Eustace The Monk Who Became a Pirate And Inspired The Figure of Robin Hood

Jan 5, 2022 1 comments

Every good comic book fan will have read some of the adventures of Corto Maltés and if so, will remember that one of the characters that the protagonist had to deal with in that first and germinal story that was The Ballad of the Salty Sea is the Monk, the chief of the pirates of the South Seas; a mysterious individual, who lives on his own island and whose identity is unknown because he is always hooded. At the end it is revealed who he is, but what interests us here is that this character is inspired by a real one, who lived in the Middle Ages dedicated to the Corsican despite his noble origin and whose thousand adventures inspired the legendary figure of Robin Hood— Eustace the Monk.

A medieval battle, circa last quarter of the 13th century or 1st quarter of the 14th century.

Eustace’s real name was Eustache Busket, born around 1170 in Courset, in the French county of Boulogne, a territory born of the pagus Bononiensis, dependent on the civitas de Morins (a pagus was the equivalent of a tribe, a Roman administrative unit of lower rank to the civitas , this being a community formed by several pagus ), which from the end of the 9th century was under the control of the county of Flanders. There lived Baudoin Busket, feudal lord and father of Eustache. This was his youngest son, so, according to the custom of the time, he was destined for a religious profession while the first-born would inherit the fiefdom.

Eustace entered the Benedictine order, joining the community of monks at the Abbey of Saint-Wulmer de Samer, also known as Saint-Vilmer, a monastery founded in the 7th century in Pas-de-Calais that used to be the traditional burial place of the Counts of Boulogne. He did not last long there because he abandoned monastic life in 1190 to try to avenge his father's death. At least this is what is deduced from the demand for justice he made to Renaud de Dammartin, Count of Boulogne, for whom he had entered the service as a bailiff (the name given in northern France to the seneschal or butler). In between he would have traveled to Toledo for a season to study magic, according to some biographical sources such as History of the Dukes of Normandy and the Kings of England.

The fact is that it was not the best time to go to the count with demands, since he was immersed in a complex political dispute: he had just repudiated his wife, Marie de Châtillon, cousin of the Gallic King Philip II the Augustus , to marry again with Ide de Lorraine, daughter of another earlier Earl of Boulogne, and thus free himself from the vassalage he owed to Flanders; because of this, Renaud de Dammartin earned the animosity of the monarch, with whom friction was frequent despite being childhood friends and who had already forgiven him once for supporting the Plantagenets against the Capetians. In 1204, in the midst of that mess, Eustace fell from grace, accused of embezzlement, and seeing his lands and titles confiscated, became an outlaw.

He took revenge by setting fire to two of the count's mills, stealing horses, ambushing the guards who pursued him, robbing in multiple disguises and hiding in the forests of Boulogne and Hardelot. All this, enriched with fantastic contributions from romances such as Le roman de Renart (also known as Reynard the Fox), originated a legend that, according to some researchers, seems to have influenced the contemporary Robin Hood; there are common ingredients, such as the mocking character, the noble origin, the disguises, the forest hideout, the seized paternal inheritance, the parallelism between the Count of Boulogne and the Sheriff of Nottingham...

Robin Hood and Little John, illustrated by Louis Rhead.

The truth is that many of these elements were typical of the literature of the time ( Hereward the Wake; Fouke le Fitz Waryn ; The Downfall of Robert, Earle of Huntington ; Gamelin ), so mutual influences would be likely. After all, almost the western half of present-day France belonged to the Plantagenets, and the stories were heard on both sides of the English Channel; furthermore, the Anglo-Norman community in England was bilingual, so such stories could be easily translated.

In this way, Eustache and his brothers became pirates and that was when he began to be nicknamed the Monk, obviously due to his monastic past. He was hired by King John of England, who between 1205 and 1212 sent him as a privateer repeatedly, in command of a fleet of thirty ships, against French interests. The Normandy coastline and the English Channel in general suffered his fearsome attacks, spreading the rumor that he could become invisible to appear by surprise. The reality was more prosaic: Eustace's ships had managed to seize some islands in the channel, such as those of Sark or Guernsey, which they used as a base of operations for their withering blows.

But in 1212 the tables turned. Renaud de Dammartin surrendered vassalage to John of England and the seneschal turned privateer had to abandon his English patron to look for a new lord; the chosen one was Felipe II of France, for whom that same year he directed a raid against Folkestone (a city in the English county of Kent). Obviously, this earned him the condemnation of the King of England, who sent a squad to dislodge him from the Channel Islands. However, things turned against the monarch in February 1214, when his offensive to conquer Paris failed before the fortress of La Roche-aux- Moines without even putting up a fight.

King John of England

That same year he suffered a severe defeat at Bouvines. The coalition that brought together Philip II, Count Robert II of Dreux and Braine, Duke Eudes III of Burgundy and Count Wilhelm II of Ponthieu, prevailed over the one made up of John of England and his allies, Renaud de Dammartin, the emperor Otto IV, Ferdinand of Flanders (Count of Flanders and Infante of Portugal), Duke Teobaldo I of Lorraine, Enrique I ( Landgrave of Brabant), Count Guillermo I of Holland, Duke Guillermo I of Normandy and another Felipe II (the margrave of Namur). The victory of the former ended the war and consolidated the Capetians in France.

