Thursday, June 7, 2012

King Conan II "the Wise" (1119-1149)

Let it never be said that the Bretons do not have a sense of humor. While Conan II undoubtedly possessed all of the raw materials to be a smart, capable ruler, his reign saw terrible warfare between Brittany and the other Celtic kingdoms which the de Rennes family so coveted. His epithet, "the Wise", was given early on due to his grasp of military strategy. It was repeated and became a sarcastic signifier sometime after the Scottish captured and occupied Rennes castle.

He was, over his career, ruthless and murderous. He did not shy from violence, unlike his father. Indeed, he reveled in it. It was not cruelty that drove him; one does not see a Vlad Tepes or a Torquemada lurking behind his eyes. It was cold calculation and a will to power which allowed him to sacrifice scores of lives, both Breton and others, in order to achieve his aims. He murdered family members, let his countrymen starve... all in the name of progressing the family fortune.

Conan II was 28 when he came to the throne, married to the Countess-Queen Alix-Adele of Angouleme. There was no love between them; their marriage was a perfect distillation of the medieval arranged marriage land grab. She was a vile woman, deceitful and spiteful. She kicked her servants and  beat her younger siblings. The couple merely tolerated one another, a business arrangement made to secure Angouleme for the de Rennes family. This was made easier by the fact that the Queen largely stayed in Angouleme to oversee her lands once an heir was born.

Their son, Briant, future king of Brittany, was a shy, unassuming boy. He was bookish and introspective; his father called him weak while his mother outright ignored him. When he was the age of majority, he was married off to Eslarmunda de Perigod, a handmaiden in a minor family of Aquitaine. She was rumored to be a lesbian; at the least, only one child, a daughter, was born of their union.

Shortly after being crowned, Conan caught wind of a plot by Count Eudon of Vannes to kill a rival, Gervais de Rohan. In spite of Vannes' long loyalty to the crown, the king opted not to look the other way in this instance and had Eudon arrested. His titles were stripped and given to the crown. This brought, at last, the entire Breton peninsula under the King of Brittany's direct control.

The political situation remained quiet after this for a full three years. In 1123, it erupted and didn't die down for 15 years.

The spark which would ignite a larger conflagration involving Brittany, Scotland, England, Cornwall, and Munster. It began simply enough: a forged document, the same as so many others before it, "proving" a claim on a piece of land. In this case, Conan II made a move on the Duchy of Cornwall. Having his casus belli, he quickly crossed the channel with his army; he made certain to be at the forefront of the action, so as to distinguish himself from his cowardly father.

The small Cornish army was no match for the superior Breton forces. The title of Duke of Cornwall was bestowed upon King Conan II in a ceremony in Tintagel Castle. Not a single Cornishman was present.

Not wasting any time, Conan quickly assembled his armies and invaded Devon, intent on folding the county into his new Cornish holdings. As fate would have it, William III of Normandy had eyes on the rich city of Exeter. He declared war as well, putting the two neighbors at odds over the rule of Devon. Conan and William met on the field of battle, in a great clash of arms at Lydford. William was slain in the battle, trampled by his retreating forces as he tried in vain to rally them.

Conan's forces scarcely had time to breath when the increasingly restive Irish provinces saw a chance to stake their independence. Leading the way was the 18 year old Duchess of Munster, Dubchochaigh. As the year turned to 1124, she led what became known as the Waterford Rebellion, after the site of the first burning of the king in effigy at her urging.

The Duchess was a wily foe. She had the populace, grumbling over high taxes imposed by a foreign lord, with her and she knew the land. Unlike many women of the age, she took a direct hand in the planning and execution of her strategy.

While never proven, evidence exists that she convinced Conan's uncle, Count Gautier of Tyrone, to attempt to overthrow the king. Certainly, it beggars belief that Gautier would start his own rebellion within two months of the Waterford Rebellion's start. Gautier quickly drove south, into Connacht, as Dubchochaigh sent her forces north and west to Galway.

