He was thrust into the wars over his career first by the remaining resentment against his grandfather's rule, then by his crusading impulse, and finally by a greedy France. Over the years of war, nearly without pause over his 15 year reign, he grew into a capable battle leader, aided by one of the greatest soldiers of the century in Duke Torald of Aquitaine.
Yet he was not by any means universally successful. Particularly when conflict with France arose, Brittany was forced to cede land in losing wars for the first time in the kingdom's history. This taints what would otherwise be a reign of extreme success.
When Gilla-Ruad came to power, it was as if the entire kingdom convulsed with the removal of his predecessor's boot heel from its neck. A few of the new king's vassals were relieved, attracted to the gregarious new ruler. Most, however, sensed an opportunity to settle old scores and flex their own political muscle.
Two weeks after his coronation, Aquitaine revolted. This was while the Cornish rebellion, and related conflict with Scotland, still burned. Notably, Aquitaine was ruled by Duke Torald I, Marshal of Brittany and true giant of 14th century military strategy.
|Europe at the time. Note the HRE in Iberia and that Denmark inherited |
Sweden and Poland
The already wobbly Cornwall was made the primary focus. They surrendered in April of 1309, freeing up several thousand troops for a march into Aquitaine. This they did, with a flanking force loaded up into ships for a landing on the French Riviera.
It was a good plan but France would spoil the good spirits of the Bretons. The French king, Renaud II, had designs on reclaiming Anjou. Informed of the outbreak of serious civil war in Brittany, he invaded Anjou. Gilla-Ruad was forced to immediately cede the province if he wished to hold his kingdom together; the French forces were too numerous for his depleted armies to hold off. Anjou was lost without a casualty on either side, marking the first time that Brittany had ceded land as part of a truce with another kingdom.
The rebellions were gradually put down. Munster capitulated in 1310, while Aquitaine lingered until June of 1312. After Torald surrendered, Gilla-Ruad accompanied him to Rennes Castle personally. There, in the dungeons, the two men had a long talk. The specifics weren't recorded, but Torald was released, his titles intact, after attending a feast in his honor. The Duke of Aquitaine was a loyal vassal and friend to the king from then on.
This friendship would be strengthened by the Sixth Crusade. Declared in January of 1312, while the battle between Gilla-Ruad and Torald still raged, the emphasis was once again on capturing Jerusalem. Shortly after Torald was released, Gilla-Ruad set off on crusade.
The King of Brittany led the effort against the Shia Caliphate. Bolstered by interest from Norway and Scotland, the Sixth Crusade met with some actual success, though none of it was lasting. Gilla-Ruad famously shed his reputation for cowardice in a huge pitched battle on the banks of the Dead Sea, leading charge after charge against the forces of the Emir of Petra.
Gilla-Ruad would stay in the Holy Land for seven years, until May of 1319. By that year, the situation had stalemated. With long supply lines, the crusaders couldn't keep up the effort, even though they established solid temporary holdings in Cyrenaica and Tyre. Slowly, they were pushed back. With the unsuccessful outcome obvious, Gilla-Ruad packed up his forces and returned home, letting the Sixth Crusade peter out without more Breton and Irish death. This it would do in 1322.
His years away had cost him his wife. In March of 1318, Queen-Consort Romilda died of an unexpected illness at only 30 years of age. Their son, Raymond, had been recently betrothed to the young Queen of England and suddenly found himself Duke of Swabia, swept away at the age of 12 to a strange court in a strange land.
Gilla-Ruad remarried, to Countess Catherine of Kent, but the double blow of his wife's death and his return from war left him largely despondent. He entered a deep depression which he never fully came out of for the rest of his life. He put on a good show for his subjects, but letters written to his dear friend Torald of Aquitaine reveal a man unsure of his place in the world.
France, in 1321, bore little resemblance to the barely constrained anarchic mess which it was barely 25 years prior. Having inherited the Duchy of Bedford away from England's borders, the French king found himself with enough raw muscle to put down many of the rebellions which had plagued the kingdom for more than a century and a half.
In April of that year, France decided to bring that muscle to bear on Brittany once more, this time over Maine. Gilla-Ruad had cultivated a good relationship with Pope Severinus II over the course of the Sixth Crusade, and he quickly urged the Pope to consider excommunicating the French king. The Pope was only too happy to oblige after Brittany's heavy lifting in the Holy Land; Renaud II was excommunicated by May.
Even with Renaud II's predicament, the French were simply too much for Brittany, who had not had time to fully recover from the all-out effort during the Crusade. The Bretons fought bravely, led largely by Turold, but even his genius couldn't match France's overwhelming numerical superiority. Brittany surrendered Maine to the French in late 1322.
Gilla-Ruad withdrew further into his depression. His brothers-in-arms from the Sixth Crusade tried to steer him back to a productive course, to no avail. He largely shut himself off from human contact, the weight of losing the Duchy of Anjou weighing heavily upon him. On July 8, 1323, the Crusader King died after a short illness. He was only 37.