Wednesday, 1 July 2009

Chapter 30

How he avenged the murder of Charles, count of Flanders

I intend to relate his finest exploit[1], the noblest deed he performed from his youth to his life’s end. Although it ought to be spoken of at length, I shall recount it briefly, concentrating on what he did rather than how he did it, in order to avoid boring my readers.[2]

The famous and very powerful count Charles, son of the king of Denmark and King Louis’s aunt, succeeded by hereditary right the brave count Baldwin, son of Robert of Jerusalem, and ruled the very populous land of Flanders both forcefully and diligently, proving himself an illustrious defender of God's church, a lavish almsgiver and a notable protector of justice[3]. Discharging the duty of his honour, he sought several times legitimately to bring to the judgement of his court certain powerful men of low birth who had risen through their wealth and were arrogantly trying to free their family from his lordship although they were of servile origin.[4] They were the provost of Bruges and his relations[5], notorious criminals puffed out with pride who trapped the count most cruelly.[6]

One day Charles came to Bruges and went early in the morning into God’s church[7]. He was kneeling on the floor in prayer, holding a prayer book in his hands, when suddenly a certain Burchard[8], the provost’s nephew, a savage fellow, arrived with other members of that wickedest of families and other accomplices in his detestable crime. As Charles was praying and talking with God, Burchard quietly slipped behind him, unsheathed his sword and gently touched the neck of the prostrate count, so that when the count raised it a little he would make a better target for the unexpected sword, then with one blow he impiously killed the pious man, and thus the serf beheaded his lord. 

His accomplices in this horrifying murder who were standing around thirsting for his blood, like dogs feasting on abandoned corpses, took pleasure in hacking the innocent man to pieces, particularly rejoicing that they had been able to accomplish the evil deed they had conceived and the wickedness to which they had given birth[9]. As if blinded by their own malice, they revelled in evil and massacred all the men of the castle and nobler barons of the count they could find when they were unprepared and unshriven, either in the church or outside in the castle, putting them to the sword in the most wretched way. However, we are convinced that it is good for these unfortunates to have been killed in such circumstances because of their fidelity to their lord and to have met their deaths with the prayers of the church, for as it is written: ‘When I shall find you, I will judge you.’[10]

The assassins buried the count in the church itself, fearing that if he were brought out for mourning and burial the people who were devoted to him both for his glorious life and for his more glorious death would be aroused to seek vengeance. Then they turned the church into a brigands’ cave, fortified both it and the count’s house which was next to it, procured whatever food they could and decided with the utmost arrogance to protect themselves there and thus to take over the land. 

The Flemish barons who had not consented to this were shocked by so great and depraved a crime[11]. They wept as they attended the count’s obsequies in order to avoid being branded as traitors, and reported it to the lord king Louis, and indeed to everyone, for the news swept across the world. Love of justice and affection for his cousin inspired war against the English king and Count Theobald[12]. So he crossed courageously into Flanders[13], intent on using all his resources to punish the wickedest of men most cruelly. He established as count of Flanders William of Normandy[14], son of Duke Robert of Jerusalem, who had a claim through ties of blood. Without fear either for the barbarity of the land or for the loathsome family which had engaged in treason, he went down to Bruges, and blockaded the traitors securely in the church and the tower, preventing them from obtaining any food other than what they had, which by divine assistance now disgusted them because it was unfit for use. For a while he wore them down by hunger, disease and the sword; then they abandoned the church the church and kept only the tower, which also guarded them. 

Now they despaired of life, and their lyre was turned to mourning and their organ into the voice of those that weep[15]; the most wicked Burchard left with the agreement of his companions, hoping to flee the land but found himself unable to do so, though only his own wickedness prevented him. On his return to the castle of one of his intimate friends he was seized by the king’s command and suffered exquisite torture in death. Tied to the upper part of a high wheel, exposed naked to the greediness of crows and other birds of prey, his eyes torn out and his whole face lacerated, pierced by a thousand blows from arrows, lances and spears, he perished miserably and his body was thrown into a sewer[16]

Bertold, the brains behind the plot, also decided to flee; but when he found he was able to wander around without restriction, he returned through sheer pride; for he asked himself, ‘Who am I and what have I done?’ So he was captured by his own men, handed over to the king’s judgement and condemned to a well-merited and wretched death. They hanged him from a gibbet with a dog and as the dog was struck it took its anger out on Bertold, chewed his whole face and, horrible to relate, covered him with excrement; so, more miserable than the most miserable of men, he ended his wretched life in perpetual death.[17]

The men the king had besieged in the tower were forced by many hardships to surrender. In front of their relations Louis had them thrown out one by one from the top of the tower to crush their skulls.[18] One of them called Isaac had been tonsured in a monastery to avoid death.[19] Louis ordered him to be defrocked and hanged on a gibbet. Thus victorious at Bruges, the king rapidly led his army to Ypres, an excellent castle, to take vengeance on William the Bastard, who had fomented the treason.[20] He sent messengers to the people of Bruges and brought them around to his side by threats and flattery. Then as William barred his way with three hundred knights, half the royal army rushed against him and the other half went off at an angle and boldly occupied the castle by way of its other gate. The king kept it, William lost all claim to Flanders, and was banished. Because he had aspired to gain Flanders through treachery, it was right that he should gain nothing whatever in Flanders. 

