“It is unjust that that which is rightly judged should result in prejudice to us and bring damage to others …”
-Edward II, letter concerning the Pierre Vigier case
It’s been right about 700 years exactly since Pierre Vigier was hanged in the February-April neighborhood, in the year of our Lord 1312, for his impolitic sentiments on the governance of his native province. This medieval execution went with a very modern-sounding 12 years of indeteminate appeals.
Still, it is true what they say — “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.” In this foreign country, Gascony by name, they did the hanging first … and then did the appeals.
Our source here (virtually the only source short of plumbing the archives) is Joseph Kicklighter’s “English Bordeaux in conflict: the execution of Pierre Vigier de la Rousselle and its aftermath, 1312-24” from the Journal of Medieval History, no. 9 (1983).
And the source of all the judicial chaos was the bizarre situation of one king as a rival king’s vassal.
Gascony at this time was a sort of feudal leftover of the Angevin Empire whose Plantagenet descendants were still kings of England. This remaining Plantagenet patrimony* in southwestern France was a going source of conflict between the realms, the most recent of which had been expediently settled by making the English king also Duke of Gascony … and (with respect to Gascony) the French king his liege lord.
The territory was worth the “submission”: ducal Gascony’s fertile land gave England a bounty in crops and wine. And the inevitable rivalry over sway in Gascony easily knocked on to the courts. As Barbara Tuchman put it in A Distant Mirror,
[t]he King of France still retained superior sovereignty under the formula of superioritas et resortum, which gave the inhabitants the right of appeal to the ultimate sovereign. Since his decisions were more than likely to go in their favor against their English overlord, and since the citizens, knowing this, exercised the right frequently, the situation was an endless source of conflict.
It was during such a conflict, when the rival factions of the Gascon capital of Bordeaux had the city in virtual anarchy as they jockeyed for power under the nominal lordship of English king Edward II, that the onetime royal castellan Pierre Vigier de la Rouselle apparently dumped on one of the new officials in conversation with a couple of informants.
The municipal government arrested Vigier and had him hanged — quickly, before Vigier’s inevitable attempted appeal to Parlement could save him.
(This all went down just a couple months before Edward II suffered a Gascon humiliation closer to home, when the Gascon nobleman Piers Gaveston, Edward’s dear friend and suspected lover, was executed by rival English lords.)**
Vigier’s aggrieved sons did pursue the appeal (it is they who provide posterity the circumstances of Pierre’s condemnation, so handle the story with care: one latter-day hypothesis is that Vigier was an outright rebel against the new appointees). Inevitably, the French backed their claim, allowing them undercut Edward’s ducal authority.
From there, the matter sank into an intractable mire of feudal Europe’s overlapping political authorities and factional rivalries. Parlement decreed some penalties. King Philip remitted some of them as a diplomatic gesture. The sons renewed their complaint. Bordeaux authorities tried to put the matter to bed by persecuting Vigier’s persecutors, only to be slapped down by an indignant King Edward. Persons were seized only to be ordered released, and estates likewise. Just as there was no single unambiguous authority to adjudicate it, there was no single wrongdoer to investigate, no single injury to repair (besides the matter of honor, there was the dead man’s property, and the fact that he was buried in unconsecrated ground), and no single arrangement of interested parties between the Vigier sons on the one side and the Plantagenet king on the other.
Edward seems to have taken particular affront at this imposition on his routine authority, and one must bear in mind that at this stage even the concept of sovereignty as we think of it today was simply not on the map. In some ways, the French appeals policy was pioneering it.
But as the suit bumped up and down or got kicked down the road by a Parlement that was probably enjoying its sport, Edward tried to dispose of it through such expedients as harassing its supporters and attempting to bankrupt the Vigiers. All this, naturally, just got rolled into the messy ol’ case.
Only time itself finally ended the appeal … in March 1324, King Charles IV announced the indefinite postponement of all ducal litigation at the Parlement of Paris becase of a mounting Anglo-French crisis which would soon lead to the brief War of Saint-Sardos. But even during the war, the court continued to deal with some aspects of the case; and the appeal was still under judgment when the Anglo-French feudal relationship was resumed with the accession of Edward III to the English throne.† It seems likely … Parlement had dropped the case by the 1330’s … in all probability, the Vigier case had lost the critical importance with which the king-duke and his officials had regarded it for so long. One might, with some justification, wonder why the appeal had ever enjoyed such attention.‡
In 1337, King Philip VI of France attempted to seize Gascony. In response, Edward III declared himself (not without at least some theoretical validity) the rightful King of France. The ensuing hostilities proved to be the opening act of the Hundred Years’ War.
“It was not the dynastic question that brought about the war,” wrote the historian T.F. Tout. “The fundamental difference between the two countries lay in the impossible position of Edward in Gascony.”
* Here’s a lovely free book about the preceding century’s backstory of English rule in Gascony.
** Potentially topical to this digressive connection: Edward’s loyal aide in Bordeaux, a gentleman by the name of Arnaud Caillau, may have been a cousin of Piers Gaveston. Edward certainly had a supportive Gascon faction that his own resentful alleged vassals were frequently keen to harass; maybe the whole Vigier intervention just struck a little too close to home.
† The reader will recall that Edward III’s route to power involved his French mother and her lover invading England and overthrowing Edward II. So there was a good deal of more interesting politics going on around this time than Pierre Vigier’s endless procedural appeal.
‡ Lest we misrepresent Kicklighter, he does go on to attempt to explain this hypothetical wonder as “a certain indication of the limited power of the English in Gascony.” I prefer my own stopping-point.