By James Turner
Family was of the utmost importance in shaping the identity, political affinity and horizons of twelfth century aristocrats. This was no less true for royals with the Norman and Angevin kings of England finding both their greatest supporters and ardent foes emerging from the ranks of their own family throughout the 12th century. This series looks at the lives and relationships of a category of people who due to the circumstances of their birth sat on the periphery of this vast and interconnected dynastic systems – the royal bastards.
If many Anglo-Norman and Angevin royal bastards during the 12th century could be said to be have had good fortunes, then Henry I’s eldest illegitimate child, Earl Robert of Gloucester, spent most of his lifetime rising on the wheel.
The eldest son of Henry I, illegitimate or otherwise, Robert was also the first royal bastard to be raised to comital status in England. That Robert was always a favourite of the King, and an active participant in royal familial identity, is demonstrated by his early presence within the royal court and the generous provisions the King made for his future.
In the wake of the White Ship disaster and the death of his legitimate half-brother, William the Atheling, Robert was propelled from his niche within the royal family to a position of political prominence. Henry I, faced with an upswell of dissent and political instability, elected to raise his eldest son to the Earldom of Gloucester, conferring on him substantial lands and powers. The most powerful and de facto leader of the lords of the Welsh Marches, Robert’s presence and familial connections incentivized this occasionally turbulent group to cooperate and coordinate with royal efforts in the Normans’ ongoing expansion into Wales. During this latter half of his father’s reign, Robert, the most prominent member of an emerging group of young and ambitious members of the Anglo-Norman aristocracy seeking advantage through royal service, became a member of the King’s inner circle; aiding the royal regime in both military and administrative capacities.
Born probably around the dusk of the 1080s, the identity of Robert of Gloucester’s mother has been the subject of some historiographical debate. Certain historians have strongly and cogently argued that Robert’s mother was a member of the Gai family from Oxford. John of Worcester, when describing the royalist encirclement of Bristol in 1138, during the fevered height of the unrest that defined so much of King Stephen’s reign, states that one of the most prominent of the Angevin defenders was Philip Gai, a cousin of the Earl. Philip Gai was evidently part of the Earl’s military affinity and it certainly seems plausible that Robert, who was in Normandy at the time, would have left the care of his primary stronghold and eldest son, William, to a close and trusted relative. However, the word used in John of Worcester’s account ‘cognatus’ does not necessarily refer to first cousins and there are a number of familial relationships which could have linked the two men and preserved this distinction, such as if Philip’s father, Stephen, had been married to a sister of Robert’s unknown mother. Additionally, Robert seems to have spent much of his youth in Normandy which would have been strange if his maternal family were based in Oxfordshire. Ever a chip off the old royal block, Robert had at some stage succeeded in fathering an illegitimate child of his own within the Duchy, Richard who would later find gainful employment as the Bishop of Bayeux.
Henry I of England in a 13th century image. BL Royal MS 14 B V
That Henry chose to name his first son after his elder brother rather for either himself or the Conqueror might suggest that Robert was born during a brief period of cooperation between the two brothers in the mid to late 1080s, further strengthening the case that Robert’s mother was from Normandy. Finally, William of Malmesbury, while expounding upon Robert’s inherited virtues and family background, refers to Robert’s Norman, Flemish, and French ancestry while making no reference to any Anglo-Saxon or specific regional heritage within England, leaving the case for an Oxfordshire identity for Robert’s mother uncertain.
The Earl of Gloucester
The nucleus of Robert’s Earldom was provided by lands he gained from his marriage to the wealthy heiress, Mabel Fitzhamon, which were later supplemented by substantial grants from the royal demesne. Mabel’s father, Robert Fitzhamon, had as a result of his unwavering support of King William Rufus and his own territorial acquisitions in southern Wales come to control the large lordship of Glamorgan centred upon Cardiff Castle. It remains unclear the exact point Mabel, who was only a child at the time of her father’s death in 1107, married Robert although the marriage, which predated the creation of the Earldom by a number of years, must have occurred by 1114. That year King Henry I confirmed by charter that Tewkesbury Abbey, which had been re-founded and heavily patronised by Mabel’s father, was permitted to retain all the same exemptions and rights under the lordship of Robert, the King’s son, as they had held under the tenure of their previous lord. The King’s interest in and generous provisions for the material well being of his eldest son, even prior to the dynastic and political crisis which led to the creation of Robert’s Earldom, is a strong indicator of the young bastard’s position in his father’s affections and acknowledged participation within royal familial identity.
