The Real King Arthur? The Plantagenet King Who Never Reigned

J. F. Andrews

5 mins

14 Nov 2019

Whatever Richard the Lionheart’s achievements had been during his reign, he failed in one primary duty of a medieval king – he did not father a legitimate son. So when he died, on 6 April 1199, the English crown was disputed by two contenders: Richard’s brother John, and their nephew Arthur of Brittany.

Arthur the ‘anti-Plantagenet’

Arthur was the son of Geoffrey, another brother who was older than John, so technically his claim was better. But Arthur had never known his father, who had died before he was born. He had been brought up by his mother, Constance, Duchess of Brittany – who had been forced into her marriage as a girl and had no reason to love her husband’s family.

Arthur, therefore, was almost an ‘anti-Plantagenet’ and did not seem a particularly good candidate for the throne. He was also hampered by having never been to England, and he was only 12 years old.

Arthur of Brittany.

Arthur of Brittany.

But Arthur’s hereditary right could not be entirely overlooked, and John was unpopular in many of his late brother’s dominions. England and Normandy declared for John, but Anjou, Maine, Touraine and Brittany preferred Arthur, and he was proclaimed king in Angers on 18 April 1199.

The Normans, however, had no wish to be ruled by a Breton, so they in their turn proclaimed John as king in Rouen on 25 April; John then took the initiative by crossing the Channel and having himself crowned and consecrated at Westminster on 27 May 1199.

An uphill struggle

Arthur’s chance seemed to have disappeared, but then another player entered the scene: King Philip Augustus of France. Ever keen to sow discord among the Plantagenets, he took up Arthur’s cause, knighting the boy and accepting his homage for all the continental lands that had been Richard’s, including Normandy.

He then used this as an excuse to take control of the towns and fortifications in those areas while keeping Arthur in Paris. Meanwhile, Constance was indefatigable as she worked on her son’s behalf, negotiating with barons and offering lands and patronage in return for their continuing support.

Arthur I of Brittany doing homage to Philip II August of France.

Arthur doing homage to King Phillip Augustus of France.

John was fortunate to count Eleanor of Aquitaine on his team, by then in her late 70s but still sharp and active. She, of course, was related to both claimants, but she chose her son over her grandson, and now made a tour through her lands securing for John the support of the nobles and the Church as she went.

The war continued, but with England and Normandy holding firmly for John, Arthur’s task was always going to be an uphill one, especially when Philip bowed to political reality and recognised John as Richard’s lawful heir in 1200, and Duchess Constance died unexpectedly in 1201.

A golden opportunity

Still, as time went by and Arthur grew older, continuing his knightly training, he could take a more active part in his own affairs. He was aided by the fact that John had spent the intervening time alienating the barons of Normandy and Anjou, who appealed to Philip to intervene.

He was not slow to take advantage of the situation; he announced that John’s lands were confiscated, invaded Normandy, and sent Arthur to Poitou, where a rebellion had broken out in his name.

Arthur's mother was Constance of Brittany.

Arthur’s mother was Constance of Brittany.

This was the chance Arthur had been waiting for to prove himself. He was 15, a knight and a duke, and considered himself the lawful king of England. It was time to fight for his birthright. When he arrived in Poitou the lords there welcomed him, but his first act was a disastrous one.

Eleanor of Aquitaine was at the castle of Mirebeau and Arthur moved to assail it; his forces took the town, but the castle inside it had separate defences and Eleanor was able to retreat there and send a plea for help to John, who arrived in startlingly good time and took the Poitevins by surprise.

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There was fierce fighting in the streets and Arthur had nowhere to go, trapped between the oncoming army and the walls of the castle still holding out behind him. He was captured and handed over to the king.

He was first confined at Falaise castle in Normandy while John made noises about being open to negotiations over his release, but this was never a serious prospect and it never transpired.

Never to be seen again

In January 1203 Arthur, still only 15, was transferred to Rouen; he disappeared into the dungeons there and was never seen again.

What happened to Arthur is one of the great unsolved historical mysteries. There is little doubt that he was murdered, but exactly how, when and under what circumstances remains a matter of debate. All contemporary writers seem to agree that he was kept in harsh conditions – this was no comfortable confinement in a luxurious apartment – and that he was dead within less than a year.

A 13th-century depiction of Henry II and his children, left to right: William, Henry, Richard, Matilda, Geoffrey, Eleanor, Joan and John.

A 13th-century depiction of Henry II and his children, left to right: William, Henry, Richard, Matilda, Geoffrey, Eleanor, Joan and John.

After that their stories diverge, although some common elements appear: that John either killed him personally, or that he was close by when it happened; and that Arthur’s body was dumped in the River Seine.

Arthur never set foot in England. Although he had a better blood claim to the throne than John, it was unlikely that the nobles there would support him, and no king could rule without the support of his barons (as John was later to find out himself).

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His campaign was doomed to failure almost from the start, but he had no choice: his royal blood meant that John would have come for him anyway, sooner or later.

He had to try, but he was forced into trying before he was old enough, tough enough or experienced enough; these were all major reasons why he failed, a failure that led directly to his dark and probably unpleasant fate.

J.F. Andrews is the pseudonym of a historian’ who has a PhD in Medieval Studies specialising in warfare and combat. Andrews has published a number of academic books and articles in the UK, the USA and France, and was one of the contributors to the Oxford Encyclopaedia of Medieval Warfare and Military Technology (Oxford University Press, 2010). Lost Heirs of the Medieval Crown is published by Pen & Sword Books.