Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Arthur (1187-1203)
ARTHUR, duke or count of Brittany (1187–1203), for whose death King John was responsible, was the son and heir of Geoffrey, third son of Henry II, who was killed in a tournament at Paris 19 Aug. 1186. His mother was Constance, daughter and heiress of Conan le Petit, count of Brittany. He was born after his father's death, on 29 March 1189. The Bretons hailed his birth with enthusiasm, and the bestowal upon him of the name of their national hero excited in them new hopes of independence, which was at the time seriously threatened by the ambitious designs of the kings of France and England.
The death of his grandfather, Henry II, in 1189 gave the infant Arthur a momentous political position. The principle of strictly hereditary succession made him the heir presumptive of his uncle, Richard I, to the exclusion of John, Henry II's fourth son. In order to repress John's dangerous ambition, Richard was anxious to assert Arthur's claim. In October 1190 he opened negotiations for the young prince's marriage with a daughter of Tancred of Sicily, and in a letter to Pope Clement III, dated 11 Nov. 1190, he distinctly declared his nephew his heir in case he should die childless. From that date John, who was plotting to supplant Richard I, viewed Arthur as his most dangerous enemy, and, according to one account, in 1191 entered into alliance with Philip II of France, who was willing to employ any means to injure English influence in France, to dispossess Arthur of all his rights (Annales Monastici, iii. 26). But this scheme proved for the present abortive; in March of the same year Philip agreed that Arthur should do homage to Richard as duke of Normandy, and, so as to gain a more effectual control over him later, for the five years following abstained from molesting him. In April 1196 the king of France had obtained sufficient influence with the prince and his mother to insure their open support in one of his constantly recurring quarrels with Richard, and the Breton nobles aided his policy by refusing to acknowledge the king of England as Arthur's guardian. But in August 1198 Richard contrived to reverse the position of affairs, and Arthur entered into an agreement with him to follow his guidance in his relations with France.
Eight months later Richard died, and Arthur was left face to face with John, who was resolved to succeed his brother in both France and England, and was crowned king of England 27 May 1199. The nobles of Anjou, Maine, and Touraine immediately declared for Arthur, as the son of Geoffrey, John's elder brother. Constance sent the boy to Philip II, who placed him at Paris under the care of his eldest son Lewis, a lad of exactly Arthur's age. At the same time Philip took possession of several castles, forming part of the dominions claimed by Arthur, on the plea of protecting them from John. He shortly afterwards knighted Arthur, and formally invested him with Brittany and with all Richard's French dominions—Anjou, Poitou, Maine, Touraine, and Normandy, John arrived in Normandy without delay, and with an army endeavoured to establish his power in France. A conference between Philip and himself took place on 16 and 17 Aug., but no terms were made, and in the hostilities that followed in October the French king's forces were driven from Maine. But Philip's high-handed treatment of those who acknowledged Arthur's sovereignty occasioned a breach between himself and the Bretons, and William des Roches, the leader of Arthur's forces, arranged a pacification between John and his nephew. This step was an unhappy one. John is said to have imprisoned Arthur, and to have so ill-used him and his mother that they fled from him with all haste to Angers, a town already in Arthur's possession. On 22 May 1200, while the dispute was still unsettled, Philip and John met at Vernon, and Arthur did homage to his uncle for Brittany and other lands, which do not appear to have been specified; but he remained in Philip's keeping, and took part in the tournament held at the time to celebrate the betrothal of Prince Lewis to Blanche of Castile. For the greater part of the year John was in England, and Arthur was at peace, but Philip was busy preparing an attack on Normandy. In 1201 Arthur's mother died; in 1202 Philip affianced him to his daughter Marie, who was not six years old; and before many months had passed Arthur found himself forced by Philip to reopen the strife with John. The nobles of Poitou had risen in insurrection against the king of England, and Arthur was set at their head. John arrived in France and summoned his nephew, who had just been knighted for a second time by Philip, to do him homage at Argentan. He replied by marching with an army from Poitou to besiege the castle of Mirabel, where Eleanor, his grandmother, who had persistently supported John, was staying. On 1 Aug. 1202 John suddenly surprised the attacking force by night and captured Arthur. The prince was placed in the custody of William de Braose at Falaise, who treated him kindly. In the following year Braose is said to have delivered him ‘safe in life and limb’ to John, who removed him to Rouen. There, in the seventeenth year of his age, he was murdered, on 3 April 1203, His sister Eleanor, known as the Maid of Brittany, had also fallen into John's hands, and she was kept by him in close confinement in England.
Great uncertainty exists as to the manner in which Arthur met his death. We learn from an itinerary of the reign that John was at Rouen on 3 April 1203 (Archæologia, xxii. 126). There is therefore every probability, when this fact is combined with the current rumours of the time, that he was immediately responsible for the murder, but whether, as many writers have asserted, it was the work of his own hands, is doubtful. Of the contemporary chroniclers of the event, the author of the ‘Annales Margam,’ who alone gives the exact date of the occurrence, states that John, in a fit of frenzy, struck Arthur dead with a huge stone, and flung his body into the Seine, that it was recovered by fishermen, and subsequently buried secretly at the priory of Ste Marie des Prez, near Bec. Walter of Coventry, in his ‘Memoriale,’ says that Arthur suddenly disappeared, and that his burial-place is unknown. According to the circumstantial account of Ralph, abbot of Coggeshall, who wrote his ‘Chronicon Anglicanum’ soon after the death of John, Hubert de Burgh was ordered by the king, with the consent of his council, to put out Arthur's eyes and otherwise mutilate him, in order to incapacitate him for succeeding to the throne. Hubert, however, yielding to his appeal, spared the prince, although he announced to his master not only his death, but his burial at the Cistercian abbey of St. André de Gouffen. Later, the fact that Arthur was still living in concealment reached John, who apparently, so far as the chronicler knew, took no steps to authenticate it. Matthew Paris and Thomas Wikes both assert that John had Arthur murdered. Early French annalists and Breton historians have no hesitation in attributing the crime immediately to the king of England, and state that fifteen days after its commission the Bretons assembled in force at Vannes, and sent Peter, bishop of Rennes, to ask Philip II to summon John before his peers to take his trial on the charge. All mediaeval historians are agreed that Philip acceded to this request; that John refused to appear, was pronounced by an assembly of his peers guilty of the murder, and that all his lands in France were declared forfeited. It was after this declaration that Philip invaded and conquered Normandy. In the proclamation made by Prince Lewis on his arrival in England in 1216 the murder of Arthur, for which John, it is there said, was tried and condemned by his peers, is reckoned among his chief offences. This is the only direct reference to the fact in a document of state (Rymer's Fœdera, i. 140).
Later historians between the thirteenth and the sixteenth centuries have added a few unauthenticated details to the old stories of Arthur's death, most of which have been adopted by Holinshed. The account given by the abbot of Coggeshall forms the groundwork of Holinshed's, as of all the later narratives. It seems, therefore, uncertain whether Hubert de Burgh, whom the abbot alone connects with John's murderous project, was in any way concerned with it. The differences in detail which characterise the evidence we have cited from contemporary writers, lead to no more definite conclusion than that in April 1203 Arthur suddenly disappeared, and that his disappearance was contrived by John. Shakespeare, in his play of ‘King John,’ has closely followed Holinshed in his treatment of Arthur, with a few unhistorical variations, in which he followed an older and anonymous drama on the same subject. It should be noted that Shakespeare erroneously represents Arthur at the time of his death as a very young child, although he was actually in his seventeenth year, and makes him claim of John not only the English dominions in France, but the crown of England itself, to which Arthur himself never, asserted his right.