Throughout his marriage Robert seems to have been supremely confident in the management and dispensation of Mabel’s land and property, making little distinction either theoretical or practical between it and the grants he received from the royal demesne. The Earl’s charters generally never make any mention of his wife’s right or contain the intimation that he is acting on her behalf to preserve and mange her familial interests. Instead, the authority and to a lesser extent the legality of his charters be they grants, confirmations or agreements rest upon his status as the son of Henry I and position as Earl of Gloucester; an Earldom which after all was created specifically to enhance his power and dignity. While Countess Mabel is almost always afforded precedence within those witness lists in which she appears, it seems that the main criteria for her inclusion in the witnessing and ratification of her husband’s charters was availability rather than content. The Countess simply witnessing those charters that were issued when she happened to be present rather than specifically those pertaining to her inheritance.
The primary exception to this can be found in the foundation charter of Margam Abbey issued by Robert in 1147 which makes specific mention of the Countess’ consent to the foundation and an acknowledgement that the lands assigned for the support of the Abbey are drawn from her inheritance in southern Wales. It is unclear exactly why this charter, which otherwise conforms to Robert’s usually adopted title and style of address, differs in this regard but it seems likely that this rare acknowledgement of the Countess’ rights comes from a desire on the part of the nascent monastic community for clarity and unimpeachable legitimacy at their foundation. Necessitating the assertion of a legal position, which was in practice usually dispensed with as a result of the circumstances of their marriage and Robert’s engagement with royal family identity. It is also possible of course that since the charter was issued shortly before the Earl’s death, at a time of compromise and reconciliation with King Stephen, Robert now simply lacked the autonomy and royal favour that had previously allowed him to sweep such legal niceties aside.
The extent and composition of Earl Robert’s landed interests are difficult to ascertain given the fragmentary survival of rolls of taxation and other financial records. This difficulty is further compounded by Robert’s high level of royally enabled administrative autonomy which meant that the Earl was actually very rarely called upon to pay taxes. In 1166, the Earldom, then held by Robert’s son William, contained around 274.5 knight’s fees which were further supplemented by the associated lordship of Glamorgan which was assessed for a further 47.5 fees. When Henry II came to the throne, he strongly emphasised a program of restoration and reconciliation, avowing to return the lordships and estates of his vassals to their boundaries under his royal grandfather Henry I. This makes it likely that William’s dual honours were a close approximation to what they had been under Earl Robert. When comparing these holdings to those of other magnates in the 1120s or even amongst subsequent illegitimate royal family members raised to earldoms, it is clear that in attempting to stabilise his rule and establish Robert as a bulwark within the Welsh Marchers, Henry I turned his eldest illegitimate son into a magnate with few peers in terms of power and wealth.
Bristol Castle ‘in ancient times’ from Samuel Seyer’s History of Bristol in 1882.
Robert’s single greatest financial and military asset within England was his control of Bristol Castle and its surrounding city. Bristol was at the time of the earldom’s creation, one of England’s greatest urban centres behind only London and York in terms of wealth and populace. The revenue generated from Bristol, based upon rents and tenures held there from the time of the Earl’s father-in-law, Robert FitzHamon, constituted the single largest source of income within the Earldom. It seems that unusually, Robert was granted a measure of authority over the sheriffs operating within his earldom. Primarily tax collectors empowered and issued with quotas by the royal exchequer, rather than shooting from the hip officers of the law types, Robert’s ability to appoint and oversee the administration of these men provided him with an almost unparalleled level of financial autonomy.
In Wales, Robert significantly strengthened and expanded the honour of Glamorgan, waging several expansionary campaigns against the Afan family and its allies on his lordship’s western frontiers throughout the 1120’s. The Earl reorganised these acquisitions into the lordship of Neath which was held on a tenurial basis by Mabel’s uncle, Richard de Grenville, now styled as the Constable of the Earl of Gloucester. This appointment which invested Richard with considerable control and authority over the Earl’s most vulnerable frontier demonstrates a close level of cooperation with his wife’s family and that he was able to effectively integrate with the existing regional and familial Anglo-Norman affinities.
Robert also exercised considerable control over the cities of Cardiff and Tewkesbury, the burgesses of which both received a charter of rights and freedoms from the Earl which was closely based of the ones granted to Hereford by William Fitz Osbern. The canny Robert, however, made sure that he maintained control of the appointment of the town’s constables and garrison using them to exert influence over the distribution of land and revenues arising from the towns. One of key factors in Robert’s successful expansion into the culturally and politically permeable Welsh border came from his establishment of a concordant with the local church. In a region with a strongly perceived, yet for the aristocracy at least increasingly ill-defined, delineation between different ethno-linguistic groups, the establishment of a working relationship with a clergy whose membership was derived primarily from the native Welsh was of great importance. In 1126 Robert reached a formalised agreement with the energetic Anglo-Welsh Bishop Urban of Llandaff in which the two agreed to cooperate with one another in the defence of their mutually recognised rights.
