Post-classical history


Duke William of Normandy

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THE MAN WHO would be known to history as William the Conqueror was born out of wedlock at Falaise in the autumn of 1027, the son of Robert, sixth Duke of Normandy, and Herlève, daughter of Fulbert. Exactitude is rarely possible when dealing with the ill-documented history of eleventh-century Europe, but the best estimate is that Robert was seventeen at the time of his dalliance and Herlève maybe a year younger.1 Many legends have arisen about the first meeting of the lovers, and the circumstances in which Herlève became Robert’s mistress. It is said that Robert was smitten by coup de foudre when he saw a lovely, innocent girl dancing in the street; in another version he was overcome by desire when he saw her shapely body bent over her laundry as she washed clothes in a stream. Needless to say, as in all such legends, the girl conceived after just one night of lovemaking, and even had a dream in which branches sprouted from her body to cover the whole of Normandy and England.2 Sober history must leave the apocrypha to the troubadours and chansons de geste and be content with saying something about William’s parents, where we are on firmer ground.

Despite the claims of certain historians, some of them eminent enough to know better,3 and despite the legends, Herlève was not a tanner’s daughter. Fulbert was a burgess, the household official at the Norman court whose title was cubicularius and, as such, a person of consequence, although all burgesses and household officials ranked below warriors in Normandy and would have been looked down on by those arrogant scions of a military élite. That Herlève was in no sense ‘low class’ is clearly shown by two items of evidence: her brothers appear in a charter as attestors for the infant William; and the Count of Flanders later accepted Herlève as a suitable guardian for his daughter.4

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Normandy, showing the frontiers and the Pagi

Why then did Robert not marry her? Immediately we discern the extreme cunning and ruthlessness of the duke – qualities which his son William would inherit in full measure. Only a year before the tryst with Herlève, Robert had seen his elder brother, aged eighteen, become fifth Duke of Normandy as Richard III. After a year of civil war, Richard died suddenly. His reign had been as difficult as it was brief, with younger brother Robert declaring his independence and building a castle at Falaise – the very fortress where Herlève consented to his embraces. Richard rode with his army into central Normandy, surrounded Robert’s forces at Falaise and compelled him to sue for peace. Then came death, swift and black. Few dared speak aloud the suspicion that all entertained and would later harden into certainty: that Robert had poisoned his brother in accordance with the old Norman custom of using lethal toxins to dispose of enemies.5

Robert knew from bitter experience and long poring over the history of his land that when a Duke of Normandy had more than one son the upshot was always deadly rivalry, disputed thrones, murder, chaos and civil war. A dynastic marriage – the only one a Duke of Normandy could reasonably make – entailed obligations to kin and extended family which could be met only by the procreation of several children. The sole way to cut this Gordian knot was to take a mistress and beget a bastard, who would then be the one and only heir to the duke’s fortunes. That is why, whatever his private feelings for Herlève, Robert cast her aside soon after William’s birth. He married her off to Herluin, Vicomte de Contéville, to whom she bore two sons destined to play a large part in the story of William the Conqueror: Odo, later Bishop of Bayeux, and Robert, later Count of Mortain.6 Herlève died around her fortieth year, in 1050, without doubt one of the most illustrious mothers of the Middle Ages.

Duke Robert ruled Normandy for nine years. It was not surprising that a reign that began with so signal an act of violence continued violent for some time. Normandy descended into chaos as powerful families enriched themselves by plunder and pillage and powerful magnates settled private disputes with the sword, even as Duke Robert waged an unnecessary war with his neighbour Alan III of Brittany – a conflict partly caused by increasing Breton influence in the Mont-Saint-Michel area.7 No man’s property – or, at least, no man not entrenched in a a mighty castle – was safe and the pillaging of Church property reached such a point that the influential Archbishop of Rouen, also called Robert, denounced his nephew the duke as a scourge of God. The irate duke at once exiled his ecclesiastical namesake, who responded with an anathema, laying Normandy under interdict.8 Nothing daunted, Duke Robert proceeded to alienate his cousin Bishop Hugh at Ivry, to attack the powerful chieftain Niel in the Cotentin and to strike across Normandy’s southern frontier to harry the powerful Counts of Blois-Chartres and Bellême.

