The Hunt for the King 27) The dangerous life of documents at the outbreak of the Hundred Years War

[Here continues Elena Corbellini’s analysis of the Fieschi Letter. In today’s post we have the discussion arising from the analysis of the hand-made corrections we posted last week. Our strong suspicion concerning the involvement of Bishop of Maguelone Arnauld de Verdale finds ever greater confirmation, and we even discover the origin of the word ‘secretary’ – but I think I’ll do a special post on that soon, it’s so curious! Ed.]

C. Considering that, following the perentorious orders of Bishop Arnauld and, later, Gaucelm de Deux, the transcriptions in all of the Chartulary were to be very precise, thorough and well ordered, it is possible in my opinion that the Fieschi Letter as we know it today is an ‘imitative copy’, so to speak, which in other words reproduces the text it was derived from also in its material form, with the corrections and expunctions present in it.

– What might the antigraph [the text copied, Ed.] have been? Not a definitive, final version, but a near-final draft (minuta) containing last-minute corrections and variants.

– We know that drafts of acts were made in large numbers, and that copies were also made of drafts and not just of the definitive versions, to be preserved and used as ‘back-up’ of the authenticated final versions. Above all when there hadn’t been time or the chance to make spare copies of the definitive document. And in any case, authenticated, official documents [then as now, Ed.] were to be kept safe from any risk of damage, during journeys and missions.

– Furthermore, precisely during the papal reign of Benedict XII, there was an increase in the use of ‘near-final’ drafts of the secretae [confidential documents, Ed.], which were transcribed directly into parchment registers when necessary to save time. Often, indeed, documents were sent out very quickly, and there was little time to make extra copies… Drafts were therefore not always eliminated. Therefore, we may suppose that, in those years of extremely intense diplomatic activity [due to the outbreak of the Hundred Years War and the ongoing unease between Emperor and Papacy, Ed.], there was a proliferation not just of unregistered authenticated documents but of drafts and of copies made from drafts, such as, probably, this version of the Fieschi Letter.

– From the papal letters, as well as from other documents, there emerges a situation of considerable agitation and of diplomatic incidents in France, in the years 1338-1339, above all around Avignon. Pope Benedict XII expressed his disappointment about one such unfortunate episode on November 23, 1338. Secret instructions for the two cardinals sent as legates to negotiate with England (Peter, cardinal of Santa Prassede and Bertrand, cardinal deacon of Santa Maria in Aquiro) had been leaked to outsiders with grave consequences. The inquest demonstrated that a member of the Curia was to blame for the leak. The Pope therefore decided that letters for legates, or at least the most confidential parts of these letters, from then on would be communicated to no-one outside the circle of his scriptor [scribe, Ed.] and fideles secretarii [faithful secretaries – where ‘secretary’ literally derives from ‘secret’, see note, Ed.] (1)

In a letter of May 1339, edited by Fierens, the Pope ordered Robert de Pomayo, castellan of Beaucaire (and seneschal of the king of France) to free Robert de Licelburs, a messenger of King Edward III of England, who had been returning from the Curia carrying a letter from the Pope when he was waylaid and robbed of his horses and the letter. Robert Swinfen and Egidius de Brabante were prisoners with him. There must have been considerable comings and goings of messengers in the area around Montpellier, as revealed by the many documents of the Chartulary of Maguelone. (2)

– Among the Papal letters, therefore, the letter from Benedict XII to Arnaud de Verdale, legate at the court of the emperor, dated January 23, 1339 (see the transcription and translation) stands out. In it are mentioned two texts marked A and B to be presented to Emperor Ludwig IV. Also mentioned are secret letters written shortly beforehand by Master Arnauld, and examined by the Pope together with his trusted brothers. As we mentioned before, in other documents from the same period there are often cryptic allusions to other letters sent or received, and others that were stolen, or had otherwise disappeared.

With the originals lost, the copies became important – even copies made from drafts…

– If an accessorial copy (made from a draft) was entered into Register A of Maguelone, in whose possession might it have been, if not someone who had used it for a diplomatic mission in those years? Arnaud de Verdale, for his mission to the Imperial court – the definitive, authenticated copy/copies having been delivered to either Edward III, or Ludwig IV, or both…?

Cardinals Peter and Bertrand in during this period seem to have been engaged in negotiations between France and England. In early April, 1339, in a letter in which Arnauld de Verdale is referred to as electus magalonensis, and is therefore already bishop of Maguelone, he receives orders to give King Philip of France information too secret to commit to writing… On April 19, 1339 the Pope received the conditions proffered by Richard de Bury on behalf of King Edward III of England, and found them acceptable and opportune. He exhorted cardinals Peter and Bertrand to work towards a truce and convince the king of France to accept.

– In my opinion the crucial period to confront for any hypotheses must be summer 1338 to summer 1339.

I anxiously await from readers any objections, suggestions and hypotheses to discuss.


(1) Introd. ed. Fierens cit. 1910, p.XIII. A curiosity: secretarius, a term which has had continuations in many languages, including non-romance tongues, occurs for the first time here. Ivan reported to me that he found this fact discussed even earler by Michael Tangl, Die paplischen Register von Benedikt XII, 1898, p.85. It was a delicate diplomatic negotiation, featuring secret information and instructions. This is surely another line of research to follow (has Ian Mortimer written of it?). The Cardinal Bertrand in question was almost certainly Bertrand du Pouget, once right-hand-man of Pope John XXII and for some gossips – including Giovanni Villani and Petrarch – not his nephew but his son. He was famous for the hatred he nurtured towards Dante, and was highly active in northern Italy in the years preceding 1338.

(2) The bishops and the canons of Maguelone were well connected with the Pope, who often had to intervene in order to curb abuses of power and invasions perpetrated by the seneschals of the king of France and by the counts of Provence. There was a kind of Avignon-Montpellier-Maguelone axis. There is no space here to speak of it, but what with the kings of Aragon and Majorca, the House of Anjou, the kings of France, the emissaries of the English, Genoese merchants with their monopolies and privileges and the great families of the Spinola, Doria, Fieschi, …. the situation was extremely complex in the area. To be discussed another time.


The Hunt for the King 13) The Fieschis and the Plantagenets – a beautiful friendship

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)

Sinibaldo Fieschi, Pope Innocent IV, political mover and shaker. In this manuscript, we see him excommunicating Emperor Frederick II.


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)

Cardinal Luca Fieschi and two other cardinals crown Emperor Henry VII in 1312.

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

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