“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.”
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.
“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.
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.
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…)
INTERVIEW WITH MARIO TRAXINO, SCHOLAR OF THE FIESCHI FAMILY
Ivan Fowler: How did you first find out about the mystery surrounding the death of Edward II?
Mario Traxino: At Sant’Alberto di Butrio, by sheer chance. I was there with some friends, who’d asked me to show them around the lands of the Malaspina family, so we went to Oramala, and then on to Sant’Alberto, and there I discovered the tomb of Edward II. And when I started investigating, I found that the Fieschis were involved. And when I read the Fieschi Letter, I thought ‘This must be the truth. It’s his cousin, for goodness sake, he wouldn’t send a monumental lie to England. I quickly verified that everything the Letter says coincides with what we know of the Fieschis and their role in Europe at the time, and all the dates… There’s nothing implausible about it. It is absolutely perfect.
IF: But most British scholars have simply dismissed it as a lie.
MT: What can I say? They obviously have no idea who the Fieschi were… But… But… Well, perhaps it’s not easy for them. You know, for a king of England to say ‘well, here is his tomb, but my ancestor actually isn’t here.’
IF: Do you confirm that you have never read Ian Mortimer’s investigation of the case?
MT: Unfortunately I haven’t, but you’re going to lend me the book soon, I hope.
IF: Of course. So you quite independently concluded that the places mentioned in the letter coincide…
MT: Of course, it’s a jigsaw puzzle. Edward II goes precisely where the Fieschis were. It’s absolutely clear. If you know about the Fieschi Family and what it represented at the time.
IF: I think we all need to understand the Fieschi Family, to get to the bottom of this. How would you describe the Fieschi Family, in a nutshell?
MT: The Fieschi Family owed everything to generations of below-the-surface networking that led to the papacy of Innocent IV (Sinibaldo Fieschi, Ed.), who started the Family’s era of glory. He made his nephews cardinals, and so on. But behind him there were generations of churchmen whom nobody knows anything about. For example, Innocent IV’s uncle was Archbischop of Parma, just ot give you an idea. With Innocent IV’s papacy, the family entered the world of international politics, and he ensured they married into the great ruling houses of Europe, so that in France and England and Germany the name ‘de Flisco’ (the medieval Latin form of ‘Fieschi’, Ed.) took on great importance. They were the cousins of kings and princes everywhere. In fact, that’s why Genoa always used them as ambassadors, because at the time family relations, being kin, were very important in political affairs.
IF: Were the Fieschis patriotic Genoese? What came first for them, Genoa, or the Family?
MT: The Family first and foremost, without a doubt. But often that coincided with the interests of Genoa. The Fieschis were an international Genoese family. In particular, they were from Lavagna (a small town East of Genoa, Ed.) where they constructed the magnificent Basilica of San Salvatore. To be Genoese was to be international, in some ways. For example, Sinibaldo Fieschi, who became Pope Innocent IV, was the son of Ugo Fieschi and of the daughter of Amico Grillo. The Grillo Family was a family of bankers, and this particular Grillo was banker to the king of Castile. So a Fieschi could go to the court of Spain and say ‘I’m kin to Amico Grillo.’ and they would say ‘Ah, welcome!’. You see? They were everywhere.
IF: So they were a family that specialized in international networking.
MT: Exactly. Whilst never forgetting that they were Genoese. But you see, being Genoese in and of itself meant being international.
IF: Another Fieschi scholar, Marina Firpo, calls the Fieschi Family a ‘consortium’. Do you agree with this description, and why?
MT: She’s right. How can I put it… The Fieschis had links with the Orsini, the House of Savoy… everywhere. Honestly, I believe they were one of the most important families of Europe of the time, of the world. I’m not joking, it’s not easy to find a family with such a vast network of connections.
IF: But the word ‘consortium’ to me means also economic power. Business.
