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!

2015-10-12 09.23.02
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 20) Introduction to the Critical Analysis of the Fieschi Letter

Critical Analysis of the Fieschi Letter


In order to carry out the analysis which will follow over the coming posts, I have compared the general descriptions of the codex containing the Fieschi Letter (1. general characteristics) made by various authors, and verified the information given on the basis of approximately one hundred photographs of the codex made by Ivan at Montpellier. In spite of the thoroughness of the present analysis, some observations may be of a provisional nature, awaiting further research.

Concerning the Fieschi Letter, significant confusion has arisen over the years as a result of differing interpretations, transcriptions, translations, and citations and references made second-hand or even third-hand without specifying on the basis of which particular transcription/translation they were made. Some imprecisions and errors concerning the letter derive from simple material causes, but have been repeated ad lib. and used as the basis for reasoning and hypothesis, which is a risky procedure. One simple example is the identification of Bishop of Maguelonne Arnaud de Verdale as Jean de Verdale in Seymour Phillips (1). Readers can imagine the confusion that can ensue when such errors are repeated, referenced, and then compounded with further small errors which in turn are repeated, referenced…

I quickly realised that if I was to analise the Fieschi Letter correctly I would have to avoid all such confusion by wiping the slate clean, tabula rasa, by putting aside all that has been written on the subject and analysing the letter as an artefact. The physical artefact known today as the Fieschi Letter is the heart of the question, and this artefact must not be confused with what other people have written about it. The only worthwhile observations, hypotheses and, only afterwards, conclusions, are those made starting from the analysis of the Fieschi Letter itself using the consolidated techniques of diplomatics, linguistics and philology. I have integrated and inserted into my analysis suggestions and contributions from other scholars, in particular Stefano Castagneto (SF), and also from Patrick Ball (PB) and Kathryn Warner (KW).

Still today the hypothesis is put forward that the Fieschi Letter is a forgery. This seems to me a way to cut a long (difficult and complex) story – the fate of King Edward II – short with little effort. Indeed, this analysis has proved more time consuming and tiring than I ever imagined.

Elena Corbellini

Plan of the Analysis:

  1. General characteristics of the document
  2. Analysis of the document:
    1. Extrinsic characteristics
    2. Intrinsic characteristics
  3. Analysis of the text:
    1. Language and style
    2. Content

Following on from point 3.2 of the analysis, the Auramala Project blog will publish a biography of the author, Manuele Fieschi. We will then follow the journey of King Edward II, as described in the Fieschi Letter, stop by stop, debating the plausibility of what the Fieschi Letter states and analysing all available evidence that may support or negate the story it tells.

Ready for the journey?


(1) Seymour Phillips, Edward II, 2010

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

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.

The Hunt for the King 1) The Story So Far



This post is aimed at summarizing (in as few words as possible) the state of thhe art regarding the fate of Edward II in existence when the Auramala Project commenced research.



Historians fall into two broad camps regarding this issue. There are those who reject the idea that the standard accepted theory, that Edward II died at Berkeley Castle in 1327, may require revision. Up to a short time ago, the majority of the academic community certainly fell into this camp, and perhaps still does. Then there are those who urgently call for a re-examination of the standard theory, in the light of a series of pieces of evidence that seem to indicate the survival of Edward II well into the 1330s.

In the first camp, we feel that the most enlightened, thorough, and methodologically rigorous presentation of the evidence and its possible interpretations is the work of Seymour Phillips, who is also the leading biographer of Edward II in print. His biography of Edward II is by far the most complete and up-to-date treatment of the life and (supposed) death of the King among printed academic texts. He does not dismiss the evidence for the survival of Edward II out of hand, but engages with it, albeit with a strong stance to discount it. We profoundly respect Philips and his work, and are grateful to him and his research for a great deal of the detail behind both the novel Auramala and the work of the Auramala Project. Since the idea that Edward survived 1327 would place the end of his lifetime in the era of Edward III, we also recommend the work of Mark Ormrod, who also falls loosely into this camp, too. His biography of Edward III is nothing short of outstanding, and is an inspiration for historians, including all of us at the Auramala Project.

In the second camp, Ian Mortimer stands out as a vocal and combative adherent to the idea that the standard theory must be revised. His background is working with archives, and we here at the Auramala Project, after spending a lot of time in archives, can sympathize strongly with his background. He is also an outstanding communicator and philosopher of history.  Another outstanding person in this second camp is Kathryn Warner, who is also the leading biographer of Edward II in contemporary media. To Kathryn I, personally, owe a great deal, as much of the characterization of leading characters in my novel Auramala is based on her research (though at times we disagree on the interpretation, but that is only natural). And Kathryn neatly summarizes the evidence and arguments for and against the survival of Edward II on her blog. It is our hope that both Ian Mortimer and Kathryn Warner, and all other interested historians, will interact with the Auramala Project blog over time. In particular we invite Ian Mortimer to share his views on how our work has extended, confirmed, criticized and corrected his own. It would be a wonderful experience, and a stimulating variant of what Mortimer himself calls ‘Free History‘.

The crux of it is this: contemporary chronicles from England, and all over Europe, state that Edward II died in 1327, probably murdered in Berkeley Castle. As time passed after his death, the chronicles embroidered the story with more and more layers of interpretation. However, against this there exist a number of pieces of evidence (summarized and discussed hereherehere, here and here (just for a start) on Kathryn Warner’s blog) that indicate Edward II did not indeed die. These include a letter written by the Archbishop of York of the time, William Melton, addressed to the then mayor of London, and a letter (the Fieschi Letter) purported to be written by a papal notary (who later became bishop), which appears to be addressed to Edward III himself. Other contemporary events cast doubt on the death of Edward II, such as a plot to free him from captivity when he was supposedly long dead.

The Auramala Project decided to directly tackle the trickiest piece of evidence of all, the Fieschi Letter. One of our main motivations in making this choice is that the Letter also deals with our part of Italy – the Province of Pavia. With the notable exception of Mortimer, English speaking historians have been loathe to engage in detail with the portion of the letter that deals with the latter days of Edward II’s life (if, that is, he did survive) and look for further evidence that may either confirm or deny what is written in it. This may simply have been due to the sheer difficulty of it: logistically speaking it is extremely costly, difficult and time consuming to go after the various threads implicit in the Fieschi Letter. But that is what we have done. And from now on, we will gradually be publishing the results of our work.