Eustace the Monk: A Black Magic, Double-Crossing Pirate Soldier in the Service of the King(s)

Eustace's death at the Battle of Sandwich (13th century illustration by Matthew Paris). Via Wikispaces.

Eustace’s death at the Battle of Sandwich (13th century illustration by Matthew Paris). Via Wikispaces.

In case you haven’t noticed, Medieval history is one of my favorite historical periods. It happens to be one of the eras that I know the most about. I guess I find it fascinating because once you start to get a depth of written records and knowledge about the period, after little recorded history during the ‘Dark Ages’, you find some truly bizarre stuff is taking place and being noted.

The Age of Exploration and Age of Enlightenment have so much intrigue and a massive amount of detail, but much of the mindset and motivation and the actions of the main players makes sense. That’s not necessarily the case with Medieval Europe. You’re often left thinking, ‘I recognize the world this is taking place in, but what in the hell are these guys doing?’

If the Middle Ages is one of my favorite eras, Eustace the Monk is one of my favorite characters.

Not a lot is known about Eustace Busket’s early life. He is France’s version of Robin Hood, though we know, without a doubt, that Eustace existed. He is in official records having served the King of England, King John. He entered the monastery as a young man, but gained a reputation for foul language and gambling. His monicker of the black monk may be owed to this. His father was murdered and he abandoned the monastic life to either seek revenge or claim his inheritance, setting in motion a chain of events that would lead him to black magic, piracy and, ultimately, his head on a pole.

Following the death of his father, Eustace entered the service of the Count of Boulogne, Renaud de Dammartin. He didn’t last long, and was soon fired from his post as seneschal, accused of mismanaging funds. He fled into the woods, a wanted man, and began his life on the lam.

His time as an outlaw in hiding in France is the subject of the famous medieval poem, the Romance of Eustace, composed in the Picardy dialect. He repeatedly tricks and dupes his way out of trouble, while managing to humiliate Count Renaud, often stealing his horse and leaving him on foot. The historical accuracy of this version of his life is doubtful, but fun nonetheless.

King John, 13th century, artist unknown. Image chosen because I like puppies.

King John, 13th century, artist unknown. Image chosen because I like puppies.

At some point he is also purported to have studied black magic in Toledo, Spain. This dalliance with the dark side would supposedly help him in his many ruses and narrow escapes.

Before long he found himself in the employ of King John of England in 1204. He and his men held Sark Island and territory in Guernsey in the Channel Islands. For some unknown reason around 1212, he switched his allegiance to that of King Philip Augustus of France, and the two were constantly at each others throats. Count Renaud had possessions in both English and French territory and it is posited that he switched his allegiance around this time to King John, possibly influencing John to expel him. Before long, English troops captured his Channel base, and Eustace was on the run again.

Civil War broke out in England in 1215 in the form of the First Baron’s Revolt. You’ll note 1215 as the year the Magna Carta was signed, curtailing monarchical powers.

Now under the employ of King Philip Augustus, Eustace set about helping him in his attempted invasion of England in an attempt to claim the English throne. He harried English ports and transported troops. He became a wanted man in England and they would stop at nothing to capture the rogue monk-turned-pirate.

Eustace’s fleet was engaged by an English fleet led by Hubert de Burgh in 1217 at the Battle of Dover. He and his crew had powdered lime thrust on them, leaving them near-blind and vulnerable. Much of his fleet was captured, but Eustace’s flagship managed to escape. He was surrounded shortly thereafter in the Battle of Sandwich.

The Head of Eustace the Monk carried on a pole. Artist and date not specified. Courtesy of Wikispaces.

The Head of Eustace the Monk carried on a pole. Artist and date not specified. Courtesy of Wikispaces.

He was found hiding in the depths of the ship and reportedly offered copious sums of money for his release to no avail. They executed him, though it’s not sure how. His head was severed and later put on a pike.

Shortly after Eustace’s death and a complete English victory, the Treaty of Lambeth was signed. The French King gave up his claim to the English throne and all possessions in the Channel Islands reverted to English control.

Eustace was one of many folk hero of the Middle Ages, Robin Hood and Fulk FitzWarin being two other well known men of the same ilk. Whatever the truth may have been, the legend captured imaginations and still does to this day. Everyone seems to love a trickster, and we have the tendency to overlook any of their more nefarious activities, especially when they humiliate counts and kings.

And the idea of poor Count Renaud walking home on foot, dumbfounded at another vanished horse transcends time and place.

Further Reading

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4 thoughts on “Eustace the Monk: A Black Magic, Double-Crossing Pirate Soldier in the Service of the King(s)

  1. Ste J says:

    What a prolific guy…I hate that there are so many fascinating historical figures that lose out to the established ones…on the othe hand I like that I get to discover them through your blog. Pints of mead all round I say!

    • Well he is significantly more famous on the other side of the Channel. I think he’s simply viewed as another in a long line of pirates for the English. But he’s definitely an interesting character.

      Glad you enjoyed it.

      • Hetty Vaynance says:

        Was it not Louis, son of Philip Augustus, who invaded England? Philip was keen not to be excommunicated so did not openly provide any help, leaving Louis’s wife, Blanche of Castile to drum up the troops?

  2. roberthorvat says:

    Definitely one of the most interesting periods.

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