Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Queen Marguerite I "the Great" (1212-1257)

There was not much expected of young Marguerite when she made the rainy trip to her coronation at Rennes. Her brother's too short life had punctuated what many feared was a period of decline. She was young, yes, 18 years old. The grumbling about the fact that she was a woman could not be denied; while open revolt wasn't in the air, with even the Irish weary of what had practically become a cultural pastime, the people were restless. There were some urgings that she abdicate as soon as she had a son.


 This she obviously did not do. Marguerite went on to become perhaps the most beloved ruler in Breton history. She was certainly one of the greatest, if not at the top of the list. She became Marguerite Le Grand, Marguerite La Mere Des Rois, Marguerite Sans Egal.

Part of the legend which she would became had everything to do with her inauspicious rise to power. She was an afterthought, coming in to power while a state of war existed between Brittany and both England and the Muslim Andalusians. Her temperament, at least, was well-suited to rule, though she did not realize it until her reign was well underway. She was good with money, gregarious, and charitable, particularly with her poorer subjects. More than anything, she had a quiet, smoldering ambition which harked back to her foremother, Queen Andregoto.

Like Andregoto and Conan I, she had her own love affair, with her beloved husband, Alan de Rohan. He was even friendlier than she was, smoothly working out the interpersonal kinks which arise in a feudal system. They would produce eight children, seven girls and one boy, and they never seemed to tire of one another. Their love letters when he was abroad later in Marguerite's reign would become the stuff of Breton legend in later years, read in collections to this day.

But to her first years, her reign was saved from an entirely unexpected quarter. With the Muslim armies marching against a weakened and tired Brittany, Wales threw her support to Brittany, pledging to defend their fellow Celts with sword and coin. Normandy, Wales' ally, did likewise. The Breton armies thus bolstered, Marguerite turned her attention to first dealing with England. This she did, gaining an uneasy stalemate over the question of Ulster in April of 1213.

That same year, her second child, son Payen was born. It is recorded that, feeling emboldened by what was, in truth, a victory over the English, she delivered a tirade in the council chambers, declaring that any whispers of replacing her in favor of her son should cease immediately or that she would cram the oubliette with those who wished to press the matter. It never came up again during her 39 year reign.

Slowly, the Muslims were beaten back. An attempt to invade Brittany by ship was scuttled by the combined forces of Brittany, Wales, and the Knights Templar, who pledged their support. With that done, the Christian forces loaded up and set sail for southern Iberia. The war was successfully concluded in 1215.

With that done, the famed "Ballade de Rennes" was written. A verse form narration of the history of the de Rennes family dating back to the hazy founding of the family by a Celtic sellsword, the piece is regarded as the finest poetry of the century. One of the principal sections, describing the unlucky death of Briant I, actually charted at #4 in Brittany for local ragga-tech house fusion stars, La Chouve-souris Celtique, in 1998.

Marguerite proved a ruthless player of European politics. With Wales' armies still making their way back from the continent, she pressed her claim on Dublin in 1216. Wales didn't hold out a year; Marguerite became Countess of Dublin and Duchess of Meath in 1217.

The next four years were ones of peace and prosperity. Marguerite had twin girls, Adelaide and Agathe, to add to her burgeoning family. She used this time of calm to very quietly, so as to avoid any accusations of witchcraft, dabble in the occult; she taught herself Enochian and worked with a local rabbi to study Kabbalah. While never a serious practitioner, the fact that she dabbled at all revealed her open mind towards such things and other cultures.

In 1222, Brittany went to war again, this time with Normandy over the county of Evreux. Wales felt compelled to honor their alliance, joining in to hopefully avenge the sting of losing Dublin. They almost immediately dropped out of the war with the death of Aneurin II in battle near Cork. This doomed Normandy; they surrendered the Evreux in 1224.

Increasingly, power was coalescing once more in Ireland around the Mac Carthaigh family, that line which included Imag, Art, and Finnsnechtae. They were impossible to completely stamp out. To counter possible Mac Carthaigh claims to Dublin, Prince-Consort Alan was made Count of Dublin. The queen trusted him completely, of course, and he was only too happy to discharge his duties.

Kildare, the sole remaining province in central Ireland not under Breton rule, declared independence from Wales in 1226. The people of Kildare acclaimed Finnsnechtae's widow, Nichola, as countess. Marguerite dispatched an army of Breton knights to take the province. The Kildare rebels joy was short-lived; the province held out a scant four months before it fell and was given to Alan's control.

By 1226, Wales was spent. England had captured the eastern borderlands, leaving Wales confined to a small sliver of land on the western coast and a tentative hold on Tyrconnell in northern Ireland, which had been inherited a decade before.

With this being the case, and Scotland being embroiled in one of their periodic civil wars pitting Lothian against the Scottish royal crown, a confident Marguerite sensed her chance to finally bring all of Ireland under Breton control. She declared war on both Scotland and Wales simultaneously in early 1227. She sent her Irish forces to grind out harsh warfare in the Scottish homeland, while Breton forces were sent up the eastern coast to besiege Dunkeld Castle, itself. While Scotland was captured in this pincer movement, a small force of Cornish foot soldiers mopped up the decimated Welsh.