Conan II's shock was reserved mainly for his uncle. He landed his forces in Tyrone, quickly putting a stop to his uncle's rebellion. His uncle pleaded for his life after his capture, invoking God and the bonds of family. Gautier being Conan's favorite uncle, he spared his life and title, releasing him back to his holdings under the oath that he never take swords against his king again.

Munster held out for two years, finally being overwhelmed in 1126. Dubchochaigh, being immensely popular, was allowed to remain as Countess of Desmond, for fear that doing otherwise might spark a general revolt. The ducal seat was transferred to the Mayor of Waterford, Iacob. This vain and ambitious man began styling himself the Doge of Munster, a vanity which Conan largely ignored.

That same year, Gautier of Tyrone was caught plotting another overthrow of the king. He was captured and locked in Rennes' oubliette for the rest of his life. It was perhaps this event which extinguished all pity in Conan II's heart. He loved his uncle and forgave a trespass which most would have not. It is said that the last tears which Conan ever shed in his life fell onto the brow of his beloved uncle as he personally locked the oubliette.

A very brief peace settled over Brittany for the rest of the year and most of 1127. In December of that year, King Saewald I of England declared war on Brittany over control of Cornwall. The English claimant was the sister of the former Duchess of Cornwall. Conan, holding firmer control over his vassals since the Irish rebellions were put down, was able to muster a very large force to counter the English threat. While outnumbered, the Breton forces saw great success against the squabbling English.

It was the English king's soul, however, which would prove to be the site of the longest battle of the war. Conan had been cultivating a friendly relationship with Pope Valentine II, a severe man who was nonetheless susceptible to flattery. Over a period of years, the two men developed a warm relationship. When the English attacked Cornwall, Saewald was excommunicated at the urging of Conan; for dramatic effect, the decree was signed on Christmas Day of 1127. The effect on English morale was devastating, with many of the always headstrong English earls withholding troops and taxes.

With the war against the English going well, albeit with no end in sight, a terrible betrayal which was to define Conan II's reign occurred in December of 1128, almost one year to the day into the war with the English. King Reginald the Lionhearted of Scotland, that same Reginald whose throne was saved by King Riwallon I, declared open war on Brittany.

The catalyst for this conflict was Lady Beatrix of Galloway, Conan's younger sister. She was married to the count of Galloway, one of Reginald's brothers. Reginald's plan was to install her on the throne of Brittany, passing the kingdom to her Dunkeld child and, perhaps, Reginald's own descendants. Extant correspondence between Beatrix and Reginald showed elaborate schemes cooked up to place her on the throne, ranging from slaughter of most of her Breton family to what was finally settled upon: war.

Accounts of the time reveal a king equally enraged and confused. He was left fighting a two front war, stuck in Cornwall, with a massive Scottish force of 7000 soldiers and knights heading for Rennes. Conan ordered all available fighting men raised from the Irish counties; it was not much, perhaps 1500 men, but they quickly made way for the lightly defended Isle of Man.

Conan then made terms with the English when it was obvious that Cornwall was lost; the Breton throne was more important than the tin mines of Cornwall. As part of the peace terms, the Breton forces already in Cornwall were allowed safe passage through England on their way to Scotland; Saewald was only too happy, even in light of the excommunication, to have someone harass the hated Scots.

The Breton troops, with Conan leading the column, began the long march north. The king dispatched a messenger to the continent with the following orders: Eis accipere omnia (Let them take everything).

Hard words, but words which would save the fortunes of the de Rennes family. The Scottish had few defenders at home; almost all of their able forces were in Brittany. This allowed Conan to pick and choose where to siege and where to flee in Scotland proper. In the meantime, the bulk of the Scottish forces slowly dwindled as weather, hunger, starvation, and casualties took their toll.

Conan also authorized the use of mercenary forces from Italy. This was a first for a Breton king; pride and belief in the fighting skill of the Breton people always made such strategies verboten. Several mercenary companies were hired in succession to further whittle down the Scottish invaders. Very few battles by these mercenaries were won, but slowly and surely, 7000 Scots became 6000, 6000 became 5000, until a far less dangerous number were available to commit to siege. Conan's contempt for men who fight for coin rather than king was apparent as he threw the Italians into hopeless battle after hopeless battle, willing to sacrifice their lives at a 3:1 ratio in order to harm the Scots.