On one hand, Otto IV lost the crown of the Holy Roman Empire to Frederick II Hohenstaufen, whom Philip II had supported. This one, on having obtained the victory considered that he had won a kind of judgment of God and, taking advantage of the good march of the things, he planned the invasion of England; he did not carry it out because Pope Innocent III, who initially had given him his blessing on having been at enmity with John of England, finally ingratiated himself with the Englishman and the Gallic king had to cancel the departure of his fleet, which was already assembled in Boulogne for that purpose. According to another version, he was defeated at sea and Eustache, who was part of the expedition, lost a ship with a large stern castle called Nef de Boulogne.

Conquests of Philip II Augustus from 1180 to 1223

The fact that Philip took from John most of the European territories he held (Normandy, Maine, Anjou, Touraine and Brittany) led to a position of force by the barons of the country, who in 1215 demanded the promulgation of the Magna Carta, a charter granted that reduced the absolute royal power that existed at that time. When the king refused, they took up arms led by Robert Fitzwalter and offered the throne to Prince Louis, son of Philip II. Thus began two years of civil war, traditionally known as the First Barons War.

This allowed France to resume the invasion project and, in March 1216, Eustace moved an army commanded by Louis himself across the channel, landing it in Kent and then marching on London, forcing John to retreat to Winchester. As he met little resistance, Louis was proclaimed king. However, his father was not satisfied; perhaps foreseeing a counterattack, he thought it was important to take possession of Dover Castle, the key to the English door. Louis accepted the idea, but by the time he laid siege to it, it had already been fortified and adequately provisioned, so he failed in his conquest. The castles of Windsor and Rochester also resisted conquest, and as winter approached, the French troops were in danger of finding themselves in a strange land without food. Eustache was entrusted with the mission of solving this problem, carrying out liaison and provisioning tasks; he also built a kind of floating fortress equipped with trebuchets and other siege weapons to try to take Dover at once.

Prince Louis, future King Louis VIII of France.

Dysentery killed John of England in October 1216 and he was succeeded by his son Henry, whose young age (nine years) did not seem to augur well for his future, especially if one takes into account that Eleanor of Brittany, daughter of Godfrey, John's older brother, was also a candidate for the throne and legitimate by the principle of primogeniture. In any case, she had been imprisoned for almost a decade and a half and the barons chose not to release her, when they found that the crowned Henry III agreed to sign the Magna Carta. This meant that the country was still divided between those who admitted the new king and the supporters of Louis.

As Louis feared, his army suffered severe deprivation, isolated from France as his fleet was outnumbered by the enemy's and he was determined to take Dover with a second siege. Needing reinforcements and supplies as soon as possible, he commissioned Eustace to organize a supply convoy from Calais. The pirate fulfilled his mission and with the help of Louis' wife, Blanche de Castille, he assembled seventy cargo ships to be protected by an escort of ten warships.

The fleet sailed on August 24 under the command of Robert de Courtenay, attended by Ralph de la Tourniele and William des Barres and Eustace himself, who was sailing aboard the Great Ship of Bayonne . With them traveled one hundred and a half knights and men-at-arms with their mounts; a catapult and numerous provisions were also embarked. But the English were aware of this and met them with a squadron of about forty ships led by Philippe d'Aubigné, governor of Jersey, and Hubert de Bourg, governor of Dover.

The English were windward, so their tactic consisted of simulating a retreat to provoke the French to pursue them, separating one from the other, and then turn around and attack them with the wind in their favor. Eustache realized the trap and recommended to his superior to maintain the formation, but he was not listened to, so the plan worked out perfectly for the English, who were able to maneuver more agilely than the adversary as the latter had overloaded their holds. The bows rammed the hulls and the archers threw a deluge of arrows and pots of quicklime at the Gauls, blinding the sailors, setting the sails ablaze, and mowing down the soldiers.

The 1217 Battle of Sandwich also called the Battle of Dover.

That confrontation, which has gone down in history as the Battle of Sandwich (or Dover), ended with Robert de Courtenay falling prisoner along with many of his knights, for whom a hefty ransom would be demanded. The crew members did not have the same luck, since those who survived were thrown into the water, which meant death for most, because at that time it was not common to know how to swim. All the French fleet was captured except fifteen units, that managed to flee while the English looted the cargo ships; a part of the loot was used to pay for the construction of the Hospital of San Bartolomé in Sandwich.

Eustace, who had to face half a dozen enemy ships, fought fiercely on the bridge along with another thirty knights; In the heat of the combat he lost his weapon and replaced it with an oar, but overwhelmed by all sides he hid in the bilge with the idea of ​​escaping at the first opportunity. He could not and also ended up captive, offering ten thousand ducats for his freedom; but, having been a pirate, they did not listen to him and his head ended up rolling across the wood without judgment or waiting. It was later nailed to a pike and exhibited in England. It should be noted that other sources are not so explicit in his ending and say that he was offered to choose the way to die.

Eustace's death at the 1217 Battle of Sandwich (13th-century illustration by Matthew Paris)

By way of an epilogue, let's say that the loss of the convoy spelled the end of any hope of resistance for Louis. His forces were further diminished with further desertions and in September 1217 he agreed to sign the Treaty of Lambeth, which ended the war, allowing him to return to France (where he would reign as Louis VIII) in exchange for renouncing the English throne and receiving a symbolic indemnity as compensation. Another clause obliged him to put an end to the raids of Eustace's brothers, who for a time continued to operate in the English Channel without him. He did so and the Monk became a mere memory, glossed over in a few literary works.

This article was originally published in La Brújula Verde. It has been translated from Spanish and republished with permission.


  1. He’s a very interesting character. We did an episode of the podcast about him we’re based in Guernsey where he may have had a pirate base.


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