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 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.
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)
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