The Hunt for the King 32) So… just who was Manuele Fieschi?

We’re now going to leave aside our in-depth analysis  of the Fieschi Letter and finally take a look at the identity of the man who probably wrote it. As we have said, very few commentators doubt that it was written by Manuele Fieschi, we ourselves have found no reason to doubt it, so we will proceed to consider him the true author of the text, and try to understand who he was.

How we know what we know about Manuele Fieschi

In order to write in an informed way about Manuele Fieschi, I have personally examined approximately 800 papal letters from the reigns of Pope John XXII and Pope Benedict XII, in easily consultable printed editions (in Latin).  Together with Stefano Castagneto and Elena Corbellini, we have also examined several hundred original documents in the Capitulary (Cathedral) Archives of Vercelli, Genoa and Bologna and the State Archives of Biella. Further assistance has come from the Vatican Secret Archives. For nearly two years I searched in vain for a complete copy of his last Will and Testament: I still haven’t found it, though I have pieced together much of what it must have contained from incomplete fragments, discovered after leafing through seemingly unending archival documents in various cities. In fact, though I have discovered in the order of 600 documents that concern Manuele in some form or another, most of which are papal letters, in order to find them I, Castagneto and Corbellini have examined at least 10,000 documents, perhaps twice that. No one was counting!

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For one day in Genoa last September Edward II expert and good friend Kathryn Warner joined me in the archives, looking at page after page of material, for the elusive ‘needle in the haystack’ that can add to our knowledge of Manuele Fieschi. That day we were searching for the testament of his nephew, Papiniano Fieschi, and through it Manuele’s testament.

Why bother?

This was not just an obsessive search for biographical information about an obscure papal functionary. Together with the analysis of the Fieschi Letter, this is perhaps our most important contribution to the debate over the true fate of Edward II. Many authors have piled conjecture upon conjecture as to Manuele Fieschi’s motivations in writing his famous letter. Paul Doherty in his 2003 book Isabella and the Strange Death of Edward II, is the writer who, before us, has dedicated the most time and attention to Manuele Fieschi. Sadly, his lengthy dissection of the Letter, purporting to know the mind of Manuele, his motivations and his methods, depicts him as a scheming, immoral, self-aggrandizing priest in need of cash and benefices and willing to blackmail a distant king (Edward III) and his mother (Isabella of France) in order to get them. Doherty’s analysis not only claims to be mind-reading, but displays total ignorance of a) Latin, b) the functioning of the medieval church and c) the Fieschi Family. As a senior member of this family and a high ranking employee of the Pope, Manuele no doubt had far healthier finances than the English crown… Edward III was more likely to have asked him for a bit of cash than the other way round! Oh, if only Doherty had actually read something about the workings of the 14th century church before writing… It will take time, but I will come back to Doherty’s analysis little by little over the next few posts and show why it is so profoundly inept.

While Doherty’s “analysis” is by far the worst researched, it is certainly not the only one to approach Manuele through conjecture. Even the great Seymour Phillips himself is guilty of this: in his 2010 biography of Edward II, the most complete treatment of the subject to date, and a work of such high scholarship that I could only dream of, he lets his guard down when discussing Manuele Fieschi. He suggests that he was deceived into writing the Fieschi Letter by an impostor pretending to be Edward II. As we will show over the next few weeks, it is absolutely certain that Manuele Fieschi could not have been fooled by an impostor. He had numerous ways in which to verify the identity of the man he was talking with, and not only. Our research shows that he also had the tools to personally verify every single detail of the account in the Letter, except perhaps one or two. This is one reason we did this research: in order to answer the question ‘If Manuele Fieschi wrote the Letter, could he have been fooled by impostor?’ And, after years of work, we can answer with a resounding ‘No!’

Ian Mortimer, whose groundbreaking research was the starting point for our own research, says very little about Manuele Fieschi in his Medieval Intrigue. The great strength of Mortimer’s work lies in understanding the spread and significance of the Fieschi Family. In revealing this ‘clan-like’ organisation, and realising that the clan chief was Cardinal Luca Fieschi, Mortimer leaps from Manuele Fieschi to Cardinal Luca andthe entire Fieschi syndicate, a powerful, widespread and highly structured organisation at the time. There is no doubt in my mind that this is indeed the true key to understanding the Fieschi Letter, but at the same time it is a deductive leap made from the actual signature on the page, that of Manuele himself. Furthermore, although the contents of the Letter do indeed hint at the Fieschi power network, once one knows what it was and how it worked, only one member of the clan is directly named, Manuele himself. Of course, at the time to name one Fieschi was to name them all, but we cannot expect modern readers to take our word for that. And so, we said to ourselves at the start of our research, it’s time the world really found out just who Manuele Fieschi was.

