Mr Anonymous – the life of a medieval hero

Sometimes, my brain snags on the little things. Like when I am reading up on the Aragonese Crusade—an attempt by French king Philip III to claim Aragon for his younger son—and end up stuck on the fact that one of the protagonists in that ancient medieval mess is a nameless man.

Obviously, our hero wasn’t nameless. His loving mother called him something, and seeing as we’re talking late 13th century, the boy was probably baptised—even more probable as his father was a certain Nuño Sanchez, count of Roussillon. Yes, we know who his father was, we know what his father’s name was, but our distant hero has come down to us through history as “the bastard from Roussillon”.

I am going to go out on a limb here, but seeing as bastard children were often surnamed with a patronym, our hero was probably called XX Nuñez. Going out even further on that limb—because seriously, I cannot write an entire post about XX—I am going to guess Nuño named his son Sancho after his father (hence the Nuño Sanchez). So, dear peeps, I give you Sancho Nuñez, a.k.a. “the bastard of Rouissillon”. Best keep in mind, though, that we do not know if that was his name.

While we know very little about our recently named hero, his father, Nuño, is somewhat more well known. At the time, the kingdom of Aragon straddled the Pyrenees, with land both in the north of Spain and in the south of France, the scions of the House of Barcelona were not only kings of Aragon but had, until relatively recently, been Counts of Provence as well. Nuño’s granddaddy was Ramon Berenguer IV, that impressive man who married the much younger Petronila of Aragon thereby uniting the county of Barcelona and the kingdom of Aragon under one capable ruler. In general, this Ramon was a major mover and shaker in 12th century politics—at least in this part of the world.

Anonymous bastard D._Sancho_de_Aragão,_conde_da_Cerdanha-_The_Portuguese_Genealogy_(Genealogia_dos_Reis_de_Portugal)
Sancho in an anything but contemporary depiction

In 1181, Nuño’s father, Sancho, became Count of Provence, this because Sancho’s older brother (baptised Pedro but renamed Ramón Berenguer when he became the Count of Provence) had been assassinated by men in the service of the Count of Toulouse. There was a continuous love-hate relationship between Toulouse and the Crown of Aragon, where Aragon demanded submission, Toulouse flipped a middle finger, in between allying to protect each other from other threats.

In the early years of the 13th century, that threat was France, more specifically the Crusade organised by the French king to wipe out the Cathars, a religious movement with a strong base in Languedoc. The Count of Toulouse was not a Cathar, but he was so shocked by the horrific massacre at Beziers he refused to leave the Cathars unprotected. Kudos to him, I say. As to Beziers, this was a small town where the papal legate himself cheered on the crusaders to kill every man, woman and child, all in the name of a God who reasonably must have cringed in disgust.

anonymous bastard Cathars
Cathars going up in flames (not in Beziers, but still…)

Anyway: leading the Albigensian Crusade was a man called Simon de Montfort. Not a nice man, this Simon (father of the substantially more sympathetic Simon de Montfort of English fame), happily wreaking violence on anyone standing in his way. Raymond of Toulouse needed help, and help came in the form of Pedro II of Aragon. Sancho was called out to ride to his royal nephew’s aid. Unfortunately for Pedro, Sancho and his men arrived too late to save the Aragonese king from death at the Battle of Muret in 1213. Suddenly, the king of Aragon was an infant. Even worse, little Jaime was held by Simon de Montford.

Nuño was present at the Battle of Muret, even if he did arrive too late to save cousin Pedro II from dying. In 1213, Nuño was approximately twenty years old and had won his spurs a year or so previously at the battle Navas de Tolosa, a mayor turning point in La Reconquista, the ongoing struggle between the Christian kingdoms of the Iberian Peninsula and the Muslims. On top of this, our Nuño had recently been made Lord of Roussillon, so it was a relatively wealthy young man who rode at his father’s side.

Sancho spearheaded the Aragonese effort to wrest custody of the infant Jaime from Simon de Montfort. The effort succeeded, and the little boy was raised by the Templars while Sancho and Nuño did the actual governing of Aragon. Not a nice task: the kingdom’s coffers gaped open, and years of war had left the country ravaged. Still, the father-son duo rose to the challenge—even if some say they did it out of self-interest, Sancho throwing more than one acquisitive glance at the throne of Aragon. That was not to be: Sancho had little support in Aragon—his power base lay north of the Pyrenees.

In 1215, Nuño married for the first time, but that marriage was declared null and void by the pope a year or so later. What Nuño (or his bride) may have thought of this is unknown, just as we have no idea what Nuño’s second wife, Teresa, might have thought of marrying him. What we do know is that in 1223 Jaime reached his majority and Sancho died, leaving Nuño wealthier. He was now all of thirty-three and, so far, not an heir in sight. He was also tired of Aragonese politics and so he took some time off and decided to cultivate the French king instead, which did not exactly go down well in Aragon but left Nuño with more lands, more titles.

anonymous bastard Pintura_mural_del_saló_del_tinell_-_Nunó_Sanç_a_la_conquesta_de_Mallorca
Nuño taking part in the Conquest of Mallorca

I imagine that at this point in his life, Nuño was beginning to feel a tad frustrated with the lack of heirs. Here he was, a man of multiple titles and lands, and not one single child pitter-pattering around the castle! So, to distract himself he joined in the campaign directed at conquering Mallorca. At the time, the Balearic Islands were under the control of the Almoravid Muslims, but Jaime I of Aragon wanted to expand his kingdom and anyone going up against the Infidel could count on papal support. Off they went, and in 1232, Mallorca was rid of the Muslim yoke (?) and became integrated with Aragon. Nuño returned from this venture with even more lands, but still no heir—at least not a legitimate heir.

