Eustace the Monk: Talented Pirate For The French And The English
Eustace the Monk was a notorious pirate who operated in the English Channel during the early 13th century AD. As indicated by his title, Eustace had been a monk, though he was also involved in other trades at one point or another. In addition to piracy, Eustace is recorded to have served as a seneschal official to a count and alleged to have dabbled in black magic. As a pirate, Eustace the Monk first fought on the side of the English. Later on, however, he switched sides, and served the French, who were at war with England. So what convinced the mercenary pirate to switch loyalties, and what battle brought about his end?
The Early Years Of Eustace The Monk
Eustace the Monk was born around 1170 AD as Eustace Busket. His place of birth was near Boulogne, in the northern part of France. According to the Romance of Eustace, a biographical romance written between 1223 and 1284 AD by an unknown poet from Picardy, France, Eustace was born at a place called Corse, which presumably refers to Courset, about 19 km (12 mi) from Boulogne.
Eustace was a younger son of Baudoin Busket, a minor noble in the County of Boulogne. There seems to have nothing extraordinary about Eustace’s upbringing, as he was raised like any other member of the minor nobility of the time. Things, however, took a rather bizarre turn when Eustace, as a youth, made a journey to Toledo, Spain.
Eustace is said to have travelled to Toledo for a peculiar reason – to study black magic. The future monk allegedly learned the dark arts in a cave, and some have even gone so far as to claim that Eustace was taught by the Devil himself. Eustace was such a successful sorcerer, that by the end of his apprenticeship, there was no one in France who was his equal in black magic. Interestingly, the claim that Eustace was a sorcerer is not supported in any other sources, and it is unknown if the author of the Romance of Eustace invented this tale himself or got it from somewhere else.
In any case, later generations were convinced by this claim. It is, after all, not too difficult for these people to draw some connection between Eustace’s incredible exploits later on in his life, and the supposed black arts he had learned in his youth.
Eustace the Monk was a Benedictine monk who is reported to have been a mischief maker from the beginning. (CLAUDIO / Adobe Stock)
In any event, Eustace became a monk in the next stage of his life. He is said to have joined the Benedictines at Samer Abbey, not far from Boulogne. It is not entirely clear as to why Eustace became a monk, though perhaps it was due to the fact that he was a young son of a noble. Whilst the claim that Eustace studied black magic may be taken with a pinch of salt, it is not at all improbable that he behaved badly as a monk.
It is reported that soon after becoming a monk, Eustace was indulging in mischief. For instance, he would encourage the other monks to eat when they should have been fasting, curse when they should be reciting the Divine Office, and to fart in the cloister. This “fondness” for flatulence would emerge again later on in Eustace’s story. Needless to say, Eustace was a terrible monk. It is somewhat ironic, therefore, that he was stuck with the epithet “Eustace the Monk.”
Eustace did not stay long at Samer Abbey. According to the Romance of Eustace, Eustace left the Benedictines to seek justice from the Count of Boulogne for the murder of his father. On the other hand, according to Matthew Paris, a Benedictine monk and chronicler, Eustace had left Samer to secure the inheritance left to his brothers, who had died without a clear heir. The problem with this latter claim, however, is that Eustace’s brothers are said to have survived the Battle of Sandwich, in which Eustace died.
We are told that although Eustace failed to obtain justice for his father’s murder from the count, he personally pursued Hainfrois de Heresinghen, the alleged murderer. A duel was fought between the two men, or more precisely, by the champions nominated by each party. Eustace’s champion lost the duel, and therefore Hainfrois was declared innocent. Thereafter, Eustace abandoned the thought of avenging his father’s murder, and went into the service of Renaud de Dammartin, the Count of Boulogne.
As the count’s seneschal (an official appointed by the king), Eustace was in charge of certain administrative matters, including those of a financial nature. Soon, however, Eustace had a falling out with Renaud, as he was accused of financial impropriety. Some are of the opinion that it was Hainfrois who instigated the count to turn against Eustace.
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Initially, Eustace appealed to a court of peers, and claimed that he was innocent. Ultimately however, he fled, as he feared the penalty of his miscarriage of justice and consequent imprisonment. Renaud, on the other hand, took Eustace’s flight as an admission of guilt, declared him an outlaw, seized his property, and burned his fields. In response, Eustace swore to take revenge on the count, and became a bandit, operating from the forest of Boulogne in a similar way to his English counterpart, Robin Hood.
Like Robin Hood, Eustace the Monk was a bandit at first and then he became a pirate. (Lucian Milasan / Adobe Stock)
The Adventures Of Eustace The Monk As Bandit And Pirate
There are a number of stories regarding Eustace’s exploits during his time as a bandit. In one of them, for instance, he tricks one of the count’s young knights by dressing up as a woman. In the story, Eustace approaches the knight, and offers him sexual favors if he would allow him to get on his horse. Tempted by the offer, the knight helps Eustace onto the horse by lifting his leg up, at which point the bandit releases a fart. The story ends with Eustace stealing the knight’s horse.
In another story, Eustace fools the count himself by disguising himself as a leper begging for money. Renaud is tricked into giving some money to Eustace, who then jumps onto one of the count’s horses, before riding away “with his crutch hanging down.”
Not all the tales about Eustace’s exploits, however, are this humorous. Some of them are of a grimmer tone. In one of these, for example, Eustace captures five of Renaud’s men-at-arms, four of whom had their feet cut off by the bandit. The fifth was spared his feet and sent back to the count to convey a message. In another episode, Eustace captures a young boy, alleged to have been one of the count’s spies, and forces him to hang himself, without even giving him the chance to make a confession.