Essentially, the Auramala Project team has gone the extra mile, has found the documents, and done the research, and we are now ready to  publish, firstly a biography of Manuele Fieschi (as complete as possible given the sources) and secondly examine how, even without taking the Fieschi Family syndicate into account, Manuele by himself can easily account for everything written in the Letter. Then, by further investigating the extent and workings of the syndicate through Manuele Fieschi (as we will see, his role in the family was one of networking, cohesion, bringing together of family interests), our research adds enormous confirmation and weight to Ian Mortimer’s brilliant hypothesis.


The Hunt for the King 19) Exploding a myth about the Fieschi Letter

After a number of posts defining the global context of our research into King Edward II’s ‘afterlife’, with a broad look at the political forces and players involved, the time has come to get back to our main source, the Fieschi Letter, in earnest. For the first time this extraordinary document will be subjected to an in depth linguistic and philological analysis, thanks to the hard work of Auramala Project researcher Elena Corbellini, with contributions from other scholars.

Before getting into the analysis proper, let’s put to rest a myth that has got around about the Fieschi Letter: that it must be a forgery, because the Latin used in the letter is ‘corrupt’, or ‘informal’, or ‘patois’, and therefore could not possibly be the language of a high ranking church official like Manuele Fieschi, its purported author, writing a letter to a king.(1)

Elena Corbellini, one of our two main researchers at the Auramala Project, taught Latin in high schools for nearly 40 years, and has indeed written Latin textbooks. An ex-student wrote to her saying “Professor, I read the Fieschi Letter online. I had no idea it was written so badly. What kind of Latin IS that?” Here is Elena’s reply, with a some of my own comments added for good measure [in square brackets. IF]


Latin made fun by Elena Corbellini and Sergio Nicola: 'Ripasso ad hoc' (only available in Italian)
Latin made fun by Elena Corbellini and Sergio Nicola: ‘Ripasso ad hoc’ (only available in Italian)


My dear student, you ask me ‘what kind of Latin IS this?’

It is 14th century Latin, therefore a Medieval Latin, which seems ‘incorrect’ if viewed from the point of view of the classical Latin grammar you studied with me, which was based on the benchmark Ancient Roman authors (auctores) like Caesar and Cicero. [We need only look at the letters that powerful men such as great abbots, bishops, lords and patriarchs wrote to Cardinal Luca Fieschi(2) – living in the same time and place as Manuele Fieschi – to see that the Fieschi Letter is not in the slightest bit out of the ordinary, linguistically. All of the supposed ‘linguistic oddities’ it contains are, in fact, the norm. IF]

You see, languages are like living organisms, they are born, they grow, and they change over time as a consequence of many factors – and sometimes they die. The Latin of the 14th century (and here we are talking about the average written Latin of the time) displayed significant elements of difference from the classical Latin we study at school. These differences had crept into the language over the intervening centuries. This phenomenon is evident even in high-class texts of the time, for example in legal texts, in spite of the fact that such documents were expected to be crystal clear and conservative in their style. In fact, it is no coincidence that when the Humanists began referring back to classical literature as a model, it was as a counter-reaction to the ‘vulgarised’ Latin of the times.  Nevertheless, I must say that the Fieschi Letter also uses rather elegant turns of phrase, and uses them well, in several passages.

The first things a good Latin student should notice about the Fieschi Letter are: sloppy and simple syntax, though not particularly ‘incorrect’; the absence of dipthongs; a ‘macheronic’ seeming lexicon; oscillation in the use of locative complements (e.g. exivit carceres instead of exivit carceribusduxerunt ipsum in castro and, soon afterwards, miserunt eum ad castrum); oscillations in the use of third person possessives (e.g. extracto sibi corde instead of extracto ei corde, which makes it seem as though the poor guardian killed in King Edward II’s escape extracted his own heart from his own chest!) [Exactly the same ‘mistake’ is to be found in the Parliament Rolls of Medieval England, where Lord Berkeley says he knew nothing of Edward II’s supposed deathnec unquam scivit de morte sua. If we read this by the standards of classical Latin, Berkeley was sitting there in parliament, alive and well, saying he knew nothing of HIS OWN death. Well, one should hope so! IF] There is a consistent incorrect (according to classical Latin grammar) use of the auxiliary in the passive voice, e.g. fuit receptatus instead of receptus est, or similarly fuerat decapitatus instead of decapitatus erat, just as there is a consistent use of unus, -a, -um (= just one) as the indeterminate article. Both of these uses are generalised outcomes in romance languages. In terms of lexicon we also find here two verbs (receptare and decapitare) that neither Caesar nor Cicero would ever have used. The latter because the word itself came into existence many years after them (‘to behead’ in classical times was caput/cervices praecidere) and the former because it had already taken on a different nuance with respect to the normal recipere in the sense of ‘to give welcome’ or ‘to take in’.

Some might ask: ‘would a Papal notary have written like that? Especially considering that he was a Fieschi, a member of a wealthy and influential family?’

The answer is an emphatic ‘yes’.