I said at the beginning that we know next to nothing about the purported protagonist of this post—even if, by now, I suspect our unknown bastard was merely a catalyst to writing all this, rather than its hero. We have no idea when he was born, but as he was to play a very leading and active role in 1284, he cannot have been much more than fifty or so then. Even fifty is probably pushing it in an age where many people died young. Still: he must have been born no later than 1242 as that is when his father dies, and as he has gone down as “the bastard of Roussillon”, I suspect Nuño actually recognised him as his son.

While bastards could not inherit titles, they could inherit land and money. I am hoping Nuño had settled something on his only known child before he died, allowing our little Sancho (remember: we do NOT know if that was his name) to grow up in relative comfort. At some point, Sancho must have been trained in the arts of war. He must also have been sufficiently proficient to lead men in battle—why else would the people of Roussillon turn to him in their hour of need?

Roussillon is a county, rather than a town. One of its oldest towns is a little place called Elne. Our man of the day seems to have been in a position of power there, and maybe he even called Elne home. Many, many people through history have called Elne home. Set up high, it offers a protected site with a view over most of the Roussillon area. So ancient is this place that it is said Hannibal (him of elephant fame) stayed here en route to the Alps, Rome and inglorious defeat. Huh: maybe something Philippe of France should have seen as a harbinger…

anonymous bastard devisne.alain Cathédrale_d'Elne_14
Photo devisne.alain (Wikipediia Commons)

In 1284, Elne’s location was of strategic importance as whoever controlled it had unhindered access both into Roussillon and down into Aragon. At the time, Elne owed its fealty to Jaime, brother of the king of Aragon who’d decided to abandon his brother and instead join the French. You see, the French were marching on Aragon, where they planned on ousting King Pedro III and replacing him with the young Charles of Valois.

“The Pope wishes it so,” The French may have said, waving a piece of parchment around. Yes, the Pope most definitely wanted to see Pedro crawling in the dust, this after his recent conquest of Sicily. In Pedro’s opinion, claiming Sicily was a reconquest on behalf of his wife, whose family had lost Sicily to Charles of Anjou thanks to the meddling of a—yup, you guessed it—pope. You can read more about all this here.

So, in summary we have a pissed-off pope who feels entitled to meddle in matters temporal, an embattled Aragonese king (who has been excommunicated by the pope, just to really make him quake. Pedro didn’t. Most of his bishops were on his side, albeit they could not allow him the sacraments) and a greedy French king, hoping to exploit the situation. Besides, Philippe of France could argue, his son had royal Aragonese blood as his mother was Pedro’s sister. I imagine that did not endear the French royals to Pedro: not only were they planning on ousting him (and his family) but they were betraying kin! As was Pedro’s false brother Jaime, who ordered the people to Roussillon to welcome the French and make their passing to Aragon easy.

The people of Roussillon refused. They were loyal vassals of Aragon, thank you very much! Despite facing an impressive army—it is said Philippe III came riding with 16 000 cavalry, 100 000 foot soldiers and something like 18 000 archers or crossbowmen—they would not back down. And in Elne, one very famous, if totally unknown, bastard took charge. As a distant cousin of the King of Aragon, he would not stand to the side and watch the French invade. No way. Not him.
“Over our dead bodies!” he yelled, raising his sword to the sky.
“Yay!” answered the townspeople, although with varying enthusiasm. After all, it was the weak and unprotected who usually paid the price in bloody conflicts.

The French attacked. Due to its location and somewhat impressive walls, Elne was easy to defend, but against the overpowering odds, there wasn’t a chance in hell that the people of Elne would emerge the victors—unless Aragon came to their aid. Aragon wasn’t in a position to do so. Pedro was handling internal unrest while assembling his forces.

Enraged by the town’s stubborn refusal to yield, the French king ordered his men into the town. A bit like those papal legates in Beziers who told the soldiers to cut down everyone they saw, Philippe called to his men to show no clemency. None. Terrified, the people of Elne fled to the one place where they assumed they’d be safe, the cathedral. They were wrong. A consecrated house of God was no protection against an angry king.
“Burn them alive!” Philippe ordered, and the papal legate at his side probably didn’t even protest. Seriously, what was it with these papal legates, purportedly men of God, and their casual acceptance of violence and murder?

So died the good people of Elne, screaming themselves hoarse at their cathedral bruned around them. Not a good way to die. A horrible, horrible way to die—but I bet our Sancho (a.k.a. the bastard) would have preferred to die like that than to stand in chains and witness as his people were roasted to death. You see, he was spared. He was instead taken captive and hauled along as the French began their invasion of Aragon.

Leaving the smoking ruins of Elne behind, Philippe progressed into Aragon. For a little while, it seemed he might emerge victorious, but soon enough the tide turned. The French lost a crucial naval battle, were afflicted by dysentery and when the king himself fell ill, his son and heir (yet another Philippe) begged Pedro to allow the French to retreat. A safe-conduct was issued for the French king and his closest companions. The rest of the French host were obliged to stay behind and were brutally decimated at the battle of Col de Panissars. Philippe, third of that name, left Aragon diseased, dishonoured and defeated and died in October of 1285 in Perpignan. By then, little remained of his impressive army and Aragon remained safely in the hands of Pedro III.

anonymous bastard Pedro_III_el_Grande_en_el_collado_de_las_Panizas
The victorious Pedro at Col de Panissars

As to our anonymous protagonist, the last mention we have of him is that of him being taken prisoner by the French. Did he die in Aragon? Make it back to Elne? Was he at some point in time rewarded for his loyalty? We don’t know. All we know is that once there lived a man who had a name, a name no one bothered to record, and that it is instead his legal status that is remembered: The Bastard of Roussillon.

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