, bishops, abbots, feudal overlords, merchant princes, admirals and even princes all came from this family. As we shall discover, if anybody in 14th century Europe had the means, motive and opportunity to hide Edward II after 1327, it was the Fieschi family. But all this is to come…