Flanders was washed clean and almost re-baptised by these different kinds of revenge and the great torrent of blood. So having installed William the Norman as count, the king returned to France[21], victorious by God’s help.[22]


[1] Suger appears to be exact in not only his discussion of the murder of Charles the Good but on many points of detail. The murder of Charles on consecrated ground was particularly heinous and the murder of a nobleman by someone of lower social status furnishes Suger with another reminder of the dangers posed by such people when they rise in status.

[2] Galbert de Bruges Histoire du meurtre de Charles le Bon, comte de Flandre, edited by Henri Pirenne, Paris 1891 and Le meurtre de Charles le Bon, edited by J. Gengoux, Angers, 1978 are far more detailed accounts of the events of 1127-1128 and can be compared with Suger. Ross, J.B., (ed.), The Murder of Charles the Good, Count of Flanders, by Galbert of Bruges, New York, 1959 is a useful translation. Ganshof, F.-L., ‘Le roi de France en Flandre en 1127 et 1128’, Revue historique de droit français et étranger, 4e série, vol. xxvii, (1949), pp. 204-228 is essential for Louis VI’s role. Dhondt, J., ‘Les 'solidarités' médiévales. Une société en transition: La Flandre en 1127-1128’, Annales, Economies, Sociétés, Civilisations, vol. xii, (1957), pp. 529-560 with an English version: ‘Medieval Solidarities: Flemish Society in Transition, 1127-28’, in Cheyette, F.L., (ed.), Lordship and Community in Medieval Europe, New York, 1968 pp. 268-296 provide valuable context. Murray, A.V., ‘Voices of Flanders: Orality and Constructed Orality in the Chronicle of Galbert of Bruges’, Handelingen der Maatschappij voor Geschiedenis en Oudheidkunde te Gent, nieuwe reeks, vol. xlvii, (1994), pp. 103-119 and Nicholas, K.S., ‘When Feudal Ideals Failed: Conflicts between Lords and Vassals in the Low Countries, 1127-1296’, in Purdon, L.O. and Vitto, C.L., (eds.), The Rusted Hauberk: Feudal Ideals of Order and their Decline, Gainesville, 1994, pp. 201-226 look at Galbert in detail.

[3] In 1086, St. Knut II, King of Denmark and father of Charles the Good, was murdered. Charles who was only three years old, was taken by his mother Adela (1065-1111) to the court of Robert I, Count of Flanders (born 1030-died 1093), his maternal grandfather. When he grew up, he became a knight and accompanied his uncle Robert II, count of Flanders (born 1065, count 1093-1111) in a crusade to the Holy Land where he distinguished himself; on their return, Charles also fought against the English with his uncle. On Robert’s death in 1111, his son Baldwin VII succeeded him and designated Charles as the heir. At the same time, he arranged for Charles’ marriage to Margaret, daughter of the Count of Clermont. During Baldwin’s rule, Charles was closely associated with him, and the people came to have a high regard for his wise and beneficent ways as well as his personal holiness. At Baldwin’s death, in 1119, the people made his cousin their ruler.  Charles ruled his people with wisdom, diligence, and compassion; he made sure that times of truce were respected and fought against those who hoarded food and the sold it at inflated prices to the people especially by releasing grain from his own storehouses during the severe famine that hit Flanders in 1124-1125.

[4] The crisis that led to Charles’ murder came from his desire to ascertain what belonged to him in human and material resources. The increasing use of the courts to settle dispute was an important characteristic of Charles’ reign and he noticed that in important cases free men refused to answer suits from the unfree or serf who were suing in the public courts. Galbert de Bruges said that Charles, despite being in Flanders for forty years was surprised that the Erembald family were serfs and he decided to disgrace them. Their status appears to have been an open secret among the leading lords in Flanders and none were particularly concerned about it until Charles raised the issue. Charles summoned his councillors, many of whom were related to the provost, which means that there were serfs in the council and that the count knew this. While the ‘old guard’ whom the count wished to destroy were of servile origin, some of the officials of the central court were free ‘new men’ who incited Charles against the Erembalds. The assassination was an attempt to forestall the count.

