Our vintage postcard led us to a hill high above Brionne in Eure, Normandy. Here we discovered the crumbling remains of a vast 11th century fortification that revealed Brionne’s place in the heart of Normandy history, and introduced us to a long lost medieval hero.
A fearsome family
Long, long ago when being called Gilbert was cool, a young man inherited vast lands around Brionne in Normandy.
His impressive pedigree went far back into a fighting Viking past; his great grandfather was Rollo the Viking, founder and first ruler of Normandy.
Wrong side of the blanket
However his Norman pedigree was not straightforward by today’s standards. Gilbert’s father Geoffrey was the son of Richard I ‘the Fearless’ Duke of Normandy, Rollo’s grandson, but his mother was not Richard’s wife.
True to Norman tradition, Richard the Fearless treated his many illegitimate children as well as his official ones and Geoffrey was bought up an aristocrat.
After Richard the Fearless died, his eldest son Richard II ‘the Good’ became Duke of Normandy.
Creating a Count for Brionne
He ensured his brother Geoffrey’s power, and support, by gifting him the citadel of Eu near what is now Treport. He clearly thought highly of Geoffrey’s leadership and combat skills as the citadel was a vital defence against marauding English. With it he gave Geoffrey miles of lands down through the centre of Normandy and created for him the title ‘Count of Brionne and Eu.
The dates around Gilbert’s birth are a bit hazy, ranging for 979 to 1000. There are firmer facts for his father Geoffrey’s death in 1010 when Gilbert could still have been a very young man.
Never did great wealth mean great responsibility more than the days when Dukes owned an independent Normandy. Power struggles were constant and battling a normal part of Norman life.
It took the strongest of leaders to keep their power.
Pride and a fall
Of course Gilbert’s loyalty to his uncle could never be questioned or his inheritance would disappear in a moment. But Viking fire flowed through Gilbert’s veins and all he was thinking of was his pride when he quarrelled petulantly with his uncle.
He nearly lost the lot. To Gilbert’s fury in retribution for apparent disloyalty Richard the Good took everything from him except the Lordship of Brionne. Thousands of acres were snatch and handed to one of Richard’s many sons.
Gilbert practises patience
Proud of his heritage, Gilbert has been described as a man of ‘ferocious mind‘, greedy to match his reputation with that of his father, uncle and grandfather. Now landless he worked hard to build some useful friendships. The old man couldn’t live for ever.
Richard the Good certainly tried. By Norman standards he was ancient when he died 5 days in to his 63rd year on 28 August 1026. Somehow this battling Duke had avoided death in combat, by any of the revolting diseases rampant in the middle-ages, or from assassination by ambitious relation. He had also strengthened Normandy’s position in the world. No-one messed with the Normans.
Before he died Richard the Good announced his elder son Richard would take power in Normandy. His second son Robert was to be Count of Hemois, with property on the Normandy border. Gilbert probably stomped about and gnashed his Norman teeth. He got on far better with Robert.
Richard the forgettable
Robert was also unimpressed by his brother’s elevation to Richard III Duke of Normandy and as soon as he could get an army together (quite quickly) rebelled enthusiastically, laying siege to the town of Falaise. It is likely Gilbert was with him every step of the way.
Embarrassingly the siege was a disaster, Richard III had inherited a superb fighting force as well as a title and Robert was captured. Humiliatingly he had to agree to an ‘oath of fealty’ to his older brother but it was better than death. Then something quite surprising happened.
Confident Richard disbanded his army and travelled back to Rouen. Where he promptly died. Under dubious circumstances by all accounts.
Richard had been in power for just one year, not long enough to gain an impressive epithet. If he did have one it would possibly be ‘Richard – I should have got someone to try that soup before me’. Or ‘Richard – Ooo that wine tastes funny’.
Introducing Robert, the Magnificent
Robert returned swiftly from Hemois to confirm his authority, becoming Duke of Normandy on 6 August 1027. He probably got people to test his soup for the rest of his life. Certainly he lived long enough to gain the sobriquet ‘Robert the Magnificent’.
Gilbert ‘the cool’ was his main man.
Good times for Gilbert
Life was now good for Gilbert for many years. His lands and title ‘Count of Brionne and Eu’ were restored to him and there were plenty of opportunities for battling alongside Robert, crushing rebellious nobles and ambitious Archbishops. Robert appreciated his loyalty. A loyalty that was about to be tested.
