Internet Shakespeare Editions

Author: Michael Best
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Historical Notes on the reign of King John

Arthur of Brittany

Rival claims to the throne

26Arthur's short life (1187-1203) was governed by the competing forces of ambitious figures around him. Ignoring the requests of his father's family, his mother Constance insisted on naming him after the legendary King Arthur; as the gesture intended, he became a powerful symbol of nationalist pride for the Bretons, who had claimed the mythical King for their own. Arthur's uncle Richard named him successor to the throne of England at the age of four, and later attempted to become his guardian; however, the protective Bretons had hidden him away, preferring to raise him under their own influence. As he lay dying, however, Richard named his brother John as his successor, rather than Arthur.

27At the time, no decisive custom existed for determining the succession to the throne, and John's designation as heir by Richard was not perceived as conclusive; acceptance by a majority of influential barons and other officers was essential. Because of this ambiguous procedure, John and the twelve-year-old Arthur (through his mother's influence) became engaged in a struggle for the throne. While John secured the royal treasury at Chinon and visited the tombs of his father and brother at Fontevrault, Arthur and Constance seized Angiers and Arthur paid homage to Philip Augustus. John found support in the dukedom of Normandy, which supported him as the best alternative to a Breton ruler. As the new duke of Normandy, John destroyed the city of Le Mans (capital of the territory of Maine) for harboring his enemies, and immediately departed for England.

A truce broken

28The support of William Marshal, earl of Pembroke, was a decisive factor in John's succession; as an experienced and influential statesman, Marshal persuaded the archbishop of Canterbury to accept John as successor, and together with Geoffrey FitzPeter, earl of Essex and chief justiciar, they prevailed upon the English barons to swear an oath of fealty; throughout England, a general lack of enthusiasm for John was tempered by distrust of his young and foreign-born nephew. John was crowned on 25 May 1199, but soon returned to the continent to contend with Arthur and his supporters. After an initial struggle with Philip, a truce was arranged in which John cultivated alliances; afterwards, Philip demanded possession of part of Normandy for himself and the right to several territories held by the Plantagenets for Arthur. John's refused, and joined battle with Philip. In due course peace was negotiated between John, Arthur, and Constance at Le Mans on 22 September 1199; John and Philip concluded the peace treaty of Le Goulet the following May.

29In the summer of 1202, irritated with John and wishing to break the feudal ties between France and England, Philip Augustus knighted Arthur and bestowed upon him all of John's territories except for Normandy, which Philip himself attempted to conquer. During the resulting war, while John was in Normandy, Arthur attempted to capture Eleanor of Aquitaine, trapping her in the castle at Mirebeau. John immediately set off for the castle, where he quickly won an impressive victory, rescuing his mother and capturing Arthur.

Arthur's death

30The exact circumstances of Arthur's death are still unknown. He was certainly kept prisoner at Falaise under Hubert de Burgh, but how he died is uncertain. Many theories of his death were documented, most of which claimed that John either murdered his nephew himself or ordered him to be killed. Ralph of Coggeshall supplied the story taken up by Shakespeare that Hubert de Burgh was ordered to blind and castrate Arthur, but instead chose to announce that he was dead. An equally colorful story was described in a poem by William the Breton, who claimed that John ran his nephew through with a sword during a solitary boat ride on the Seine . Perhaps the most convincing story is recorded in the annals of the Cistercian abbey of Margam. This detailed account claims that John had kept Arthur in the castle of Rouen and murdered him in a drunken rage one evening, tying a heavy stone to his body and throwing it into the Seine. According to this story, the body was found in a fisherman's net and buried secretly, out of fear of John; the date of the murder is given as 3 April 1203 (see Lloyd 128-9 and Warren 82-3). Whatever the case, Arthur's disappearance had a profound influence on John's reputation. Although most English were disposed to blame Arthur both for rebelling and attempting to capture his own grandmother, the Bretons were incensed against John, and Philip used the disappearance as political leverage against him.