The devil’s monk

He maimed, he murdered, he lied, he double-crossed. Eight centuries after Eustace the Monk died supporting a massive French invasion of England, Sean McGlynn profiles one of medieval Europe's unholiest holy men...

The battle of Dover, 24 August 1217, (image c1880). (Photo by Print Collector/Getty Images)

This article was first published in the September 2017 issue of BBC History Magazine.

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Eight hundred years ago, one of the most hated men in England met a grisly end. As the battle of Sandwich – fought off the Kent coast on 24 August 1217 between the English and French navies – reached its bloody conclusion, Eustace the Monk was on the deck of his ship, vigorously swinging an oar around him as he tried to fend off his English enemies. A contemporary writer describes how he “knocked down a good number… some had their arms broken, others their head smashed in… another had his collar bone shattered”. But Eustace’s luck was about to run out. Soon he was overwhelmed by his foes – and, after attempting to escape, he was dragged on deck and decapitated.

Eustace’s severed head was fixed on a spear and paraded around the southern ports of England to reassure their residents that this fearsome pirate was finally dead. The people celebrated his bloody demise long and lustily. But why? How had a former Benedictine monk become reviled for his lust for loot and violence? And what was a  man who had once dedicated his life to the service of God doing throwing his weight behind a French invasion of England?

Eustace was born around 1170, son of Baudoin Busket, a lord of the county of Boulogne on the northern coast of France. Though Eustace started his early adult life as a knight, the call of the sea proved strong, and he soon mastered the skills of seamanship through extensive travels. According to The Romance of Eustace the Monk – a poem penned by an anonymous author who enthusiastically embellished fact with fiction – Eustace soon turned up at the Castilian city of Toledo. This was a notorious centre of black magic, where, we’re told, he learned the dark arts of necromancy in a cave. For the chroniclers, it was as if the devil himself had become Eustace’s mentor. But then something entirely unexpected happened: Eustace became a monk.

Farting, not fasting

We can’t be sure why Eustace chose to join the Benedictines at the monastery of St Samer near Boulogne. But one thing’s for sure: if ever anyone was ill-suited to the reflective life of this holy order, it was Eustace. No sooner had he joined the monastery than we’re told that he was performing “many devilish acts”. He encouraged the brothers to eat when they should have been fasting, curse “when they should have been reciting the office”, and he urged them to “fart in the cloister”. Unsurprisingly, it wasn’t long before he left (or, more probably, was ejected from) the Benedictines. But from that moment on, his epithet was sealed: he would always be known as Eustace the Monk.

For all his capacity for mischief, Eustace clearly had some talent, for next he landed a job as seneschal (administrative officer) to the powerful Count of Boulogne, Renaud de Dammartin. But it seems that Eustace was soon up to his old tricks again as he was accused of financial impropriety. Fearing prison, Eustace fled and began a new career, this time as a bandit.

Taking to the forests around Boulogne, Eustace sustained himself through brigandage and a thirst for revenge against the count. Here the legend really takes off. Eustace and his men engaged in a series of outrageous escapades – robbery, lightning raids, dramatic escapes – as they pursued the former monk’s vendetta against the count.

There is very much a Robin Hood element to the tales told of Eustace, not least in the proliferation of disguises he employed. At one point in the Romance, he takes on the garb of a leper with a clapper (bell) to trick Count Renaud into giving him money as charity. He also, we’re told, bound up one of his legs to play the part of a one-legged beggar, again deceiving the count into handing money over – before promptly jumping onto one of the count’s horses and riding off “with his crutch hanging down”.

On another occasion, Eustace dresses up as a woman and approaches one of the count’s young knights. “Let me get on this horse and I will give you a f***,” he says. The knight is keen to pay for the indecent proposal, so Eustace entices him further, declaring: “I will teach you how to use your bum.” As the man lifts Eustace’s leg, Eustace “let out a fart”. Needless to say, this story ends with Eustace stealing the knight’s horse.

But there’s a dark side to these humorous tales. When Eustace captures five of the count’s men-at-arms, he cuts off the feet of four of them, telling the fifth to convey a message to the count. The knight does so and, as the chronicle wryly tells us, does “not forget his trotters”. Blacker still is the episode in which Eustace seizes one of the count’s spies – a young boy – and forces him to hang himself without even the opportunity to make his confession.

