Robert Curthose – the man who should have been king

Robert Curthose. The name was vaguely familiar. During my ongoing research into the de Lacy family I read that they were his supporters so when I saw a book named Conqueror’s Son – Duke Robert Curthose, Thwarted King by Katherine Lack I bought it and read it with interest. This well researched book tells the story of Robert Curthose, the eldest son of William the Conqueror who was beaten to the English throne by not one, but both, of his wily younger brothers. And to give legitimacy to the claims of first William Rufus and then Henry I, the reputation of their brother was recorded by chroniclers as that of a lazy and incompetent man. But then the victors always record their own version of history, don’t they? And along with kings such as Edward II and Richard III, Robert Curthose appears to have been done an injustice.

As William the Conqueror lay dying in 1087, his second son William Rufus left him to his fate and sailed across the English Channel to have himself crowned king of England before his elder brother could do anything about it. Robert Curthose became Duke of Normandy and there were those who said that this division of his kingdom was what his father had planned, but if it had been pre-arranged why didn’t William Rufus wait until his father was dead and buried before leaving? I definitely smell a rat.

Having lost England, Robert Curthose was one of the leaders of the First Crusade to reclaim Jerusalem. This was a huge undertaking. Thousands of people went – men, women and children. Robert Curthose proved himself a skilled military leader and returned in triumph three years later with a beautiful young bride. Except that just before he got back his eldest brother William Rufus was mysteriously shot in a hunting accident. He died and Robert Curthose’s youngest brother Henry had himself crowned king of England the very next day. I smell another rat.

Robert Curthose did lead an invasion of England but was persuaded to come to an agreement with Henry. Robert returned to Normandy, but Henry wanted that as well and breaking his promise he invaded. He beat Robert in battle, took him prisoner and kept him captive in Cardiff Castle for the rest of his life.

The de Lacy family lost their lands during this time and only had them restored after Henry’s death. Although the book doesn’t mention the de Lacy family other sources put Robert de Lacy and his son Ilbert at the centre of these struggles, which make more sense to me now that I’ve read more about the history. It’s a story well worth telling and one that I plan to pursue in the future.

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