The Survival of Duke William II in Normandy: 1035-57

The twenty-two-year period that this post looks at were, I think it safe to say, not only years of extreme difficulty and hardship for William and Normandy, but perhaps years that while we cannot say for certain they shaped him completely, they must have helped forge him into the Conqueror of popular imagination: a hard man, a fearsome warrior, a great leader of men, but also someone who knew what calculated acts of brutality and violence could achieve. Becoming Duke of Normandy at the age of only seven or eight in 1035 following his father’s unexpected death while returning from a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, and despite him designating William as his heir and making sure the nobles had sworn allegiance to the boy, sources claim that his father’s death brought about a period of ‘political uncertainty and violence.’ Having to put down at least three notable rebellions, in 1043, 1047 and 1052, and also having to defend against attacks by Henry I of France and his powerful southern neighbour Geoffrey Martel, count of Anjou, in 1053 and again in 1057. Yet in the face of all these not inconsiderable threats, William emerged victorious. It speaks volumes that Wace, in his Roman de Rou, has William before his death tell his sons that ‘the Normans are arrogant and proud, boastful and overweening; they should be repressed the whole time, for they are very hard to discipline.’


It does not appear that unrest flared up immediately, at least not in the form of open rebellion we see after William came of age in 1042. When Richard died, the Normans did not instantly rise up and attempt to impose their will on William or overthrow him as if some spell had broken. William of Jumièges, when writing in the 1050’s, commented on the number of castles that were being built, crucially without ducal permission, by powerful families in order to better control their territories. This may have taken place surprisingly soon after he became duke, but there is nothing particularly unusual about this considering there was not only a change in power, but that ducal authority was placed in the hands of a seven-year-old child. It is not like, for example, when even the most minor of the English nobility were seemingly building castles during the civil war between King Stephen and the Empress Matilda in the twelfth century. The situation was worsened following the death of Archbishop Robert of Rouen in 1037, and it is from this year on that unrest appears to become a more serious issue. Robert had been appointed to the see by Richard I in 989/90, and had been a constant figure of comfort and continuity since 996, seeing no less than five dukes rule Normandy. With his passing there was no other figure in the duchy who could hold the competing factions in check. The period of 1037-1042 then revolved around a series of murders and plots not aimed at removing William, but rather should be seen as attempts by one noble or faction to gain control over the duke. Three murders in particular stand out; his tutor Turold, his guardian Gilbert of Brionne was killed by Ralph de Gacé (the son of Archbishop Robert of Rouen) – though David Bates points to disputed territory as the root cause, while Mark Hagger added that Ralph may have been bitter about not being guardian as well –  and finally William’s steward Osbern of Crépon was murdered in the duke’s own bed. Again, it is important to note the fact that the assassins never dared lay a finger on William himself.


1042 is the date most historians take as when William began to exercise independent rule, and according to William of Jumièges the following year marks his first military actions within the duchy. One Thurstan Goz, Vicomte of the Hiémois in southern Normandy, rebelled and seized the castle of Falaise, ostensibly because concessions made regarding the castle of Tillières-sur-Avre to Henry I of France left the Hiémois vulnerable to raids.  Ultimately this early rebellion against William failed in large thanks due to the determined stand made by Ralph de Gacé, who after the murder of Gilbert of Brionne had in fact been made (or declared himself) William’s guardian and became a firm supporter of the young duke. Ralph besieged Falaise in the presence of the duke, and forced Thurstan to capitulate, and he was subsequently exiled as punishment. Unfortunately, this minor rebellion had far reaching consequences. In 1046, certain nobles from the Cotentin rebelled against William, and in 1047 appear to have elected Guy of Burgundy, William’s cousin, as their leader or perhaps figurehead. Guy was the son of Adeliza, sister of Richard III (who was the elder brother of Robert the Magnificent) and wife of Reginald I of Burgundy. William had even given grants of land to Guy in the form of the castles of Vernon and Brionne, but crucially had not included him in his closest circle of advisers despite them growing up together.

This may have been because William of Jumièges’ description of Guy as proud and arrogant was accurate, and led to his omission from the William’s inner circle, an exclusion that would cause William’s uncle William of Talou, count of Arques to also rebel in 1053. Known rebels include Nigel II of the Cotentin, who attested very few ducal acta, and he may too have found such marginalisation hard to stomach. The spectre of Thurstan Goz’s failed rebellion involving (albeit briefly) the king of France, reared its head as Goz was either a tenant, or kinsman, of Haimo ‘the Toothy’ of Creully, as the Goz family occasionally used Cruelly as a toponym. Regardless of the exact relationship between the two, it is likely Thurstan’s exile was a driving force behind Haimo’s decision to join the rebels. Ranulf vicomte of Bayeux wanted lands in Guernsey restored to him. Alternatively, William of Poitiers said they were rebelling as a response to William’s attempts to impose a firmer, more direct rule on the region, whereas David Bates argues it came down to a quarrel between kinsmen ‘whose origins can be located at court.’ According to Wace, the rebellion flared up while William was at Valognes and had to flee across the Vire in order to escape. While this rebellion can be seen as something of a juncture in William’s relationship with his nobles, or in how his nobles saw him, the fact that so few rebels are identified by name suggests it was not, in the words of Mark Hagger, ‘the great conspiracy against William it has been made out to be.’ It is a testament to William’s political skill that he was willing to turn to King Henry I of France for help, despite his role in the rebellion of 1043. Henry could not shirk his obligation to a vassal, and William had no choice but to ask for aid. William and Henry faced them all at Val-ès-Dunes, south-east of Caen, where the French played a substantial role in assuring a victory that would allow William to begin consolidating his power. Following the battle, Guy was exiled to Burgundy, while Nigel and Renouf of Briqeussart were exiled but eventually pardoned along with other great vassals, but William was ‘implacable towards rebels of a lower rank’ such as Grimoult of le Plessy-Grimoult, who was confined in the tower of Rouen then soon killed without the luxury of a trial. Finally, regardless of affairs in the Cotentin before 1047, after the rebellion William had ‘no choice but to intervene there more directly.’ Critically, the aftermath of Val-ès-Dunes allowed William to shape the political landscape of the Cotentin somewhat, and in the immediate aftermath and the years that followed he began establishing outsiders in the peninsula’s northern regions; people who importantly owed their position to him and, at least to begin with, had no local sympathies or sympathisers.


