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Conquest - 26: William's Kindred, Half-Brother Robert Count of Mortain

Updated on May 11, 2019

In the early morning, 14th October 1066, from forming up his own men alongside Duke William's allies across Telham Hill near Hastings...

Charging King Harold's shield wall atop Caldbec Hill, the Normans and their allies come within grasp of their duke's ultimate aim. Half-brothers Robert and Odo were his stalwarts
Charging King Harold's shield wall atop Caldbec Hill, the Normans and their allies come within grasp of their duke's ultimate aim. Half-brothers Robert and Odo were his stalwarts | Source

A friend indeed...

Robert (OE Rodberht) , Count of Mortain died twelve years after his more exalted - and hated - half-brother William, the king dubbed 'the Conqueror' (as well as 'the Bastard' and 'the Tanner's Grandson'). Robert was Herleve's second son, her first by husband Herluin de Conteville. Herluin was made a vicomte - or viscount - not long after their marriage around AD1030.

After the death of Duke Robert 'the Devil' his son William had been hounded around the duchy during his minority, and only later experienced some sort of equilibrium. This was when he was raised in company with his half-brother Robert, a loyal supporter from early days. Robert would be given the County of Mortain in thanks for his steadfastness and support. Mortain was close to the boundary with the County of Brittany and Maine. The county was strategically sited, and its neighbours were politically unstable. Robert would later hold lands in Maine from his half-brother, who held them from the king of France. On Mortain's eastern side was Domfront in another unstable region, the Belleme lands. Guillaume Werlenc - Mauger, the count of Corbeil was his father and Duke Richard I his grandfather - had held these lands from before AD1026. That was when the first Count of Mortain, Richard - son of Robert Count of Avranches - had been exiled from the duchy. Guillaume also was removed between AD1055-1063, according to the chronicler Orderic Vitalis on what he considered to be a trivial offence. Nevertheless it transpired that Guillaume had answered a complaint from a knight about a lack of booty with an assurance that he would soon be rich. Within eighty days, he told the knight, he would have all the plunder he wanted within the duchy. Duke William summoned Guillaume on hearing about this outburst, to explain himself. He accused the count of inciting rebelion and ordered him out of Normandy. Guillaume set out for Apulia (in southern Italy) to join Robert Guiscard de Hauteville. Guillaume Werlenc was undoubtedly implicated in rebellion that threatened amongst the barons of western Normandy. In pressing Guillaume's exile Duke William would be seen as stamping his authority in the region. Promoting his loyal half-brother would set his seal on an otherwise potentially mutinous region. When Robert came into the county is uncertain, but would not have been much before AD1063, in the same year William campaigned in Maine, although Guillaume Werlenc possibly witnessed charters in AD1064. Robert's own accounts put him as being Mortain's lord in AD1063 in a charter of Duke William to St. Julien of Tours.

Herluin died and was interred at Grestain around AD1066, the monastery founded in AD1050 owing to a vision Herluin had in which he had been offered a cure for his leprosy in return for the monastery's establishment. Prayers for him, his son Robert and Robert's first wife Matilda were asked for by the abbey on its entries in the mortuary rolls for Matilda, Duke William's daughter, and for Vital de Savigny.

Mortain, part of Robert's holding seen in the modern age

Aerial view over the County of Mortain in mid-20th Century
Aerial view over the County of Mortain in mid-20th Century | Source
The view over the County of Mortain from La Tourablere
The view over the County of Mortain from La Tourablere | Source
The church tower of La Tourablere in Mortain
The church tower of La Tourablere in Mortain | Source

Land... and power

Robert came into his father's estate after Herluin's demise. His lands were centred around the county seat at Mortain. There were other lands in the Cotentin, bordering Brittany to the west, administered likely from la Haye-du-Puits where he had a castle. The core of the family estates was around Conteville - not originally part of Mortain.

