Robert, William and Henry: The Real Legacy of the Conqueror icon

Robert, William and Henry: The Real Legacy of the Conqueror


Robert, William and Henry: The Real Legacy of the Conqueror

By Nathan Jensen

The best way to view the interactions between the three surviving sons of William the Conqueror is to examine the various treaties made between them, and the extent to which they respected and broke those treaties. We will look at two major agreements, the Treaty of Rouen and the Treaty of Alton which helped shape not only the political attitude between the brothers, but also our view of each brother’s characteristics.

Having three executors to one estate is never a very good idea. Yet, this is ostensibly what William the Conqueror did in granting England to William Rufus, Normandy to Robert Curthose and a substantial sum to Henry Beauclerc. Such division, if not illogical, was certainly difficult to maintain in a system founded on majoritarian baronial support.1 The period between the Rebellion of 1088 and the Battle of Tinchebrai is not improperly titled civil war, as the vying for political power pitted brother against brother.

Even early on, sibling rivalry and plays for their father’s attention are apparent. Orderic includes an episode shortly after an impetuous Robert demanded Normandy and Maine from his father.2 William Rufus and Henry, thinking this shameful, or as Orderic puts it “indignum ducebant quod frater eorum solus habere patrium ius ambiebat,”3 were indignant that their brother should seek sole possession of their father’s conquests. Playing dice and making noise in the upper gallery where Robert was staying in L’Aigle, William Rufus and Henry poured water (the account is not specific as to what type of water) on top of their elder brother, humiliating him and provoking him to anger. This was perhaps the first recorded incident of two of the brothers uniting against the other in order to put the other brother into his place, a behavior that continued into adulthood.

This two against one dynamic would seem to be the basis for the Treaty of Rouen in 1091. Following William the Conqueror’s death in 1087, a rebel force led by Odo of Bayeux and Count Robert of Mortain strove to depose William Rufus and put Curthose on the throne.4 This campaign lasted only a short while, as Robert failed5 to reinforce his two half-uncles for one reason or another.6 Odo’s earldom in Kent was taken from him as a result of the insurrection and he was ordered out of England. This relinquishment among others became one of the terms of the Treaty of Rouen.

The Treaty of Rouen consists of several terms, all of which help us understand not only each party’s aims at the time, but their personality and relationship aesthetic. Firstly, Duke Robert gave his younger brother the county of Eu, Fécamp and Cherbourg. This is a major point, and the one that Barlow lists first.7 Strategically, William would have control over three port cities from which potential raids on the kingdom had come or could come; it was a protective clause. In addition, William would be assured the protection in Normandy of those barons who had sided with him.

In return for these favors, William promised to help Duke Robert in his quest to regain the lands held by the Conqueror. Foremost of these was Maine, which had only been tenuously held at best by the elder William, with rebellions in the late 1060s and early 1070s and deflated support, even amongst his own vicomtes.8 William also promised to restore lands and possessions to those who had taken part in the Rebellion of 1088, though this was of course not true in all instances.9

The core of the treaty, and the part that seems to support the view of Henry’s accession to the throne as usurpation is the clause whereby William could take Normandy if Robert died sans fils légitime. Conversely Robert would take the throne if William died.10 Here, Robert received what he had wanted all along: a shot at ruling the cross-Channel kingdom as the eldest surviving brother. Surely the Treaty of Rouen was in Robert’s eyes a vindication for having been passed over by a misunderstanding father.11