By 1030 the reckless duke was losing his grip on the duchy. His supporters chafed at the increasingly violent, uncertain and strenuous way of life their lord imposed on them and at the warfare that threatened to bleed dry a Normandy potentially rich from the thriving trading towns of Rouen, Caen, Bayeux, Avranches and Coutances. Courtiers advised him that he should seek a reconciliation with the banished churchman, for only Archbishop Robert had the kinship connections, the ecclesiastical patronage and the personal gravitas that would enable young Robert to reasssert ducal authority. The duke recalled the archbishop and their compact was ratified by formal charters. The uncle’s first task was to make peace between Duke Robert and his other nephew, Alan of Brittany; this was achieved on the basis of ‘spheres of interest’ leaving Alan to consolidate in Brittany while Robert achieved security on his western frontiers.9

In many ways Archbishop Robert thereafter became the real power in the land, encouraging and cajoling powerful magnates to link their power with that of the duke; such families prominent in the year 1030–35 were the Osberns and the Brionnes. But no sooner did Duke Robert’s power seem firmly entrenched than he acted in a way that to modern sensibility seems like gross irresponsibility: he decided, and was inflexible in his resolve, to make a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. Pilgrimages of this kind by the royal and the mighty have to be seen in the context of an age that was, at least superficially, deeply religious: in the past thirty years many other French potentates, notably Fulk Nerra, Count of Anjou, and Geoffrey of Brittany, had made the journey to Jerusalem.10 For all that, there is a mystery about Robert’s true motives. Perhaps, worn out with the factionalism and internecine warfare in his duchy, he yearned for the more glamorous opportunities afforded by the tales of the Normans’ success in southern Italy – tales which were already luring away the more wayward knights and barons of the north. Perhaps he simply wanted a quiet life and intended to abdicate if he could obtain a sinecure military office in Byzantium. One may speculate endlessly; the only certainty is that Robert lacked the stomach for the decades of conquest that were needed to bring all Normandy firmly under the ducal heel, and in this he showed himself a man far inferior to his son.

All the calm advice, pleas and even veiled threats as to the return of chaos to a recently pacified Normandy made and reiterated by Archbishop Robert, Gilbert of Brionne and Osbert the Steward swayed Duke Robert not in the slightest: his mind was made up and to Palestine he must go. But before departing he made the magnates who had assembled to remonstrate with him take an oath of fealty to the eight-year-old William as his heir. Early in 1035, taking leave of his son, who until then had lived with Herlève in Falaise, Robert left Normandy with an armed escort and a glittering retinue that won the plaudits of the nations he passed through on his way to the East. The details of the pilgrimage are not clear. He certainly reached Jerusalem and some good authorities add that he went on to Constantinople, where he paid his respects to the emperor Michael IV. On the homeward journey, in Bithynia, he died suddenly; once again poisoning was suspected.11

The eight-year-old was now Duke William of Normandy. What kind of land did he rule and how had it evolved? The Normans were originally Vikings (Latin normannus originally meant ‘northman’ or Viking) who had settled in northern France at the beginning of the tenth century. Throughout the ninth century Vikings had looted, raided, raped and enslaved across northern France, and even sacked Paris, swooping in from the sea and sailing up the Scheldt, Loire and Seine rivers. They preferred not to engage the Carolingians of France in battle but would do so if cornered; sometimes they would even enter into short-term alliances with the kings of France.12 But in the year 911, the powerful Viking leader Rolf (or Rollo as he was more usually known in France) signed a treaty with Charles the Bald of France at Saint-Clair-sur-Epte which gave the Vikings a grant of land in the lower Seine around Rouen.

The Vikings’ motive was presumably to establish a base in continental Europe for their widespread raids in northern Europe, avoiding the logistical problems of the long crossing of the stormy North Sea from Scandinavia. The French were actuated by the desire to tame the Norsemen by co-opting them into their own system of settled land and fixed alliances; they wanted to turn the poachers into gamekeepers and make the Vikings as vulnerable to armed incursions as they were. In the Romulus-and-Remus founders’ myth later promulgated by Norman panegyrists, Charles the Bald gave his daughter Gisla to Rollo to seal the alliance. But this is unhistorical and it is anachronistic to speak of the ‘founding of Normandy’. The French king simply gave a grant of land to Rollo to bind him and his men temporarily, and there was no intention that the enclave around Rouen should become a permanent colony.13

The colony survived, as all the other Viking land grants in northern France did not, through a mixture of good luck and cunning on the part of Rollo and his successors; it is interesting that this combination of characteristics would mark Norman history right through to the fateful year of 1066. Rollo’s reign (911–930) saw the new territory in a state of flux, with no certainty of a permanent future. Although Rollo was portrayed by the first great Norman propagandist, Dudo of Saint-Quentin (who wrote the early history of Normandy in the 990s), as an Aeneas figure, he was so only in the sense that he had to fight constant warfare in his new land.14 The sanguine French king Charles derived little benefit from his supposedly ingenious treaty. Defeated in a civil war by Raoul, Duke of Burgundy, and imprisoned at Château-Thierry on the Marne, Charles smuggled out a message appealing to his Norman ‘vassals’ to rescue him. To Rollo’s credit, he heeded the appeal but his forces were too weak to secure Charles’s release. Instead they reaped the whirlwind, for, having repulsed the Normans, Raoul invaded their enclave and devastated it; Normandy survived by the barest of margins.15