The county may have been agriculturally wanting but it lay on several vital trade routes, exploited by Robert in the establishment of ten fairs. At least four of these fairs were linked to castles, at Mortain and at St. Hilaire-du-Harcouet, le Tilleuill and Tinchebrai or Tinchebray. The latter ones were sited around Mortain, making a challenging defensive chain along Normandy's south-western edge. By AD1082 Robert had acquired the castle of Gorron, further south, as a strong forward base to counter any moves by /Fulk Rechin the count of Anjou. Robert's marriage to Matilda, daughter of Roger de Montgomerie and Mabel de Belleme meant a further strengthening of the Norman boundary. Mabel de Belleme's iinks with the counts of Toulouse and Barcelona would later be invaluable in settling connections between Mortain and the Languedoc by way of the marriage of Robert's daughter to the count of Toulouse. On her marriage Roger de Montgomerie gave Matilda as a dowry 32 hides of land in England - around Northamptonshire and Buckinghamshire. After her death at some time between AD1082 and 1084 the lands were given by Robert to Grestain where she was interred..

See description below
See description below | Source

The Norman impact on England was short yet forceful. Three kings and a civil war ushered in the Angevin dynasty with Henry II, although in the eighty-eight years between 1066 and the death of King Stephen the kingdom saw drastic changes from the top down. The whole of society and land ownership was turned upside-down, new titles created ('counts' and 'barons' replacing thegns, dukes uprooted earls who were down-rated. At the bottom of society the villein was more or less 'anchored' to semi-slavery in the 'village', the new reference for a 'ham'. Those who could get to the town or city and live there for a year or more were freed from the yoke. A Norman lord might take a villein's new wife on her first night as a wife and resistance brought severe penalties. Trevor Rowley paints a vivid picture of the times

Anglo-Norman relations before and after the Conquest

The charge against the English line on the Bayeux Tapestry
The charge against the English line on the Bayeux Tapestry | Source
Also from the Bayeux wall hanging - some would argue it is not a tapestry - a view of (left-right) Bishop Odo, Duke William and Robert of Mortain
Also from the Bayeux wall hanging - some would argue it is not a tapestry - a view of (left-right) Bishop Odo, Duke William and Robert of Mortain | Source
Norman castle - keep with exploded view of the outer staircase. There was a standard castle design that builders conformed to, although there were variations. At first built of timber, within a few years the material of choice would be stone
Norman castle - keep with exploded view of the outer staircase. There was a standard castle design that builders conformed to, although there were variations. At first built of timber, within a few years the material of choice would be stone | Source


Robert's whereabouts are unknown immediately before the invasion of England from Normandy. It is known he witnessed ten ducal Acts, a lot less than either Roger de Montgomerie or William firzOsbern, and he appears as a ducal magistrate only once, and he had been ordered to do so together with Maurilius, archbishop of Rouen and the bishops of Lisieux and Evreux. This was to hear a case brought by the abbey of St. Magloire-de-Lehon.

The 'Brevis relatio' records, however, that in 1066 in response to William's request for ships to take his army to the south coast of England he had six score built and fitted out. This was many more than any other noble. Both Orderic Vitalis and William of Poitiers give witness to his importance, and record his attendance at William's invasion councils. He is shown in the Bayeux Tapestry seated at dinner with his brothers. Also, recorded by an un-verified source, he is mentioned as carrying the standard of St Michael into battle on Caldbec Hill near Hastings.

Forward to 1069, with Robert, count of Eu, he is said to have set about the Danish fleet in Lindsey, another source tells that when Robert showed with his mounted knights the Danes took to their ships and landed on the north bank of the Humber. When tackled again they set out for the Isle of Axholme (northern Lindsey) where the Normans under William's half-brother could not reach them across the marsh with their horses.

During the following years he witnessed several royal Acts and heard three cases in the royal curia on behalf of William, where he witnessed the Ely land pleas. As for his itinerary he was definitely in England for at least part of AD1068 and AD1069, perhaps also in the early 1070's. He may have acted as justiciar for William in AD1071. Charter evidence puts him thereafter in Normandy. At Easter, 1080 he attended the king's Rouen Council, where a short-lived reconciliation between William and his son Robert 'Curthose' was hard-wrought. In 1081 Robert, count of Mortain and his son were given as hostages to Fulk of Anjou according to the agreement between William and the count of Anjou at 'Blanchlanda', as recorded in the annals of Rainald, archdeacon of Anjou.

