Today roads across Cotentin’s marshes are finely mapped and sturdy, when William Duke of Normandy (future Conqueror of England) was 19, it was a very different story. If he had not known the marshes so well, how different all our histories would be.
The child Duke, protected at all costs
It is surprising William reached 19 at all. When he was seven his father, Robert I of Normandy abandoned him for the Holy Land and failed to return, dying in 1035 of either poison or dysentery. Before leaving Robert had named William, his illegitimate son, heir and demanded fealty from all his noble vassals. He entrusted his son’s care to a select group of his most trusted barons. But without a strong leader Normandy soon fell into chaos and being responsible for the young Duke was a very dangerous job indeed.
Murder most foul
William was first in the care of his influential and feared uncle Robert, Archbishop of Rouen. Robert’s death in 1037 is not recorded as suspicious but it did leave Normandy even more at the mercy of battling barons. Next Alan of Brittany cared for the boy, until October 1040 when he died suddenly while besieging a rebel castle near Vimoutiers. The priest historian Orderic Vitalis, writing just a few decades later, says Alan was poisoned by unnamed Normans…it does not say on whose side.
Brave, battling Gilbert of Brionne, a close friend of William’s father, was William’s next chief guardian until he was slain during his morning ride through the forest near Eschafour. Suspicion fell on Ralph of Gacé who had been furious not to be named as one of William’s guardians.
Around this time Osbern the steward was murdered one night as he stood guard by the young Duke, inside his bed chamber.
William’s uncle Walter, brother of his mother Harlett,e then slept in the child Duke’s bed chamber to protect him. Orderic tells how many times they were forced to find refuge and anonymity in the homes of the poor when ambitious lords came calling for blood.
The self-interest of supporters
To the south, King Henri I of France was known to keep an eye on Normandy’s struggles. He supported William as heir and several times took troops into Normandy to wrestle rebellious fortresses from recalcitrant barons. Count Baldwin V of Flanders was another powerful supporter, perhaps already planning for his daughter Matilda to one day be the Duke’s consort.
As William survived and grew, his father’s supporters Count William of Arques and Archibshop Mauger did provide a little stability in Normandy.
They collected revenues on behalf of the young Duke but were infamous for lining their own pockets and Mauger had a nasty reputation for dabbling in necromancy.
‘I was schooled in war from childhood’…
By 1045 William was 18, well trained in the worst of politics and an experienced warrior. A quote attributed to him says “I was schooled in war from childhood…”. He was already showing signs of the ruthless leadership that would colour his reputation; putting out his enemies eyes, cutting off their noses, feet and hands, which was apparently preferable to the awfulness of his prisons.
William was in control of much of Normandy. But not all of it. To the west and in the wild Cotentin country (now Manche, up to Cherbourg), a cohort of rebellious lords were keen to rid themselves of ‘the Bastard’.
One young man stood out as a likely candidate for the Dukedom. Guy de Burgunday was the younger son of William’s aunt Adeliza. Guy’s ambitious family had sent him to Normandy in the early 1040’s to be a household companion for William and to learn knightly skills. Their ambitions were realised when Guy was rewarded with the vast castle of Brionne and the title of Count.
Guy’s loyalty should have been assured, but it was not. Unlike William, Guy was a legitimate grandchild of Richard II of Normandy, and convinced his own claim to the Dukedom far outshone his cousin’s. Supporting Guy were some of the grandest names in Normandy; Ranulph I de Bayeux Viscount de Bayeux, Néel II ‘Falconhead’ of Saint-Saveur, viscount of Cotentin, Grimoult lord of Plessis, Haimon le Dentu ‘the toothy’ lord of Creully and Raoul I ‘the Badger’ of Tesson seigneur de Boulon Cingal Esson Thury Fontenay et Clécy.
They waited until William was hunting at Valognes in the heart of Cotentin, rebel country.
The rebel lords convened at a castle near Bayeux. As the sun slipped away and cold night air crept into the castle, these arrogant conspirators sat around a huge fire making plans and talking of a new Normandy led by Guy, a land where they all prospered.
The fate they had planned for William was clear. Listening unnoticed in the gaudy clothes of a jester was lowly Golet, a man loyal to the young Duke. He crept away to the stables. Quietly taking a horse he rode to Valognes, arriving at midnight.
