Piracy and Papacy: The Legacy of Thibauld’s treasure
By James Hinton
Piracy and the Papacy are not two things one ordinarily associate together. Pirates are usually viewed as particularly violent Caribbean sailors swashbuckling their way through the 17th century while popes are generally thought of these days as elderly priests closeted in Rome dealing with an increasingly large rap sheet of public relations disasters. Pirates and popes seem to be two things that simply would not intersect owing to both time and distance, but in 1357 intersect they did. The result was a court claim that resulted claims for damages that wound up providing us one of the finest medieval cities to survive today.
Our tale of early buccaneering begins with an unlikely source, a bishop in Lisbon, Portugal. Thibaud de Castillon was himself remarkable only for being unremarkable. He had almost literally followed in an uncle’s footsteps, essentially climbing the ecclesiastic ladder by taking the positions in the church his uncle vacated. By 1352 this boring church functionary found himself in Lisbon, where he proceeded to practice graft and corruption to a sufficient degree that it complicated relations between kingdom and the Papacy.
To remedy the situation, Thibauld engaged in some legal legerdemain with several local merchants and church officials. The trick worked, and when Thibauld died in 1356 he had amassed a considerable fortune. The Papal treasurer, Jean de Gurrigue, swooped in and, claiming that the various tricks Thibauld had performed had been through the agency of the church, took title to the entire treasure. In early 1357 he set sail on the São Vicente, bound for Avignon and the Pope.
Unfortunately for the Pope, 1357 was not a good year to be sailing. The French and English had been beating on one another over Aquitaine and the French crown for twenty years. Against this backdrop, King Peter of Castile and King Peter IV of Aragon decided to go to war against one another. Peter of Aragon had decided he preferred the rebellious brother of Peter of Castile’s for the Castilian throne. Aragon’s Peter enlisted the support of the French to put down his brother and Peter of Aragon, which led to Aragon’s Peter to gain the backing of the English. Portugal weighed in as an ally of Castile. This whole silly affair became known as the War of the Two Peters.
Peter of Aragon’s ambitions included control over the Mediterranean. As such he built up a large navy to exploit the war as a means to crush rival Genoa as well as Castile. He then proceeded to pretty much give them nothing much to do, and neither Genoa or Castile’s navies moved to correct that situation by coming at Aragon. This left a large number of powerful ships being crewed by very bored and violent sailors belonging to three different kingdoms loitering everywhere.
São Vicente ran smack into two of these ships just off Cartagena, one of Castile’s ports. Despite the fact that one of the galleys was Castilian and one was Genoan, and thus both allies of Portugal, the bored sailors sensed a chance for both fun and riches. They seized the ship, put the papal treasurer ashore in Cartagena, split the treasure, and absconded.
The Castilian ship, commanded by Martin Yanes, sailed off with their ill-gotten loot and disappeared from history. The Genoan ship, however, was less fortunate. Commanded by Antonio “Butafoc” of Seville, the galley made it as far as Maguio, France not far from the treasure’s original destination of Avignon. There the galley found itself inadvertently blown ashore. The ship, treasure, and crew were all captured by the local royal garrison, and from there things went downhill rapidly.
The capturing garrison notified the French crown of their capture, leading to royal assessors inventorying the treasure as salvaging rights. A papal subcollector who had been part of the original survey of Thibauld’s fortune in Lisbon came down from Avignon and immediately recognized the treasure as belonging to the Pope. He filed claim against the French crown in order to negate any salvage rights. This precipitated an investigation to determine who could claim what from the wreckage.
Though these were the official claims against the treasure, they weren’t the only ones. Local fishermen beat the royal garrison to the wreck while the pirates were still attempting to flee. Some portion of the treasure “wandered off” as a result, never to be seen again. Butafoc’s crew had all been hanged as soon as they had been caught, but Butafoc himself, along with two officers, had been spared. They had attempted to flee with a large amount of loose coin. After capture, they had turned this over to the Bishop of Torino in a (successful) ploy to buy their lives and freedom.
While the final disposition of the treasure hung in doubt (and slowly eroded thanks to the locals and the pirate officers) the Lisbon merchants Thibauld had worked with got involved as well. One, Piere Laugautra was discovered to actually owe money rather than have a claim. While what remained of the treasure wound up going to the Pope, it was this debt that turned out to have the most momentous impact in this entire story.
It turns out that the debt Laugautra owed was the result of his losing a cargo of wool clothes to (ironically) pirates in 1535. He had invested somewhere between 1,000 and 1,400 florins of Thibauld’s money into this, and the loss had left him unable to pay. In order to recoup his losses he filed a claim against Valencia. As professor James Kraska of Norwich University has explained in multiple papers and classes, governments allowing their sailors to go pirate are liable for their actions and have been even prior to the Treaty of Westphalia. Laugautra was recompensed with a warehouse full of sea-salt. This he turned around and surrendered to the church to pay off his debt.
The church then turned around and attempted to sell the sea-salt in Avignon, but ran into a problem. Italian mercantile factors owned a total monopoly on the market for sea-salt. The Pope was shut out. One flex of Papal muscle later the Italians were out and the Papacy now owned the monopoly on sea-salt in Avignon. This monopoly would wind up providing the church with a far larger fortune than Thibauld ever accomplished, as it would last for more than 400 years. The medieval and renaissance fortifications that survive to this day were all financed through this monopoly.
Avignon’s fortifications and many of the key buildings inside of them are now national monuments or part of UNESCO’s list of World Heritage Sites. These walls and ramparts are amongst the few such examples still existing in France, helping compel four million visitors a year to drop in on the town of 90,000 people. That is the most important and lasting legacy of this entire tale. Thanks to a group of pirates and their encounter with the papacy, Avignon is one of the jewels in the crown of medieval Europe’s remaining presence today.
James Hinton is neither a pope nor a pirate. He spends his time in Idaho trying to convince his daughters not to follow in the footsteps of Anne Bonny and Mary Read. You can read further articles by him at his blog, http://jamiemhinton.wordpress.com/
You can read more about this story in The spoils of the Pope and the pirates, 1357 : the complete legal dossier from the Vatican, which is published online by the Ames Foundation.