He may have come back to England between then and AD1082, when he was known to have been back in Normandy, but it is only known for sure that he was here in AD1086. That he was at William's bedside in AD1087 is recorded by Orderic, and that he led a deputation to ask the king for his brother Odo's release from long-standing imprisonment. The De obitu Willelmi tells us it was Robert who was entrusted to have the royal servants list the king's treasures distributed in pious bequests and to his own sons William 'Rufus' and Henry 'Beauclerc'. Shortly after Robert witnessed one of his nephew Robert's ducal charters; the year after that he joined the baronial rebellion against William II 'Rufus', and held his castle at Pevensey when it was besieged by the young king. It is here that Odo took refuge after Tonbridge was taken, and when Duke Robert tried in vain to raise the siege the garrison yielded to the king.

Orderic has Odo as the chief instigator of the rebellion, talking Robert of Mortain into committing himself. Odo was exiled, Robert pardoned soon after and thereafter witnessing several Acts.

Berkhamstead Castle

Artist's impression of stone-built Berkhamstead Castle with customary 'motte' (inner mound area) and 'bailey', outer walled defensive area. A drawbridge links the gatehouse with surrounding land. Inner gateway guards access to the 'keep' (tower)
Artist's impression of stone-built Berkhamstead Castle with customary 'motte' (inner mound area) and 'bailey', outer walled defensive area. A drawbridge links the gatehouse with surrounding land. Inner gateway guards access to the 'keep' (tower) | Source

Campaigns in Brittany

After the agreement of Rouen in AD1091 between William 'Rufus' and Duke Robert, Count Robert was busy in Brittany during the brothers' campaign against their younger sibling Henry 'Beauclerc'. According to an account, 'The Life of St William Firmatus', Count Robert held Baudouin de Boulogne captive at Mortain, caught aiding his brother Eustace, until he was miraculously set free by the saint.

Further - garbled and of dubious value - evidence of Robert's activity is offered in the 15th Century author of Les chroniques de Vitre. The account tells how after the death of the 'Conqueror' Duke Alain of Brittany supported the young prince Henry against William 'Rufus' and Duke Robert. Due to this the Normans often raided the land around Fougeres near the Vendelais pays. At one time Andre de Vitre came across Count Robert's force plundering the area. Most were slain, the rest taken prisoner to Vitre where they were hanged in front of the gates. Robert talked with Andre, offering his eldest daughter's hand in marriage. Whilst Andre thought about it and discussed the offer Guillaume, the fourth count of Poitiers asked for the same woman and she was given to him. Robert offered Andre his second daughter Agnes. Andre accepted, married Agnes and took her to Vitre. Robert's third daughter was married off to Guy de Laval.

Peace was achieved and everyone breathed out again. With Agnes Andre was given the Cornish manors of Alverton, Tresquel, Tybesta, Brannel and Helstone in Trigg as a dowry. Andre later paid homage to William 'Rufus' during his siege of his brother Henry at Mont- St Michel. After lifting the siege and peace arrangements further agreements were arrived at between Robert and Andre de Vitre. An agreement of mutual aid was sworn, which was supported by the offer on either part of a score of knights as pledges. Andre gave Agnes his possessions in the city of Rennes and all the dowry of his grandmother Ynoguen de Fougeres.

From the Vitre chronicle we learn that Andre and Agnes had four sons and as many daughters. The eldest son was reported to have been raised from the font by his grandfather Count Robert and was given his name as well as all his estate in Rie, Trunge, Tux and Verquerel. It is possible, but not chronologically likely that, according to the chronicle, Robert ordered his grandson to go to the court of Guillaume, count of Poitiers who made him a knight at the court of Poitiers. On returning the young knight is said to have paid homage to Robert for his land and for the men he had with him at the battle of Tinchebrai in AD1106. There is confusion with William de Mortain who was captured there.