We have no reason to believe that Manuele Fieschi was a man of great learning. The inventory of his possessions in the Avignonese Registers of the Vatican Archives lists less than 50 books, most of which were extracts, and above all they were glosses of canon law and legal formulae. Practically Manuele’s Manuals… Pardon the pun. He also had a Bible, a few Missals, and very few texts of the Patrologia Latina (parts of works by Saint Gregory and Saint Thomas of Aquinas and Severinus Beothius). I don’t mean to say his library was small: by the standards of the time it was significant. These were manuscripts, and therefore very costly books, and his library was a sign of prestige. He probably bought many of them out of a collector’s spirit, rather than to read them regularly.

High ranking members of the clergy like Manuele Fieschi were essentially full-time bureaucrats and diplomats engaged in politics, as is well known. They certainly did not use the Holy Scriptures or philosophical texts in their work nearly as often as legal texts. As far as Latin classics were concerned, once they had finished studying, what use did they have for them? How much time for daily study did you have, when you became a canon at the age of 12 or 13? When you had accumulated benefices and earnings, and therefore responsibilities, the length and breadth of Europe by the age of 30?

But let us return to the Fieschi Letter. We must not forget also that it is a hand-made copy. [A copy made years later, by someone who probably had no contact with the author and who knew nothing about many of the people and places the original referred to. We can imagine all the possibilities for mistakes and miscomprehension to enter the text. Just think of the mistakes we all make when writing. And at the time there was emphatically no such thing as standard spelling, especially for names of places and people. Just think: even in the age of print, a famous author like Shakespeare could spell his own name in different ways. Claims that place names in the Fieschi Letter are spelt oddly are simply laughable. IF] It is a telling fact that a number of words on the original document bear common conventional signs, such as dots beneath them, perhaps indicating that the scribe was not sure he had correctly copied the original.

The claim made by certain British historians that this letter must be a forgery on the basis that the language it uses is ‘inadequate’ or too ‘low-class’ to be that of Manuele Fieschi simply does not hold water.


Elena Corbellini


(1) The only serious claim to this effect made by an academic, though without linguistic analysis to support it, is to be found in Haines, Roy Martin, King Edward II: His Life, His Reign, and its Aftermath 1284-1330, Montreal 2003

(2) Hledìkovà, Zdènka, Raccolta praghese di scritti di Luca Fieschi, Prague 1981

The Hunt for the King 3) Reception of the Fieschi Letter

Reception of the Feischi Letter

An excellent, no-nonsense review of the reception of the Fieschi Letter is contained in Seymour Phillips’ biography Edward II (2010), and at page 585 we find a summary of the most important recent theories on the Letter, before Seymour Phillips continues to note his own feelings from page 589 onwards.

To summarise: Cuttino and Lyman (Where is Edward II? 1978) found the Letter impressive, but doubtful in its details concerning Italy. Doherty (Isabella and the Strange Death of Edward II 2003) feels that Edward II may have survived, but that the Letter tells an untrue story, concocted by Manuele Fieschi in order to blackmail Edward III into recommending him for church benefices in England and abroad (this appears immediately implausible to scholars of the Fieschi family, as members of this family demonstrably did not need to resort to extravagant blackmail ruses in order to obtain church benefices). Haines (King Edward II, his Life, his Reign and its Aftermath 2003), who believes Edward II did die in 1327 at Berkeley, proposes an interesting theory that the Letter was created in an attempt to sanitize and sanctify the memory of Edward II (this seems to me a highly plausible medieval motivation for such a document, but does not explain why it was a secret, as one would expect such an operation to require the maximum level of circulation and exposure possible). Ian Mortimer (Medieval Intrigue, 2010) is the first English scholar to seriously look into the Fieschi family, its power structure and its operations, and concludes that the Letter is pretty much the literal truth. He feels that the Letter veils the fact that the wanderings of Edward II described in the closing section were, in reality, under the guidance/protection/custody of members of the Fieschi family. Seymour Phillips willingly takes much of Mortimer’s research into serious consideration, but interprets the evidence put forward by Mortimer as signifying that the Fieschis may have been guiding/protecting/holding an imposter, not Edward II himself.

A symbolic image of research at home: my kids have grown accustomed to their toy cars being used as bookmarks!
A symbolic image of research at home: my kids have grown accustomed to their toy cars being used as bookmarks!

The Auramala Project has taken the work of Ian Mortimer and Seymour Phillips as a starting point from which to move on to new horizons, informed and encouraged by the work of Kathryn Warner.

At this juncture, I want to repeat the basic concept at the heart of our research approach: all of the research conducted on the Letter and on the death/survival of Edward II is detective work, sleuthing, hypothesis, wherever it goes beyond the bounds of the texts and physical aspects of the documents that describe these events to us, across hundreds of years. This is not to say that the work of professional historians is to be dismissed as hypothesis disguised as fact. Well-informed opinion is a rare and precious thing in a world so full of uninformed opinion. However, let us never forget that it is opinion.

This is true, of course, of the work of the Auramala Project, too.