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9 Most Important Medieval Assassinations

Posted: 04/ 6/2012 11:14 am

The mythos of the assassin fascinates even as it horrifies. It fascinates because it allows for the actions of one to bring down a corrupt or tyrannical regime that has no avenue of redress for those not in power. It horrifies because the sudden actions of one can threaten an entire nation--or in the case of World War I--the world's stability.

It is easy to fall into the trap of thinking that our political discourse and disagreement has never been more bitter and divisive. And while it is bad, there have been many periods in history that were equally--if not more--vitriolic and downright nasty. Take the Middle Ages, for one. Not only was it a politically raw and power hungry time, but the average citizen had very little say in matters of government.

Historian Barbara Tuchman suggests this might be attributed to the fact that the Middle Ages was a very young society, with over half the population under 21. Many of the leaders of medieval kingdoms and dynasties were on the tail end of adolescence--or younger. William, Duke of Normandy, later known as William the Conqueror of England, was only seven years old when he became duke. Charles VII of France was 19 when he was crowned king, and Louis I, became Duke of Orleans at the ripe old age of 20. All that power un-tempered by age or wisdom was a heady thing and ripe for abuse. Assassination was an oft-used tool in their arsenal.

In my novel Grave Mercy which is set in 15th century Brittany, I combine the reality of political assassination and the medieval fascination with patron saints, holy relics, and religious orders. In the book, the assassin nuns' decisions on whom to kill are guided by Mortain, the former god of death, now renamed the patron saint of death. Like many earlier pagan deities, my fictional Mortain was co-opted by the early Catholic Church in order to facilitate the acceptance of their faith by resistant populations. In real life, it is safe to say that most assassins did not have any such divine blessing on their acts, although for the most part they escaped punishment.

Or did they? As one reads through the litany of assassinations, it is clear that in many cases, what goes around, comes around.

The following is a list of nine medieval assassinations that changed the course of power and dynasties.

Alan III, Duke of Brittany (d. 1040)
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Alan III was duke of Brittany back when France was not the one large country that we know today, but rather a collection of small, powerful fiefs. There were often feuds between neighboring duchies, as boundaries and lands were disputed. Alan III was assassinated with poison in 1040. William, Duke of Normandy (eventually known as William the Conqueror) who had quarreled extensively with the dukes of Brittany, was widely believed to have been behind the poisoning. Alan III's heir, Conan II of Brittany was seven years old when he became duke.
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