[5] The two leading members of the Erembald family were: Bertold or Bertulf was appointed provost of St.-Donatian of Bruges in 1091 and had been chancellor of the count and chief financial official of the count’s lands and his brother, Didier (Desiderius) Hacket castellan of Bruges before 1115.

[6] Ibid, Molinier, Auguste, (ed.), Vie de Louis le Gros par Suger, p. 111 n° 2 suggests that Louis VI may have known about the conspirators’ plans and somewhat imprecisely that Charles the Good had been allied to England ‘for several years’. There are several problems with this argument given Charles’ involvement with Louis VI in his campaigns against Henry V in 1124 and in the Auvergne in 1126.

[7] The murder took place on 2nd March 1127 in the church of St. Donatian which was linked to the count’s house by a gallery.

[8] Formold, surnamed Burchard was the son of the Bertold’s brother.

[9] Comparison can be made with Psalms, vii, 15: ‘He made a pit and digged it and is fallen into the ditch which he made’.

[10] This seems to draw on a lost Apocalypse.

[11] The Erembalds expected the other Flemish barons who shared their own problematic ancestry to rise in support of their action, but they were badly mistaken. The attitude of the people of Bruges was ambiguous. In addition to the castellan, Bruges had a town government that could speak for the citizenry; for while their rulers allied with Gervase of Praat, a knight who led resistance to the assassins, many of the citizens seemed to favour the Erembalds whom they considered their own lords’. The Erembalds were besieged in the count’s castle in Bruges that was stormed on 19th April. Several escaped but to a man they were hunted down and killed.

[12] Suger uses an ambiguous phrase here that could either mean that Louis did not let a war detain him or that there was no war to detain him. He may wish to have implied to former but the latter was true. Neither Henry I nor Count Theobald was at war with Louis VI at this time.

[13] When Louis first heard of the murder, he went to Arras remaining there from 9th March until the end of the month. He arrived in Bruges on Tuesday 5th April and found the siege well advanced. Suger provides no explanation for Louis’ delay in moving into Flanders but perhaps he did not wish to get dragged into the internal affairs of Flanders until the eventual outcome was clear and certainly he consulted his advisers on the viability of William Clito as a desirable successor. Herman of Tournai provides additional detail on why Louis stayed so long in Arras: see Appendix II.

[14] Charles the Good died childless and there was need for the succession to be established. Suger’s account not surprisingly emphasised the importance of Louis but Galbert indicated that there was both a designation by Louis and an election ‘by all his barons and those of our land’: see Ganshof, F.L., ‘Le roi de France en Flandre en 1127 et 1128’, Revue historique de droit français et étranger, 4th series, vol. xxvii, (1949), pp. 204-228. According to Herman of Tournai, the office of count was given by Louis to William Clito. The selection of William was an anti-English act and William had previously been used by Louis on earlier occasions against Henry (chapter 26). William Clito was born at Rouen in 1101, the son of Robert Curthose. His paternal grandmother Matilda was the sister of the Robert I, count of Flanders who was the maternal grandfather of Charles the Good. He was briefly count of Flanders from 1127 until his death at St Omer on 27th July 1128 from a wound he received at the siege of Alost five days earlier. He was married first to Sybille, daughter of Fulk V of Anjou in 1123 when she was eleven. He later married Joan, about whom nothing is known. There were no children. William Clito’s claim to Flanders was disputed by Thierry of Alsace who succeeded as count in 1128 and ruled until 1168. His mother Gertrude (1070-1117) was also a daughter of Robert I of Flanders.

[15] Job xxx, 31

[16] Taken out the outskirts of Lille, Burchard was executed in the last days of April.

[17] Bertold was arrested on 11th April at Ypres on the orders of his accomplice William of Ypres, no friend of Louis and immediately executed. Suger’s view that he submitted to the judgement of Louis is therefore suspect.

[18] There were twenty-eight. They surrendered on 19th April and held in the prison in the count’s house. It was from the tower of this house that they were hurled to their deaths on 4th May.

[19] Before the capture of the others, Isaac, son of Didier Hacket had taken refuge at Saint-Jean de Therouanne. Captured on the night of 20th March, he was hanged on 23rd March, according to Galbert de Bruges on the orders of William of Ypres.

[20] William of Ypres was the illegitimate son of Philip of Loo, second son of count Robert le Frison. He was cousin to both Charles the Good and Baldwin VII but his illegitimacy prevented him becoming count despite having some support from Henry I of England. In 1119, on Baldwin VII’s death his mother Clementia had supported the candidacy of William of Ypres, who though illegitimate was the last descendant in the male line of Robert the Frison. The battle at Ypres took place on 26th April.

[21] Louis VI left Bruges on 6th May 1127 to return to France.

[22] I intend to add contrasting accounts to Suger’s after the completion of the Vita.

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