Although Eustace’s guerrilla tactics were sufficient to cause trouble to the count, it did not last forever. When Renaud formed an alliance with the French king, Eustace knew that he was now not only the enemy of the count, but also of the state. Since the French were at war with the English, it made sense to Eustace to leave for England, where he could be of use at the court of King John.
Eustace’s service in King John’s court is believed to have begun as early as 1205 AD. It was during this time that Eustace switched from being a bandit to being a pirate. He operated in the English Channel and the Strait of Dover, where he preyed on French ships. King John recognized Eustace’s abilities, and put him in command of a fleet of 30 ships, with which he wrought havoc on the French.
It seems that Eustace and the English king got on well, as John allowed the pirate to do as he wished at sea. For example, Eustace attacked any ship, including English ones, that he encountered at sea, without being reprimanded by King John. Additionally, Eustace was rewarded by the king. Some land in Norfolk, was instance, was given to him, and he was allowed to set up his base on Sark, one of the Channel Islands, which he had seized by force. Eustace’s reputation was so notorious amongst the towns and ports of the southern English coast that if he wanted to land in England, he had to first obtain a safe conduct pass.
The island of Sark in the English Channel was Eustace the Monk’s private pirate base with the backing of King John. (Phillip Capper / CC BY 2.0)
The cordial relations between King John and Eustace broke down between 1212 and 1214 AD, which may have been the result of several factors. One of these, for instance, is said to have been the alliance formed between King John and Eustace’s old enemy, the Count of Boulogne. Renaud’s support for the English was welcomed by John, much to the anger of Eustace. Another possible cause was that when Eustace failed to pay the king a debt of 20 marks, the pirate and his wife were imprisoned. According to the Romance of Eustace, Eustace’s daughter, who was held by John as a hostage at that time, was burned, disfigured, and finally killed. Lastly, it may be that King John, who was always wary of those who had grown too powerful, began to see the pirate as a threat, and attacked his base on Sark.
In the First Baron’s War, Eustace was on the side of the French (right side) again and, ultimately, the English (left side) won and were able to get Eustace in battle. (Chroniques de Saint-Denis / Public domain)
Switching Sides Again: Eustace The Monk Rejoins The French
As a consequence, Eustace switched sides once again, this time throwing his support behind the French. Like King John, the French king, Philip Augustus, also recognized Eustace’s ability at sea. Nevertheless, he was also well aware that the pirate was opportunistic and would switch allegiances whenever it suited him. The French king is alleged to have said to Eustace that “You know a great deal about guile and cunning and do not need a cat’s grease to help you.” In any case, Philip made Eustace his admiral, and the pirate contributed greatly to the French cause.
Around the same time, the First Barons’ War broke out in England, and the rebellious barons invited Louis, Philip’s son, to take the English throne from King John.
During the French invasion, which began in May 1216, Eustace played an important role by ferrying troops and supplies across the English Channel. In the spring of the following year, Eustace did France another great service when he broke through an English blockade at the coastal town of Rye, and rescued the prince, who was trapped there. Later that year, Eustace had to rescue Louis once again, and it was on that occasion that the pirate finally ran out of luck.
Louis’ invasion of England had initially progressed well. Soon after landing in England, the French prince managed to seize half the country, and obtained the homage of up to two-thirds of the English barons. A year later, however, the tide had turned against Louis. King John had died in October 1216 AD, and the barons now supported Henry III, John’s nine-year-old son, as the new king of England.
The English now fought against Louis, who was seen as an unwelcomed invader. In May 1217 AD, Louis’ forces were defeated at the Battle of Lincoln, and the French were forced to retreat to the south. The defeat at Lincoln persuaded Louis to negotiate a peace treaty to end the war. News of reinforcements from France, however, encouraged the prince to carry on fighting.
Eustace the Monk met his end in the Battle of Sandwich, which is depicted here. (Matthew Paris / Public domain)
The French reinforcements were ferried across the English Channel by none other than Eustace the Monk. This fleet consisted of 70 supply ships and 10 warship escorts. The French fleet, however, had to face the English, who sailed out of Dover in 40 ships. The English, who were under the command of Hugh de Burgh, sailed passed the French, before attacking them from the rear. In the ensuing Battle of Sandwich (known also as the Battle of Dover), the French were defeated. The blame for this defeat, however, was not placed on Eustace, but on Robert de Courtenay, the future Latin emperor of Constantinople. Although Eustace was the admiral, de Courtenay was in overall command of the fleet, thereby outranking the pirate.
Hugh de Burgh, aware that he would not be able to defeat the French in a head-on battle, feigned retreat. Despite Eustace’s warnings, de Courtenay ordered the French to pursue the English. Consequently, the fleet lost the wind, and were easy pickings for the smaller English fleet. Moreover, to prevent the French from boarding their ships, the English covered their decks with powdered lime, which the wind blew in the direction of the French, thereby blinding the French. Thus, the French fleet was defeated, and de Courtenay was taken prisoner for ransom.
Eustace, on the other hand, did not receive such mercy. The pirate is recorded to have been found hiding in his ship’s bilge. And when he was captured, Eustace offered a large sum of money for his freedom. As the English harbored an extreme hatred for Eustace for all the atrocities he had done, setting him free was out of the question.
Instead, he was only offered a choice for the site of his execution – either the ship’s rail, or the side of the trebuchet. Although the records are silent about Eustace’s choice, his executioner is named as someone by the name of Stephan Crabbe. It was Crabbe who decapitated the pirate. Thus, the notorious Eustace the Monk met his end. The Romance of Eustace ends Eustace’s story with the following moral lesson: “No man can live long who spends his days doing ill.”
Top image: From monk to bandit to pirate to execution: Eustace the Monk had a colorful life. Source: grandfailure / Adobe Stock
By Wu Mingren
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