Nipissing University

History 2425 -- Medieval England

The Conqueror and His Sons

Steve Muhlberger

For the next four lectures, I will diverge from my usual chronological plan. I will be talking about the policies of William and the two sons who followed him as king of England in a topical manner.

The first of these lectures concerns the relations that obtained between England and Normandy under these Norman kings.

 The success of William the Conqueror in 1066 and his repulse of Danish invasions thereafter cut England's long-established connection with Scandinavia and at the same time established strong ties with France which would survive the Middle Ages. It would be French rather than Scandinavian politics that would effect the English most.

To appreciate the new order, we must take a brief look at the political situation in France in the second half of the 11th century, and the events that had produced that situation.

In the ninth century civil war and Viking invasions had drastically reduced royal authority in France.  Dukes, counts, and other deputies of the king set themselves up as independent powers -- indeed they were almost forced to do so by the inability of the kings to keep any kind of order. These dukes and counts (whom we will call princes for simplicity's sake) could not claim to rule by royal right. They depended primarily on might -- on the control of those vital resources of the Central Middle Ages, trained knights and castles. The ambition of every prince was to turn the territory he controlled into a hereditary possession that could be passed down to his descendants. Each wanted to be the founding father of a dynasty of rulers.

But it was a tough job.  There was the eternal challenge of the prince's deputies and officials. They held castles and territories under his rule, as the prince had once held them from the king. But like the prince, the deputies wanted to turn their offices into hereditary possessions, mini-states of their own. Since the prince couldn't be everywhere at once, he led a constant struggle to keep his subordinates under control.

That unruly subordinates were still a problem for the rulers of the 11th c. can be illustrated from the career of William the Conqueror. William spent most of his life keeping the Norman aristocracy in line, and very soon after he took England, he had to contend with a serious revolt of the Norman barons he himself had established there.

Nevertheless, by 1066, there were some signs of stabilization in French politics. Some principalities, some ruling families, were beginning to look like permanent players on the scene. Thanks to William, Normandy was pretty solid. Flanders had a long history of rule under the Baldwins, and was entering a period of commercial prosperity. The county of Anjou, south of Normandy, was ruled by a capable and ambitious dynasty. Perhaps the greatest of the princes was the king of France, based in Paris and Orleans. Usually French kings of this period are looked upon as weak, because they ruled very little of their kingdom directly. If we think of them as princes rather than kings, however, they look pretty good.

The growing solidity of these northern French principalities meant an intensified competition between them for advantage and for the domination of disputed areas between them.

A fairly typical rivalry is the longstanding struggle between the Norman dukes and the counts of Anjou for the county of Maine. Maine was a small territory that lay directly between these two strong principalities, and had never developed a well-established dynasty of its own. Thus it became a bone of contention between its neighbors. The battle between Anjou and Normandy was not a simple, straightforward war, and therein lies its typicality. Decisive battles like Stamford Bridge or Hastings were very rare in 11th c. warfare. More usual were expeditions intended to take strategic castles, and the counter-expeditions that sought to relieve those beseiged castles before they fell. Campaigns were fought for very limited goals.

The building of alliances was an important part of politics. The count of Anjou, for instance, wanted to get the king of France on his side, and the king, afraid of the new might of William the Conqueror, was sometimes willing to oblige. William sought to avoid French intervention, and often succeeded, either through fighting or bribery. All the princes were jealous of each other, so alliances tended to be shortlived.

Despite his greatly increased power and all the vast territory he had acquired in England, William spent most of his reign as king in Normandy fighting to preserve his continental position. William used English resources, directly and indirectly, to support his continental position and to forward his continental ambitions. William used English levies in Maine in 1073 -- a mere seven years after Hastings -- and used the unique taxing powers of the English crown more than once to finance his wars.

The question of the succession to William's domains also affected the relationship of England to Normandy. The impartibility of great honors had been pretty well established by the mid-eleventh century. On the other hand, there was no set rule to govern the inheritance of an empire such as William's.

William had three capable sons.  Robert Curthose, his eldest son, would be duke of Normandy after him. But what would happen to England?  There was  precedent for settling younger sons on territories newly acquired by the father. On this basis, England or parts of it could be given to William, known as Rufus for his ruddy complexion, or to Henry. The succession was complicated by the fact Robert caught a disease that elder sons of rulers often suffered in the Middle Ages -- impatience.

In 1078 he made an alliance with the king of France and various other neighbors of Normandy, and open war broke out. Amazingly enough, he won. At a battle near Gerberoi, King William's forces were defeated and he himself unhorsed and wounded.  Robert got a guarantee from his father that he would inherit Normandy.  In 1083, for unknown reasons, Robert left Normandy and allied himself once more with the king of France and William's other French enemies. When William died in 1087 in Normandy, in the course of an anti-French offensive, Robert was still in revolt.

On his deathbed William was still angry with his son, and decided Robert would  have no share of the kingdom. William Rufus, who was in attendence, was designated king. The third son, Henry, had to be satisfied with the small grants of lands he already had, and a gift of money -- perhaps as much as £l5,000, which was an immense amount then. So when William the Conqueror died in 1087, his great empire was split into its main component parts.

No one was really satisfied with this situation.   All three sons wanted as much as they could get. All the important Norman families held property and position on both sides of the Channel. If England and Normandy were truly separate, they would soon face conflicts of loyalty and interest.

Robert found it very difficult to control his barons, but William used English levies to control his. By 1089, William Rufus was in a position to attack Robert at home. By 1091, William had gained territory and influence on the continent, and forced Robert to acknowledge his position.

The rivalry ended unexpectedly in 1096. Pope Urban II had just declared the First Crusade, and Robert, like many others, was burning with the desire to free Jerusalem. To get the necessary funds, he pawned the duchy of Normandy to William, who thus peacefully established his power over all his father's possessions. Such was William's determination and ability that he was able to hold onto the whole assemblage for the rest of his reign.

In August of 1100, William was out hunting in the New Forest -- the most famous of the forest areas created by William I -- when one of his hunting companions shot an arrow into him.  His brother Henry, who was on the fatal expedition, marked his brother's death in true Norman fashion, by riding off immediately to Winchester to seize the royal treasure. The dead king's body was entirely abandoned, left on the ground until some peasants transported it to a nearby church for burial.

Henry's quick action assured him of the English throne and control of Normandy as well.  Henry was able to establish his rule in England, partly because he made an elaborate oath at his coronation in which he promised to correct all the grievances the English barons and church had had against his brother William. Holding on to Normandy was more difficult. Robert arrived in Normandy in the autumn and was acknowledged as duke by almost everyone. Robert then collected his supporters together and invaded England. The barons on both sides, most of whom had property on either shore of the channel, forced the brothers to negotiate. Henry was forced to surrender his remaining castles in Normandy and to promise to pay Robert a big yearly pension out of the English royal revenues.

Within a few Henry was able to invade Normandy. At the end of it, Henry was the victor, and Robert his captive. Duke Robert Curthose lived until 1134, the year before Henry died, but his brother the king never let him go free again. Henry had all of Normandy now, and was determined to keep it. And he did.  The unity of the empire created by William the Conqueror was restored. Thanks to Henry's long life and ability as a ruler, the unity was maintained for nearly a generation, long enough for it to be taken by almost everybody as something normal, something to be taken for granted.


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Copyright (C) 1998, Steven Muhlberger.