The Vikings were lucky in that their imperilled state was rescued in the 930s by a long series of civil wars that swept over France. Rollo’s successor William Longsword proved a master politician, offering his services first to one side, then to another. His reign (930–42) was something of a turning point, for he ended the old Viking habit of raiding in return for a series of treaties guaranteeing the Norman enclave against raids. By these treaties and by marriages sealing the bargain, William Longsword built up a complex web of kinship relations which bound together the magnates of western France. Too late the French realized that they had, so to speak, created a Frankenstein’s monster. They had called in the northmen to redress the balance in northern French politics, intending to use them as shock troops in harrying and besieging their enemies, but never intending that Normandy should be a fixture or that its rulers should be permanent players in the power politics of the area. So bitterly was Longsword’s skill in playing one side off against another resented that an old enemy, Arnulf of Flanders, managed to lure him to a parley and murder him.16

But the momentum of the infant state could not be arrested, particularly as more and more settlers poured in from Scandinavia and intermarried with the indigenous inhabitants. Any hope that Normandy might disintegrate if ruled by sickly chieftains or feuding brothers was dashed by the fifty-year rule of Richard I, nicknamed ‘the Fearless’ and finally recognized as Count of Normandy. Under him the new nation finally took shape. Richard’s reign was an era of stability and consolidation: links with Scandinavia were maintained, Viking armies were called in from the homeland to deal with French incursions, but increasing intermarriage meant that the official language, culture and institutions of Normandy steadily became French.17 The early marriages of the Viking Norman nobility clearly show them trying to break into French society and live by French rules, and the Normans’ patient diplomacy resulted in more and more land grants greatly extending the original enclave around Rouen. Most of all, Richard I took up and developed William Longsword’s key idea – actually a very old notion in Scandinavia – that the way forward was to build up a system of interlocking kinship. By the last third of the tenth century the Normans were clearly committed to the idea that the true source of wealth was land, not loot, that agrarian wealth requires stability and that political alliances sealed by intermarriage were, in turn, the way to achieve this.18

The Normans of Richard I’s reign were therefore a hybrid breed, half Viking, half French, but not wholly any one thing. Over the years they became more Frenchified but always had a strong sense that they were different from the Franks and were therefore never completely absorbed in the Carolingian ethos.19 One of the conditions of the original land grant to Rollo was that he should be converted to Christianity, but in his reign and that of his immediate successor the official religion ran a poor second to traditional paganism. Only in Richard I’s time did Christianity become the dominant faith, although links with infidel Scandinavia continued as strong as ever. The Normans allowed the Vikings of the north to use their ports as the launching points for raids or as secure havens afterwards, and as late as 1014 took part in the great Norse attack on Ireland defeated by Brian Boru at the battle of Clontarf.20

The Janus-faced Normans had a particularly ambivalent attitude to the so-called ‘free Vikings’ of the Cotentin peninsula, who owed no allegiance whatever to the Norman counts of Rouen: sometimes they made common cause with the Vikings against their traditional enemies the Bretons, but often they fought with the Counts of Brittany against their kith and kin.21 As one historian has remarked about the twilight racial and cultural area the Normans of this era inhabited: ‘Vikings who converted to Christianity and adopted Frankish ways in the . . . tenth century were like the Romanized Goths of the fifth century: caught between two worlds and accepted by neither . . . fear of not fitting in co-existed and conflicted with fear of fitting in too well.’22

Duke Richard’s reign was notable for the twin-track approach to Normandy’s mixed legacy. While retaining close ties with Scandinavia, he made great efforts to persuade his powerful neighbour, France, that Normandy was a permanent part of the political landscape. The first fruit of this approach was the pact of Gisors in 965 between Richard and the French ruler Lothair. Even more significant progress was made after 987, when the house of Capet replaced the Carolingians as France’s reigning dynasty. In return for the title of Count of Normandy, Richard formally acknowledged Hugh Capet as his overlord. Under the Carolingian system a count had the right to administer justice and to charge what fees he saw fit for the privilege, and had fiscal rights over all lands that lay within his jurisdiction. But the importance of this should not be overdrawn; France was not giving the Norman ruler anything he did not already have, and the pact of Gisors was more a case of the recognition of necessity. In no sense was it formal recognition as count by the French that validated Richard’s power, but his personal prestige, the growing numbers of warriors he could assemble under his banner, the extensive network of warlike kinsmen he had secured through alliance and intermarriage and, most of all, his control of the Seine trade.23

By the time of the pact of Gisors the Count of Normandy controlled the Seine but not yet the trade routes into and out of the land, nor even the whole of Upper Normandy itself; dominion over what became Lower Normandy was still a distant dream. Roughly speaking, one can distinguish between Upper Normandy – the eastern part of the province around the lower Seine – and lower Normandy to the west, including the Cotentin peninsula and the lands abutting on Brittany, and this division was to persist until the time of William the Conqueror.24