In addition to his pre-eminence amongst the marcher lords, Robert was also became an invaluable member of his father’s inner circle, heavily engaged in royal service. In 1123, relatively recently after his creation as a cross-channel magnate, Robert was heavily engaged in quelling a uprising in Normandy by his cousin William Clito which was launched in conjunction with a military incursion into southern Normandy by the aggressive Count Fulk of Anjou. Robert was entrusted by his father, alongside Earl Ranulf of Chester, with the leadership of a large royalist army and charged with subduing his cousin’s supporters amongst the Norman nobility within the Cotentin. Later that year, following the King’s arrival in Normandy, he summoned Robert to join him in the reduction of Montfort-sur-Rilse, the principal stronghold of the persistently rebellious Hugh de Montfort.
He also served his father in a financial and administrative capacity as a senior member of Court of the Exchequer. Flexible in its composition and remit, drawing recruits from a pool of capable royal advisers and administrative officials, this upper level of management was extended considerable autonomy in the maintenance and oversight of the King’s finances, possibly as a result of the itinerant nature of the royal court and the King’s long periods of absence from the English royal centres. The Earl was one of the core members of the power and influential administrative body responsible for the maintenance of royal finances and in a large part the distribution of royal largesse, much of which I’m sure quite coincidentally rained down upon its members and their friends. Additionally, in 1128 he was entrusted with the responsibility to perform an audit of the royal treasury alongside his long term ally and confederate Brain fitz Count.
The Earl represented his father in several notable ecclesiastical councils in the 1120s, whose consequences directly impacted the administrative and political geometry of the Anglo-Norman world. Over the course of 1125, the Earl witnessed two legatine courts established by Pope Calixitus II in an attempt to resolve the long-standing ambiguity and animosity surrounding the Archbishoprics of Canterbury and York. In 1127, Robert represented his father at an ecclesiastical council held by Archbishop William which attempted to further disseminate and enforce the policies and theological positions of the growing Church reform movement by reiterating the ban on simony and the prohibition of marriage for those under holy orders. This is a rather strange and surreal case of a royal bastard rubber stamping elements of a theological reform program which had so strongly delineated the previously blurred line between legitimate and illegitimate offspring.
Robert of Gloucester and Mabel Fitzhamon depicted in the Founders’ and benefectors’ book of Tewkesbury Abbey from the 16th century
Robert’s engagement within royal service and subsequent importance within the royal court can be attested to in his high placement amongst the lay witnesses to his father’s acta and was in 1130 even granted primacy over his legitimate cousin, Count Stephen and the other magnates of the Anglo-Norman realm. During those times when the court was absent from significant royal centres, the Earl was often called upon to validate and ratify writs issued on his father’s behalf either on his own or more commonly alongside other senior royal councillors.
Robert was so heavily engaged in the maintenance and execution of royal government that he may have formed something of a rivalry with the Chancellor, Bishop Roger of Salisbury whose royal authority he may have encroached upon. In 1126, Earl Robert replaced Roger as the gaoler of his uncle and possible namesake, Robert of Normandy. In 1106 Henry succeeded in reuniting the Anglo-Norman realm, crushing his brother’s forces and seizing control of the duchy. The unfortunate Duke, who had once been offered the throne of Jerusalem, lived out the rest of his long life under house arrest. Given the Duke’s status as a potential focus for further aristocratic dissent, given his pesky superior claim to all of Henry’s titles and domains, Robert’s guardianship of his uncle showed the King’s immense trust in his illegitimate son’s loyalty and ability.
Perhaps the most vivid example of Robert’s special status within the Anglo-Norman realm and his close engagement with royal family identity can be found within his own charters. Already habitually described as the son of the King, Robert further emphasised his royal connection and heritage by foregoing the use of the Latin word ‘comes’ which was usually used to denote Earls or counts. Instead, Robert describes himself using the far grander ‘consul’ which while still linked to his control of the Earldom of Gloucester held strong almost imperial connotations of executive power and of a vice-regal status.
For all the power and responsibility entrusted to Robert and his own considerable efforts to emphasis them, he was not his father’s chosen heir. When it became clear that he was not going to successfully father another legitimate son with his second wife Adeliza of Louvain, Henry resolved to ensure he was succeeded by his remaining legitimate child, Matilda. Despite the severe oaths of loyalty to Matilda King Henry compelled his magnates to take, his death and the opportunism of some of his relatives would spark a succession crisis which alongside ultimately plunging the Anglo-Norman realm into two decades of war would display the limitations and advantages of the position of royal bastards with aristocratic society.
This is the third in a series of articles known as A Bastard’s Lot: The Illegitimate Royal Children of 12th Century England, by James Turner.
James Turner has recently completed his doctoral studies at Durham University before which he attended the University of Glasgow. Deeply afraid of numbers and distrustful of counting, his main research interests surround medieval aristocratic culture and identity.