MT: Just think, the first gold coin in the west was the Genoese pound, not the Floren, which came out a year later. Now, the gold used to mint the Genoese pound came from the mines of Palola, on the Atlantic coast of Marocco, and it was mined and shipped by the Fieschi. They had a company, Societas, the brothers Niccolò, Tedisio and Opizzo Fieschi, who held a near-monopoly on the gold of Palola. Naturally, this was at the time of Pope Innocent IV. But it turned out that their business was based on extremely fragile economies at the time. The Fieschis had invested all of their capital in two banks, firstly the bank of the Leccacorvo family of Piacenza, but above all the Gran Tavola of Orlando Bonsignori of Siena. But both of these banks became insolvent, the Leccacorvo almost immediately, just after the death of Innocent IV, and the Gran Tavola towards the end of the 13th century. And nobody knew where all the money had gone… Then, in some periods, they invested in land, and they bought up fiefs. In this way, they controlled important toll roads across the Apennines, by which goods came to Lombardy (at this time in history, the term Lombardy generically means the north of Italy, Ed.) from the sea, where they arrived by ship. For example, the fief of Savignone and Crocefieschi, and the roads that lead to Pavia, Tortona and Piacenza, or Pontremoli and the Cisa Pass, that leads from Tuscany to Parma and Verona. From Genoa to La Spezia, practically everywhere, if you arrived with your goods in the mountains to take them into Lombardy you would always find a Fieschi toll collector saying ‘One pound, please’. So they controlled the toll roads of the Apennines, and I don’t actually think they needed to rely a lot on the banks.
IF: So they were a land-based family, more than a sea-faring one, even though they were Genoese.
MT: Both. For example, and this is something few people remember nowadays, from 1400 to 1500, many of the admirals of the Genoese fleet were Fieschis. But even back in the time of Edward II there were Fieschi admirals. Like Andrea, the father of our friend Manuele Fieschi, the author of the Fieschi Letter. He wasn’t very lucky though, because while he was in command of some galleys he lost against Venice.
IF: So, bearing in mind what the Fieschi family represented at the time, if you had been a fugitive king, to whom would you have turned for protection, and a peaceful life far away?
MT: The Fieschis. Also because, Edward II already knew Luca Fieschi in person (Cardinal Luca Fieschi was the undisputed head of the family both at the time of Edward II and during most of the period we presume the Fieschi Letter represents, Ed.). Luca had been to England as a Papal Legate, but they were also cousins. Luca wasn’t the pope, but almost. He was the cardinal who carried the most weight at the papal court. He was extremely influential.
IF: In what way were they cousins?
MT: Luca Fieschi’s aunt, Beatrice Fieschi, married Tommaso II of Savoy, and thereby the Fieschis became kin of all the ruling houses of Europe. In particular, the sister of Tommaso II of Savoy, Beatrice of Savoy, married Raimondo Berengario IV of Provence, and their daughter, Eleanor of Provence, married Henry III of England, and Edward I of England was their son, so Eleanor was the grandmother of Edward II. So Luca Fieschi and Eleanor were ‘first cousins by marriage’. If you then follow the family tree of Luca Fieschi and see how his nephews and relatives have power over the places mentioned in the letter, everything becomes clear.
IF: Thank you, it’s been a fascinating experience.
MT: Thank you.
Intervista con Mario Traxino, studioso della famiglia Fieschi
IF: In quale modo hai scoperto il mistero attorno alla morte di Edoardo II?
MT: A Sant’Alberto di Butrio, casualmente. Accompagnavo alcuni amici nelle terre dei Malaspina, e siamo stati ad Oramala, e quindi a Sant’Alberto. Ed ecco che scopro la tomba di Edoardo II, e comincio a informarmi su di lui, e scopro che in mezzo ci sono i Fieschi. Appena leggo la Lettera Fieschi, penso ‘ma questo sta dicendo la verità. Erano cugino, caspita, non manderebbe in Inghilterra una bugia mostruosa.’ Ho verificato in poco tempo che tutto coincide con quello che sappiamo dei Fieschi, e del loro ruolo in Europa all’epoca, e tutte le date… Non c’è niente di implausibile qua, lo trovo perfetto.
IF: Ma la maggior parte degli studioso inglesi non esitano a dire che si tratta di una bugia.