On May 21st, 1230, it was all over. On that day, Ulster was ceded by the Scottish; Tyrconnell had been absorbed five months earlier. A day of celebration was declared, one which is still a Breton national holiday today. Also, memorably, the heir to the dual crown of Brittany and Ireland declared that he would be known as Payen MacAlan, cementing his identity as Irish from that day forward. This had a mixed effect, though it did serve to mollify the always restive Irish somewhat.

Again, peace settled over the land. Another period of extended building and renovation of existing infrastructure ensued. There were few conflicts, a brief excursion to Syracuse in order to help Marguerite's new son-in-law, King Sewal I of Sicily against the Muslims holding it being one of them. Those few small commitments aside, though, nearly a decade of peace was achieved, one of the longest such periods since King Conan I had declared himself King of Brittany 150 years earlier.

In 1236, the University of St. Brieuc was opened. It would become one of Marguerite's proudest accomplishments, a largely secular university, funded by the de Rennes coffers. It remains one of the top universities in Europe, a lasting testament to  Marguerite's love of learning.

The troublesome Mac Carthaighs, as expected, were the cause of the shattered peace once again. In 1237, Duke Carthalan I, Art's grandson, rebelled. The war didn't go as well as prior attempts. With few losses, Connacht was back under Breton control by 1240. Cathalon was executed, his titles passing to his young son, Coirpre.


Inexplicably, the Duke of Ulster, Gilla-Patric, picked that moment to launch his own bid for independence. Brittany's still assembled armies marched right up the middle of the island to the northern duchy. In the very first set piece battle, Gilla-Patric was captured. The war ended after two weeks.

Pope Zachary II had declared the fourth Crusade in 1239. With peace on Ireland again restored, Marguerite contemplated sending forces in support of the pope for two years. At the urging of her son-in-law and new Duke of Munster, Amaury I, she relented. Once more, the might of Brittany was assembled, this time to be sent to the Holy Land.

The Fourth Crusade was a disaster from the start and Marguerite's involvement serves as the greatest blunder of her reign. England and Sweden had committed large contingents of troops, but France was unable to throw its might into the war, being subject to 20 years of terrible civil war due to the excommunication of its king, Geoffroy III. The Holy Roman Emperor was, as always, too skeptical of papal power and too monstrously powerful in his own right to commit.


The Shia Caliphate had recovered from a period of strife which saw them recover both their Egyptian and Levantine holdings entirely. While the Christian forces were certainly large, they were uncoordinated and behind technologically. It was like flinging darts against a battleship. Every attack was repulsed, every landing scuttled. The Fourth Crusade was the least successful, not even establishing a consistent foothold in Muslim territory.

Brittany's involvement in the crusade ended at the disastrous Battle of Sarafand. In addition to a rout of the best combined forces which England and Brittany could muster, the catalyst for Breton involvement, Duke Amaury, was crippled by a sword blow to the head; he would linger for a year, dying in 1244. As a further unfortunate (for Marguerite) byproduct of his passing, in addition to the personal tragedy for her eldest daughter, was that Munster passed to his elder brother, Drogon II of Cornwall. It had the potential for another Mac Carthaigh situation in another generation. The Fourth Crusade was ended in 1246.

That eldest daughter, also named Marguerite, would be married off to Gaucelin III, the new French king who had won the interminable French civil wars of the 13th century. This cemented an alliance with France, an alliance which Marguerite the Great would almost immediately call in.

In 1210, the Andalusians had taken Aquitaine. The populace of Angouleme, that province held by Brittany so long ago, had even largely converted to Islam. It was a dagger in the heart of Christendom, a reminder that the forces of Islam could easily creep up from Iberia and into even France.

Marguerite declared a war for the liberation of Aquitaine from Andalusia in 1246. She did it for religious reasons, as a land grab, and as a way of getting revenge for Andalusia's attempts to wrest Brittany from her tenuous control in 1212. With France at her side, the war was quickly concluded by the following year. Aquitaine was liberated and under Brittany's rule.

The triumph was bittersweet. 1247 also brought the death of her beloved Alan. While Marguerite was perpetually calm, showing little outward signs of stress, Alan was much more open about the emotional fatigue he felt. It finally caught up to him and he died, leaving Marguerite devastated. She never remarried in her later years, conducting herself similarly to the much later Queen Victoria after the death of Albert.

She had continued, though less stunning, success in her few remaining years. She showed one of her few instances of personal callousness when she signed off on the murder of the last of the Mac Carthaighs, 11 year old Duke Coirpre of Connacht. This ended 150 years of rebellion and mayhem as wrecked by that family.

1250 brought, as her last real act of statesmanship, Anjou into the Breton borders. There were no arrows fired or swords swung this time. Anjou was independent and vulnerable, a battleground for England and France for 75 years. The Prince-Bishop of Anjou was only too happy to accept Marguerite's offer of vassalage.

Marguerite the Great died peacefully in her sleep on November 10th, 1251, at the age of 61. She had ruled her kingdom for 39 years. To that point, she was unquestionably the most adept ruler in Brittany's history. She'd finally pacified Ireland, defeated what were much stronger military powers, and instituted the greatest infrastructure programs Brittany had seen since Conan I. She was mother to one king and grandmother to three, all while maintaining a relationship based on legitimate love and respect with her husband. Finally, and maybe most importantly, she showed that a woman could not only equal a man when it came to being ruler but surpass him, as well.


2 comments: