Saturday 6 February 2021

Bastard’s Sons

 I recall, many years ago, my teenage school class being reduced to giggles by our teacher’s comment that William the Conqueror was a bastard. Not only that but one of my classmates, apparently, wrote one of Bill’s descriptors in capital letters thereafter. Of such things school history is made, I suppose.

I have been reading again, although a bit of a return from the mid-twelfth century to the eleventh:

James, J. (2020). The Bastard's Sons: Robert, William and Henry of Normandy. Stroud: Amberley.

This is a similar book, admittedly, to Cole, T. (2018). After the Conquest: The Divided Realm 1066 - 1135. Stroud: Amberley, which I wrote about a few weeks ago, and it is by the same publisher, which surprised me a bit. It is a little more focussed, I suppose, as it covers the conflict between BtB’s sons up to the defeat of Robert at Tinchebrai, which confirmed Henry on the throne of England and as Duke of Normandy.

As we already know, the route from William’s expiry in 1087 and the establishment of Henry as Henry I was not exactly a straightforward one. The inheritance of the eldest son to the whole patrimony was not exactly settled, and often realms fell apart on the death of the father. The Anglo-Norman empire was no different, and William I might well have recognized that there were going to be problems. Not only were his sons going to fight over who got what, but other rulers around Normandy, and the assorted kings of Wales and the King of Scotland were going to be interested and see what they could gain from the goings on.

I accordance with accepted practice, it seems, Robert, William’s eldest son was more or less in a state of permanent rebellion against his father from 1078. There was a confusing sequence of rebellions, treaties, making ups, conferences, treachery, sieges and fleeing to other rulers that seems to have characterized kingship in these periods. A great deal depended on paying homage to a particular overlord, but this does seem to have been, in fact, a rather flexible concept, at least given that it seems to have been something renewable.

James is a bit more sympathetic to Robert than Cole is. While much historiography reckons that Robert was more or less forced to go on crusade by military defeat, as his brothers were strangling Normandy, James argues, possibly quite successfully, that in fact, Robert could go on crusade because Normandy was as quiet and lacking in rebellions and external threats, at least by the standards of Normandy, at the time.

Robert, of course, was one of the leaders of the First Crusade and was present. And leading, at the siege of Antioch and capture of Jerusalem. He then returned home in a fairly leisurely way, although to be fair, there were not many other ways to travel from the Holy Land to Northern Europe at the time. He also collected a wife along the way, Sibylla of Conversano, in Apulia. James notes that on his return to Normandy in 1100 he does not seem to have been particularly interested in fighting and expanding his realm; perhaps acquiring a wife and what he had seen on crusade, both positive and negative, had mellowed and exhausted his belligerence.

Be that as it may, the political and personal world had changed. William II, King of England and his brother, had been killed in a hunting accident. Exactly how much of an accident it was will never be known, of course. As with most medieval monarchs, there were plenty of people, not just his brothers, who might profit from the death of the king. The emphasis is on the ‘might’, inevitably. It seems that the monarchs and high born nobles of the time were serious political gamblers, with military potential to back it up, but the possibility of dying along the way.

James is fairly sympathetic to William II, as well. It might be reasonable to speculate that he was assassinated because he was being a bit too successful for a brother, a rival or his nobility. Despite a few crises, he had weathered the normal storms that a medieval monarch had to. The negative view of him might be due to bias from the chroniclers, as he fell out with church leaders. Nevertheless, he did manage to stabilize the Welsh border (more or less) and the frontiers of Normandy (again, more or less). However, conflicts with the church were never going to get you a positive press by the monks who chronicled the times.

Overall the book is a good complement to Cole’s work. It takes a different view of events, as I have tried to suggest, and, within the limits of the information we have to hand, the account it gives of events is reasonable. On the other hand, so is Cole’s account, which is, perhaps a bit more hostile to William II and regards Robert, Duke of Normandy, as a good soldier but a bit of a political loser.

On the last point, I cannot but help ponder whether Robert really was a loser. Inheriting Normandy when he did was a bit of a poor hand. England was much wealthier and centralized and, while it did have its rebellions, they were nothing like the internal and external threats to Normandy. Perhaps BtB gave Robert Normandy because he was the best warrior. Even so, according to the lights of the time, Robert might be regarded as a winner. He had, after all, held on to his patrimony for a long time, gone on crusade and visited Jerusalem, which would ensure his salvation, married a beautiful and intelligent (by all accounts) foreign bride, and then lived for twenty-six years in luxurious retirement, leaving the almost impossible job of ruling both Normandy and England to his younger brother.

On that basis, is it really possible to call Robert the loser of the family? If, as most history suggests, the gain power is to win, he was. But perhaps there is a lot more to life than just becoming ruler of the world.

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