MT: Boh. O non hanno capito cos’erano i Fieschi… Ma… ma… Ma, magari, sai, certe volte non è facile. Sai, per un re d’Inghilterra dire ‘ecco la bara, ma mio antenato in realtà non è dentro.’
IF: Mi confermi che non hai letto le indagini su questo caso di Ian Mortimer.
MT: Purtroppo no, me le farai leggere al più presto.
IF: Certo. Quindi tu, indipendentamente, hai notato che i luoghi della lettere coincidono…
MT: Ma certo, è un grande puzzle. Va nei posti dove c’erano i Fieschi… è chiarissimo.Conoscendo la Famiglia Fieschi e quello che rappresentava all’epoca.
IF: Credo che abbiamo tutti bisogno di conoscere meglio la Famiglia Fieschi, per venire a capo della questione. Come descriveresti la famiglia Fieschi, in poche parole?
MT: La Famiglia Fieschi deve tutto a un lavoro sotterraneo che porta poi al papato di Innocenzo IV, perché è lui che da, poi, la gloria alla famiglia. Fa cardinali i suoi nipoti… Me dietro di lui ci sono tantissimi uomini di chiesa che nessuno conosce, ad esempio lo zio di Innocenzo IV, che era Arcivescovo di Parma, tanto per dire… I Fieschi diventano grandi con Innocenzo IV, che li fa entrare nel mondo della grande politica, e li fa imparentare con le grandi case regnanti, per cui in Francia, in Inghilterra, in Germania, per cui il nome ‘de Flisco’ ha un’importanza notevole, erano cugini dei re e principi ovunque. Infatti, Genova li mandava nelle ambascerie proprio per questo motivo, perché all’epoca le relazioni familiari, essere uno di famiglia, contava molto nella politica.
IF: I Fieschi sono appassionati genovesi? Cosa viene prima per loro, Genova o la famiglia?
MT: La famiglia prima di tutto. Assolutamente. Poi, hanno fatto anche spesso gli interessi in parte della città. Direi che la famiglia Fieschi era una famiglia genovese internazionale. In modo particolare, Lavagna, perché loro erano Conti di Lavagna, dove hanno costruito quella meravigliosa Basilica di San Salvatore. Essere genovese voleva dire in qualche modo essere internazionali. Ad esempio, Sinibaldo Fieschi, Papa Innocenzo IV, era il figlio di Ugo Fliscus e della figlia di Amico Grillo. La famiglia Grillo era una famiglia di banchieri, e questo Amico Grillo era banchiere del re di Castiglia. Quindi un Fiesci poteva andare alla corte di Spagna e dire ‘Io sono il nipote di Amico Grillo.’ e direbbero ‘Ah, benvenuto!’. Vedi, erano ovunque.
IF: Erano dunque una famiglia specializzata nella creazione di una rete di contatti familiari.
MT: Esatto. Pur non dimenticando di essere genovesi. Ma vedi, essere genovese voleva dire già essere internazionale.
IF: Un altro storico dei Fieschi, Marina Firpo, descrive la famiglia come ‘consorzio’. Sei d’accordo con questa descrizione, e perché?
MT: Ha ragione. Come posso dire, i Fieschi sono alleati con gli Orsini, i Savoia… hanno agganci ovunque. Sinceramente credo che sia una delle famiglie più importanti dell’Europa del tempo… del mondo. Non è una battuta. Non è facile trovare una famiglia con questi agganci.
IF: Ma la parola ‘consorzio’ mi parla anche di potere economico, di business.
