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That Son of Perdition: Geoffrey Duke of Brittany

Today marks the 856th anniversary of the birth of Geoffrey, the younger brother of Henry the Young King, in England on 23 September 1158. Incidentally, at the time of his arrival, his father, King Henry II, was on the Continent, visiting Paris, where Princess Marguerite (b.1157/1158), the baby daughter of Louis VII of France and Constance of Castile, was confided to his care as the future bride for his eldest surviving son, Henry [our Henry]. But back to Geoffrey- as the fourth son (third surviving) he was to become the duke of Brittany upon his marriage to Constance, the only daughter and heiress of Duke Conan IV, in 1181. The ducal couple was to rule Brittany effectively till Geoffrey's untimely death in 1186. When he lived, Geoffrey supported his brother Henry in his revolts aginst their father, and later their brother Richard. After Henry's premature death in 1183, he allied himself with their youngest brother John [Lackland] against Richard, and later with Philippe Auguste, the king of France, against both his father and Richard. Little wonder the contemporary chroniclers found nothing but condemning words for him, calling him- among others- "that son of perdition" and "that son of iniquity". To find out what the real Geoffrey was, to understand his motives and to celebrate his birthday, I have invited Mr. Malcolm Craig, the expert in Geoffrey and his family, to tell us a few words about a remarkable discovery he made while working on his thesis in Brittany in the 1970s.


                               Geoffrey's plaque in Notre-dame de Paris (photo: Mr Malcolm Craig)

I am deeply honoured to welcome you to our humble abode, Mr. Craig. Thank you for accepting my invitation. Could you tell us why Geoffrey? Of all Eleanor and Henry's sons, why him? Why not Richard or John or Henry the Young King?

My favorite medieval century is the 12th, and my preferred area of study is France and England. These preferences fit the Norman-Angevin royal family well, and Henry II was the King of England I always found most interesting. For my senior thesis topic at Harvard College, Geoffrey was the obvious choice among Henry and Eleanor's adult sons, since his life and career had been by far the least studied. I knew very little about Brittany when I began work on the thesis. I have learned much about France's western peninsula through subsequent study, and I came to love Brittany while my wife Allys and I lived in Rennes for 8 months.

                                             
Mr. Malcolm Craig atop Notre-Dame de Paris on 8 February 1974, after he had seen Geoffrey's plaque in the cathedral

                                                        
As Marion Meade said in her biography of Geoffrey's mother, Eleanor of Aquitaine: "On September 23, 1158, without fuss or fanfare and almost seeming to be an afterthought, she gave birth to another son, Geoffrey." We know that of all Henry and Eleanor's sons Geoffrey is the least known, not to say utterly forgotten. Historians seem not to care about the duke among kings, as he could be called. But what about Geoffrey's parents? Do you truly believe they treated him as an afterthought? It is my impression that things might have looked quite different.

As I said in answer to your first question, I chose to study Geoffrey's career for the very reason that it had been so neglected by mainstream historians. The neglect by historians is partly explained by the fact that he never became a king. It is disappointing that many historians continue to repeat the old stereotypes in relation to Geoffrey, despite the recent work of Judith Everard (references below), who clearly demonstrated Geoffrey's competence and tact in his administration of Brittany. It is clear that Geoffrey is the one son who was never the favorite of either parent, though I believe "afterthought" is an exaggeration. Perhaps he was a practical and competent son who was less than lovable. In this regard, a quote from Richard Barber, Henry Plantagenet (1964), is apt:

Geoffrey, though skilled in military affairs, eloquent and astute, never won men's hearts or admiration as his elder brothers had done; he took after his Angevin grandfather, in whose dry and ambitious nature these three qualities predominated. (page 220)

Henry II did not neglect his third surviving son, affiancing him to a great heiress. Constance brought Brittany on the Continent and the Honor of Richmond in England to Geoffrey. Typically for Henry, however, he delayed his son's independent rule of these acquisitions. Geoffrey was active in Brittany as his father's agent during the late 1170s, but his accession as Duke was delayed until his marriage with Constance in 1181, when he was 23. He did not receive control of the Honor of Richmond until 1183, and the County of Nantes was withheld from him until 1185 or 1186. Despite his demonstrated abilities as both an administrator and a soldier, his father only granted him real authority slowly and grudgingly. Geoffrey's mother did mourn her loss. Eleanor wrote to the pope, while Richard remained in captivity after the Third Crusade: "My posterity has been snatched from me . . . . The young king and the Count of Brittany sleep in the dust. Their unhappy mother is forced to live on, tormented by their memory." (Quoted by Amy Kelly, Eleanor of Aquitaine and the Four Kings (1950), p. 440.)

                                             
                                          Geoffrey's plaque in the cathedral (photo: Mr. Malcolm Craig)

What did you learn about Geoffrey while working on the thesis and later, during your stay in Brittany? Was he really, as Roger of Howden called him, a son of iniquity and perdition? Are there still traces of Geoffrey to be found? I mean his and Constance's foundations, residences, documents, etc.

