Monday, June 18, 2012

King Gilla-Ruad I "the Cruel" (1280-1308)


The career of King Gilla-Ruad I, known as The Cruel, is a source of controversy for the people of Brittany. He rivaled his grandmother, Marguerite the Great, in terms of centralization and effectiveness of his rule. But that effectiveness was in the eye of the beholder, for he was needlessly cruel, ruthlessly crushing opposition in the crudest possible ways. He assassinated rivals and wives with no hesitation and executed scores of those who underestimated him. Where Marguerite was a scalpel, Gilla-Ruad was a hammer. His father, Payen I, doesn't even enter consideration when Gilla-Ruad is discussed; he despised his father for marrying him off to a woman he intensely disliked for political considerations. He also thought Payen was incredibly weak for what he viewed as yielding to the Irish. This was not motivated by cultural animosity, as it was in years past; Gilla-Ruad hated his Breton subjects (he identified as Norman, raised as he was in neighboring Mortain) as much as he did anyone in Ireland. He simply thought that killing Irishmen by the score and setting up their heads on pikes as mile markers was more effective.

He was a remarkably venal, petty, and unpleasant man. Despite his paranoia, he hated to be alone, keeping people talking well past the point of exhaustion into the night. He was also nightmarishly bad with money, breaking the long line of de Rennes masters of money. He was so bad, in fact, that he had to yield the newly gotten Duchy of Toulouse as an early act of governance, simply because he couldn't juggle the added territory in his demesne. He made his (and his father's) Marshal, Prince Turold, the Duke of Toulouse.

Since he was crowned at the age of 50, nobody, even Gilla-Ruad, was expecting a long reign. His son, Gaufrid, was married off to the Duchess of Holland at the earliest possible opportunity in an effort to snatch Holland from the periphery of the Holy Roman Empire. With Mortain brought under Breton rule with Gilla-Ruad's ascension, Brittany was looking at a situation where the entire northern coast of France was no longer under French rule. Gaufrid was primed to come back to Brittany as king within five or ten years.

Instead, Gilla-Ruad would rule for 28 years and Gaufrid would die before ever sniffing the throne of Brittany.

His first act as king was to order the murder of his wife. With the sudden influx of resources available to him as king, it was simple. She didn't even make it out of Mortain; the king had left to be crowned at Rennes a week prior to her departure and she was murdered on the road by hired assassins posing as bandits. That Gilla-Ruad used this as an excuse to crack down on the people of Mortain in the interest of keeping order, leading to the hangings of around a hundred innocent men, reveals much of his character.

Gilla-Ruad would reveal an uncanny knack for sticking the knife into his neighbors' backs early on. In April of 1281, he used a fresh dynastic crisis in England to war with the island kingdom over Maine. With the English king in bad straits in his home territories, the ordinarily overwhelming force of the English couldn't make it over the channel. Maine was ceded and given to the Breton Prince-Archbishop of Anjou to rule in 1283.

The intervening year of 1282 saw the Fifth Crusade called off. As bad as the Fourth Crusade was for Christendom, the Fifth was even worse. Not a single shred of land was gained. The crusaders could barely land in Egypt before the Shia Caliphate's massive armies threw them back. The Fifth Crusade marked a low ebb in the Pope's authority in Europe.

That same year, Gilla-Ruad ordered his second murder. The young Duke of Leinster, Conchobar II, was due to marry Gilla-Ruad's eldest daughter, Margrite. When his younger brother died, leaving Leinster to revert back to the crown should Conochobar die, as well, Gilla-Ruad ordered a team of thugs to beat the 11 year old to death in his room one evening. They succeeded, though one of the assassins was caught and let slip the name of the king. Gilla-Ruad's vassals were appalled and restless; the king didn't care. Leinster was given to one of Gilla-Ruad's chosen courtiers.

Gilla-Ruad's ascension to the kingship brought with it the Norman province of Mortain. With both Mortain and Evreux under Breton control, the time was right to make a move for Normandy. In 1284, Gilla-Ruad declared war on his nephew, the Duke of Normandy. Doubling as the husband of the Queen of Wales, he proved to be needlessly reckless on the field of battle; he wandered too far into the Breton lines and was captured in the first engagement. Brittany found itself in possession of Rouen three days into its war with Normandy and the Duke lived out the rest of his days in shame at the Welsh court.

Brittany found itself eclipsing France and England as the dominant power in Western Europe. Both of those kingdoms experienced terrible internal strife from 1200 on, while Brittany was largely cohesive, periodic Irish revolts excepted. Gilla-Ruad pressed the advantage on the French territories in 1289, just as he had with the English and Maine in 1281. With all of France rising up against King Gauthier I, Brittany swooped in to claim the remainder of Aquitaine. France barely minded since Aquitaine was helping the rebellion.

With Aquitaine and Toulouse part of Brittany, the ancient, pre-Frankish Kingdom of Aquitaine was revived under Breton rule. The Dual Crown of Brittany and Ireland became the Triple Crown of Brittany, Ireland, and Aquitaine. He proclaimed the new kingdom in Bordeaux and followed the coronation with a slaughter of local heretics in public. Gilla-Ruad then returned to Rennes, turning over the newly won provinces to the Duke of Aquitaine.

