Before the Princes in the Tower, there was the ‘Duke in the Castle’

Prince Arthur and his guard, Hubert de Burgh
Prince Arthur and his guard, Hubert de Burgh

We’re all familiar with the story of the Princes in the Tower, when 12-year-old Edward V and his 10-year-old brother Richard disappeared without trace in the Tower of London in 1483. But do you know the story of 16-year-old Prince Arthur, Duke of Brittany – the ‘Duke in the Castle’?

Arthur, Duke of Brittany and Earl of Richmond, was grandson to Henry II of England, nephew to King Richard I (aka the Lionheart) and King John, and heir to the throne of England. In 1203, he was incarcerated at Rouen Castle by John – aged just 16 – and was never seen again. Arthur’s is one of the earliest unexplained disappearances on record.

Arthur versus John: the build-up to his disappearance

The man who eventually became King John is probably best known today as ‘Prince John’, Richard the Lionheart’s younger brother and the main antagonist in stories and legends about Robin Hood. Historians generally regard him in a negative light; he had a reputation for cruelty and spitefulness, and John Gillingham describes him as “one of the worst kings to ever rule England”. While Richard the Lionheart was away fighting in the Third Crusade, Prince John was left in charge of England and led a rebellion, trying to seize power for himself. He ultimately failed when his brother returned to England and John’s forces surrendered.

Robin Hood stories usually take place during King Richard’s absence and Prince John’s ‘rule’ in his stead, and show him oppressing and persecuting the people of England to the extent that Robin Hood has to step in. Such is the case in Disney’s Robin Hood, in which he is portrayed as wicked, cowardly and jealous of his brother, and is mocked by the people as the ‘Phony King of England’.

The Disney version of Prince John, Arthur's suspected killer
The Disney version of Prince John, Arthur’s suspected killer

It’s unsurprising, then, that the blame for whatever happened to 16-year-old Arthur of Brittany tends to get laid at the feet of John. When Richard died in 1199, the throne of England had two possible heirs: John and Arthur. Arthur was named heir by Richard in 1190, but Richard changed his mind on his deathbed – believing Arthur to be too young – and made John his heir instead (having forgiven him for his rebellion during the Crusades).

The problem was, support for the two heirs was divided. The bulk of the English and Norman nobility supported John’s claim, while the French nobility and the French king supported Arthur’s. War broke out between John and Arthur, and in August 1202, John took Arthur by surprise, capturing him and imprisoning him in the Chateau de Falaise in Normandy. The following year, Arthur was transferred to Rouen Castle – and subsequently vanished in April 1203.

Rouen Castle - where Prince Arthur was last seen
Rouen Castle – where Prince Arthur was last seen

Did John kill Arthur?

John certainly had a motive. Arthur was his rival for the throne, and removing him would undermine the French movement that was supporting him. Modern historians generally believe he was murdered by John.

Contemporaneous chronicler Ralph of Coggeshall stated that John ordered two of his servants to blind and castrate Arthur while he was under the guard of Hubert de Burgh at the Chateau de Falaise – but Hubert de Burgh refused to let it happen. This is our first piece of evidence that John was trying to harm Arthur.

Evidence that he actually murdered him comes from the annals of Margam Abbey. These say that John – while drunk and possessed by the Devil – slew Arthur with his own hand while he was imprisoned in Rouen Castle, and dumped his body in the River Seine. However, the origin of this story is unclear – it might just have been anti-John propaganda.

An 18th century depiction of Arthur's murder by John
An 18th century depiction of Arthur’s murder by John

William Shakespeare has John ordering Hubert de Burgh to kill Arthur in his play, The Life and Death of King John. De Burgh can’t bring himself to do it, and Arthur ends up killing himself by jumping from the castle walls in an escape attempt. But the chronicles Shakespeare used as his sources were written hundreds of years after Arthur’s disappearance.

Another account has courtier William de Broase’s wife, Maud de Braose, personally and directly accusing King John of murdering Arthur, several years after his disappearance. Apparently John reacted to this by imprisoning Maud and her eldest son in Corfe Castle, Dorset, and starving them to death.

Her husband, William de Broase, meanwhile escaped to France. He allegedly published a statement on what really happened to Arthur – but no copy has been found.

I suspect that Arthur was killed by the ruthless John. Still, this missing statement by William de Broase raises questions. Perhaps Arthur escaped and went into hiding. Perhaps John exiled him to some isolated place in secret. Unless the statement surfaces, or other historical evidence is found, Arthur’s disappearance will officially remain one of England’s big medieval mysteries…

Next week: Are snuff films real?

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