I’m taking a short break from writing my series on the Komnenoi, and in the interim I wanted to bring you short little articles about several medieval ‘villains’ that I feel are unfairly overshadowed by such luminaries as Vlad Dracula, Ivan Grozny, and Erzsébet Báthory. I put ‘villains’ in quotations, as in some cases their actual villainy is dependent on your point of view (I’m sure some during their lifetimes considered them heroes). So without further ado, and in no particular order, I present…
drum roll please
Six Unfairly Obscure Medieval Villains 1
- Fulk Nerra, Count of Anjou
I talked a little about Fulk Nerra in my previous thread about the Capetians, but as he’s one of the all-time great medieval villains, he cannot be left out. During his long reign, Fulk Nerra terrorized the populace, plundered monasteries, broke almost every oath he ever made, and spent most of his life cycling between psychotic rage and wild religious penitence. It was like living with a bitchy supermodel, except that Fulk Nerra punched people in the face with metal gauntlets instead of throwing cell phones at them.
When his brother-in-law, Conan, Duke of Brittany, pissed him off, Fulk Nerra attacked him and hacked off his hand before killing him. In 999, Fulk Nerra caught his wife, Elisabeth de Vendôme, in bed with a shepherd boy and had her burnt alive at the stake, in the process burning most of the city of Angers to the ground.
When his son, Geoffrey Martel, rebelled against him, Fulk Nerra beat him so badly that Geoffrey Martel crawled on his hands and knees several miles wearing a saddle on his back 2, then threw himself at his father’s feet and begged forgiveness. Fulk Nerra put his foot on his son’s neck and gloated over his victory.
When he wasn’t killing, maiming, or publically humiliating his family members, Fulk Nerra liked to go to the Holy Land and undergo bizarre ceremonies of repentence for his evil deeds, such as being dragged naked through the streets of Jerusalem by a rope around his neck, while two servants beat him with whips, all the while howling for God to forgive his violence and lying. Good times.
In 1009, his cousin Constance of Provence was having marital problems with her husband, King Robert II of France. Robert’s homeboy, Hugh de Beauvais, was trying to get Robert to divorce Constance 3. So Constance called up her cousin Fulk Nerra and put out a Mafia-style hit on Hugh de Beauvais. Twelve of Fulk Nerra’s knights tackled Hugh de Beauvais right in front of King Robert, then proceeded to kill Hugh until he died from it.
Fulk Nerra could murder the king of France’s friend right in front of him and just be like, “What, you gonna say something about it? Why don’t you just back the fuck up right onto my magnificent cock.” That was how dangerous Fulk Nerra was.
- Vseslav of Polotsk.
Vseslav Bryacheslavich was the prince of Polotsk, and a member of the Rurikid dynasty that ruled vast parts of what is now Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus 4. The Rurikids were sort of the Duggars of the medieval royal families. They had litters of little Rurikids and there were so many princelings at any given time that you’d go cross-eyed trying to keep them all straight.
But Vseslav stood out from his gazillions of cousins and second cousins and first cousins once removed. His nicknames may give you an idea why: Vselav Charadei, Vseslav the Sorcerer.
Even his birth was attributed to dark sorcery. According to the Book of Annals:
Him his mother bore by enchantment, for when his mother bore him, there was a caul over his head, and the magicians bade his mother bind this caul upon him, that he might carry it with him all the rest of his life.
According to the chroniclers, Vseslav was followed by mystical signs all his life; where he went a large star appeared “as if it were made of blood”, the sun was “like the moon”, all of his heralding the insane amounts of bloodshed that followed Vseslav. The Tale of Igor goes one step further and declares that Vseslav was a werewolf:
Vseslav the prince sat in judgment over men,
as prince he ruled over cities;
but at night he ran as a wolf,
running from Kiev to the ramparts of Tmutorokan,
as a wolf he crossed the path of Great Hors.
For him the bells rang early for matins in St. Sophia in Polotsk, but he heard the ringing in Kiev.
Vseslav was so slippery and so dangerous that his enemies decided the most logical explanation was that he was a werewolf sorcerer prince. Badass!
In 1054, Iaroslav Vladimirovich, the Grand Duke of Kiev, died, leaving his realm divided amongst his five surviving sons. Of these sons, the three eldest, Iziaslav, Sviatoslav, and Vsevolod, banded together and consolidated their power. To do this they disinherited their nephew Rostislav Vladimirovich, the son of their eldest brother Vladimir, who had predeceased his father Iaroslav. Had his father not died, Rostislav would’ve been next in line for the throne, a fact that began to piss him off as he grew into manhood. Rostislav wrestled the city of Tmutorokan from his cousin Gleb Sviatoslavich in 1064, and went about making himself a force to be reckoned with in the region.
Vseslav and Rostislav, the two outcasts, made natural allies. Their goal was to drive out Rostislav’s uncles and rule Kiev jointly; Rostislav was so successful in conquering territory around the Crimea that he made the Greek colonists at Kherson nervous. Kherson’s katepano, or governor, came to Tmutorokan under the pretext of a diplomatic mission, and while at Rostislav’s court slipped poison into his drink and killed him. Rostislav was so popular amongst the common people that the Greek governor was stoned by peasants as he attempted to return to Kherson.
This left Vseslav to fight on alone against the princes Iziaslav, Sviatoslav, and Vsevolod. He called a truce but was arrested and thrown into a pit in Kiev. This treacherous act was believed to be punished by God, who sent the Kumans to invade in 1068. Iziaslav Iaroslavich, unable to properly defend his city, faced a revolt. The Kievans rioted and freed Vseslav from his prison, whereupon he “touched with spear-shaft the golden throne of Kiev”, being declared its prince.
Iziaslav fled to his wife’s country, Poland, and raised an army. He marched on Kiev, which surrendered. Vseslav escaped back to Polotsk and ruled there until his death in 1101, having long outlived his enemies Iziaslav, Sviatoslav, and Vsevolod. Creepy stuff kept happening during his reign, including his bizarre incident that occured in Polotsk in 1092:
At night there was heard a clatter and groaning in the streets, and demons ran about like men… Then during the day, there began to appear riders, who were not visible themselves, but the hoofs of their horses could be seen…
Even well into his golden years Vseslav continued to harass the descendants of his old enemies, such as when he sacked Smolensk in 1096. Vladimir Monomakh 5, the son of Vsevolod Iaroslavich, set out to capture him, but wily old Vseslav escaped his clutches. He lived a contrary existence to the end of his days, being prince and prisoner, man and wolf, hunter and hunted.
I hope to be back with numbers 4-1 shortly!
- ‘Unfair’ and ‘obscure’ are likewise debateable terms, and I ask you to bear with me and not legalese me to death here.
- The saddle thing was a punishment and a sign of penitence. This story comes from William of Malmesbury but there’s a similar tale told by Guillaume de Jumieges.
- Constance was a nasty piece of work herself. She once stabbed out the eye of her confessor with the royal scepter, and later in life spent most of her time pitting her husband against their sons and then their sons one against the other.
- Ivan Grozny, aka Ivan the Terrible, was Vseslav’s many times removed great-nephew.
- Vladimir’s nickname, which he inherited from his Greek mother’s family, means He who fights his own battles.