CONQUEST - 28: WILLIAM'S KINDRED - William fitzOsbern, Earl Of Hereford

At Falaise castle lifelong friendship would begin...

Falaise Castle, where William fitzRobert (Duke William) was born and where William fitzOsbern spent much of his young life
Falaise Castle, where William fitzRobert (Duke William) was born and where William fitzOsbern spent much of his young life | Source
Chaos on Caldbec Hill, known to the Normans as 'Sanguelac' (Senlac) Lake of blood - Both Williams survived the carnage intact
Chaos on Caldbec Hill, known to the Normans as 'Sanguelac' (Senlac) Lake of blood - Both Williams survived the carnage intact | Source

Prelude

Able to claim the young duke William as his closest friend and namesake, William fitzOsbern was the son of Osbern 'Pentecost' de Crepon, grandson of Herfast. Osbern had been the chief steward, or 'Dapifer' of Duke Robert's and then then young William's household. He paid with his life for his loyalty as the victim of William de Montgomeri(e). William now took his place.

He is not noted for any particular feat of weaponry, yet he would have fought in a few - though not necessarily all - of the clashes the young Duke William was involved in during his minority and campaigns after Val-es-Dunes in 1047. There would be around twenty years of campaigning for both Williams until the duke's invasion of his cousin Eadward's kingdom to claim what he had been led to believe was his.

The young duke's rise was marked by the bloody battle at Val-es-Dunes, his latest before 1066 being at Varaville in 1060. Outside the duchy we have William fitzOsbern with Duke William fitzRobert on campaign against Count Conan in Brittany, to help the young claimant Count Alan. He was also with his namesake in Maine in 1063 (Maine was to prove the duke-king's undoing in 1087).

There is proof fitzOsbern was at the siege of Domfront in 1054 when he went with Roger de Montgomeri(e) to demand to know why it was Geoffrey Martel felt he could invade Normandy with impunity, seizing Alencon during the campaign.

However, not until 1066 does he rise to prominence in the combined saga of Normandy and England. Here was a mirror image of his liege lord, combining presence of mind and political insight with bravery in the field. On a lighter side we hear of him entering the palace hall at Rouen, humming an air and rousing his irascible duke from uncharacteristic silent perusal of news from England by telling him to take Harold to task for his 'disloyalty' (in early 1066 after Eadward's funeral and Harold's coronation at Westminster - see the Bayeux Tapestry for illustration from the Norman point of view).

'You should summon your barons to build a fleet, sail across to England and give the cur a whipping he will not forget'.

Spoils of conquest

Typical Norman castle layout in the early days of the 'occupation' - this is how William fitzOsbern's castle at Hereford would have looked to a passing pigeon. The castle was destroyed by Eadric 'Cild' and his Welsh allies before they took Shrewsbury
Typical Norman castle layout in the early days of the 'occupation' - this is how William fitzOsbern's castle at Hereford would have looked to a passing pigeon. The castle was destroyed by Eadric 'Cild' and his Welsh allies before they took Shrewsbury | Source
William fitzOsbern's Chepstow castle - later to belong to the de Clare family, the tall keep being William's original structure, the two gate towers stemming from William Marshal's time
William fitzOsbern's Chepstow castle - later to belong to the de Clare family, the tall keep being William's original structure, the two gate towers stemming from William Marshal's time | Source
Chepstow Castle keep cross-section showing the hall on the upper level
Chepstow Castle keep cross-section showing the hall on the upper level | Source

Leading up to invasion

Duke William brightened at his steward's counsel and began the process he was mulling over. 'Osbern of the Bold Heart' was probably aware of what was on his lord's mind when he put it forward.

The summons went out first to the duke's own kindred and closest friends before being 'broadcast' to the entire baronage of the duchy. It was at the great assembly in Lillebonne that the cunning and nerve of fitzOsbern manifested itself.

Confidence of Purpose

Many barons were reluctant to give their endorsement to the duke's project. the Council broke into smaller groups - families, friends, vassals - to talk the proposals over amongst themselves. The wily dapifer William went from one figurehead to another, raising with them the likelihood of their lord resorting to the force of the law and possibly excluding them from any rewards of land and treasures that might be forthcoming when they had taken the kingdom. He - the duke - would rain down accusations on their heads about their faint-heartedness in the event of failure. Bemused and unsure of their own standing in the duke's eyes they bade fitzOsbern speak to him on their behalf and in the name of the whole of the nobility raise the spectre of the sea venting its anger on them for presuming to cross* in the late season.

The bottom line was, however, that they would endeavour to carry out his wishes and serve him as their liege lord on campaign in England. Having put himself at the head of the baronage as their spokesman he assured the duke they were at one with him, and set on taking England by storm if that was called for. Not only would they cross the sea with him, they would double their 'dues'. Any baron who might ordinarily bring twenty knights would bring forty and so on, in ratio. As for himself, fitzOsbern offered, he would have sixty ships built with fighting men and attendant servants to tend the horses.

The barons were both angered and amazed at his effrontery, many openly denying that he spoke for them. Alarm spread at the Council, no-one could hear another speak, so indignant were they that they would not listen to reason. The duke withdrew t one side of the hall and sent for the reluctant barons in turn. He assured hem of his regard for them, and offered in exchange for their loyalty and trust - as fitzOsbern had spoken of - and doubling their service obligations, for this time only. They would not be called on beyond their standard obligation in future. His approaches won them over. Each baron's promise was taken down in writing by scribes at hand as the promises were made. They would be expected to abide by them.

