By Steve Tibble
Who killed William of Rouen?
Murdering bishops and archbishops was unusual, even in those strangely violent times. They had entourages to protect them. And they had a moral authority which deterred many of their potential enemies.
But such attacks were not entirely unheard of either. The bishop of Acre had been murdered in 1172. And, most famously of all, Thomas Becket, the archbishop of Canterbury, had been hacked to death not long before, in 1170.
These could be momentous events. Becket’s death caused political and religious upheaval throughout western Europe. Often these attacks had a political subtext and motivation, driven by local animosity or, in the case of Becket, higher-level antagonism.
Another instance of murder amongst the highest echelons of the Catholic church took place in Greece in the early thirteenth century – one of the many flashpoints of conflict in the eastern Mediterranean at this time. High-ranking religious figures were, inevitably, also involved in affairs of state, and this sometimes brought them into the rougher realms of politics.
In 1204 the Fourth Crusade had controversially ended up attacking the Christian Byzantine Empire – rather than its original objective of liberating Muslim-held Jerusalem. A new ‘crusader empire’ had been established in its wake – the so-called Latin Empire of Constantinople.
This new political structure had several exotically named (almost Shakespearian-sounding) Frankish vassal-states within its boundaries, including the Kingdom of Thessaloniki, the Duchy of Athens and the Principality of the Morea. To make a fragmented and fluid situation even more confusing, Byzantine political refugees also set up their own successor-states, such as the grandly titled Empire of Nicea, the Empire of Trebizond and the Despotate of Epirus.
This was an over-abundance of highly competitive ‘empires’, and an embarrassment of different religions, cultures and local interests. As they jostled up against each other, the situation was ripe for political in-fighting, and the violence that might accompany it.
This fragmented and turbulent patchwork of minor states and major family interests was Christian in belief – but nonetheless riven by religious differences. The most fundamental of these was that between the previously incumbent Orthodox clergy and the newly installed Latin (Catholic) church. Tensions between these two hierarchies were just another unhelpful layer of conflict, adding to the more ‘normal’ climate of political violence and general criminality.
Opportunities for sectarian conflict abounded. A number of the Latin clergy, for instance, were murdered for political reasons by Michael I Doukas, the ruler of Epiros, in 1210 – and amongst the Frankish religious casualties was an unnamed bishop-elect. The precedent had been set.
A particularly outrageous and personal attack took place in 1217, in which William of Rouen, the Latin Archbishop of Philippi, a town in the kingdom of Thessaloniki, was murdered. The crime was infamous, even at the time, receiving attention even as far away as the papal curia – but the exact circumstances (and the name of the ultimate perpetrator) were shrouded in mystery.
A letter from Pope Honorius III in August 1217 expressed horror at Archbishop William’s recent death. According to information received from many Latin clergymen in the region, including the testimony of several bishops, the murder had been carried out at the behest of the ‘princeps Philippensis’ – an individual tantalisingly referred to, like the villain in a cheap Victorian novel, as ‘Lord S’.
The attack was carried out in the most visible way. Before they killed him, the murderers were said to have captured William, elaborately dressed in his episcopal robes, in full view of his congregation. Presumably they did this in order to make a political point of some kind, or to reiterate the ferocity of whatever local dispute had triggered the attack in the first place – the theatricality of the incident, and the implicit threat to any others who might cross the mysterious ‘Lord S’, was obvious.
Interestingly, and however tempting it would have been to attribute the attack to different ethnicities or religious sects (notably the Greek Orthodox church, of course), no such accusation was made. The natural implication was that the murder was instigated by the local Frankish lord – perhaps in pursuit of a dispute whose origins were not clear, even at the time.
Another papal letter, written in the spring of the following year, referred to the killing once again. Far from clarifying matters, however, it just muddied the circumstances of the murder still further. Confusingly, and despite the large number of supposedly well-informed and senior individuals who had given their testimony before the first papal letter was written, a very different version of events emerged in this second document.
The letter was dated May 1218, and was related to a dispute between two different groups of clergymen, both of whom were based in Thessaloniki. In order to resolve the dispute, the priests had been instructed to travel for a hearing at another location, some ten days’ journey away on the road towards Constantinople.
Regardless of how keen they might have been to end the dispute, however, both parties were agreed on one thing at least – neither was prepared to travel down that road in those dangerous times. The reason for that reticence was made abundantly clear – the road was extremely unsafe for travellers, and, as an example of the dangers in store, the monks cited the fate of the late Archbishop William. He had, they wrote, been killed on the road by Bulgarian bandits (‘a Bulgaris interfectus’).
Much ink has been spilt in speculation about the details of this incident, and particularly about the identity of the mysterious ‘Lord S’. Ultimately, however, we do not have any convincing solution, either to the question of who this lord might have been or indeed, given the second letter, whether he was in fact responsible for William’s murder at all.
Perhaps in the period between the two letters (that is, from August 1217 to May 1218), ‘Lord S’ had successfully proved his innocence. Perhaps other culprits (such as the Bulgarian outlaws who made travel by road so dangerous) had been nominated instead. Or maybe the Bulgarians had been hired by Lord S to do his dirty work for him – though that would, of course, contradict the details previously provided with regards to his ‘kidnapping’ in front of the full congregation.
Ultimately, no one seemed to know, even at the time – and we certainly have no definitive answer now. But it does show that being a bishop (or archbishop) in the crusader states could be dangerous – dangerous times, and dangerous places, attracted large numbers of people who were all too desensitised to the use of violence.
Dr Steve Tibble is a graduate of Jesus College, Cambridge and London University. He is an Honorary Research Associate at Royal Holloway College, University of London. Steve is a leading authority on warfare and violence in the crusading era.
His history of ‘The British Templars’ (Yale) is due out in 2023, and his two most recent books (‘The Crusader Armies’, Yale 2018, and ‘The Crusader Strategy’, Yale 2020) were received to critical acclaim. The latter was short-listed for the Duke of Wellington’s military history award, 2021.
He is a contributor to ‘The Cambridge History of the Crusades’ and ‘The Oxford Illustrated History of the Crusades’, both forthcoming in 2023.
Tricht, F.V., “Who Murdered Archbishop William of Rouen (1217)? – The Valley of Philippi Under Latin Rule (1204-c.1224),” Jahrbuch der Österreichischen Byzantinistik, 70 (2020)