Robert Curthose

Robert Curthose, the eldest son of William the Conqueror and Matilda of Flanders, was born in about 1053. Little is known of Robert's early life. At a young age Robert was recognized as his parents' heir and is described in a charter of June 1063 as the son who had been chosen to rule Normandy after William's death. (1)

In 1060 William became involved in an aggressive war against King Philip I and Geoffrey the Bearded, the Count of Anjou. William arranged for Robert to marry Margaret, the infant sister of Herbert II, the Count of Maine. However, she died before the marriage could take place. (2)

Unlike his father, he was a short man and this gave him his nickname 'Curthose' (short boots). He was described by Ordericus Vitalis as "talkative and prodigal, very bold and valiant" with a loud voice and a fluent tongue". (3)

Robert Curthose in Normandy

William returned to Normandy in 1073 and later that year conquered Maine. Robert, who was now in his early twenties, fought with his father. Robert suggested that William should return to England and he should be allowed to rule Normandy. William, now in his fifties, refused with the words: "Normandy is mine by hereditary descent and I will never while I live relinquish the government". Robert was unwilling to accept this decision and joined forces with discontented elements in Brittany, Maine and Anjou. (4)

Robert gained support from Roger of Clare, the son of Richard FitzGilbert and he made his base at Gerberoy. William and his army attacked Robert in December 1078. During the battle William was wounded in the arm and was forced to flee the battlefield. William of Malmesbury claims that it was the greatest humiliation suffered by William in his whole military career. (5)

William returned to Rouen and was forced to enter into negotiations with his opponents: "An influential group of senior members of the Norman aristocracy including Roger of Montgomery, Hugh of Granmesnil, and the veteran Roger of Beaumont at once strove to effect a pacification in the interests of Robert and his young associates, many of whom were the sons or younger brothers of the negotiating magnates." (6)

William agreed to withdraw but in 1080 he made another attempt to regain his kingdom. According to one source, another battle was prevented by the Church: "While the two armies were in face of each other, drawn out for battle, and many hearts quailed at the fearful death, and still more fearful fate after death which awaits the reprobate, a cardinal priest of the Roman Church and some pious monks, intervened by divine inspiration, and remonstrated with the chiefs of both armies." (7)

It is claimed that William's wife, Matilda of Flanders, intervened in the dispute and the two men were reconciled. Matilda had always been close to Robert and without her husband's knowledge, used to "send her son vast amounts of silver and gold". When the king discovered his wife's generosity, he threatened to blind the Breton messenger Samson used for these missions. (8)

Robert and William took part in an invasion of Scotland. On his way back Robert established a new Norman fortification at Newcastle, and he remained in England until at least the early months of 1081. (9)

Death of William the Conqueror

In later life William became very fat. King Philip I of France described him as looking like a pregnant woman. While fighting in Normandy he fell from his horse and suffered internal injuries. Ordericus Vitalis said that as he was "very corpulent" he "fell sick from the excessive heat and his great fatigues". (10)

William was taken to the priory of St. Gervase. Close to death, he directed that Robert Curthose should succeed him in Normandy and William Rufus should become king of England. William said on his deathbed that "I tremble when I reflect on the grievous sins which burden my conscience, and now, about to be summoned before the awful tribunal of God, I know not what I ought to do. I was too fond of war... I was bred to arms from my childhood, and I am stained with the rivers of blood that I have shed." (11)

William the Conqueror died on 9th September, 1087. His rule as Duke of Normandy was criticised as not being as good as that of his father: "All men knew that Duke Robert was weak and indolent; therefore trouble-makers despised him and stirred up loathsome factions when and where they chose." (12)

Struggle with William Rufus

Robert expected to become king of England but instead his younger brother, William Rufus, took the throne. He was not a popular ruler. It was recorded in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle: "He (William Rufus) was very harsh and severe over his land and his men, and with all his neighbours; and very formidable; and through the counsels of evil men, that to him were always agreeable, and through his own avarice, he was ever tiring this nation with an army, and with unjust contributions. For in his days all right fell to the ground, and every wrong rose up before God and before the world. God's church he humbled; and all the bishoprics and abbacies, whose elders fell in his days, he either sold in fee, or held in his own hands, and let for a certain sum; because he would be the heir of every man, both of the clergy and laity." (13)