After years of a rather challenging relationship with God and the church, Robert became enlightened and took himself off on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Before he left he announced his illegitimate son, by the enticing Hervela, would be his heir. William. He demanded his nobles swear fealty to William as their future leader and entrusted Alan of Brittany as the boy’s main guardian.
William was just 8 years old when Robert, on his way back to Normandy, fell ill and died at Nicaea on 2 July 1035. It would be another 8 years before William could become Duke, his position in the snake pit of Norman politics was distinctly vulnerable.
Initially the powerful Archbishop Robert of Rouen Count of Evereux held Normandy together but when he died in 1037 Normandy began to descend into anarchy.
Alan Duke of Brittany tried to take control, supported by Gilbert who would remain faithful to his old friend Robert all his life. But these were lawless times.
Wild and dangerous times
All across Normandy nobles with enough money and power built earthworks and fortifications. Medieval monk and scribe William of Jumieges noted that ‘having dared to establish themselves securely in their fortifications, they immediately hatched plots and rebellions and fierce fires were lit all over the country’.
It was while he was beseiging a rebel castle near Vimoutiers on 1 October 1040 that Alan of Brittany suddenly died. Foul play was suggested but there were so many things to die of in the 1040’s no-one made much of a fuss.
This was Gilbert’s chance. He was now chief guardian to the future Duke of Normandy and had so much power he could even look the King of France in the eye.
Jealous of Giroie
Gilbert took the opportunity to re-open an old feud Duke Robert had settled; the ownership of Montreuil. He had his eye on it since Giroie, Lord of Echauffour and Montreuil-l’Argille had moseyed in from Brittany and taken it over.
Giroie was far too successful a warrior to have on his borders for his liking, Gilbert felt distinctly threatened. When Giroie first arrived Richard II was Duke and didn’t share his concerns. Richard II probably quite liked having the formidable Giroie balance Gilbert’s power. Gilbert had bided his time until 1033 when Giroie died, leaving just two sons of age in charge. Gilbert acted swiftly, taking an army to Montreuil expecting an easy victory.
The sons of Giroie had been well schooled in battle. They put aside their mourning, gathered up their kinsmen and vassals and soundly defeated Gilbert’s forces. He was humiliated and vowed never to forget.
On becoming William’s guardian, he tried confidently to have another go. His self-interest did not go unnoticed.
Then to Gilbert’s fury the Giroie’s family successfully united against him again, backed up by powerful Ralph de Gacé, Gilbert’s own cousin. Ralph had been less than enthralled to be left off the list of William’s of guardians and enjoyed taking a bloody revenge. Gilbert lost the battle and his reputation but kept his life – for a while.
Ralph could see a bright future for himself in Normandy but some things were getting in his way. He carefully plotted a vicious attack to clear some of those things for good.
A shocking end
On 2 July in 1040 Gilbert, with his brother in law Fulk fitz Gere and Walkelin of Pont-Echaufroi were on horseback taking their regular morning ride when they found themselves ambushed. Odo the Fat and Robert fitz Gere, shouting about a grudge against Gilbert, attacked them.
Gilbert and Walkelin were killed, Fulk survived. His part in the ambush was viewed with considerable suspicion.
Did advisors around the future Duke of Normandy, young William, take against Ralph for murdering William’s trusted guardian? They were a lot cleverer than that. They could see Ralph’s growing power so carefully cultivated his support for the young Duke in waiting.
When they were sure of him, Ralph de Gacé murderer of Gilbert Count of Brionne and Eu, was put in charge of Normandy’s military forces. He did a very good job and needed to.
Fire and sword
After Gilbert’s death Normandy became so chaotic stories of the havoc and carnage were told for generations. William of Malmesbury the medieval historian wrote one hundred years later ‘when Gilbert was killed by his cousin Ralph, it was fire and sword everywhere’. How William survived is another Normandy story.
Gilbert’s cowardly murder caused his faults to be forgotten and in later life William Duke of Normandy recalled him favourably as a brave, true supporter and ‘pillar of the state’.
The new Duke also bought Gilbert’s sons back from Flanders where they fled on the murder of their father. But they didn’t get back Brionne, Eu or the title, those days were gone for ever.
They would have to prove themselves and they did, in 1066.