Eustace the Monk
ONE of the more colourful characters associated with 1204 and Jersey’s 800-year links with the English Crown is a figure called Eustace.
Surprisingly, despite being a pirate, an outlaw and a commander of two kings’ ships, Eustace was also a monk. Given the unecclesiastical role played by Friar Tuck in the legend of Robin Hood, we should not be shocked that the French have their own larger than life warrior in holy orders.
The Romance of Eustace the Monk, originally written in the Picard dialect in 1284, is a verse drama which tells the story of one of the 13th century’s most colourful characters.
The episodic tale of Eustace’s adventures is clearly fictional, but Eustace really did exist, his role in the service of England’s King John being mentioned in official records.
Moreover, he appears to have played an important role in the struggles which led to the Channel Islands pledging their allegiance to the English Crown rather than to France.
In classic picaresque style, Eustace’s romance has sections with titles such as ‘Eustace disguises himself as a mackerel seller’ and ‘Eustace pretends to be a bird’, but the final pay-off line probably approaches the real truth about the monkish anti-hero.
As Eustace meets his gruesome end, the unknown author of the romance writes: ‘No one can live for a long time who has bad intentions all his days.’
From what little is known about the monk’s early years, it seems that Eustace was born in Courset near Boulogne.
He entered the monastery of St Vulmar in nearby Samer where, it is alleged, he gained a reputation for using bad language and gambling, which perhaps explains why he became known as the Black Monk.
In about 1190 Eustace’s father was murdered. Eustace abruptly left the monastery – perhaps to claim his inheritance, but also to pursue Hainfrois de Heresinghen, the alleged murderer.
The two men ultimately fought a duel, though they both took the less than courageous precaution of nominated champions to represent them.
Hainfrois’s man won the day, as a result of which his master was declared innocent, an outcome which left the feud with Eustace still simmering nicely.
In 1204 the former monk was appointed seneschal to Renaud, the Count of Boulogne, though he lost this job soon afterwards.
Renaud immediately joined Hainfrois on Eustace’s list of implacable enemies, the romance saying that the monk became an outlaw in his efforts to exact revenge through a series of elaborate plots and tricks.
In 1205 Eustace crossed the English Channel and somehow engineered a meeting with King John.
He must have impressed because he found himself in command of 30 galleys and charged with attacking the coasts of Normandy, where John had just lost his former possessions.
In September of that year he was involved in the expedition which expelled French forces from Jersey.
Liking the look of the Channel Islands, he set up a base in Sark and operated as a pirate in the Channel.
The details of Eustace’s activities in the next few years are obscure, though he seems to have served as John’s ambassador to Boulogne in 1209.
It is, however, probable that he was up to no good, because in 1214 he was expelled from the Channel Islands by Warden of the Isles Philip de Aubigné.
Always light on loyalty, Eustace then went over to the French side, rising to command vessels on behalf of the French king.
When the French under Prince Louis crossed to England in 1216 in an attempt to claim the throne the prince travelled in Eustace’s own ship.
That campaign failed, but the Black Monk was on the warpath again a year later as another French expedition made an assault on the English south coast.
The convoy was attacked by an English fleet off Sandwich and during the battle Eustace’s ship was boarded and captured.
Taking no chances with anything as conventional or troublesome as a trial, the English lopped the monk’s head off as soon as they had finished clearing the decks of the prize vessel.
The historian Jonathan Hughes says that the Eustace of the romance – as opposed to the shady historical figure about whom we know very little – is an archetypal trickster figure, a violent, energetic, amoral rebel.
Eustace mocks the notion of national loyalty by serving the warring kings of England and France.
He also violates taboos and even sexually humiliates his victims.
His shape-shifting in the narrative poem includes cross-dressing and many of his tricks are pure mischief, though with hints of dark malice.
The story of his learning magic at Toledo, hints that he had sold his soul to the devil, and the way he moved through high and low society playing such childish tricks as putting tar in tarts at a feast puts him firmly in the category of other fictional tricksters such as Faust and Til Eulenspiegel.
This article originally appeared as part of the Jersey Evening Post Crowns in Conflict series, compiled for the 1204-2004 celebrations.