The strategy took a terrible toll on the people of Brittany. The castle of Rennes, namesake and ancestral home of the de Rennes dynasty, was lost, partially destroyed in a savage siege. Nantes, Leon, Penthievre... all under Scottish control after battles barely less savage. Crops were burned, women and children slaughtered... a generation of Bretons who had never known the privations faced in war-torn Iberia or Croatia were suddenly faced with terrible hardship.

For all of that, the strategy worked. The Scottish were finally driven into the sea by Conan's mercenary armies and the peninsula liberated. Conan and his forces were never able to make much headway in Scotland, but his throne had been saved. In 1137, with Scotland erupting into rebellion, after nine long years of war, an uneasy truce was declared.

Conan was returning home when word reached him that his eldest daughter, Guigoedon, had died of pneumonia at age 26. His heart hardened further, still; Guigoedon was his favorite child, the apple of his eye.

Early in 1138, Conan concocted a sloppy plan to assassinate his sister, Lady Beatrix, in revenge for her role in the war he'd just concluded. There was no subtlety involved in the plot; Conan quite openly hired a band of thugs to break into her room and stab her to death. They failed, but not before they wounded her grievously. Still, Conan's role in the attack was known throughout Brittany and the Isles, diminishing his stature relative to his peers.

Brittany again settled into stasis. Conan II, the great warrior and strategist, seemed tired of war. He was not, however, tired of bloodshed.

The king saw a problem in his succession. His heir, Briant, was away in Angouleme. Married to a homosexual, with only a daughter as their issue, Conan decided that the easiest way to secure the secession after his passing was to get both Briant's wife and daughter out of the way permanently, so that Briant could remarry a younger, more fertile bride. His spymaster dispatched to France, Eslarmunda de Perigod and Valence, Conan's own granddaughter, were poisoned. This time, the hard-hearted king made certain that his involvement was kept secret. Only documents well after the fact revealed Conan's involvement in the plot.

With Briant free to remarry and succession passing on to a hoped for son, Briant took up with Princess Thora of Norway. It was an extended dalliance of a purely carnal nature, with both trapped in loveless marriages. It was broken off in 1148, when Queen Alix-Adele finally died at the age of 60 after a bout with the flu.

Conan did not mourn her loss. Instead, he entered a marriage with the young sister of the Welsh king, Elinor. She was an attractive, sunny woman, and while there was no more love in his heart, Conan was fond of her. More than that, he saw an opportunity.

Elinor had a claim to the Welsh throne, which was newly declared and uneasily held. If she were to sit on the throne in place of her brother, the throne would pass to her children by Conan. This had the potential to unite the crowns of Wales and Brittany, furthering the dream set down by his grandfather 80 years before.

In 1149, Elinor gave birth to a son named Riwallon, second in line to the throne of Brittany. Conan saw his chance; he raised his armies one more time, sending them to Wales in order to install Elinor on the throne. That this was almost exactly the same casus belli which Reginald the Lionhearted had used in the still stinging betrayal of 20 years prior was not lost on him. When his chancellor brought this irony up, Conan was purported to have replied, "Mal est fait pour moi, de ne pas te."

The war went well. The Welsh were embroiled in a long fought war in eastern Ireland. The Breton forces went nearly unchecked, taking provinces almost unopposed.

There was only one problem: in order to unite Wales and Brittany, Briant had to be out of the way. While Conan held no great love for his son, thinking the prince a weak and sentimental man, he was hesitant to see him dead. After much deliberation, Conan saw no other choice and dispatched his assassins once more to Angouleme. This time, they failed miserably and Conan's role was revealed under torture.

The next day, King Conan II was pushed out of his bedroom window, falling 50 feet to his death. It was never revealed who was behind the accident, if anyone, but Prince Briant of Angouleme became King Briant I of Brittany later that week.

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