The number of ships to be furnished by William fitzOsbern - whose requirements preceded those of the others in the list of 'subscribers' was - according to the Norman chronicler Wace -

**'Habuit a Willelmo Dapifero, filio Osberni LX naves'

There is no mention of numbers of knights here


*Remember these were descended from Viking seafarers

** Roughly translated means: 'William fitzOsbern, Dapifer promises sixty ships'

Marc Morris's book explains how the Norman military machine and administration gradually took over the running of the kingdom - for better of worse. In playing devil's advocate, Marc argues the Conquest of England by William was for the better.

Come the battle

When he next shows on the scene he is with Duke William, who calls on his men to do their utmost. FitzOsbern is recorded as b reaking in to warn his lord against hanging around for too long with the enemy at close hand,

'Sire, we tarry here too long. Let us arm ourselves. Allons! Allons!'

Wace recalls the time - although he was not there at the time, he largely invented his writings to make the Normans look good - telling us that fitzOsbern's horse is all covered with iron'. It was not the practice to arm horses at the time of the Conquest (1066-74). At the time he wrote the 'Roman de Rou' in the 12th Century the trend had been brought in from the east at the time of the middle Crusades where war horses were often covered in chain mail from nose to tail. In the marshalling of the duke's forces the dapifer was chosen to lead the men of Boulogne and Poix. There is no report of any such practice of arming horses during the course of the day's action.

He was generously rewarded for his actions in this battle, with the earldom of Hereford and the lordship of the Isle of Wight as his main honours, lesser ones being the manor of Hanley in Worcestershire, several in Gloucestershire and others scattered around various shires.

Because he died before the Domesday survey was carried out these smaller holdings could not be identified. Moreover before William as King.went back to Normandy early in 1067 he made his namesake governor of the newly-built castle at Winchester. This was indeed an honour, as Winchester in the 11th Century was second only in importance to London. His residence was King Eadward's favourite and became so for the early Norman kings. At Winchester there was a mint and a treasury where the king's wealth and regalia were kept.

In his absence King William afforded fitzOsbern - along with his half-brother Odo, Earl of Kent - the vice-regency. William fitzOsbern would 'rule' for him in the north, Odo in the south, below the line of the mouths of the Severn-Thames.

When Eadgar the 'aetheling' and the rebels were scattered after the 1068 uprising in York, fitzOsbern was made governor of the city and not long afterward had to hasten south-westward to raise sieges at Shrewsbury and Exeter when these risings kept Robert of Mortain hemmed in at Montacute. As at Hereford a year earlier he was too late to save Shrewsbury from being sacked, looted,burnt and abandoned after an attack by Eadric 'Cild' with his Welsh allies Bleddyn and Rhiwallon ap Gruffyd. William fitzOsbern reached Exeter after the defenders had thrown back their besiegers with a surprise foray, scattering them in confusion. Earl William with count Breon of Brittany fell on those who had fled into their path, almost wiping them out to a man.

Berkeley Castle, Gloucestershire - much like Falaise in design, another of William fitzOsbern's holdings
Berkeley Castle, Gloucestershire - much like Falaise in design, another of William fitzOsbern's holdings | Source

Flanders interlude

In 1070 after Count Baldwin VI of Flanders had died his young heir Arnulf was taken under his widow Richilde's wing. Her regency was questioned by her brother-in-law Robert 'the Frisian', who maintained that in his brother's will Arnulf was supposed to have been his responsibility.

To gain help Richilde offered her own hand in marriage to William FitzOsbern and after a brief courtship they were wed. Unable to withstand the lure of being count of one of Normandy's richest neighbours he had hastened to her aid with a small army.

Defeat by Robert also cost him and Arnulf their lives at the Battle of Ravenchoven near Cassel on 22nd February, 1071, leaving Richilde a widow once again after a very brief marriage. William's body was taken by his men-at-arms to the abbey of Cormeilles in neighbouring Normandy.

Carisbrooke Castle, Isle of Wight, seen from the air - another estate given to fitzOsbern in return for services rendered near Hastings
Carisbrooke Castle, Isle of Wight, seen from the air - another estate given to fitzOsbern in return for services rendered near Hastings | Source
Carisbrooke Castle gateway
Carisbrooke Castle gateway | Source
The castle in rooftop close-up
The castle in rooftop close-up | Source

Inheritance

William fitzOsbern had three sons and two daughters by Adelina, the eldest - also William - became lord of Breteuil and Pacy as his heir, as well as of his other Norman possessions.

The second son took the cloth and was shorn as a monk at the Benedictine abbey of Cormeilles. The third, Roger de Breteuil took the earldom of Hereford, along with his father's other English estates.

Elder daughter Emma wedded Ralph, Earl of Norfolk. His younger daughter's name - or that of her husband - is not known, but she was the mother of Raynold de Cracci. A 'natural' daughter of William de Breteuil, Isabel wedded Ascelin Goel, from whom the Lords of Tichmarsh are descended.

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2 comments

old albion profile image

old albion 3 years ago from Lancashire. England.

Another excellent hub Alan. Your photographs add so much as usual.

Graham.


alancaster149 profile image

alancaster149 3 years ago from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire) Author

Well, hello Graham! Thanks again for the accolades. The next one's going to be Robert I of Scotland - the 'Bruce' epithet was 'de Brus/Bruis', his ancestors came over with Duke William and were given land around the kingdom including in North Yorkshire and Co. Durham. One of his descendants inherited Skelton Castle a little while ago after a maiden aunt died. The landlady of a B&B told me he was in the town shortly before I went to stay the night. He also owns the lands around Guisborough Priory.

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