Robert Curthose
Robert Curthose

The division of the Conqueror's lands created political difficulties as most Norman lords held estates on both sides of the Channel. Odo of Bayeux commented: "How can we give proper service to two mutually hostile and distant lords? If we serve Duke Robert well we shall offend his brother William, and he will deprive us of our revenues and honours in England. On the other hand if we obey King William, Duke Robert will deprive us of our patrimonies in Normandy." (14)

In 1088 some Normans, including Odo of Bayeux, Robert of Mortain, Richard Fitz Gilbert, William Fitz Osbern and Geoffrey of Coutances, led a rebellion against the rule of William Rufus in order to place his brother, Robert Curthose on the throne. However most Normans in England remained loyal and Rufus and his army successfully attacked the rebel strongholds at Tonbridge, Pevensey and Rochester. The leaders of the revolt were exiled to Normandy. (15)

In February 1091, Rufus personally led an army into north-eastern Normandy against Robert Curthose. Robert accepted defeat and negotiated a peace on terms highly favourable to Rufus. In essence, their treaty provided for the division of Normandy between them, to the total exclusion and disinheritance of their younger brother, Henry Beauclerk. Rufus and Curthose then marched westward against their brother, forcing Henry to withdraw to the mountain-top abbey of Mont-St Michel. Curthose and Rufus besieged their younger brother until April 1091, with water running short, Henry agreed to relinquish the abbey and departed Normandy. (16)

Robert accompanied Rufus to England in autumn 1091. He returned to Normandy in December but had difficulty controlling his territory. He renounced the treaty with his brother William, who in February 1094 returned to Normandy and throughout 1094 and 1095 the conflict between the brothers was evenly matched. Orderic Vitalis indicates that Rufus controlled more than twenty castles in Normandy. (17)

William Refus now formed a new alliance with his brother Henry and by 1096 was under his control. Robert joined the First Crusade and was one of those involved in capturing Jerusalem in July 1099. Robert married Sybilla of Conversano, daughter of Geoffrey of Brindisi, Count of Conversano on the way back from Crusade. (18)

Death of William II

On 2nd August 1100, King William Rufus went hunting at Brockenhurst in the New Forest. Gilbert de Clare and his younger brother, Roger of Clare, were with the king. Another man in the hunting party was Walter Tirel, who was married to Richard de Clare's daughter, Adelize. Also present was William Rufus' younger brother Henry Beauclerk. (19)

William of Malmesbury later described what happened during the hunt: "The sun was now declining, when the king, drawing his bow and letting fly an arrow, slightly wounded a stag which passed before him... The stag was still running... The king, followed it a long time with his eyes, holding up his hand to keep off the power of the sun's rays. At this instant Walter decided to kill another stag. Oh, gracious God! the arrow pierced the king's breast. On receiving the wound the king uttered not a word; but breaking off the shaft of the arrow where it projected from his body... This accelerated his death. Walter immediately ran up, but as he found him senseless, he leapt upon his horse, and escaped with the utmost speed. Indeed there were none to pursue him: some helped his flight; others felt sorry for him." (20)

Tirel escaped to France and never returned again to England. Most people expected Robert Curthose to become king. However, Henry decided to take quick action to gain the throne. As soon as he realised William Rufus was dead, Henry rushed to Winchester where the government's money was kept. After gaining control of the treasury, Henry declared he was the new king. (21)

Supported by Gilbert de Clare and Roger of Clare, Henry was crowned king on 5th August. Although Robert threatened to invade England, he eventually agreed to do a deal with Henry. In return for an annual payment of £2,000, Robert accepted Henry as king of England. (22)