Some statements in the chronicle are verifiable. Robert de Torigni states that one of Count Robert's daughters was wedded to Andre de Vitre and the eldest, Emma given to Guillaume of Toulouse. Count Robert had strong interests around Fougeres and several local Breton tenants held land from him in England and Normandy. An Andre de Vitre held land in Trigg in the early 12th Century and the family had divers interests in Cornwall until Normandy's fortunes waned in AD1204.

New acquisition - Mont St Michel

On the coast of Brittany, Mont St Michel west of the mouth of the River Selune
On the coast of Brittany, Mont St Michel west of the mouth of the River Selune | Source

Second marriage and offspring

Robert's second wife Almodis witnessed her husband's charter of AD1088 in favour of the Priory of St Mary, Mortain. Almodis was likely to have been a daughter of Almodis of La Marche, her husband Pons being count of Toulouse.

She was linked to Robert in grants to the abbeys of Mont-St.Michel and St. Albans. Their son, also Robert, died young. As well as another son, William, there were at least three daughters from his marriage to Matilda. Emma wedded Guillaume, count of Toulouse who died on Crusade in the Holy Land in AD1093. Their young daughter Phillippa was married to Sanchez-Ramiro the king of Aragon in AD1086. Agnes we know wedded Andre de Vitre and we also know the third wedded Guy fitz Haimon de de Laval. The last two marriages were plainly meant to substantiate Robert's holdings in the south-west of Normandy. Another daughter Sybil became abbess of Notre Dame de Saintes. By un-verified testament from Wace, Count Robert had a sister named Muriel who wedded Eudo the vicomte of the Cotentin - there were no surviving heirs.

Launceston Castle, central Cornwall

Launceston Castle above the modern town in central Cornwall
Launceston Castle above the modern town in central Cornwall | Source

Land holdings in England

Domesday assessed Robert's estates here as being worth £2,000. This put him second only to Roger de Montgomerie among the lay nobility of post-conquest England. Although he had lands in over twenty shires they were concentrated in five regions. He had far and away the largest holdings in Cornwall and had far-reaching estates in Somerset, Devon and Dorset. His lands in Dorset and Somerset were his by AD1068, at the time his castle at Montacute was besieged by English insurgents. It is not clear when he came by his Cornish lands. Cornwall had ostensibly been awarded to the Breton count Brian or Breon soon after the victory on Caldbec Hill. Brian is thought to have returned to his lands in Brittany soon after a confrontation in Devon with King Harold's sons, who had been supported by Dublin Danes by agreement with King Diarmuid/Dermot of Leinster. Robert was awarded his lands in the south-west. He was also given count Brian's lands in Suffolk.

The south-western estates were most likely administered from Montacute and Launceston castles, where there was a market - transferred by Robert from a site close by held by the canons of St. Stephen by AD1086. Robert also established markets at Liskeard and near St. Michael's Mount. A further castle was erected at Trematon. Yet another market was established against the interests of an earlier-running market at St. German's. In Devon Robert appropriated a fair held at Methleigh by the bishop of Exeter.

It is likely Robert was granted the rape of Pevensey late in AD1067 or early 1068. The honour was strategically important and an earlier Wessex heartland of Earl Godwin's clan. Count Robert's estates here ringed the small burh of Pevensey, where a castle was built on the Saxon Shore. A borough was developed, which by AD1086 was a successful local business core, and market for the salt trade. He may have acquired the lordship of Berkhamsted in western Hertfordshire at around this time. Berkhamstead bridged several strategic routes to London. Robert had a castle erected here, too.

Some of his Yorkshire lands may have been acquired after the rebellion of AD1069, yet others not effectively under control before the 1080's. A small number were kept 'en demesne'; by AD1086 the value of most of them had fallen and - due to his half-brother's actions in Yorkshire between the Humber and the Tees - there is scant evidence of agricultural endeavour, control of them being left to two main tenants, Nigel Fossard and Richard de Sourdeval.