My senior thesis was titled "The Career of Geoffrey Plantagenet, Duke Geoffrey II of Brittany" since there was not sufficient material for a biography. While working on the thesis, I learned a great deal about that career, about Breton history in the 12th century, and about Geoffrey's relations with other members of his family. Geoffrey was called "filius perditionis" and "filius iniquitatis" by Roger of Howden, only in relation to the rebellion of 1183. Gerald of Wales, who was not favorably disposed toward the Angevins, had other negative things to say about Geoffrey. The chief surviving traces of Geoffrey and Constance are in their documents. For a modern edition of these documents, see Judith Everard and Michael Jones, The Charters of Duchess Constance of Brittany and Her Family, 1171-1221 (1999). Charter C20 is the one I used to prove the existence of their second daughter. The volume includes two plates showing copies of original charters. Dr. Everard's Brittany and the Angevins, Province and Empire, 1158-1203 (2000), demonstrates how effectively Geoffrey ruled Brittany, iure uxore with Constance, during the five years before his untimely death. The Chronicle of St.-Brieuc, compiled more than 200 years after his ducal rule in Brittany ended, stated that while Geoffrey lived he treated the Breton population well ("dulciter tractavit"). While this is not contemporary evidence, it may well reflect a long-standing tradition in Brittany. I did find the trace of Geoffrey in Paris. In February 1974, when Allys and I visited Notre-Dame, where Geoffrey was buried, we located the plaque in his honor. It includes an incorrect year of death, 1185 rather than 1186.

And this leads us to your remarkable discovery of the second daughter of Geoffrey and Constance.

As explained in detail in a note called "Proving Matilda" that Sharon Kay Penman included in her blog in 2010, there was an unproven statement about Geoffrey's family that I had encountered during research for the senior thesis. I had kept this bit of information in the back of my mind for more than six years.

You must have been tremendously excited about discovering and confirming the existence of that unknown child. Did you realize then that from that time your life and Geoffrey's would become inextricable?

While doing research in Brittany on a much broader topic, I was examining acts of the rulers of Brittany published by the 19th century Breton historian Arthur de la Borderie. When I read the 1189 document containing the donation of Duchess Constance to the abbey of St.-Gildas de Rhuys, made for the salvation of the soul of the duchess and for the souls of her father Conan, her husband Geoffrey, and her daughter Matilda, I knew exactly what I had found. Ralph de Diceto had written that Geoffrey had left two daughters, and Dom Lobineau (1707) had called her "Mathilde." Any historical discovery is exciting, but there in our apartment in Rennes, in January 1974, I was not sure what I would do with the discovery of this evidence. As I explained in Proving Matilda, Allys and I saw Professor Martin Havran in London during the next month, and he steered me in an appropriate direction for publication of this new information.

How does it feel to make such a significant historical discovery? You have brought the little Matilda back to life, after all. I would even risk the statement that you have given her back to her parents. Thanks to you, she has emerged from obscurity and back onto the pages of history. In my view, there is no "bigger" feat to be accomplished by an historian.

From the time of my research at Harvard in 1966-67, my life had become entwined with the records of Geoffrey's too-brief life. Proving the existence of a little girl who lived for no more than two or three years in the 12th century was significant because of the importance of her family.

How was your life and work in Brittany? Was it difficult to follow in Geoffrey's footsteps? Did you receive any help and support from fellow historians?

Allys and I had already lived in Canada for a school year, when I earned my M.A. at the University of Toronto. Living in France, where we became familiar with a different culture and learned to speak a foreign language, was an even more enriching experience. Naturally, there was an immense amount of source material on medieval Breton history, both published and unpublished, available in Brittany. We were able to travel on occasion, visiting Paris three times, the south of France between Christmas and New Year, and London in February 1974. We also saw other parts of Brittany and nearby Normandy and toured the Loire Valley with my mother and aunt when they visited. The Breton medievalist, Hubert Guillotel, whom I met in the spring of 1974, was very helpful. When we were on our way out of the country in June, he got me into the Bibliothèque Nationale, where I spent two days on research for the Matilda article. As I have said, my research covered a much wider topic than Geoffrey and his career. From time to time, while living in Rennes, I would think about Geoffrey and Constance living there nearly 800 years before we did.

Since we are here, in the realm of Geoffrey's elder brother Henry, I feel obliged to ask: do you think Geoffrey and Henry were close? They were allies in their revolts, this we know, but as brothers?

As far as one can tell, the relations between Henry and Geoffrey remained cordial as long as both brothers lived. They may have been united by their mutual antipathy toward Richard, the brother born between them. Since Henry was the designated heir to their father's domains, Geoffrey showed political wisdom by supporting the eldest brother. In 1184, Geoffrey and Constance founded a chaplaincy at the cathedral of Rouen for the soul of his late brother. A copy of this document is found on page 14 of Dr. Everard's Charters.

What if Henry had not died in 1183? Did he and Geoffrey have realistic chances of defeating their father and Richard?

I think not. As the events in 1183 demonstrated, when Henry used his immense resources to support Richard, the other two brothers were no match for his combination with Richard, though intervention by the French king might have tilted the balance. At that time, John was still a teenager, and not yet involved in the intra-familial strife.