The dates of many events in the five years after 1047 are both controversial and uncertain, especially where the dates of Alençon and Domfront. Late in 1049 William joined Henry I in a campaign against Geoffrey Martel, taking part in the successful siege of Mouliherne near Angers. William of Poitiers is our only source for the siege, and writes that Henry was ‘irritated by the insults of Geoffrey Martel’ and so captured Mouliherne, while William was rendering a ‘reciprocal service… with devoted loyalty, when asked by him for help in thwarting certain powerful enemies.’ The use of ‘reciprocal’ in the passage points to William’s participation in the campaign likely being, as Bates argues, a continuation not just of the victorious alliance between the duke and king, but of Norman support for the Robertian/Capetian kings. While the dating is controversial, it seems that in 1051-2 William was away campaigning in southern Normandy, and captured the castles of Alençon and Domfront from the Bellême family, as they had apparently been made available to Geoffrey Martel. It is during the siege of Alençon that the now infamous (and much regretted one imagines) taunting of William’s parentage occurred. Wace described how certain townspeople waved hides over the battlements due to Falaise having so many tailors (though there are several variations on this story); when some of them were captured, those who had taunted him ‘were taken before Alençon and had their hands and feet cut off. He had their feet thrown into the castle in order to frighten those inside.’ Needless to say both castles capitulated soon after.


Soon after the victory at Domfront however, William’s uncle, William Talou count of Arques rebelled and established himself in his title holding. It is possible that he rebelled due to William’s advancements of his own protégés, as Talou had been a staunch supporter of the duke during his childhood. To make matters worse, Henry I and Geoffrey Martel launched a joint invasion in 1053, seemingly having put aside their grievances to counter a duke who was now willing and able to control his duchy and people as he saw fit. Henry’s Janus-faced move was likely motivated by William’s growing strength and the desire to maintain a fairly tight grip over Normandy. William’s marriage to Matilda, the daughter of Baldwin V of Flanders c.1050 was something of a double-edged sword: Flanders was an important and powerful county, strengthening William’s position militarily and securing his northern border, while simultaneously enhancing his prestige. On the other hand, the Norman clergy had to convince the papacy to sanction the marriage, and the closer ties between Flanders and Normandy potentially added to the ire of King Henry I. Arques was invested quickly and a relieving force was defeated on twenty-fifth October that year; the Franco-Angevin alliance instead attempted a two-pronged attack aimed at Rouen and Upper Normandy, but this was nullified when a group of loyal Upper Norman magnates defeated one of the invading armies at the Battle of Mortemer in February 1054, forcing the other army led by Henry and Geoffrey to retreat. They would both return in 1057, according to William of Poitiers this was partly because ‘the king demanded justice not so much for the damage as for the humiliation he suffered.’ He goes on to describe how, at the Battle of Varaville, William and a small party of Normans attacked the Franco-Angevin forces when part of their army had forded the Dives, describing him as a ‘redoubtable avenger’ who ‘hurled himself at the rest and slaughtered the plunderers, believing it a crime when the survival of his wounded country was at stake to spare the dangerous enemy captured on his own territory’. The defeat suffered here was so great that the King and the ‘Angevin tyrant’ left Normandy with ‘all possible speed; for this man, valiant and renowned as he was in the art of war, realised in consternation that it would be madness to attack Normandy further.’


The Battle of Varaville marks the last attempted French invasion of Normandy during William’s entire reign. William had, by 1057, not just survived numerous plots and rebellions by capricious nobles, and two invasions by the King of France and his powerful southern rival Anjou, but had emerged victorious from each, and with each success in whatever confronted him, steadily and noticeably growing in strength and, importantly, stature. That subsequent struggles from 1047 on saw the King of France as the main foe, not a coalition of disgruntled magnates within his own duchy’s borders, show that following his victory at Val-ès-Dune William had not just secured his borders, but was looking beyond them. After his victory at Varaville, he was pressing the attack into France proper when both Henry and Geoffrey died in 1060. Varaville also caused Bishop Yves of Sées, the lord of Bellême, to abandon his Angevin alliance and allowed the heiress of Bellême to marry William’s loyal follower Roger de Montgomery, at a stroke rewarding a vassal and pacifying a powerful, yet troublesome, family. So in summary, William’s survival was due to multiple contributing factors: at the beginning of his rule, the desire to control the duke rather than do away with him allowed him to grow up, and the tutelage of men such as Ralph de Gacé would no doubt have affected the young duke’s understanding of the world around him. Then, the political system he resided in, and his ability to use Henry I’s obligation to aid his vassals assured a victory in 1047 which in turn, enabled him to over the years consolidate and build his strength, until finally, after having earned it would appear the respect of his magnates, he was powerful enough to defeat his most powerful neighbours twice by acting decisively and successfully on both a tactical and strategic level.

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