MT: Tu pensa che la prima moneta d’oro in occidente fu il genovino d’oro, non il fiorino, che esce un anno dopo. Ora, l’oro usato per zeccare il genovino d’oro veniva dalle miniere di Palola, sulla costiera Atlantica del Marocco, veniva estratto e trasportato dai Fieschi, avevano una società chiamata Societas, i fratelli Niccolò, Tedisio e Opizzo Fieschi, che avevano il quasi monopolio sull’oro di Palola. Naturalmente all’epoca di Innocento IV. Ma poi si è visto che il loro business si basava su economie molto fragili. I Fieschi avevano investito i loro beni in due banche, la banca dei Leccacorvo di Piacenza, ma soprattutto avevano i loro capitali nella Gran Tavola di Orlando Bonsignori di Siena. Ma tutti e due poi faliranno. I Leccacorvo quasi subito, dopo la morte di Innocenzo IV, e la Gran Tavola alla fine del 1200. E non si sapeva dov’erano finiti i soldi…Poi in certi periodi investivano in terra, e si compravano i feudi. E così loro controllavano grandi strade a pedaggio che portavano in Lombardia dal mare, dove arrivavano le merci via nave. Per esempio, Savignone e Crocefieschi, e le strade dal mare verso Pavia, Tortona, e Piacenza. Oppure Pontremoli e il passo della Cisa, dal mare e dalla Toscana verso Parma e Verona… Praticamente da Genova fino a La Spezia, ovunque tu attraversavi le montagne con le tue merci, trovavi un esattore fliscano che diceva ‘un fiorino, per favore’, e addirittura credo che in questo periodo non dipendesse nemmeno troppo dalle banche, dal momento che controllavano le strade apenniniche.
IF: Quindi, una famiglia più di terra che non di mare, al contrario di quello che si potrebbe pensare, dato che sono genovesi.
MT: Tutt’e due. Per esempio, e pochi lo sanno questo oggi, dal 1400 al 1500 gran parte degli ammiragli della flotte genovese sono Fieschi. Ma fin dai tempi di Edoardo II c’erano ammiragli Fieschi, ad esempio Andrea, il papà di nostro amico Manuele Fieschi, l’autore della Lettera Fieschi. Solo che non era molto fortunato, perché comandava delle gallee quando ha perso contro i veneziani.
IF: Quindi, considerando quello che rappresentava la famiglia Fieschi in quel momento storico, se tu, re fuggito, ti dovessi affidare a qualcuno per protezione e una vita tranquilla lontano, a chi ti saresti affidato?
MT: I Fieschi. Anche perché Edoardo II li conosceva già. Non solo Luca Fieschi era stato in Inghilterra come legato papale (Cardinale Luca Fieschi era l’indiscusso capofamiglia all’epoca di Edoardo II e durante gran parte del periodo presumiamo descriva la Lettera Fieschi, Ed.) Ma erano anche cugini. E Luca Fieschi non era papa, ma quasi. Era il cardinale più ascoltato alla corte pontificia. Era davvero potentissimo.
IF: In quale senso erano cugini?
MT: La zia di Luca Fieschi, Beatrice Feischi, sposa Tommaso II di Savoia, e così facendo i Fieschi realizzano rapporti di parentela con tutte le case regnanti di Europa. Innanzittutto, la sorella di Tommaso II, quindi la cognata di Beatrice Fieschi, sposa Raimondo Berengario IV di Provenza, la cui figlia, Eleonora di Provenza, sposa Enrico III d’Inghilterra, padre di Edoardo I, quindi era la nonna di Edoardo II. Quindi, Luca e Eleonora erano cugini acquisiti di primo grado. Seguendo poi l’albero genealogico di Luca Fieschi, e come i suoi nipoti occupano i luoghi della lettera, tutto diventa chiaro.