By 1290, Ireland once again chafed under Breton rule. Gilla-Ruad, for all that he expanded the borders of his kingdom, was terribly unpopular. His 1283 attempt on the life of the Count of Zeeland because he stood to inherit the Duchy of Ulster, unsuccessful and sparking a foiled counter-attempt by the count on Gilla-Ruad's life, began the slow burn toward Irish rebellion. As always, the sea made the distance between Brittany and the island longer than it seemed; what Gilla-Ruad could control directly on the continent was tough to equal in Ireland.

Ulster was the first to rebel, in April of 1290. Gilla-Ruad was infuriated and raised every troop the kingdom could muster. In correspondences with his council, a very dangerous course of action was set. Gilla-Ruad saw the rebellions as a byproduct of his family's historical leniency in dealing with insurrection. Invariably, the titles were stripped from the ringleader and given to another member of his family. Gilla-Ruad decided that it was time to reshuffle the deck; above his council's protests, he declared that any surrendering leader was to have all titles stripped and the offender banished. The theory was that he could dole out the titles to close allies, preventing the generational rot which he saw at the heart of Irish rebellion.

Gilla-Ruad's advisors were appalled. This was tyranny of the crudest sort, the type of thing that might exacerbate already raw feelings in other parts of the kingdom. Gilla-Ruad was unpersuaded. The might of Brittany was aimed squarely at the kingdom's own people. The Bretons boarded their ships and marched on Ulster.

1291 brought more rebellion. Duke Eon II of Cornwall rebelled, as well. As they had on two prior occasions, Scotland quickly took the opportunity to attempt a quick snatch of the Cornish titles. The Battle of Bodmin, in April of 1292, saw the invading Scots repulsed. Gilla-Ruad shrewdly ordered a force of 10000 men to the western coast of Scotland to intercept any attempts to conduct a second invasion of Cornwall. Some small forces snuck through, which, when combined with the further rebellions, extended what should have been a simple conquest terribly, but no serious threat was mounted to Breton command of the Cornish situation.

Ulster capitulated in 1294, with the ducal title given to the Count of Tyrconnell. Cornwall followed, in 1296. Duke Eon II of Cornwall would not fair well; he was executed, his body put on display on the walls of fabled Tintagel Castle, and his titles fell to his pliable daughter, Constance.

January of 1297 brought more death and rebellion. Abroad, Prince Gaufrid's wife, the Duchess of Holland, died unexpectedly from illness. Gilla-Ruad's grandson and second in line to the throne, also named Gilla-Ruad, was named Duke of Holland at the age of 8.

More alarmingly, the de Rennes' family's trusted friend, Duke Turold of Toulouse, was caught planning to take the crown of Aquitaine from Gilla-Ruad. Forces were dispatched to the south to capture him, but the legendary warrior and his guard defeated the would be captors handily. Turold rebelled.

This was followed two years later with the rebellion of Leinster, proving that Gilla-Ruad's strategy of placing as many titles as possible into the hands of already trusted allies was not foolproof. Toulouse was the primary objective, with Leinster left alone for the time being. Turold surrendered in 1300 and was locked away in the Rennes Castle dungeon for the rest of his life.

As a sideshow to the main de Rennes tale, Gilla-Ruad's daughter, Sibylla, was married matrilineally to the heir to the Welsh throne. While it certainly would not unite the kingdoms as the de Rennes family had historically wanted, it would bring a de Rennes heir to the Welsh throne.

The Duchy of Meath revolted in late 1300, giving no rest to the weary Breton troops. Leinster surrendered in 1302, only to have Connacht revolt the next year. Ulster rebelled again in April of 1304, meaning the entire island but Munster had bubbled up in open warfare against Brittany. Gilla-Ruad steeled himself, confident of victory.

When Meath surrendered in October, 1304, Duchess Eustaice was banished and her titles given to one of Gilla-Ruad's grandsons. August of 1305 brought victory in Connacht, followed by another banishment; this time the titles were given to a favorite nephew.

January of 1306 and another rebellion, again in Cornwall and, again, followed by Scottish meddling. Ireland was slowly being reigned in but the prospect of more warfare against the increasingly powerful Scottish was demoralizing to many in Gilla-Ruad's inner circle. Louder grumbling about the old man's rule was heard more frequently.

In July, 1306, the king's heir, Prince Gaufrid, died at the age of 45. The new heir was Gilla-Ruad's grandson, the Duke of Holland. If the old king felt any sadness about his eldest son's death, no record was made of it. The minutes record only that, on the day the news was received, Gilla-Ruad sent off an official letter to the Scottish king condemning their behavior in Cornwall before eating a meal of mutton and blackbird pie, chased down with wine from his cherished Bordeaux.

In January of 1208, shortly after Ulster's surrender, Gilla-Ruad died of old age at the age of 77. His rule was largely spent putting down rebellions of his own making and his people largely hated him while he was alive. Yet his successful campaign for both Normandy and Aquitaine, the latter marking the reformation of the kingdom once home to Lancelot, mark him as an effective military leader. As well, his efforts to replace the dukes of Ireland with new families less prone to rebel against Breton rule, regardless of the diminishing of his personal reputation, have to be viewed with a certain amount of awe, even though the tactics used to achieve this were repulsive.

No coins are adorned with Gilla-Ruad I's face, no songs sung about him, no folk tales about him told lovingly around the campfire. There's a certain twinge of embarrassment in the face of a Breton when his name is mentioned. His reign was a mixed bag which saw highs and lows of Breton culture.

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