Written by Marnie Camping-Harris
A young heir to the throne. A power-hungry uncle. The prince is wrongfully imprisoned and mysteriously disappears, never to be seen or heard from again. Sound familiar? You may be thinking that this is another article on the two vanishing Yorkist princes and their uncle with kyphosis, Richard III. This is, however, the lesser-known story about the sixteen-year-old heir to the throne, Arthur, and his uncle, the tyrannical King John.
Arthur was the son of Geoffrey, Duke of Brittany, and therefore was the only legitimate grandson of Henry II to have been born through the male line by the time of his death in 1189. Henry II had been brought up in a thoroughly turbulent time. Since the reign of Harold Harefoot, the throne had not passed to the eligible eldest child as was expected. Wars and a constant race to the throne meant that all who had succeeded to it would always be suspicious of those around them. Henry was born in 1133 as the eldest son of the Empress Matilda, the only surviving child of Henry I. Matilda herself had lost the race to her destined throne despite her father forcing all his lieges swear that they would uphold his wish to crown his daughter as England’s first queen. During this time, the throne was not directly given over to the eldest surviving child, as became the custom. Instead, it was a literal race to whomever could get to the Archbishop of Canterbury and the royal treasury first; in Matilda’s case, it was her cousin Stephen who managed to do this, as she was in Anjou at the time of her father’s death. However, Stephen’s coronation and accession to the throne never stopped Matilda from fighting for her birth right and, subsequently, her son’s either. Nearly twenty-years’ worth of battles came to an end in 1153, when Stephen agreed to recognise Matilda’s claim to the throne by naming her son, Henry, as his heir. Stephen’s only surviving son agreed to renounce his claim so that Henry’s accession would be uncontested. This meant that after Stephen’s death, only a year later in 1154, he was finally crowned King Henry II of England.
Through his familial and marital lands, Henry became the first of what we know today as the Angevin kings. Not only did he rule over England, but Henry possessed control in parts of Ireland, Scotland, Wales and Spain, as well as almost half of France – more than the French king himself. Due to this magnitude of authority, mixed with the previous chaotic history of succession, it is no surprise that Henry was always worried about the status of his reign as well as the idea of what would happen after he died. It is for this reason that Henry made the monumental decision to have his eldest surviving son, also named Henry, crowned during his reign in 1170; Young Henry, as he became known, was only fifteen years old. This custom had been attempted by the previous ruler, Stephen, but he did not gain secure papal support for it to work. By crowning his son as his nominal co-ruler, Henry was ensuring that the accession of Young Henry would be smooth and undisputed. He was wrong.
Henry and his wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine, had four sons that survived the cradle: Henry, Richard, Geoffrey and John. This would appear as extremely secure for Henry; however, his later life would be plagued with the struggle to satisfy and fulfil each son’s desire for power and control. Young Henry, along with his brothers, regularly mounted a campaign against their father. He was never satisfied with his lot, seeing his brothers exercise control in their lands. For his promise of inheritance, Young Henry had to wait until his father died, as he was too greedy to share any of his vast kingdom with his son. Despite this constant conflict, it was noted as an unfortunate turn of events when Young Henry died of dysentery in 1183, while in combat with his father. Luckily for Henry, he still had three sons and the hope for grandsons was imminent as, by this time, Geoffrey had married and he and his wife, Constance, had already produced a daughter. In 1187, they had another child: this time a son who was to be named Arthur.
By Henry’s death in 1189, the only surviving male heirs were Richard, John and Arthur (as Geoffrey sadly died months before his son’s birth), and as expected Richard was crowned king. In a somewhat desperate attempt to have a legitimate child of his own, Richard finally married in 1191, however, as time went on it became clearer and clearer that no children were to be produced. When talks of succession were raised, the decision between Arthur and John was surprisingly difficult. It may appear obvious to some, as by the time of Richard’s untimely death in 1199, John was thirty-two years old, and Arthur was only twelve. However, on the grounds of primogeniture (which favoured the offspring of a king’s son who was older) Arthur held the stronger claim as his father was older than John. Rather exceptionally, Arthur and John were under the same roof when news reached them of Richard’s death. This gave them the same starting point for the race for the throne, that had not been so even in years gone by, yet it was John who was triumphant in being crowned.
