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

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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