In the opinion of most historians, it was in the reign of Duke Richard II (996–1026) that Normandy first became a truly formidable military and political power. The circumstances of his election as count in 996, when his succession had to be ratified by the lesser territorial chieftains in the land, doubtless helped to give him a new sense of authority, for he was the first of the Norman counts to take the title ‘duke’.25 The expansion of Normandy through intermarriage and kinship is nowhere better illustrated than in the changes of nomenclature that can be observed during Richard II’s reign. Having styled himself ‘duke’, Richard was quite content for the most powerful of his kinfolk in turn to adopt the title of count; below them in turn lesser magnates took the appellation ‘viscount’. Of the complex semantics attaching to the word ‘count’ in the early eleventh century, one could perhaps point to the salient usage which denoted a man in possession of a castle or castrum. The first such count in Normandy was Rodulf of Ivry, who assumed his title some time before 1011, but by the time of Richard II’s death there were half a dozen of them; there were also about twenty vicomtes.26

Believers in atavism would surely recognize the similarity between Richard II and his even more illustrious grandson William. Both were at once cruel and ruthless men and consummate politicians, both masters of realpolitik who shrouded their coldness and ambition behind a mask of piety and obeisance to Holy Mother Church. On Richard’s cruelty, one story alone is eloquent. When the peasants of Normandy found themselves constrained by the consequences of the new ducal system, and its offshoots the counts – which entailed a much tighter control over land and income – they formed assemblies to demand the retention of their customary rights to fish in rivers and collect firewood in forests. Richard sent in his armed men, identified the ringleaders in the ‘revolt’, cut off their hands and terrorized the peasants back to the plough.27 As for his political talents, nothing is more revealing than the cunning way Richard used religion to advance his purely worldly ambitions. Eight monasteries were founded in his reign, allowing military obligations to the duke and all useful in reconciling disaffected peasants to their lot. The rise of the monastic movement in early-eleventh-century Normandy shows how far the Normans of that time had come since their pagan Viking forebears first settled the land.28

Duke Richard II was also the first Norman ruler to look beyond the confines of France to the wider political scene in Europe and the first to entertain ambitions for a Norman role in England. It was a great coup when in 1002 he secured the marriage of his daughter Emma to King Ethelred II (‘the Unready’) of England. Richard thus had important links with both the English and French courts, but it was typical of the man to run with the hare and with the hounds.29 Even as he linked himself dynastically to England, and became increasingly Gallicized by his adoption of a ducal style and title, he gave shelter in his ports to the Viking raiders who were harrying his English son-in-law’s coasts and raiding into the Capetian realms.30 Something of the multifaceted complexity of the man comes through in the very different nature of his three short-lived sons: the warlike Richard III; the reclusive William who became a monk at Fécamp; and the ambivalent Duke Robert who began his eight-year reign by poisoning his brother and ended it by a quixotic flight from Norman reality to Byzantine fantasy.

Such, in brief, was the legacy the eight-year-old William inherited in 1035. His father could scarcely have decamped at a worse time, and it was only through a series of fortunate circumstances – illustrating the phenomenal luck that would always attend the ‘Conqueror’ – that William survived at all. At least Duke Robert had surrounded the boy with the pick of his companions, instead of taking them with him on the pilgrimage. Chief among them, of course, was Archbishop Robert, one of four designated guardians, along with Count Alan of Brittany, Osbern Herfasston the steward, and Turold or Turchetil, magnate of Neufmarché, but there were others: Ralph Tesson, Bishop Hugh of Avranches, Richard, son of Gulbert of Saint-Valéry-en-Caux, Roger, son of Humphrey Vetulus, and the Viscounts Niel, Gozelin and Thurstin; even Edward, future king of England, who spent his early years in Normandy, had a role. Moreover, before his departure, Duke Robert had secured the approval of the French king for William as his successor, and the boy probably visited the French court in 1036 to take formal vows of fealty to Henry I as liege-lord.31

William’s principal tutor, Ralph Moine, a monk, brought the young duke up alongside two others of the same age, William Fitzosbern and Roger (the second) of Montgomery, and the slightly older cousin Roger of Beaumont. Although William’s love for Herlève is well attested, he did not spend much time with her or her family and was probably brought up in Osbern’s household with the other three boys, with whom he formed an unbreakable attachment.32 The duke’s education was scarcely liberal, being confined to Latin, the elements of castle-building and, above all, the pursuit of arms and training in combat: ‘I was schooled in war since childhood’ is one of the best-known sayings attributed to William the Conqueror.33 At an early age he became a proficient horseman and it was clear to all that he possessed that indispensable attribute of medieval princes, a flair for warfare. While making due allowances for the rhetoric of a sycophant, we may concede some truth to the hagiographic portrait of the young William painted by his biographer William of Poitiers: ‘It was both gratifying and awe-inspiring to see the prince grasp the reins, scythe the air with his sword while his lustrous shield defended him, and to behold him as a warrior, terrifying in his gleaming helmet and death-dealing lance.’34