This agreement did not come to end abruptly, but rather through a complex chain of events that somehow undid the diplomatic knots that held the treaty together. Part of the problem was William of Eu and Ralf of Mortemer both doing homage to Robert Curthose in 1093.12 Both had been rebels in 1088, but William of Eu was now count over land that had been granted to William Rufus in The Treaty of Rouen. The count previous to William of Eu had been a supporter of William Rufus, and for the king, Eu was a strategic essential holding in Northern Normandy.13 Further weakening of the treaty came in the snubbing of Robert of Bellême (Curthose’s friend and fighting companion) by William Rufus, who granted lands to Bellême’s two younger brothers that should rightly have gone to him.14 It could be argued that William Rufus did not want Robert of Bellême to inherit his father’s lands, as he already possessed his mother’s, but Robert of Bellême’s loyalty to Duke Robert can be seen as the ultimate decision-maker in the division of Shrewsbury and Montgomery. Robert Curthose also helped to weaken the treaty by not enforcing the protection of William Rufus’ supporting barons in Normandy.15 In all matters, Duke Robert can hardly be seen as an enforcer of anything. This erosion of trust on both sides was hardly conducive to the maintenance of peace.

Though Duke Robert and William Rufus fought against Henry as a part of the treaty, the agreement broke down sooner rather than later, and by Christmas 1094, Henry was with William Rufus, about to receive money for fighting Robert Curthose.16 The two against one dynamic mentioned previously was not only still extant in the hearts of William the Conqueror’s sons, but the alliances shifted often.

After William Rufus’ death in the New Forest in 1100, Henry quickly became the new King of England. During this time period, Robert Curthose was away on Crusade, finding a bride whose dowry would be sufficient to get the Duchy of Normandy out of hock with his brother Henry. Robert’s take on the presumptive nature of the coronation was to send a decent contingent17 which saw no battle at all, but whose duties ended with the signing of a truce between Robert and Henry.

The Treaty at Alton as an agreement between two brothers tells us more about Henry than it does about Robert. While Robert agrees in the treaty to recognize Henry’s kingship and renounce his own claim to the throne, Henry promises to pay Robert three thousand marks a year for life and gives Robert most of western Normandy.18 Here we see a familiar pattern with Henry that helps reinforce our view of him. Not only was Henry able to invest his inheritance in the Contentin early on, but he was able to buy a pawned Duchy of Normandy from Duke Robert while Robert went on the First Crusade. Here we see Henry able to buy off Robert in clear exhibition of his good fiscal sense and his knowledge of his brother’s own laziness. Robert exhibits little more than his ability to be paid for being Robert.

Like the Treaty of Rouen, there was a survivor agreement, which Hollister notes was more advantageous for Henry and his wife Matilda, who was probably four months pregnant at the signing of the treaty. In addition, the treaty provided for amnesty for the 1101 rebels, yet allowed at the same time for the punishment of those “wicked sowers of discord” within the kingdom.19 The decision regarding who was a rebel deserving forgiveness and who was a “wicked [sower] of discord” surely must have rested with Henry.

Of particular note regarding the Treaty of Alton is the date it was signed by the guarantors at Winchester. August 2, 1101 was the one-year anniversary of William Rufus’ death, a fact that probably wasn’t lost on either Robert or Henry, desirous for this peace to work where previous peace had not.20 Eventually, at the Battle of Tinchebrai, a still provoked yet weak Robert Curthose capitulated to his youngest brother.

In conclusion, by examining the Treaty of Rouen, we are able to develop a picture of the cruel and manipulative William Rufus, ready to disseise at the slightest hint of disloyalty (or piety for that matter) and wanting to trust Robert Curthose’s better judgment in regards to reclaiming their father’s conquests on the Continent. We have the shrewd and discriminating Henry, who knew his brothers by what they owed him, who like the servant given ten talents was able to return back ten more. It is noteworthy that Henry also disseised, though his reasons were far less personal than his older brother.21 Lastly we have Robert Curthose, whose demands were never too much, and whose general lack of caring, as Haskins puts it, brought an end to “the good peace of the Conqueror’s time [and gave] way to general disorder and confusion.”22


Bates, David. William The Conqueror. Gloucester and Charleston, S.C., 1989.

Barlow, Frank. William Rufus. New Haven and London, 1983.

