Certainly, it's difficult to pin down precisely what policies were his and which were those of his mother and regent, Queen Mother Judith. The fact is that so much of his reign was spent under her regency that the temptation is to give Judith the bulk of the credit (or condemnation, depending). But, when Barthelemi was undeniably in charge, he was one of the most dynamic rulers of the age.
He was crowned at age 4 and died at age 33. In those intervening 29 years, more land was added to de Rennes rule than any prior monarch. There were more rebellions and more dead Irish than any other reign, as well.
His mother, Judith, shepherded the young king toward an infatuation with all things French. Indeed, he was the first Breton ruler to identify as French in attitude, speech, and custom. Judith, being a native Frenchwoman, saw it as her duty to civilize the rough Celtic Brittany into a more sophisticated, dynamic state. That sophisticated France was in a perpetual state of civil war going on forty years seemed not to be of particular concern.
The king's reign began with a scandal. Judith broke his betrothal to Duchess Heloise of Burgundy, still herself a minor. Behind closed doors, the Queen Mother cited the nine year age difference as the cause; she wished to make certain that there was nary a hint of a dynastic crisis when her son died.
The scandals continued throughout the year. King Briant had given sanctuary to a noted Ethopian knight named Mekonnen Zagwe. The African had risen to be the marshal of the kingdom through a nearly unmatched grasp of battlefield tactics. Unfortunately, he was an open Monophysite. Word had reached Rome of this and Pope Honorius II personally demanded Mekonnen's imprisonment. Judith obliged; the poor man died, forgotten in a deep cell, two years later.
1156 saw young Barthelemi's betrothal to the equally young Countess of Saintonge, Adelaide. This would bring two adjacent counties in the heart of Judith's beloved France. Her desire to look east to France was increasingly obvious to anyone paying attention; there was ever louder grumbling amongst the largely Breton royal council over this shift.
December of that year also saw the end of the war with Connacht begun in King Briant I's reign. Duchess Cobflaith died of quite natural causes; her daughter, Imag, made peace quickly, returning to the Breton fold.
Imag was a stern, independent woman who secretly saw herself as a deliverer from Breton bondage of the Irish people. She was wily and charming enough when in a tough spot that she avoided all attempts to remove her from her throne over her career. She would rebel against Barthelemi's rule no less than three times. Each time, save the last, she was spared due to political considerations. She was Barrabas, the criminal freed by popular acclaim. The last time she was locked in the Rennes Castle dungeons, an adult Barthelemi lived up to his epithet by personally ensuring she died on the rack.
That was some years off, though. In 1157, Barthelemi was still a young boy with his mother running the kingdom in his stead. She had big plans for her son and she used the always rebellious Irish as an excuse to launch the grandest campaign of conquest of the century, one which would drag on for well into her son's adult years.
The pretext was the 1157 arrest of Duke Broen of Munster for plotting against the crown. With Judith refusing to ransom or release the duke and what was perceived to a weak king on the throne, the Irish provinces rebelled, one by one.
Always troublesome Tyrone was first, in 1159, followed quickly by Duchess Imag in support. Judith had the full might of the Breton armies storm the coast near Galway, informing the Count of Leinster that his title was forfeit, as well. By 1164, almost all of Ireland was temporarily pacified. Imag was captured and ransomed, after promises of filling the Breton coffers. Tyrone came under direct de Rennes rule, while Leinster was given to the trusted de Rohan family.
The quiet was extremely short-lived. In 1165, Barthelemi's young uncle, Riwallon the Count of Angouleme, rebelled and brought the Duchy of Munster in on his side. Riwallon, the reader will recall, was the central figure of a convoluted and bloodthirsty plot by Conan II to secure the throne of Wales by putting the rebellious count on the royal throne. It didn't succeed, though came close enough that, with one less creaky board under the feet of the assassins, there would have been no Barthelimi at all.
Judith was enraged. She had always hated Riwallon, though he was perfectly innocent of any wrongdoing on the part of his father in the plot, as he was just a child. She immediately sent troops to secure Angouleme, while hiring mercenaries to torch the southern Irish countryside. Riwallon was captured and tortured to death in early 1167.
That same year, Barthelemi reached the age of majority. He was a cruel, envious young man, not shying from violence or torture. He was also possessed of a remarkably shrewd mind for economics. He instituted a tax on firewood so as to fill the royal coffers in the normally lean winter months. It was a terrible burden on the peasantry. He also forbade the use of the Irish language, a law which did nothing to quell Irish restlessness.
The young king, still new on his throne, personally put down the forces of Munster who had rebelled in support of his uncle. With Munster in hand and the gains in Ireland which his mother had engineered, Barthelemi the Cruel declared the Kingdom of Ireland, becoming king of both Ireland and Brittany. He immediately exiled the entire Munster court, transferring rulership to a Frankish family.
He barely paused in bringing the rest of Ireland to heel. In 1170, shortly after the birth of his son, Briant, he declared war on Ossory. The fortifications of that county held out until 1173, when they fell and were folded into the Duke of Leinster's demesne. The second Ossory was under Breton rule, the king invaded both Tyr Connell and Oriel, in northern Ireland. Oriel surrendered in 1175; Tyr Connell in 1177.
Unfortunately, Barthelemi did not see the fall of Tyr Connell. On the way to that county, he personally led his troops against an Irish peasant rebellion. The king took a savage mace blow to the head, one which shattered his skull and staved in his head. He became a deformed vegetable, alive in name only. His men were forced to drag him to the nearby battles for Tyr Connell, being so far from home, but once his final triumph was achieved, he was left in his chambers in Rennes Castle for the rest of his life.
Judith found herself the real power in Brittany once more. In hopes of currying favor with France, she joined them in putting down a Burgundian rebellion. As an illustration of the strange vagaries of history, Breton troops took part in the capture of the Burgundian Duchess... Heloise, the girl whose betrothal to Barthelemi was broken so long ago.
Barthelemi lingered for eight long years. He died, having never awakened from the battlefield blow to his head, in 1184, at the age of 33, leaving another too young son to take the throne.
It is difficult to properly appraise Barthelemi's career. Of his 29 years on the throne, 13 were before he could legally rule and 8 were after his incapacitating wound; all told, he was only fully in control of the kingdom for 8 years. The other 21 were under the regency of his mother. She was obviously talented and spirited; much of the gains he personally oversaw were set up by her smart rule. But it would be incorrect to give Barthelemi too little credit for the rapid pacification of Ireland which he was responsible for. What his mother began, he finished.
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Was he a good ruler? That's a far more difficult question to answer. Like so many men and women of power in the Middle Ages, greatness was coupled with terrible, odious qualities. The Irish still hate him, while the people of Brittany look at him with the knowledge that he opened the floodgates of French culture to the insular kingdom. Whatever greatness he achieved is tempered by his feckless flirtations with the French and terrible cruelty to his Irish subjects.