Duke of Normandy (1087-1106) and one of the leaders of the First Crusade (1096-1099).
Born around 1154, the eldest son of William I of England and Matilda of Flanders, Robert was the subject of unflattering portraits by the chroniclers Orderic Vitalis and William of Malmesbury, who revealed that his father nicknamed him Curthose (Lat. Curta Ocrea, “short boots”) because he was short and plump.
A pawn in his father’s politics from an early age, Robert was consistently denied any responsible role as he became older. Charming, generous, and skilled with words, he lacked the overriding drive and ruthlessness with which his father and brothers forged their great successes in circumstances just as difficult as those facing Robert when he inherited Normandy on his father’s death in 1087. For all his genuine piety, the crusade undoubtedly presented him with a welcome escape from his difficulties. He had fought a bitter and largely unsuccessful war for control of Normandy with his brother William II Rufus, king of England, to whom he now mortgaged the duchy for 10,000 silver marks. Accompanied by a sizable contingent of knights from northern France, he traveled to the East with Stephen of Blois, Alan IV of Brittany, and Robert II of Flanders (who left them at Bari). Their leisurely journey took them through Italy, where they met Pope Urban II at Lucca. After wintering in southern Italy, they reached Constantinople in May 1097 and joined the siege of Nicaea (mod. Iznik, Turkey) on 3 June.
Robert displayed considerable qualities as a soldier and a commander during an attack by the Turks at Dorylaion on 30 June. He was one of four princes who led the vanguard on the march to Antioch (mod. Antakya, Turkey), and was again in the vanguard at the battle for the Iron Bridge controlling access to Antioch on 20 October. Although he retired to Laodikeia (mod. Al-Lādhiqīyah,Syria) and did not share all the privations of the army investing Antioch, he sent it food supplies obtained from Cyprus. He was in Antioch to help repel a Turkish attack on the citadel on 11 June 1098, and for the defeat of Karbughā and fall of Antioch on 28 July. The subsequent deadlock over the march to Jerusalem was broken when Raymond of Saint-Gilles took several leaders, including Robert, into his pay for the continued march (13 January 1099). After the capture of Jerusalem, Robert played a key role in the defeat of Fātimid forces before Ascalon (mod. Tel Ashqelon, Israel) on 12 August.
Robert is never implicated in the bitter disputes that broke out among some of the princes, and he is even assigned the role of mediator by Orderic Vitalis. He returned to Normandy via Sicily, where he married Sibyl of Conversano, a cousin of Bohemund I of Antioch; her dowry permitted him to redeem his duchy from his brother Henry I, now king of England. Robert’s new prestige as a crusader did not prevent him being as ineffectual against Henry as he had been against William II. Captured by Henry at the battle of Tinchebray in 1106, he spent the rest of his life as a prisoner, dying in 1134 at Cardiff castle, six years after the death of his only legitimate son, William Clito. One of his natural sons, also called William, served Baldwin I of Jerusalem and became lord of Tortosa (mod. Tartûs, Lebanon) in the county of Tripoli.