By Peter Konieczny
On the morning of 2 March 1127, a group of knights entered the church of St. Donatian in Bruges, where they found Charles I, Count of Flanders, kneeling in prayer. With their swords they would hack the count to death, and then leave his corpse on the church floor as they continued on a murderous rampage against their enemies. For the next seventeen months the county of Flanders would become a war zone.
The events of 1127 were the culmination of an ongoing dispute between Count Charles and the Erembald clan, the most powerful family in Flanders. For several decades the Erembalds had held positions of power within the county. The current head of the family was Bertulf, who in his role as provost of the church of Saint Donatian was also the de facto chancellor of Flanders. His brothers and nephews held other key roles, and over the years many within the county owed their wealth and positions to the Erembalds.
Charles had become the Count in 1119; before that he had led an interesting life that included going on crusade to the Holy Land. He was even offered the crown of the Kingdom of Jerusalem but refused. He did accept the position of Count of Flanders after the death of his cousin, Baldwin VII, and gained a reputation for being a pious man who was generous towards the poor. However, Charles may not have been effective at governing, for in 1125 a famine struck Flanders. The Count blamed the local Jewish population for the lack of food, and expelled them from his realm.
Soon after, the count began his feud with Bertulf and his family. He claimed to have found evidence that the Erembalds were not of noble ancestry, but in fact serfs, and he wanted to seize their positions and assets. It was a legal argument that masked a clear attempt to gain political power at the expense of the Erembalds. It is not surprising that the latter were prepared to defend themselves, even if that meant killing their lord.
Galbert and the other chroniclers of these events offer hints that the conspiracy against Charles was much wider than just the Erembald family. Others around Flanders either supported the plot or knew of it, but perhaps they felt that their current count was not the wise and good ruler that Galbert makes him out to be.
Finding the next count
If the conspirators hoped that the murder of Charles would be accepted as a done deed and that things would soon go back to normal, then they were very much mistaken. Within days the uprisings would start, and Charles’ supporters would come to Bruges to seek revenge. Meanwhile, the news of the assassination would reach the surrounding kingdoms. Flanders sits between three powerful states – England, France, and the Holy Roman Empire – and each of them wanted to have influence over the county. All of them found a noble candidate to back, but it was France’s ruler, Louis VI, who acted most decisively, coming to Flanders himself to lead the siege in Bruges.
Louis brought with him his own replacement Count – a twenty-four-year-old man named William Clito. He was no ordinary French noble, but rather the son of Robert Curthose, who had been the Duke of Normandy before being defeated and captured by his brother King Henry I of England in 1106. Henry had kept Robert in prison since then, and had spent the following two decades defending Normandy from the French king. Now, Louis was preparing Robert’s heir so that he could gain the power and resources needed to one day take back Normandy from the English king. It was classic medieval geopolitics.
This following pages of Medieval Warfare try to tell these stories: the murder of the Count and how it was similar to other twelfth-century assassinations; the chaotic siege in Bruges, witnessed by the chronicler Galbert; and the attempt by William Clito to become the new ruler of Flanders. It is a gripping and often brutal tale, and one that we hope the readers of this magazine will find as fascinating as we did in writing it.
This is the Introduction to Medieval Warfare magazine’s Issue VII:5 – The murder of Charles the Good. With articles by Jeff Rider, Steven Isaac and Erich B. Anderson, it explores the events of 1127 in Flanders. Click here to learn more about the issue.