In 1105 King Henry invaded Normandy and took Bayeux and Caen. He returned the following year and besieged Tinchebray Castle, that was held by William of Mortain, who was one of the few important Norman barons still loyal to Robert. After a few days Duke Robert arrived and tried to break the siege. The battle only lasted an hour. Most of Robert's army was captured or killed. (23) It has been called the most important battle since Hastings. (24)

Henry decided to imprisoned his brother in the Tower of London. He spent the next 28 years in prison. Christopher Brooke, the author of The Saxon and Norman Kings, has argued that "to imprison a great noble for life was rarely done; to imprison an elder brother almost never." (25)

In 1128 Robert Curthose was transferred to Devizes Castle and during his last couple of years was held in Cardiff Castle. It is claimed that he attempted to escape but his horse was bogged down in a swamp and he was recaptured. To prevent further escapes, Henry had Robert Curthose's eyes burnt out.

Robert Curthose died on 10th February, 1134 and is buried in Gloucester Cathedral. (26)

Primary Sources

(1) Kathleen Thompson, Robert Curthose: Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

Robert (called Robert Curthose), duke of Normandy, was born in the early 1050s, the eldest child of William (II), duke of Normandy (1027/8–1087), afterwards William I (the Conqueror), and his wife, Matilda (d. 1083), daughter of Baudouin (V), count of Flanders. His parents' marriage, which has been the subject of much scholarly debate, is now dated to between October 1049 and 1051, and Robert's birth therefore occurred no earlier than late 1050. An act dated 1066 was specifically given because he had then reached an age when he could approve a confirmation previously given by his father.... Round-faced, short and stout, he was commonly nicknamed Gambaron (“Fat Legs”) and Curta Ocrea (“Short Boots”), and it is Curthose, the Norman-French version of the latter name, as used by Wace, that has become attached to Robert's name.

(2) Maurice Ashley, The Life and Times of William I (1973)

Le Mans was captured without difficulty. Robert Curthose had by then come of age and was left in control of the country. William's victory in Maine really marked the apogee of his military career. Afterwards, his enemies on both sides of the Channel constantly plotted and fought against him. Even his eldest son, Robert, turned against his father, demanding that he should be allowed to take up what he regarded as his rightful and promised position as full Duke of Normandy.

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(1) David C. Douglas, William the Conqueror: The Norman Impact Upon England (1992) page 185

(2) Maurice Ashley, The Life and Times of William I (1973) page 61

(3) Ordericus Vitalis, Ecclesiastical History (c. 1142)

(4) Maurice Ashley, The Life and Times of William I (1973) page 94

(5) William of Malmesbury, The Deeds of the Kings of the English (c. 1140)

(6) David C. Douglas, William the Conqueror: The Norman Impact Upon England (1992) page 239

(7) Ordericus Vitalis, Ecclesiastical History (c. 1142)

(8) Elisabeth van Houts, Matilda of Flanders : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(9) Kathleen Thompson, Robert Curthose: Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(10) Ordericus Vitalis, Ecclesiastical History (c. 1142)

(11) Maurice Ashley, The Life and Times of William I (1973) page 174

(12) Ordericus Vitalis, Ecclesiastical History (c. 1142)

(13) Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (1100)

(14) John Gillingham, The Lives of the Kings and Queens of England (1975) page 25

(15) Frank Barlow, William Refus : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(16) C. Warren Hollister, Henry I : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(17) Ordericus Vitalis, Ecclesiastical History (c. 1142)

(18) Katherine Lack, Conqueror's Son: Duke Robert Curthose, Thwarted King (2007) page 153

(19) John Horace Round, Feudal England (1895) page 468

(20) William of Malmesbury, Chronicle of the Kings of the English (c. 1128)

(21) Frank Barlow, William Rufus (2000) pages 420-423

(22) C. Warren Hollister, Henry I : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(23) David Crouch, The Normans: The History of a Dynasty (2007) pages 176-177

(24) Winston Churchill, The Island Race (1964) page 37

(25) Christopher Brooke, The Saxon and Norman Kings (1963) page 172

(26) Kathleen Thompson, Robert Curthose: Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)