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A knight, a mourning queen, and a dead prince

History Hunter's report: a 600-year-old mystery deepens

There’s nothing like the magic of a dive into history. Often my forays into the past are thwarted by dead ends, paywalls, or languages even Google translate can’t help me comprehend.

But recently the stars were aligned when I jumped into a research rabbit hole while working on my latest book project. It’s a historical adventure series about people living under the rule of the Knights Hospitaller on the Greek island of Rhodes in the fifteenth century.

Some background

My series focuses on two families who meet in Rhodes shortly after Grand Master Jacques de Milly takes the helm of the Order in the 1450s. One of my characters also spends time in the nearby French court of the Kings of Cyprus. Another historical figure in the series is Princess Charlotte of Cyprus. Charlotte had a brief stint as queen before her half-brother Jacques staged a coup and drove her into exile on Rhodes in the early 1460s.

I knew Jacques de Milly’s term as Grand Master ended in 1461. And I knew was that the Knights Hospitaller elected their Grand Masters for life, so the end of de Milly’s term meant he had died. But when exactly? And how?

Research rabbit hole

I already have various general resources about the Order on Rhodes during this time period, but none of them elaborate on de Milly’s death. So I started poking around the Internet again.

First I quickly found a new-to-me history of that exact time period on Rhodes via an academic database. It was in English and laid out brief synopses of the various Grand Masters plus the events that occurred during their governance. The dates of many of their deaths were recorded. But not the date of Jacques de Milly’s death. Thwarted! However, by reading the footnotes, I found an obscure article  by Italian historian Guiseppe Gerola, written about 100 years ago. The article not only recorded the date of de Milly’s death (August 17, 1461), but included a photo of his tomb.

This is where things got really interesting. Because the tomb bears not just an inscription about Jacques de Milly—it also has an inscription carved several years later, when another body was interred in the tomb. It was a 4-month-old boy, son of the exiled Queen Charlotte and her husband Louis of Savoy. The baby’s corpse was placed atop the remains of Jacques de Milly three years after the Grand Master’s death.

Follow the footnotes

Could this really be true? I needed to corroborate Gerola’s claims. A footnote on the Italian article led me to a book about Rhodes published in 1881 in France. Luckily I read French, and the book was easy to locate via Google Books. This book confirmed the Italian historian’s finding. Its translation about the baby’s inscription on the tomb reads as follows:

“The tomb also contained the remains of a prince of the French Lusignan royal house, dead at 4 months of age, whose first name began with H. — Hugues or perhaps Henri — son of Charlotte of Lusignan queen of Cyprus. His body was placed in the tomb 3 years after the death of de Milly.”

Time to head to Paris

The photo of the tomb in the Italian article, as you can see above, is terrible. However, as it was taken about a century ago, I’m not criticizing. Luckily, the article mentions that the tomb was taken to the Musée du Cluny in Paris during the 19th century. This is one of my favorite museums in the world. It’s devoted to the medieval era and contains endless treasures including the famous “Lady and the Unicorn” tapestries.

I began to hunt through the museum’s website for a photo of the tomb, if it indeed is still there. No luck on the website, but then I headed over to Wikimedia Commons and found a photo. Many thanks to Nina Volare, who took the lovely photo below and granted it a creative commons reuse license. Here it is for your viewing pleasure. (It’s the tomb on the left). Unfortunately the inscriptions aren’t in view, but now I know that if I ever get back to Paris, I will head directly to the Musée du Cluny and search for them.

Queen Charlotte and Jacques de Milly

Happily, I was able to answer the question of when exactly Jacques de Milly died. Sadly, I did not find a reason for his death. But I did find another tantalizing link between two key historical figures in my series. There is very little known about either Jacques de Milly or Charlotte of Lusignan. Now I’ve unveiled a new detail about the connection between them. I know de Milly was instrumental in providing Charlotte aid and refuge when she needed it. But the fact that she interred her baby in de Milly’s tomb makes me wonder what their personal relationship might have been like. The wheels of creativity are already moving in my brain. Time to leap out of this satisfying research rabbit hole and put my writer’s cap back on…

2 Comments

  1. Ju says:

    Ooooh, tantalizing!!!!

  2. Emma Lombard says:

    Fascinating stuff, Amy! Thanks for sharing.

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