the open war between father and son -- 10/31/16

Today's selection -- from William I by Marc Morris. Normandy's William the Conqueror, whose defeat of the English King Harold in 1066 and long reign as king over England completely transformed that nation, had a bloody falling out with his eldest son Robert. The pattern of open war between father and son has been repeated often throughout history:

"[William] the Conqueror fell out with his eldest son, Robert, whose own nickname was Curthose ('Short-Pants'). Born soon after his parents' marriage, Robert was in his mid twenties by 1077 and frustrated at his lack of independent power. In the autumn of that year, according to Orderic, he quar­relled with his younger brothers and rode off to Rouen, where he tried, without success, to seize the ducal castle. William was predictably furious and moved to attack his son, who responded by fleeing into the arms of his father's enemies, initially the Count of Flanders and eventually the King of France. It was a deeply damaging development, for Robert's own entourage included the sons of many of Nor­mandy's most powerful magnates, and they accompanied him into exile. As earlier with Edgar Ætheling, the French king furnished his new protégé with a fortress close to the Norman frontier -- in this case Gerberoy -- from which to launch attacks into the duchy. William besieged it at the start of 1079, but once again experienced defeat when the garrison rode out to engage him. In the battle that fol­lowed the king's horse was killed from under him and he received a wound to the hand before sounding the retreat.

The face of Robert Duke of Normandy on his tomb

"The rift in the family threatened to grow deeper still when William discovered that his wife was secretly sup­porting Robert by sending him large sums of money. Orderic describes their ensuing row in some detail, most of which is inevitably invented. ('The wife who tricks her hus­band wrecks the home', exclaims an irate William at one point, improbably quoting Cato.) Yet Orderic undoubtedly captures an essential truth about their relationship when he has the king refer to [his wife] Matilda as his helpmate, 'whom I have set over my kingdom and entrusted with all authority and riches'. William had indeed relied on his wife throughout his career to act as regent in Normandy during his repeated absences, as the charters issued in her name test­ify. According to Orderic, the king demonstrated his anger at the queen's betrayal by ordering one of her servants to be blinded, but the man in question received a timely tip-off and rushed off to seek sanctuary. He became a monk at Orderic's own monastery of St Evroul, suggesting that the story, although clearly much improved, had some basis in fact.

"If the row between William and Matilda was short-lived, the feud with Robert took longer to fix. Eventually, after repeated petitioning from Normandy's magnates and prel­ates, as well as the pleading of the queen, the king agreed to soften his stance and was reconciled with his errant son shortly before Easter 1080. The key condition, reported by Orderic, was William's confirmation that Robert would succeed him as Duke of Normandy. Scenes of general rejoicing throughout the duchy followed, for the rap­prochement brought an end to several years of destructive civil war."


Marc Morris


William I: England's Conqueror


Allen Lane Penguin UK


Copyright Marc Morris 2016


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