The start of the beautiful friendship between the Fieschi Family and the Plantagenets was the wedding between Beatrice Fieschi and Tommaso II of Savoy. Most likely Pope Innocent IV, Sinibaldo Fieschi, arranged this marriage in order to ensure his family’s pre-eminence in European international affairs, and it certainly worked. For a start Beatrice Fieschi thus became the aunt-by-marriage of Eleanor of Provence, wife of King Henry III of England, making the Plantagenets and the Fieschis kin. But this is only the beginning.(1)
Beatrice Fieschi’s brother-in-law, Boniface of Savoy, was promoted by Innocent IV to Archbishop of Canterbury, with the approval of his nephew, King Henry III. Thus, a kinsman of the Fieschi Pope Innocent IV was primate of the church in England. (2)
In 1252, while Sinibaldo Fieschi was still Pope, the succession to the throne of Sicily came under dispute. The Pope intervened politically, sending his nephew Cardinal Ottobono Fieschi, brother of Beatrice Fieschi, as papal legate (essentially a papal ambassador). Ottobono Fieschi promptly attempted to give the throne of Sicily to his sister’s grand-nephew, Edmund Crouchback of England. Edmund Crouchback was the son of King Henry III, and the little brother of future King Edward I. He was the ultimate ancestor of the House of Lancaster. It may strike British historians as funny to imagine him in Palermo ruling Sicily. In fact, the negotiations fell through, and he remained in England. Nevertheless, this is a clear sign of how close the Fieschis had become to the Plantagenets in international politics. The Fieschis were kingmakers, and had attempted to give the crown of Sicily to Edward II’s uncle. (3)
Years later, in 1265, Beatrice Fieschi’s nephew, King Henry III of England, found himself in trouble when Simon de Montfort and a group of fellow rebels started the Second Baron’s War. The Pope, now Clement IV, sent a delegation to England to sedate the conflict. The leader of the delegation was again Cardinal Ottobono Fieschi. It was only natural to choose him for the mission to England: after all, his sister’s brother-in-law was the Archbishop of Canterbury, and his sister’s nephew was king of England. Ottobono Fieschi took with him a member of his ‘familia’ (practically his personal staff), a young man called Benedetto Caetani. They went through some difficult experiences together in their three-year-long mission to England, and a lasting bond grew up between them. At one point, the rebel barons imprisoned Cardinal Ottobono and the young Caetani in the Tower of London. They were rescued by the young English Prince Edward – the future Edward I and father of Edward II. And thus, we see how the Fieschis had cause to be grateful to the Plantagenets, while the Plantagenets had cause to be grateful to the Fieschis. (3)
A decade later, in 1276, Ottobono became Pope Adrian V – for just 38 days. His papacy was brought to a brusque close by his untimely death. But his mentorship of Benedetto Caetani paid off for the Fieschi Family in 1294 when Caetani became Pope with the name of Boniface VIII. This Pope was, in turn, mentor to the young Luca Fieschi, whom Boniface VIII elevated to the rank of Cardinal in 1300, at just 27 years of age. I will later devote another post to Luca Fieschi, one of the key players in the story of Edward II. For now it is enough to say that he, like his uncle Ottobono and his grand-uncle Sinibaldo, was a major player in international diplomacy. He was one of a group of three Cardinals who crowned Holy Roman Emperor Henry VII in 1312. In 1317 he was papal legate to Edward II in England, in an attempt to defuse the conflict with Robert the Bruce of Scotland. He thus knew his kinsman Edward II personally. Furthermore, Mario Traxino tells us that a young Percivalle Fieschi was with Luca in England during that mission. In that case he, too, would have met Edward II in person. It is deeply significant that Percivalle Fieschi became Bishop of Tortona, the Diocese in which we find Cecima, the last destination of Edward II in the Fieschi Letter*. (3) (4) (5)
Lastly, Manuele Fieschi, the author of the Fieschi Letter, was not just a notary of the Pope, but also Canon of York. Is it a mere coincidence that the Archbishop of York, William Melton, with whom he must have been in contact for his ecclesiastic duties, wrote to the Mayor of London in 1330 claiming that Edward II was alive and well? (6)
In the light of these close and long-standing Fieschi-Plantagent ties at the very highest levels of international medieval politics, we must ask ourselves: is the idea that Edward II – if he was still alive – could have confessed his story to Manuele Fieschi in Avignon really so strange?
It is by now becoming clear just how immensely important the Fieschi Family was in international affairs at the time of Edward II. But perhaps the full scope of this family’s vast power network can best be understood by chatting with Mario Traxino, Fieschi scholar. Indeed, our next blog post will be a revealing interview with Traxino.
*The Fieschi Letter states that Cecima was in the Diocese of Pavia. In reality, it was a fief belonging to the Bishop of Pavia, but was within the Diocese of Tortona, where Percivalle Fieschi was Bishop. It seems likely that Manuele Fieschi made a simplification, wanting to mention Pavia as the nearest famous city, to help identify the location for King Edward III who knew well where Pavia was, but would not have heard of Cecima.