Golet beat at the door shouting to speak to William. Medieval historian Wace records him saying “If though art found here thou wilt die; thy enemies are arming around; if they find thee here, thou wilt never quit the Cotentin, nor live till the morning!”
Hearing of Guy’s treachery, William threw himself onto the largest, strongest horse and with just one companion, fled.
Knowing the rebels would come from the south, William rode east to the perilous marshland around the Bay of Veys. Fortunately William knew the marsh and tides well. They made their way carefully across the Grand Veys ford, not far from Isigny, as the tide rose around them. Many a poor soul had misjudged tides here and lost their lives on the pitiless path. By the time his pursuers reached the ford the water was too high for them to cross. When William reached dry land he is said to have given thanks at the St Clément chapel in Géfosse-Fontenay.
William rode on to Rhys, outside of Caen. Here a surprised but loyal Hubert de Ryes probably saved William’s life. Hubert replaced the exhausted horses and told his sons to lead William on the safest route to the Duke’s stronghold at Falaise.
When the conspirators arrived at Rhys shortly afterwards, Hubert bravely gave them false information. Soon realising their quarry had escaped, they headed back to their own castles.
William’s epic gallop of more than 150km to Falaise took just one day. After Falaise, he rode into France and was given a warm welcome by his lord, King Henri. But the huge Cotentin region of Normandy was closed to him and with William out of Normandy the rebel Barons secured more followers for Guy.
The battle of Val-ès-Dunes
The conspiracy of so many powerful lords and William’s wild gallop to freedom forced King Louis into action. Within the year they would lead an army of 10,000 against the rebels’ disorganised crowd of 25,000, in a terrible battle outside Caen at Val-ès-Dunes.
On the day of the battle, 10 August 1047, Raoul I of Tesson was startled to see William and the King of France, who he had once sworn allegiance to, personally leading their armies. After some dithering he, followed by his knights and troops sidled around the battlefield and defected back to William, leaving a gap of confidence if not huge numbers in the rebel’s side.
Haimon le Dentu led the first line of many thousand men and distinguished himself in combat. He managed to unseat the King from his horse and they fought, but Haimon was killed by the King’s attendants. Ranulph I of Bayeux was seen to shy clear of any fighting. He was killed in retreat.
After hours of fierce combat the battle was clearly in the hands of recklessly brave William and the French King. By the end of the day Néel II ‘Falconhead’ of Saint-Saveur was the last of the rebel barons on the field. A courageous, skilled fighter it was said that if more rebels had fought like him, the battle would ended very differently.
As William’s enemies retreated they were slaughtered in their thousands and many forced into the river Orne to drown. Their bodies clogged mills downstream for days afterwards.
Banning battles; the Truce of God
After the battle William’s enemies were mostly dead, or imprisoned, suddenly extremely loyal or expelled from Normandy. The Council of Caen in October 1047 further entrenched William’s power by instituting the Truce of God, banning private wars and vendettas from Wednesday evenings to Monday morning, although the Duke himself was exempt from these conditions.
Néel ‘Falconhead’ was banished to Brittany. Guy escaped to his castle at Brionne and held it for three years under siege. William offered him a pardon as long as his castle was destroyed and his privileges lost, but Guy refused. He chose instead to flee and try unsuccessfully to overthrow his elder brother, the Count of Burgundy.
The Duke forgave Haimon’s family for his betrayal, allowing his sons to inherit. The eldest son Haimon the Seneschal Baron de Creully fought alongside William at the battle of Hastings and was made Viscount of Kent. Turncoat Raoul I of Tesson fought and died alongside William at Hastings, he was 66 years old.
Unrepentant Grimoult de Plessis was imprisoned in Rouen and his family deprived of their properties. He died in a dungeon strangled by chains. They buried him still wearing his fetters; the shackles that bound him.
William consolidated his power further by knocking down castles built by ambitious barons during the past years of chaos. There would be other rebellions, but 1047 was the year William truly became Duke of Normandy. William’s guardians had taught him well.
The path of the Duke’s gallop from Valognes was for hundreds of years known as ‘The Duke’s Way’ and horse riding paths still mark part of the route.
William the Conqueror by Peter Rex
Master Wace his chronicle of the Normand Conquest, by Wace
More about brave, battling Gilbert of Brionne