But in the inevitable power vacuum left by the departure of Duke Robert and resulting regency in all but name, many local tyrants arose to bid for regional hegemony. It was with difficulty that the duchy survived at all, as Normandy descended into blood-feud, assassination and virtual civil war – a process which was accelerated after the death of Archbishop Robert in 1037. It was fortunate for the young William that the pretenders to his duchy were not yet ready to make a move, and that the violence was not directly aimed at him but at eliminating the inner circle of pro-Robert nobles, so that new groups could dominate and manipulate the boy born to be duke. Some historians, having claimed (rightly) that the violence in Normandy between 1035 and 1047 was never chaotic but always purposeful, spoil their case by minimizing the stress caused the young William.35 Although we may doubt the more fanciful tales that Herlève’s brother Walter used to sleep in the same room, ready to whisk the boy away to a peasant’s cottage whenever danger threatened him, it is clear that, as with Louis XIV and the Fronde six hundred years later, a childhood memory of chaos helped to form an authoritarian personality and within that personality a determination to exert absolute and unquestioned control in his dominion.36

In the absence of effective lordship, a brutal struggle went on in the duchy for the reallocation of power and resources; in the maelstrom of murder and blood-feud, victory went to the most ruthless or those with the most influential extended families. The most notorious vendetta was that between the de Tosny and Grandmesnil families on one side and the Beaumonts on the other,37 but the most signal acts of violence were directed at William’s guardians. When Count Alan of Brittany died on 1 October 1040, his place was taken by Count Gilbert of Brionne, but Gilbert succumbed the following spring to the swords of assassins.38 Some idea of the internecine vendettas, as also the kinship complexities, of Normandy can be gauged from a simple recital: Gilbert of Brionne was struck down in company with Fulk, third son of Giroie, but the assassination was planned by Rodulf of Gacé, second son of Archbishop Robert, and actually carried out by Odo the Fat and Robert, the fourth son of Giroie.

Turold, too, was murdered, but the most vicious act of blood-letting took place in the boy duke’s very bedroom. One night William, son of Roger of Montgomery, stole into the ducal bedchamber at Vandreuil and cut the throat of Osbern the steward as he slept near William; according to some accounts the boy awoke and actually witnessed the murder. Roger of Montgomery was exiled to Paris for this crime, but nothing was done about his homicidal sons (William, Hugh, Robert, Roger and Gilbert) who remained to intrigue and plot further assassinations. But the blood-feud was carried on by Osbern’s provost Barnon of Glos. One night Barnon collected a posse, broke into William of Montgomery’s house and slew him and all his retinue.39

It was fortunate that none of the various pretenders to the duchy, actual or potential, made common cause with the murderers of the young duke’s guardians. Nicholas, son of Richard III, had the best claim based purely on hereditary succession through the legitimate line, but he, having been placed early in life in the monastery of Saint-Ouen, showed no disposition to be other than an unworldly prelate and would indeed turn out to be a loyal supporter of William’s. The real threat to the young duke would come from Mauger and William, sons of Richard II by his second wife, Papia, and from the so-called ‘Guy of Burgundy’, who through his mother Adeliza was Richard II’s grandson. None of the three yet had a military or territorial base from which they could mount a challenge. To keep these dangerous claimants quiet, William’s guardians gave them lucrative appointments, Mauger as Archbishop of Rouen, William as Count of Arques. The strategy of co-opting them was, however, fraught with danger, as it was precisely through their tenancy of these offices that they could advance to dominant positions in Normandy. William and his advisers tried to balance these perilous appointments by giving the late Gilbert of Brionne’s castle to Guy of Burgundy, while to Gilbert’s murderer went the palm as commander-in-chief of the Norman army.40

The years 1040–41, in which William’s guardians were struck down, also saw the first armed rising against William himself, led by Roger of Tosny. A hero of the wars in Spain against the Moors, Roger was the first to make the young duke’s bastardy an issue, and it was on these grounds that he and his two sons raised the standard of revolt, only to be defeated by Roger of Beaumont.41 With ‘malice domestic, foreign levy’ threatening him, William found his situation eased by two developments. The first was an attempt to introduce the so-called ‘Truce of God’ into Normandy, which, though ultimately unsuccessful, at least diverted the blood-feuders and intriguers for a while to rebuff this common threat to their depredations. The Truce of God was a scheme, originally initiated in southern and central France, to curb the Hobbesian state of warfare in the country by making violence, so to speak, a monopoly of the Church. The idea was that kings, dukes and counts, and their vassals, would bind themselves to conduct armed warfare only on certain days of the week or on certain months of the year.42 Although Normandy’s bishops were approached by the Abbots of Cluny and Verdun with a view to introducing the Truce, the Norman divines, linked by kinship and nexuses of power to the principal troublemakers, declined to call the necessary ecclesiastical council for authorizing such a move.