Chibnall, Marjorie. The Normans. Oxford and Malden, MA., 2000.

Dalton, Paul. Peacemaking in England and Normandy, c. 900-c.1150, from Haskins Society Journal, ed. Stephen Morillo & Diane Korngiebel, 2004.

Haskins, Charles Homer. The Normans In European History. Cambridge and Boston, 1915.

Hollister, C. Warren. Henry I. New Haven and London, 2001.

Orderic Vitalis. The Ecclesiastical History of Orderic Vitalis. Trans. by Marjorie Chibnall, in six volumes. Oxford, 1969.

1 David Bates, William The Conqueror, (Gloucestershire and Charleston, S.C.: 1989), p. 208-9.

2 Orderic Vitalis, Historia Ecclesiastica vol ii, book iv, ed. & tr. Marjorie Chibnall, (Oxford: 1969), p. 356

3 Ibid, p. 358.

4 David Bates, William The Conqueror, (Gloucestershire and Charleston, S.C.: 1989), p. 208-9.

5 Charles Homer Haskins, Normans In European History, (Cambridge, Boston: 1915), p. 212. Haskins describes Curthose as “impecunious, knightly, kind-hearted, and easy-going, incapable of refusing a favor to anyone, under whom the good peace of the Conqueror’s time had given way to general disorder and confusion.”

6 C. Warren Hollister, Henry I, (New Haven and London: 2001), p. 50. Hollister lists possibilities of bad winds, declining funds, or flagging spirits for Curthose’s failure to send more troops to England. An indifference formed out of lack of participation in the efforts seems also to have plagued the duke.

7 Frank Barlow, William Rufus, (New Haven and London 1983), p. 281.

8 David Bates, William The Conqueror, (Gloucestershire and Charleston, S.C.: 1989), p. 196-7.

9 Frank Barlow, William Rufus, (New Haven and London 1983), p. 282. Odo of course was never allowed to regain Kent.

10 Ibid., p. 281. Barlow mentions that the treaty makes no mention of a possible heir for William Rufus, an omission supposed to reflect his homosexual or bisexual leanings.

11 Orderic Vitalis, Historia Ecclesiastica vol ii, book iv, ed. & tr. Marjorie Chibnall, (Oxford: 1969), p. 356. Orderic maintains the tradition that the Conqueror had appointed Robert as his heir and made “all the nobles to do homage and swear fealty to him (Robert).” Robert’s small rebellion was not enough in Robert’s eyes for him to lose the right to the kingdom, despite his lackadaisical response to the Rebellion being fought for him in 1088.

12 Frank Barlow, William Rufus, (New Haven and London 1983), p. 324.

13 William Rufus eventually bought William of Eu’s loyalty, ensuring his usage of Eu.

14 Ibid., pp. 332-333. Duke Robert responded by allying with King Philip of France and campaigning for Robert of Bellême.

15 Ibid. pp. 334.

16 Ibid., p. 334-335.

17 C. Warren Hollister, Henry I, (New Haven and London: 2001), p.138. Hollister notes that even though Curthose’s army was significantly smaller than the Conqueror’s in 1066, it swelled in size once it reached England, with support from Robert of Bellême and William of Warenne and others with their whole entourages.

18 Ibid., p. 142. Henry excepted Domfront from the lands granted to Robert, as he had sworn to protect the inhabitants of that area, never abandoning them.

19 Orderic Vitalis, Historia Ecclesiastica vol v, ed. & tr. Marjorie Chibnall, (Oxford: 1969), p. 320.

20 Paul Dalton, Peacemaking in England and Normandy, c. 900-c.1150, from Haskins Society Journal, ed. Stephen Morillo & Diane Korngiebel, vol. 16, pp. 20-21.

21 C. Warren Hollister, Henry I, (New Haven and London: 2001), p.143-44.

22 Charles Homer Haskins, Normans In European History, (Cambridge, Boston: 1915), p. 212.

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