(1) Firpo, Marina, La Famiglia Fieschi dei Conti di Lavagna. Strutture familiari a Genova e nel contado fra XII e XIII secolo, Genoa, 2006.
(2) Greenway, Diana E. Fasti Ecclesiae Anglicanae 1066–1300, 1971
(3) Ameri, Gianluca and Di Fabio, Clario, Luca Fieschi, cardinale, collezionista, mecenate (1300-1336) Genoa, 2011
(4) Hledìkova Zdenka, Raccolta praghese di scritti di Luca Fieschi, Prague, 1985
(5) Personal communication, Mario Traxino, June 2014
(6) Haines, Roy Martin, Sumptuous Apparel for a Royal Prisoner: Archbishop Melton’s Letter, 14 January 1330, English Historical Review, 2009
In december 2013 I was presenting Auramala at one of Milan’s historic bookshops, Il Trittico, just around the corner from the Basilica di Sant’Ambrogio, where the 4th century Bishop and patron saint of Milan, Saint Ambrose, lies. While I was speaking a tall, robust gentleman with the air of a professor burst in, whose already sizable presence was doubled by a spectacular, expansionist beard and moustache. With the unmistakeable accent of Genoa he boomed “Mister Fowler, Mister Fowler, I must speak to you, and I must read your book!”
This had a wonderful impact on the other people in the bookshop. I guess the astonished expression on my face made them feel like the mystery of Edward II had leapt out of the Middle Ages, right into the middle of the bookshop. “Traxino,” he shook my hand vigorously “Mario Traxino”.
Traxino siezed a copy of Auramala, and in the tone of a time-travelling detective, interrogated me: “Mister Fowler, what exactly can you tell me about Manuele Fieschi?“
Everyone held their breath: I was well and truly in the hot-seat.
“Well… he was sort of a man in a grey suit… Like the anonymous men and women you see in G8 conferences and the like, hanging around in the background talking in hushed tones, making big decisions that will never get into the newspapers…”
Traxino looked at me shrewdly for a moment.
“Very well, very well. I shall read your book, and if need be, we shall speak again. Thank you.” And then he swept of the bookshop as suddenly, and mysteriously, as he had come.
Towards the end of January Traxino contacted us again, through the more conventional Italian approach of a friend of a friend of a friend. We arranged a meeting in Loft 10 cafè in one of Pavia’s picturesque old squares, Piazza Cavagneria – in the shadow of the palace where Emperor Barbarossa had anti-Pope Victor IV appointed in 1160.
He brought with him a large folder containing a series of large family trees, and photocopies from ancient books concerning the Fieschi Family. With great academic generosity, he shared with us his own original research into the Fieschi Letter, which he had deliberately conducted without reading Ian Mortimer’s work, or any other historian’s comment on the letter for that matter. He had thus, independently, come to the conclusion that the Fieschi Letter must be telling the truth, based on comparative analysis of medieval family trees. Here, in a nutshell, is the result of his research. Out of a maze of family ties, he had distilled the connections which made the Feischi Famly the logical choice to give sanctuary to Edward II, if he survived the night of 21st September 1327.
The first thing to point out is just why Edward II and Cardinal Luca Fieschi referred to each other as ‘kinsmen’. Luca Fieschi’s aunt, Beatrice was married to the brother of Beatrice of Savoy, Edward II’s great-grandmother. This marriage was probably sponsored by Pope Innocent IV, Sinibaldo Fieschi, and tied the Fieschis to the House of Savoy, and through them to all the royal families of Western Europe – including the Plantagenets. As far as we know, no British scholars are aware of this tie, and its implications. For now, we leave readers to examine this family tree for themselves. In our next post, we will trace the long association between the Fieschi Family and the Plantagenets, which may well have reached its climax with the ‘afterlife’ of Edward II. Following that, we will post a full interview with Mario Traxino, in which the scholar exposes the full splendour and power of the House of Fieschi.