It was finally only the intervention of Henry I of France which saved William and his nation. Henry had several motives for being uneasy about the lawlessness of his western neighbour. In the first place he was concerned that the growing power of Normandy, based on the prosperous town of Rouen, controlled so many northern trade routes and cut off France from the Seine estuary. The route from Marseilles and Lyons to the English Channel, via Paris, ran along the Seine valley to emerge at the sea at Honfleur, while the produce of the Loire valley could reach the Channel ports only by the road from Tours to Le Mans and thence through Bayeux to the coast. A war of all against all in Normandy threatened French trade.43

Secondly, Henry had something of an obsession about his frontiers and especially the Norman fortress of Tillières-sur-Avre, whose castellan was the duplicitous Gilbert Crispin. In 1042 Henry demanded the fortress’s surrender and was backed by a Norman faction who hated Gilbert; together they wrested the castle from Crispin’s grasp.44 On a later raid, in 1043, Henry stormed Argentan, again with support from one of the Norman factions. Thurstan Goz, Viscount of Exmes, supported Henry and established himself as lord of Falaise, from where he was ejected by Rodulph de Gacé, acting in Duke William’s name. Gacé recaptured Falaise and consigned Thurstan Goz to exile. Henry did not engage with de Gacé and returned to Paris but not before reoccupying Tillières, which had changed hands once more, and leaving a garrison there.45

Thirdly, Henry’s credibility was involved in the many attempts to dislodge the young Duke William or to turn him into a puppet of special interests. William, after all, was Henry’s vassal and this status had been reiterated on many occasions, especially when Gilbert of Brionne replaced the deceased Alan of Brittany in 1040.46 Henry was concerned to reinforce his rights as an overlord, and in this he was abetted by the faction in Normandy who supported William; these men reasoned that intervention by the French king might be the only way to end the chaos and factionalism in the duchy and to save their own positions and even their lives.47

Some scholars have objected that Henry was always more interested in realpolitik than credibility as a feudal overlord and that his real motive was to prevent his arch-enemy Baldwin V of Flanders from dabbling in the affairs of Normandy, which he showed every inclination to do.48 But this is to make too strict a division between ideology and power politics. Henry must have had some confused idea that his credibility as lord was bound up with the survival of Duke William, and maybe he was opposed on grounds of principle to abetting rebellions against lords by vassals. For Henry’s best interests were surely served by strict neutrality in the affairs of Normandy; with such a policy he could hope to see the duchy dismembered, after which he could establish a virtual suzerainty over the land. The net effect of his interventions was ultimately to confirm William as military strong man.

Whether Henry was principled but misguided or whether he read the runes incorrectly is uncertain, but it is certain that William owed his survival to the French king, when the long-threatened revolt finally took place in 1046. Centred on Lower Normandy, the rebellion was led by Guy of Burgundy, basing his claim to the duchy on his position as a legitimate male in the line of succession. Guy held the strongholds of Vernon on the Seine and Brionne on the river Risle, but his supporters came mainly from the west, and the most important of them were Nigel, vicomte of Cotentin, and Ranulf, vicomte of Bessin. They were joined by other powerful magnates in Lower Normandy, especially a group from the district of the Cinglais between Caen and Falaise, among whom were Ralph Tesson of Thury, Grimoald of Plessis and Haimo of Creully.49

The revolt began with an attempt to assassinate the nineteen-year-old duke at Valognes. William escaped the ambush but the incident has become encrusted with the barnacles of legend, for this was the occasion of William’s legendary sixteen-hour ride through the night to Falaise after he had evaded his would-be murderers.50 He then sped to Poissy to invoke the help of Henry I, whom he addressed as liegeman to lord. Henry, whose previous forays into Normandy had perhaps seemed ambivalent in their attitude to William, this time gave him full support and early in 1047 crossed the frontier into Normandy, heading for Caen. The army that sought out the rebels was overwhelmingly French, for William was able to bring in no more than an exiguous levy from Upper Normandy. Passing Argentan, the French army finally made contact with the rebels on the plain of Val-ès-Dunes just after they had crossed the river Orne. William was about to be blooded in his first real combat.

The rebel commanders had put all their trust in Ralph Tesson, for he was the only one of them who knew the country and his stronghold at Thury-Harcourt controlled the only crossing of the Orne south of Caen.51 The battle of Val-ès-Dunes showed neither commander to advantage and at first was merely cavalryman against cavalryman in isolated encounters, a clash scarcely warranting the historian Edward Freeman’s description of it as a miniature battle of Granicus (where Alexander the Great defeated the Persians in 334 BC).52 Norman hagiographers like to portray it as a miniature Iliad where a single hero (William, naturally) puts thousands to flight. There is some evidence that William might have killed Ranulf of Avranche’s champion, Harder of Bayeux – an event said to have dismayed Ranulf unconscionably – but the real turning point in the battle came when Ralph Tesson switched sides and attacked his erstwhile allies in the rear.53 Thereafter the fighting became more desperate: Haimo managed to unhorse King Henry but was then slain himself, while Nigel of Cotentin is said to have performed prodigies of valour. The rebel army panicked at the news that it was between two fires and tried to break off, but were driven into the river Orne, where hundreds were despatched by the sword or drowned while trying to swim the flooded waters; it was said that the nearby mill races of Borbillon were choked with bloated corpses.54