England’s cunning ally

By now, Eustace’s cunning and cruelty had earned him quite a reputation in the environs of Boulogne. Soon he would be making waves on the other side of English Channel too. For, by early 1206, he had started working for King John of England.

Eustace picked an opportune moment to ally himself with the English king, for John was in the middle of a bitter struggle to wrest the duchy of Normandy back from the French. By supporting John’s campaign, Eustace would propel himself from the forests of northern France onto the international arena.

John no doubt recognised Eustace’s maritime ability and, seeing the potential for a pirate to inflict havoc on French shipping in the Channel, gave him command of, according to one source, 30 galleys.

It wasn’t long before Eustace was using these vessels to devastating effect. His force of English, Flemish and French sailors seized Sark, one of the Channel Islands, and set up a pirate base, from where they launched a series of raids against the French seaports.

At first it seems that John and Eustace got on famously. Not only did the king grant Eustace land in Norfolk (and possibly a palace in London), he also turned a blind eye to the monk’s side-line in private profiteering. Eustace’s pirates terrorised ships of all nations in the Channel – and that included English ones. In doing so, he earned himself a notorious reputation in the ports and towns on England’s south coast – so much so that, if he wanted to land in England (to conduct business, or to visit his wife and daughter), he first had to gain a safe-conduct pass to do so.

But soon Eustace would be looking for new employment once again, because sometime between 1212 and 1214, he and John fell out. There are a number of potential reasons why their relationship hit the rocks. Money was possibly a factor. The chronicler known as the Anonymous of Béthune relates that, when Eustace failed to repay a debt of 20 marks to John, he and his wife were imprisoned. According to the Romance, the king had Eustace’s daughter, at the time John’s hostage, “burned, disfigured” and “killed”.

John’s perennial mistrust of those whom he deemed to have grown too powerful may also have contributed to the dispute. Perhaps the king was fearful of Eustace’s semi-independent position in the Channel Islands, and distrustful of his intentions. This would explain the king’s decision to order a naval assault on Sark, in which many of Eustace’s men were taken prisoner.

But the principal bone of contention between king and monk was probably Eustace’s old enemy Count Renaud of Boulogne. In 1212, the count decided to switch sides in the Anglo-French war and throw his support behind John. It appears that John welcomed him with open arms. Renaud’s lands were a huge boon to the king – assets well worth putting Eustace’s nose out of joint for.

Whatever the reason for John and Eustace’s contretemps, by early 1215 the ever-opportunistic Eustace had switched sides in the war and presented himself to the French court. Just as John had once been quick to realise the potential in employing Eustace’s talents against the French, so the French king, Philip Augustus, was keen to make use of Eustace’s knowledge of the Channel and his inside information on English military organisation. The Romance reports the first meeting between the two men: “You are not big, but small, yet you are so brave and bold,” Philip reportedly told his slippery new ally. “You know a great deal about guile and cunning and do not need a cat’s grease to help you.”

Eustace was appointed Philip’s admiral for the Channel, and now – with the war against England entering a dramatic new phase – embarked upon the most intense and spectacular military chapter of his career. In May 1216, Prince Louis, heir to the Capetian throne in France, invaded England, quickly seizing half the country and receiving the homage of up to two-thirds of England’s barons.

Eustace played a major role in the French invasion, ferrying troops and supplies across the Channel. In the spring of 1217, he was to prove his worth to the French campaign once more, dramatically breaking through an English blockade of the coastal town of Rye and rescuing Louis, who was trapped there.

Caught at sea

A few months later, Louis needed Eustace’s help once again. Having suffered a defeat at the battle of Lincoln in May 1217, the French prince found himself holed up in London, desperately needing the monk to provide the supplies and reinforcements he required to continue waging his campaign. Eustace set sail for England in August but, on the 24th, his fleet was intercepted and annihilated by the English at Sandwich – a defeat that would ultimately force Louis to return to France with his tail between his legs (for more on the battle, see our box, right).

According to the chronicler Roger of Wendover, when Eustace faced his end on the deck of his flagship, the last words he heard were: “Never again in this world, wicked traitor, shall you deceive anyone with your false promises.”

It was a fittingly bloody end to a violent life. Although the Romance focuses on his escapades as an outlaw, it was in his role as a pirate and an admiral that Eustace made his most telling impact on 13th-century Europe. It was certainly not in his role as a monk.

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Dr Sean McGlynn is lecturer in history at Plymouth University. His next book is Medieval Generals (Pen and Sword) and he is planning a book on Eustace.