Walter VI, Count of Brienne
Early life in Italy
As grandson of Hugh of Brienne (d. 1296), he was heir to a vast property all around the Mediterranean. After his father's death at the Battle of Halmyros on 15 March 1311, Walter became Count of Brienne, etc., and Duke of Athens. However, all of the Duchy except for Argos and Nauplia in the Principality of Achaea had been overrun by the Catalan Company, and Walter spent much of his life in an unsuccessful struggle to recover that inheritance of his grandmother's family. He spent most of his life in Italy and France and left Argos-Nauplia to be ruled by guardians.
The Duchy of Athens was not the first loss in his family: Walter's grandfather had been rejected from the succession of the kingdoms of Jerusalem and Cyprus, and his great-great-grandfather had been Pretender of the throne of Sicily, as husband of the sister of William III of Sicily. They had barely regained the County of Lecce, and were still claiming the Principality of Taranto.
His mother Jeanne carried out a vigorous struggle against the Catalans during his minority, which, however, had little military effect but impoverished him. To strengthen his position, Walter engaged in a strategic marriage to Margaret, the niece of King Robert of Naples and daughter of Philip I of Taranto by Thamar Angelina Komnene, in December 1325. At this time, Florence requested King Robert's support in protecting Guelph interests in Italy, and elected his son, Charles, Duke of Calabria, as signore of Florence for a ten-year period (1326–36). Walter VI's almost-princely position in the Angevin court soon won him an appointment as Vicar for Charles of Calabria, an office that he only exercised for a few months in 1325.
Greek campaign of 1331–32
In 1329, Walter obtained the support of Robert of Naples and Pope John XXII, who declared a crusade for his recovery of Athens. Walter sailed for the East in 1331, but the price of Robert's support was that he first reduce the Despotate of Epirus, as Vicar-General of the Latin Empire. Here he took Arta and forced the Despot John I Orsini to acknowledge the suzerainty of Naples. His attempts to recover Athens and Boeotia, however, were frustrated by the Venetian alliance with the Catalans and the refusal of the Catalans to give battle. His only son, Walter, died of illness during the campaign, and he returned to Naples in 1332.
Ruler of Florence
He also occupied himself with his lands in France, and was the King's Lieutenant in Thiérache in 1339. His wife died in 1340, and he returned to Italy in 1342 when the Florentine ruling class of wealthy merchants called upon him to rule the city. Since 1339, Florence had been in the grip of a severe economic crisis brought about by immense English debts to Florentine banking houses, and by astronomical public debts incurred in trying to obtain the nearby city of Lucca from its Veronese lord, Martino Della Scala. The Florentine nobility looked to foreign powers to solve the city's seemingly impossible financial problems, and found an ally in Walter of Brienne. Although the ruling class invited Walter to rule for a limited time, the lower classes, who were fed up with the ineptitude of Walter's predecessors, unexpectedly proclaimed him signore for life.
Walter VI ruled despotically, ignoring or directly opposing the interests of the very same merchant class that had brought him to power. The "Duke of Athens" imposed harsh economic correctives on the Florentines, including the flat tax estimo, and prestanze, postponements of the city's repayment of loans forced from the wealthier citizens. These measures both angered the Florentines, and helped alleviate the fiscal crisis that had been stewing for years. After only ten months, Walter of Brienne's signoria was cut short by conspiracy. Walter VI was not only forced to resign from office, but barely escaped Florence with his life.
Later life and death
In 1344 he married Jeanne, the daughter of Raoul I of Brienne, Count of Eu. She bore him two daughters, Jeanne and Marguerite, both of whom died young. As he had no surviving children, it was evident that his sister's issue would inherit his possessions and claims. He was appointed Constable of France in 1356 and in that capacity died on 19 September 1356 at the Battle of Poitiers. He was succeeded in his titles and pretensions by his sister Isabella and her sons. As he had left Greece, his eldest surviving nephew Sohier d'Enghien was holding the lordship of Argos and Nauplia. When the inheritance was divided after Walter VI's death, Isabella's sixth son Guy d'Enghien received the Greek lordship.
Isabella III survived his brother and died 1360. Her husband Gauthier d'Enghien had died in 1345. For a few years, she became Countess of Lecce and Brienne, etc., as well as titular Duchess of Athens and of other claimed titles. Since her eldest son Gauthier had died before Walter, her heir was her second son Sohier of Enghien. She allowed her inherited lands to be divided between her numerous children during her own lifetime (see Brienne claim to the Kingdom of Jerusalem for her descendants).
The "Duke of Athens" who appears in the seventh tale of Day Two of the Decameron as one of the nine lovers of the Sultan of Babylon's daughter, while not historically accurate, is probably a satirical allusion to Walter VI - his brief, but unforgettable dictatorship in Florence occurred less than ten years before the writing of the Decameron.
- (R.P./N.S.) Adapted from Ingeborg, Walter. s.v. Brienne, Gualtieri di. vol. 14.
- Dizionario biografico degli italiani, Roma: Istituto della Enciclopedia italiana, 1960. pp. 237–251; Schevill, Ferdinand.
- The History of Florence from the Founding of the City through the Renaissance, New York: Harcourt Brace, 1936. pp. 217–225.
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