Initially, Arthur received the highly desired support of Philip II of France. This was largely due to him being primarily raised by Philip at the French court, alongside his heir and son Louis, although Philip’s actual reasoning for support was no doubt connected with Arthur’s young and impressionable age, as well as the promise of the return of French lands. Together with Arthur’s mother, Philip and Constance raised their banners against John, mounting a war in the hopes of ousting the usurper and placing Arthur on the throne. However, this backing was not to last, as in 1200 Philip switched sides through the Treaty of Le Goulet, which immediately granted him John’s French lands – most importantly Normandy. Yet, Arthur’s level of support was not completely lost, as this decision did produce uprisings in a number of French towns.
Unfortunately, all did eventually come to a head, when on the first of August 1202, Arthur was captured and imprisoned in the Chateau de Falaise by John and his barons. This outcome was expected, as Arthur did pose a vivid threat to John, and most importantly he acted on it; it was clear that either one of them would eventually end up in this way. However, what is not so clear, is what exactly happened to Arthur henceforth.
Recorded by the contemporary chronicler Ralph of Coggeshall, Hubert de Burgh was appointed as Arthur’s guard at the Chateau de Falaise. He states that John ordered Hubert to blind and castrate Arthur but after not being able to bring himself to perform the act, he instead announced the false news that Arthur had died of natural causes. What Hubert’s plan of action here was is unknown but it most certainly did not produce his desired effect, as Brittany rose in anger against John, fearing that Arthur had actually been murdered. Coggeshall goes onto note that after this debacle, Arthur was subsequently transferred to Rouen and put under the charge of William de Braose; he simply mentions that Arthur vanished in April 1203 and gives no acknowledgement to the rumours of foul play. Other chroniclers from the time, like Robert of Wendover, follow similar tactics by only stating that Arthur disappeared.
Nevertheless, all avenues point to Arthur being killed under de Braose’s watch. After Arthur’s disappearance, William rose in favour at court, yet his wife was always distressed and eventually accused John of murdering his nephew. This accusation resulted in her and her eldest son’s imprisonment and eventual starvation – not such a subtle reaction from John. The two accounts which match so well are those of William Breton and the Margam Annals. Both state that it was John who murdered Arthur himself, stabbing the boy and then dumping his body in the Seine. This attention to detail has not gone unnoticed by historians, with the Margam Annals even providing the date of the 3rd of April for the incident. Therefore, scholars have recognised this as the most feasible outcome of Arthur’s disappearance.
The contemporary repercussions were not at large as one might expect, as everyone was unsure as to what had actually happened to Arthur. His sister, Eleanor, remained in their uncle’s custody as a prisoner until his death; this was no doubt to make sure that no one would marry her and use her claim for the throne, or produce more male opponents for John.
Although this story is far less known when compared to that of the Princes in the Tower, it has still managed to produce a relatively substantial literary legacy; the most famous of which being authored by Shakespeare. In his history play The Life and Death of King John, Shakespeare uses the death of Arthur as a way to demonstrate John’s evil nature. However, he rather oddly does not depict John murdering Arthur, instead, he jumps from a window in an attempt to escape and dies there; it is worth noting that there is no historical evidence for this outcome. Nevertheless, Shakespeare portrays Arthur as an innocent, which he was somewhat. Just as Edward V and his brother Richard, Duke of York were no more than puppets for their family’s desire for power, Arthur was simply a pawn in this medieval game of thrones.
J.F. Andrews, Lost Heirs of the Medieval Crown (Pen and Sword, 2010).
Dan Jones, The Plantagenets: The Warrior Kings and Queens Who Made England (Penguin Books, 2014).
F.M. Powicke, “King John and Arthur of Brittany”, The English Historical Review, 24 (1909).
Featured image credit: Death of Arthur (1793), print, James Fittler after William Hamilton. The British Museum (acc. no. 1858,1009.108). CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 license. Accessed via: https://www.britishmuseum.org/collection/object/P_1858-1009-108.