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.

12 thoughts on “Robert Curthose – the man who should have been king

  1. “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?’

    William the Conqueror’s original plan had been to disinherit Robert entirely; he was still bitter about the fact that Robert had rebelled against him at least twice. Where do you think William Rufus and Henry learned their excellent family values from? (<– is joke)

    1. Is it Orderic who wrote that William I sent his son William Rufus to England to try his chances as king, God-willing? After William junior left, his half-brother Count Robert of Mortain persuaded the dying Conqueror, against his better judgment, to release Bishop Odo of Bayeux from prison.

      A figure who is often overlooked in these events is William I’s chief bodyguard and most loyal relative Count Alan Rufus, who would have been ordered to protect William Rufus. Charter evidence from 1050 is that the brothers Robert and Odo knew Alan’s family well, but Odo had devastated northern England twice (in 1069-70 and 1080), much to Alan’s loss. This might explain why Count Robert waited until W2’s departure before he spoke up for Odo.

      After the Conqueror’s burial, Odo went to England, where the new king welcomed into his court as an adviser. However, Odo seeing that he no longer had the salient authority to which he had been accustomed before his fall from grace back in 1082, began plotting with the majority of Norman magnates to overthrow the strong-willed William and replace him with the more agreeable Robert “Curthose”. The event that triggered Odo’s determination to effect a regime change seems to have been the official foundation of Alan Rufus’s St Mary’s Abbey in York by William II in the presence of the royal court in January or February of 1088. The abbey was promoted as an act of contrition for the Normans’ acts of destruction at York and surrounds, and thus a jab at Odo.

      In the event, Odo’s rebellion failed, partly because of Duke Robert’s indecision about when to commit his forces, but in large measure due to emphatic actions by Count Alan, whom William II authorised to seize rebel holdings, by the militant clergy such as Thomas, Archbishop of York, and Wulfstan, Bishop of Worcester, and by the English Fyrd to whom William was persuaded to make promises of silver and juster laws. Alan had far-sightedly retained and even promoted unusually many English lords, so that may also have been an important factor in the outcome.

      The rebels were famously forgiven, against William’s first instincts, on the advice of the loyal barons, except for Odo, who was exiled to Normandy, where he became chief counsellor to Duke Robert.

      William of St Calais, Bishop of Durham, had abandoned the royal army during its darkest hour, so the king sent an army to arrest him. Once there, the commanders used their deputed royal authority to sign a safe-passage guarantee for the bishop. This later caused a great ruckus during the treason trial, but Alan calmly defended the decision and offered to resign rather than renounce it. The upshot was that St Calais was also sentenced to exile in Normandy. Alan accompanied him as far as his ship at Southampton.

      St Calais joined the ducal court where he opposed Odo’s advice, paralysing Robert’s government. In late 1090, a rebellion in Rouen, led by the Breton merchant Conan Pilates, momentarily toppled Duke Robert. In late January 1091, William II issued a charter at Dover witnessed by Alan, and in early February he (or they?) successfully invaded Normandy with the support of the locals, who were tired of the chaos. St Calais was retrieved and later that year was fully restored to his previous dignity and authority.

      Sounds like it was an effective plan.

  2. I have a book called ‘Conqueror’s Son’ by Katherine Lack (Sutton Publishing 2007). It’s an in depth study of Robert Curthose and worth reading, but says little about his son Richard, so I think it’s probable that there are simply no records. You should be able to contact her via this page

    1. Yeah I know that book, it came up as I was looking into Robert; it truly must be an interesting read!
      I think so, too. Maybe no one bothered to say a few lines more about this kid, and it’s really a shame because his being in London seems very unconventional to me.
      But, wow! Thank you so much! I’ll definitely send her an email today! Thank you again for all your help, I’ll make sure to also check on your writing, it seems very interesting! ^^

  3. In the case of Richard, I don’t know if it was an assassination and I don’t believe we have as much evidence to prove it as we have with William. If he was a teenager he could have had an accident in the forest. If not, I can only guess that William’s court didn’t want him under the protection of William. Or even William didn’t want to have him..?

    Do you know who could know about Robert’s son? Do you think that no sources say more about him? (it”d be natural, he WAS illegitimate)

    1. Let’s not forget that William I’s second son, Richard of Normandy, also died in a hunting accident in the New Forest (sometime between 1069 and 1075). I suppose Henry I is unlikely to have been to blame because he was at most 7 years of age at that time. So what on earth was going on in that tulgy wood? Robert Curthose lost two younger brothers and one son to that cursed place. As they say, one occasion is an event, two is a coincidence, but three is a pattern.

  4. Do you know the name of the grandson that Duke Robert sired while in prison ? This is the only name that I’m missing in my genealogy line back to Cort-hose.

    1. I know that Robert Curthose had one legitimate son – William Clito. He also had an illegitimate son Richard who was shot dead in a hunting accident in the New Forest, and an illegitimate son who was another William who disappears from records around 1110. Robert also had an illegitimate daughter. I can’t find any record of a son who was fathered whilst he was in captivity.

      1. Hello. I’ve come to find Robert to be a very impressive individual lately and coming upon your blog I thought I should ask a few questions, which I will eagerly await you to answer.
        What do we know about Robert’s illegitimate son Richard? The fact that he was in William Rufus’s court and died at the same place a year before he did, is very interesting to me. (my main question)
        Why would Robert’s son be in the court of his brother’s? They were rivals. He wasn’t legitimate, therefore he was of no threat to Henry or William, so no one would have incentive to kill him, right? Did his death serve as cover-up/excuse for William’s death?(as in “look, this stuff happens in the New Forest” ?)

        Thank you for reading this and I’m looking forward to your reply

      2. You’ve asked some interesting questions. It makes me wonder how common it was for someone to be accidentally shot whilst hunting.

        I don’t think much is known about Robert, other than the manner of his death. I’m afraid I haven’t made a close study of him and I suspect that you know far more than I do and that you have some interesting theories.

  5. Scott La' Chance July 30, 2014 — 9:42 pm

    Hi, in the article above you mention ‘sources’ which place Robert de Lacy at heart of the troubles between Henry I and Robert Curthouse. This is a issue which has captured my attention. Can you tell me what these texts are? Thanks, Scott.

    1. Hello Scott. Thanks for your comment. It’s a while since I wrote the article so I’ve had to check on some of the sources I had been looking at. A couple of books I used are Pontefract, its name, its lords and its castle by Richard Holmes and also The de lacy Family at Pontefract ( I don’t have the book on my shelf so I need to check the author. I think it’s White). I also looked at The Lancashire Pipe Rolls. What they say is that Roger de Poitou was stripped of his lands for supporting Robert Curthose. The lands were given to Robert de Lacy and a few years later taken back from him, although he didn’t lose his lands in Normandy and presumably went to live there at a time when Robert Curthose was Duke of Normandy. So, reading between the lines, as you so often have to do, it would seem that Robert de Lacy was a supporter of Robert Curthose – or at least he no longer supported Henry.

      Also this from Whittaker’s Lords of the Honour of Clitheroe: Robert, however, did not long enjoy his inheritance in peace, for, an. 1mo. Henry I. having espoused the better cause of Robert Curthose, he was dispossessed of all his lands by that monarch, and is stated by Dugdale to have gone twice into banishment, from which he did not return a second time.

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