Arthur, Duke of Brittainy

Born: March 29, 1187

Nantes, France

Died: April, 1203 (Age 16)

Rouen (or Cherbourg), Normandy, France

Arthur in History

Prince Arthur was the only son of Geoffrey, Duke of Brittainy, third surviving son of King Henry II of England. Geoffrey died in a jousting accident before his son was even born, and with the death of the king's eldest son (also named Henry) three years prior, Arthur was technically second in line to England's throne, behind only Richard, the king's second son. Henry II died in 1189 and was succeeded by his second son as Richard I. Now being heir to the childless king, Arthur and his sister Eleanor were taken in and treated with the utmost of kindness by their uncle. Although many historians will claim Arthur was the rightful heir to the throne, he had significant competition to this claim from his uncle John, the fourth and youngest son of Henry II. If one looks at the situation from a modern perspective, Arthur would undoubtedly be the heir to Richard's throne, being derived from the third son of the former king, over John, the fourth son. However, rules of succession were by no means set in stone in those days, and many contemporaries supported John over the young Arthur. It is not exactly clear who Richard I named as his official heir. He certainly seems to have been fonder of Arthur, but may have felt John was the better candidate considering Arthur's youth, the ambitions of the prince's mother Constance and the fact that the boy and his mother had close connections to the French crown. The debate continued throughout Richard I's reign, and John attempted to usurp the throne on several occasions while the king was away on crusade and when he was subsequently captured and imprisoned in Austria for two years.

Arthur, meanwhile, lived in Brittany where he gradually built up a following and gained an ally in the form of King Philip II of France. When Richard I was killed at a small siege in 1199, John immediately seized the throne for himself. This, of course, caused a tumult amongst Arthur's supporters, and a war broke out between England and France as a result. There was no clear winner in the fighting and the two respective kings came to an agreement: Philip should receive several French lands that had previously been in English control, and John should receive not only Le Mans in France, but Arthur as well. Arthur was subsequently imprisoned until he and his mother escaped and returned to Philip's protection. At this point, Philip asked John to award Arthur with several French territories, including the Duchy of Brittany. The Treaty of Le Goulet (the agreement between John and Philip Augustus in 1199) began to break down, putting the two countries at war once again. Arthur, of course, chose to remain on the side of King Philip. While besieging Mirebeau Castle, where his aged grandmother, Eleanor of Aquitaine, was stationed, Arthur and several of his allies were captured by John and imprisoned. Soon after, Arthur disappeared for good, most likely within one of his uncle's Norman castles. What exactly became of Arthur is a mystery to this very day. There are some chroniclers who claim he was ordered to be blinded and castrated by the king, so that he would not pose a threat to the succession; others claim he died jumping from the walls of the castle in an escape attempt; while others claim that King John simply stabbed him to death in a blind rage. Whatever the case may be, John was free from his biggest competitor to England's throne.

Arthur in Shakespeare

Appears in: King John

Shakespeare portrays Arthur as a fragile child who is primarily led by his mother Constance. This is a huge departure from the seemingly ambitious and politically active youth he was in reality. After Arthur is awarded merely with the Duchy of Brittany (based on a compromise between Kings John and Philip), instead of the kingdom of England which many feel he is entitled to, he is captured by King John and imprisoned. John orders Hubert de Burgh to blind and castrate the boy in order to eliminate him as a threat to the throne. When Arthur realizes what de Burgh has been ordered to do, he begs for mercy and receives it. De Burgh agrees to help the prince to escape captivity. Unfortunately, Arthur is killed when he leaps down from the castle walls in an attempt to escape. When the magnates discover Arthur's corpse, they are enraged and agree to rebel against the king. In reality, the Barons' War had nothing to do with Arthur's death and indeed happened over ten years later. Further still, Arthur had few supporters in England after the death of King Richard, and John's accession to the throne was virtually unopposed. Arthur did have more supporters in John's new French territories (particularly in Anjou), but the king was able to agree to the Treaty of Le Goulet with Philip Augustus quickly enough to prevent his nephew from gaining any ground.  As for the portrayal of Arthur's death, Shakespeare seems to have conflated two of his sources to come up with the scene. Historically, Arthur died in a Norman castle (likely Rouen or Cherbourg), and was little mourned by the English nobility, whereas he seems to have died on English soil within the play; the barons proceeded to mourn his death as if he were an innocent youth murdered by a tyrant monarch.


Jones, Michael. ‘Arthur, duke of Brittany (1187–1203)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004 [, accessed 28 Jan 2010]

Make a Free Website with Yola.