Val-ès-Dunes was a notable victory that changed the course of Normandy’s history, and ultimately Europe’s, but it was Henry’s triumph, not William’s, and might not have been secured at all but for the treachery of Ralph Tesson. William, who already had a cynical view of human nature, took a perverse delight in rewarding perfidy and rewarded the turncoat by marrying Ralph to Matilda, daughter of Herlève’s brother. The badly wounded Guy of Burgundy escaped from the field and for some time carried on a form of guerrilla warfare but in the end was forced to surrender; to save his life he begged William for mercy, which was granted; thereafter Guy retired to exile in Burgundy.55 William never killed a man if he thought he could still use him. The battle swung Normandy decisively over to the duke’s side, to the point where the following year he was able to assemble an impressive warband and accompany King Henry to the siege of Mouliherne in Anjou.56

The triumph at Val-ès-Dunes gave William the confidence to aspire to great things, but first all Normandy would have to be brought firmly under his control. To achieve this William used three main methods. He began to assemble a personal bodyguard of knights as the nucleus of a Norman army.57 He professed himself a pious champion of the Church, and to prove his credentials instituted the Truce of God in Normandy. In October 1047 an ecclesiastical council met near Caen, attended by William and all the most important prelates of Normandy, where all present swore on holy relics to observe the conditions that had been so contemptuously rejected by the Norman warlords five years earlier: private war was prohibited from Wednesday evening until Monday morning and at all times during Advent, Lent, Easter and Pentecost. Anyone breaking these rules would be excommunicated, but, crucially, the Duke of Normandy and the king of France were excluded from all the restrictions of the Truce.58 There could scarcely be a better example of William’s political skill, for at a stroke he had managed to get the Church to give him the monopoly of violence in Normandy.

Even as he co-opted the Church, William eliminated a host of potential rivals by binding them to him by kinship ties. It was a favourite ploy of his to marry off defeated rivals to his relations, so that their interests became his. Even so, the core inner circle always consisted of his half-brothers Odo and Robert of Mortain and his trusted friends William Fitzosbern and Roger II of Montgomery. Since the Montgomerys were notorious predators, William’s skill in attaching this particular family to his cause was notable, and even more so was his ability to prevent blood-feud between William Fitzosbern and Roger, whose father had killed Osbern the steward.59 Perhaps because of their common education and upbringing under the same roof, perhaps because of a fortuitous affinity of temperaments, both William Fitzosbern and Roger of Montgomery saw the world through the same cynical, expansionist and power-worshipping eyes as the young duke. After 1048, therefore, one can see the first signs of centralization in the duchy, with William’s power base emanating from central Normandy, making use not just of his four most trusted companions but also his stepfather Herluin and his new kinsman Ralph Tesson at Thury-Harcourt. In 1049 William brilliantly melded his two ploys of expansion through kinship and co-optation of the Church by replacing Bishop Hugh with his brother in the episcopate at Bayeux.60

The wider Church, represented by the papacy at Rome, still presented problems for William, as was dramatically illustrated in 1049, when the duke asked for the hand in marriage of Matilda, daughter of Baldwin V of Flanders. William had been urged to seek this match by his inner circle, who argued that it would be a glittering demonstration of his hegemony in Normandy and, by cementing the ties to the king of France (whose niece Matilda was), would demonstrate to any future pretenders in Normandy the military futility of their quest.61 Baldwin, for his part, needed fresh allies approved by the king of France, for he had dabbled unwisely in wider European power politics. Baldwin accepted William’s suit, but then all was thrown into turmoil by a papal interdict.

This is a story that cannot be followed without a keen appreciation of European political conflict at the time. In the years 1047–49, following his conquest of Hungary by the battle of Menfo in 1044, the German emperor Henry 111 was beset by the rebellion of the Lotharingians. Seeing an opportunity to dismember the Holy Roman Empire, Baldwin of Flanders and Henry I of France joined the conflict on the rebels’ side; as Henry’s vassal, William of Normandy had to give him nominal support and thus won the enmity of the emperor. War between Baldwin and Henry 111 was briefly interrupted by two peace treaties, in 1049 and 1050, but from 1051 the two potentates were continually at war.62

The Lotharingians had powerful allies, but the emperor had even more powerful ones, not just Geoffrey Martel, Count of Anjou, but the kings of Denmark and England, both angered by the sanctuary given pirates and sea-rovers by Baldwin of Flanders.63 In some ways an even more important ally was about to appear. In December 1048 the German emperor Henry 111 secured the election to the papacy of Bruno, Bishop of Toul, the new pope taking the name Leo IX. Early in 1049 the emperor defeated Gottfried, count of Upper Lorraine, and Baldwin of Flanders, who were then summoned to make formal submission at Aachen. One of those who witnessed the ceremony of submission was the imperial protégéPope Leo IX.64

It was time for Leo IX to repay the man who had elevated him to the throne of St Peter. Leo had already made a reputation as a reforming pontiff and had come to Aachen from Mainz, where he had held the second pontifical council of his first year in office (the first was in Rome). The purpose of these councils was to bring the entire area of sexuality within the domain of canon law; Leo was proposing celibacy for the clergy and the tidying up of all kinds of sexual irregularities, whether incest or marriage within the bounds of consanguinity or affinity.65 From Aachen Leo proceeded to Rheims, the scene of his third council, where he intended to consecrate the church of St Remigius (famous Archbishop of Rheims) before pronouncing on morality within the French world.

