The new Robin Hood movie is coming out tomorrow and documentaries about the famous archer of Nottingham abound on cable. Your humble hostess just happens to know the story of a Medieval monk-turned-pirate which could not be more topical in light of that fact. Though the history of his life is overshadowed by the tall tales that began to swirl around him almost immediately after his death (sound familiar?), Eustace the Black Monk is an interesting character indeed.
Eustace was probably born sometime around 1170. He appears to have come from a genteel family, perhaps landed barons of some kind, but his place of birth is enigmatic. Some sources count him as Flemish, others say English (from the Channel islands) or French (and again, from the Channel islands). Whatever his place of birth, he is always said to have come from a land near the sea. Another thing that is universally agreed on by his chroniclers is that Eustace entered a Benedictine monastery as a youth.
By 1190 or so, Eustace's father died. The original chanson, which was a form of heroic and/or romantic story told in northern European countries around the same time that troubadouring was taking off in the south, about the Monk was written in the mid-13th century. This source states the Eustace's father was murdered and that the Monk left the Benedictines to take up his father's duty and rank.
Eustace became "...Seneschall of the Boulonnais, peer and bailiff" so it is safe to say that, according to the legend at least, Eustace was in good standing as a landowner. Unfortunately he ran afoul of his boss, Renaut de Dammartin, Count of Boulogne, some time in 1204. Eustace was called to the Count's court to account for some discrepancies in his duty as bailiff. According to the romance, this was brought about by the dissembling of his father's murderer, Hainfrois.
Eustace is forced to flee his post and, in retaliation, burns to the ground two of the Count's properties. Hainfrois is made bailiff in Boulonnais, and the Monk is now an outlaw and fugitive. The romance paints a series of vignettes in which Eustace disguises himself and makes a fool of the Count repeatedly, many of which resemble the famous archery contest in the Robin Hood stories. Eustace, however, is never so gallant and pure and the archer. Most of his encounters involving the Count end with Eustace absconding with something valuable.
The Monk travels to England and offers his as yet unstated seafaring expertise to King John. He is granted ships and a commission against the French. Along with his "brothers" (which may mean siblings, fellow Benedictines or both) and many eager seaman, he goes right to work. Eustace sets up bases in the Channel islands, taking some of them from the French, and uses them as home ports for his sea raiding.
Eustace evidently got a real taste for piracy as he began to ambush English coastal villages as well as those of the enemy. Using a Viking-esque style of hit, kill, take all you can and get out quick raiding, the Monk grew rich. He also angered King John with his betrayal and was once again branded an outlaw.
Never one to let loyalty get in the way of a good time, Eustace offered his services and his ships to King Louis of France around 1212. The romance rationalizes this by putting forward the Count Renaut had weaseled his way into King John's inner circle and had poisoned the English King's mind against the Monk. Opportunist or victim, either way Eustace was now privateering for the French.
A series of raids by both sides continued along the coasts until the civil war that led to that singular agreement known as Magna Carta broke out in 1215. Eustace, along with the French King, naturally backed the angry barons who were against King John.
Eustace's fleet began to make landings on English soil, dropping off French soldiers and then returning to Calais to retrieve more men. The English crown got wind of this tactic and sent a fleet commanded by Hubert de Burgh to meet the Monk's ships at Dover. In August of 1217, Eustace engaged de Burgh in a pitched battle that seemed to be going in the Monk's favor until the English pulled out their secret weapon. They launched powdered lime at the Monk's ships and his men were blinded - some of them permanently.
Eustace managed to allude the English, but only temporarily. Philip d'Aubigny's ships caught up with him on August 24 and engaged him at the Battle of Sandwich. D'Aubigny's ships were heavier than the Monk's and quickly overcame the now depleted pirate fleet. Eustace was taken prisoner and the English did not trouble themselves with niceties. Eustace the Black Monk was beheaded without ceremony aboard one of d'Aubigny's ships (the manuscript detail above shows the moment of his death).
By the end of 1217 the English had put aside their internal struggles and ejected the French from their soil. The treaty that followed included a clause stating that the French King would drive the remainder of Eustace's pirate band off the Channel islands. What was left of the Black Monk's seafaring empire was destroyed once and for all.
If you're interested in reading the medieval romance Eustace the Monk, it can be found in the book Robin Hood and Other Outlaw Tales, published in 1997 by Medieval Institute Publication. The romance is heavy on the feud between Count Renaut and Eustace and unfortunately light on the Monk's seafaring exploits which were, one has to admit, pretty impressive. It's not every day you stumble across a monk-turned-pirate. And those little historical gems always make me smile.