In Northamptonshire only a small number of Robert's hundred manors were 'en demesne', his interests furthered by a leading tenant, the shire reeve (sheriff) William de Cahaignes.


Demesde - Domesday volumes - who owns what and where

Domesday volumes - there was the main document and Exon Domesday for the western counties
Domesday volumes - there was the main document and Exon Domesday for the western counties | Source

Support for the church, heritage and death

An open-handed patron of ecclesiastical houses in Normandy like his brothers, Robert gave land to Preaux and to his half-brother William's establishment of St. Etienne in Caen he granted lands in Houtteville. After the initial battle on Caldbec Hill ('Sanguelac' to the Normans and their allies) Robert gave Westminster's manor of Laleham to Fecamp, probably in thanks for deliverance.

Lands in West Cornwall were donated to St Michael's Mount, a dependency of Mont-St.Michel. He was especially generous to his family foundation of Grestain near Conteville. Robert de Torigni ascribed Robert as being the founder. Both he and his first wife Matilda were interred here and most of the abbey's endowments were clustered around the area but there were other concentrations elsewhere including the Bessin and near the Sarthe on the southern boundary of Normandy. Moreover Robert granted extensive estates in England to this foundation, largely in the rape of Pevensey. The abbey maintained its largest English cell nearby at Wilmington. He also granted the advowsons of Berkhamsted church and castle chapel, together with the tithes and church lands. Lands in Northamptonshire formerly held as dowry by Matilda were also donated to Grestain.

In AD1082 Robert and Matilda set up a cell of Marmoutier dedicated to the Virgin beyond the castle walls at Mortain, endowing it with properties in England and Normandy. Most of these were close to Mortain, a few also in Robert's northern Cotentin lands. Ste Marie was also given lands in the rape of Pevensey and in Dorset, where the monks acquired the manor of Piddle Hinton after Matilda's death. All her possessions were given to the needy or to monastic houses. In AD1082 Robert and Matilda founded the collegiate church of St Evroult within Mortain's castle walls. Most of its estate was sited around Mortain, with others near Coutances and in the northern Cotentin. Robert may have been the mover of the grant to the canons of Hanging Langford in Wiltshire and of a £10 yearly rent in the Pevensey rape, to be verified later by his son William.

The community of St Evroult was joined by Robert's chaplain Vital, later founder of Savigny. In Vital's life story his reputation as a preacher and scholar reached Robert's ear and he plainly had some influence on the count, for instance in his intervention on Matilda's behalf to stop her being beaten. On another occasion he refused to return to the household until he was humbly begged by a sorrowful Robert. After the death of the count Vital stayed in the Mortain household until leaving for a hermitage. Robert could well have been the patron of another local holy man, a hermit known as William Firmatus, whose life story tells that although he hated going into towns he frequently entered Mortain for prayer. After William's death in AD1095 at Mantilly his corpse was argued over by the folk of Domfront and Mayenne. However through Robert's involvement it was removed and taken to St. Evroult.

Few assessments of Robert exist, although William of Malmesbury famously said of him - contrasting him with his brother Odo - that he was stupidly dull. This assessment barely agrees with the trust William I put in him by granting the extensive and strategically important lands on either side of the channel. It might be an explanation for his absences from royal councils, although it does not agree with Robert's exploitation of his business interests around the kingdom and duchy.

Grestain traditionally records Robert's death as being in AD1090, although he did not in fact die before AD1095, possibly on the 9th December as written in the obit roll of St. Evroult. He was followed by his eldest son William, who is thought not to have married and appears for the first time as a witness of Acts from the 1080's. William's backing of Duke Robert of Normandy led to his capture at Tinchebrai. As punishment the king confiscated all his estates and he was imprisoned for life.

William and his kindred

How much did you know about the family links of Duke/King William I?

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© 2013 Alan R Lancaster


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