What course might history have taken had Geoffrey not died in 1186?

There is really no way to tell what course events would have taken between 1186 and 1189. It is difficult to envision Richard and Geoffrey being on the same side. So the combination of Richard and Philip against Henry alone would not have been likely. Whichever brother was allied with the Capetian king, the other brother would probably have remained loyal to their father. Once Henry II was gone, Geoffrey would have had to reconcile himself to Richard's position as ruler of England, Normandy, and Anjou. Whether Richard would have gone on the Third Crusade and left such a competent brother behind is another question. Had Geoffrey lived through the end of the 12th century, he would have followed Richard as King of England.

What books on Geoffrey would you recommend? Are there any?

I have mentioned the pioneering study of late 12th century Brittany by Judith Everard, citing the two books she published at the end of the 20th century. There, one will find the most comprehensive and carefully reasoned analysis of Geoffrey's rule in Brittany in print. In his second edition of The Angevin Empire (2001), John Gillingham takes Dr. Everard's scholarship fully into account. For a contemporary view on Geoffrey's government, I cite Richard Barber's translation of a poem by Bertran de Born, who compared him to his elder brothers:

If only Geoffrey, noble duke of Brittany
Had been the eldest of the English princes;
For he's a better ruler than you both!

Finally, though she writes historical novels rather than straight history, it is my opinion that Sharon Kay Penman has captured Geoffrey's character extraordinarily well in both Time and Chance and Devil's Brood.

Thank you for paying a visit to Henry the Young King blog and for doing me the rare honour of welcoming you to our humble abode, Mr. Craig. I do believe that the above interview is the best birthday present Duke Geoffrey could get.


Mr. Malcolm Craig was born in Massachusetts, where his mother's family had lived for more than 300 years. When his father became a Professor of Meteorology at Florida State University, the family moved to Florida, where Malcolm attended high school. He returned home to attend Harvard College and earn a B.A. in Medieval History. Soon after graduation, he married Allys Palladino. They moved 13 times during the first 13 years of their marriage, living in Massachusetts, Canada, Virginia, France, and finally back in Florida again. There has been only one more move since 1980, when the first of their three sons was born, and that was for a distance of one block on the same street. Malcolm has an M.A. in Medieval Studies from the University of Toronto, and he studied Medieval History for several years at the University of Virginia. His dissertation on medieval Brittany and England was not completed, due partly to the need to work full-time with a growing family and partly to the declining job market for university historians. He explains his 30-odd years of work as a bureaucrat by the origins of modern bureaucracy in medieval England. 


Comments

  1. Dear Kasia, what a brilliant & extremely interesting blog! My thanks to both you & Mr Craig. Sharon certainly engendered a keen interest in Geoffrey with her novels & it's wonderful to further our knowledge through Mr Craig's studies via you Kasia. I am now going to check out "Proving Matilda" on Sharon's blog 2010 & must say I was really moved with your comment, Kasia, that Mr Craig has given Matilda back to her parents.

    Another thing that affects me for very different reasons is the poverty of affection among the Devil's Brood......a sad commentary really. But this "intra-familial strife" would most likely have been seen in a much different light in the MA. Values change, don't they?

    What a wonderful read to start my day! Thanks again.

    Joan

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  2. With brothers like John, Richard and Henry, no wonder Geoffrey has been over-shadowed. Good to see he has his supporters as well.

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  3. Excellent blog post. Shared on fb. :) xx

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  4. Kasia, I enjoyed the article, spending time with the references, and the efforts of Mr. Craig. Thank you again. mrb

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  5. Fascinating article thank you. I've always found Geoffrey to be the most interesting of Eleanor and Henry's sons. Especially because he is so often depicted with intelligence, whether you include sneakiness in that or not, as the defining aspect of his character. I've also always felt sorry for his daughter Eleanor, almost an entire life confined no matter how luxurious the confinement isn't much of a life.

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  6. Kasia and Mac, what a great blog, one that does Geoffrey justice. We can probably all agree that Henry and Eleanor were flawed parents, but they certainly produced four very interesting sons and a remarkable daughter much like her remarkable mother in Joanna; the other two daughters, Matilda and Leonora, had successful marriages but led more conventional lives.

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  7. This is Malcolm Craig. I was testing how to enter a comment on Kasia's blog. Apparently, using Anonymous (as Joan did above) is the avenue open to me. Thank you all for your kind comments. Kasia was the driving force behind this addition to her Young King blog, in honor of his favorite brother's birthday. Without all those questions she asked, I would never have had the forum to answer them. Sharon and Kasia both have copies of my 1977 article. Should any of you be interested in reading it, I would be pleased to send you a .pdf copy. Any request should be sent to my e-mail address: craiggrape@nettally.com.

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    Replies
    1. I would like to say "Thank you!" for giving me the rare opportunity to welcome you to our blog, dear Malcolm! Words themselves are not enough to express my gratitude. I am so happy for both Geoffrey and Henry, the forgotten brothers.

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  8. This is wonderful and a very useful article. Thank you for sharing it with me via Facebook.

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