The council lasted from 3 to 5 October 1049 and produced a series of shocks for Normandy. The first was the condemnation of Ivo of Bellême, Bishop of Sees, for having gutted his own church; Leo threw out Ivo’s defence that he had burned the building as a last resort to scald out a gang of aristocratic roughnecks who had acted blasphemously by turning his church into a brothel.66 But Pope Leo’s next edict was much more serious. He expressly forbade the proposed marriage between Duke William and Matilda on the grounds that it was contrary to canon law. Ever since scholars have puzzled as to the true meaning of this delphic utterance. Did it mean that Matilda was already married? Or were the affianced couple within the prohibited degrees of affinity? Or was there some other reason for the Pope’s action?67

There are four possibilities, outlined here in ascending order of probability. Was William’s bastardy a problem? Some scholars say that from the early eleventh century illegitimacy was increasingly perceived to be shameful and hence a bar to dynastic advancement, but most students of William do not really think this was the issue.68 The idea that Matilda was already married was popular for a time in the nineteenth century but can be emphatically ruled out. The story was that Matilda was married to one Gerbod, that Gerbod was still living, that he had already sired three children on her, and therefore that a divorce was necessary.69

If it is easy to discount this fantasy, the third possibility must be taken more seriously. The most plausible interpretation is that there are superficial but specious grounds for alleging that William and Matilda were within the prohibited degrees of affinity because Judith, William’s aunt, had married Baldwin IV, or, more likely, that there had been a marriage agreement, never fulfilled, between Richard III of Normandy and Adela, later Baldwin V’s wife and Matilda’s mother; by sleight of hand this ‘engagement’ could be construed as an actual impediment to marriage between the ruling houses of Normandy and Flanders.70 But overwhelmingly the most likely explanation is that Leo, either primed by the emperor or on his own initiative, was punishing the contumacious Baldwin for having supported the Lotharingians and that the marriage prohibition was a purely political action.71

What happened next is obscure, and the haste with which the Norman propagandists skate over William’s marriage suggests that this is a murky episode which would not redound to the credit of the Duke of Normandy if properly investigated. It is clear that William, forever anxious to be seen as a devout son of Holy Mother Church, on this occasion defied the papacy, since William married Matilda, at the latest by 1053, and had two children by the time the interdict was lifted by Nicholas II in 1059.72 That William’s defiance caused severe misgivings among the Norman clergy is attested by the well-grounded story that Mauger, Richard II’s son by Papia, was removed as Archbishop of Rouen for opposing the marriage, and that the great churchman Lanfranc, later William’s ecclesiastical bulwark, was deposed as Prior of Bee for remonstrating with the duke.73

How to make sense of all this? Theories proliferate. One is that William was not even given pause by the papal ban but married Matilda in 1050, as evinced by Matilda’s name on charter documents from the year 1050. Other scholars object that this is not conclusive, since as seal-witnesses William and Matilda could have added their names to a letter some time after it was written.74 Others say the wedding took place in 1053, following an informal lifting of the prohibition by Leo IX, by then a prisoner of the Normans in southern Italy.75 Another plausible explanation is that William sent a delegation to Rome, that the pope was impressed by the argument that if the marriage did not take place Baldwin would be compelled to make war on Normandy to avenge the ‘insult’ and that all of northern Europe would be sucked into the conflict. According to this version of events, the pope granted a dispensation, waiving the objection arising from the alleged degrees of affinity, on condition that William and Matilda built two monasteries as a penance, which they duly did, at Caen.76

No breath of scandal ever touched the marriage of William and Matilda, who seem, subject to the constraints of the time and the attitudes taken to women, to have been a happy couple. William was famous for his marital fidelity, while Matilda, who would bear him four sons and six daughters, was a model of maternal love in the Dark Ages. Her most famous utterance is the following, relating to her eldest son: ‘If my son Robert were dead and buried seven feet in the earth . . . and I could bring him back to life with my own blood, I would shed my own life blood for him.’ William showed his high esteem for his wife by making her regent when he was absent from Normandy and by showering her with honours beyond what was considered normal for a duchess, associating her as a partner in his dominion. William was not an attractive human being, but his touching uxoriousness deserves to be recorded.77

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