For a few hundred years the de Tosny family made their Norman mark and then… they were gone. But the de Tosny are remembered to this day in Conches-en-Ouche, the town they built in the Orne.
Records have probably been a little bent by time, as the earliest were written many years after events. But monks writing in the 1070’s or 80’s both agree the first de Tosny of note was Raoul de Tosny I. According to family lore Raoul was a nephew of Rollo, first Duke of Normandy. According to others he was a Frankish adventurer.
The de Tosny family were always a troublesome crew…
Quarrels & banishment
Raoul’s brother, Bishop Hugo of Rouen, gifted him church lands around Tosny along the Seine (across the river from Les Andelys), making Raoul the first seigneur de Tosny towards the end of the 10th century.
Raoul was a monk before his brother granted the seigneurship. If he was anything like his decedents, Raoul was not blessed with a personality suited to quiet contemplation. This would be exactly the personality needed to provide powerful defences around Rouen, keeping out the marauding Franks and Flemish.
It was not long before Raoul’s branch of the de Tosny family were making some very strong marks on the history books. In 1013 Raoul with his son Roger, known for ‘equalling his father’s valour and rivalling him for ferocity’ were guarding the castle at Tillières for Richard II, Duke of Normandy. Then just a few years later, despite their hereditary status of Standard Bearers for Normandy, quarrels and intrigues earned them banishment.
The hot headed argument that caused this expulsion is not recorded, but happily exile did not entirely disagree with Raoul and Roger de Tosny. Raoul was welcomed by a mercenary force fighting to rid Apulia (in Italy) from Byzantine rulers.
Roger travelled south, knowing the Iberian Christians were in need of soldiers to defend themselves from the aggressive Moors and very generous to those who were successful. This dangerous time is known as the Reconquista.
In Iberia, Ermesinde of Carcassonne Countess of Barcelona was recently widowed and governing as regent for her young son. With her power under threat, she backed Roger to use any means at his disposal to repel the Moors and re-establish her family’s control of the region.
To seal the deal he married Ermesinde’s very beautiful daughter Estefania, and set about terrorising Ermesinde’s foe with ‘valour and savageness’. He was a huge success, capturing many towns and castles, killing thousands and coming up with a uniquely horrible way of terrifying the enemy. Something so horrible it gained him the nickname Mangeur de Maures ‘Moor Eater’.
The Moor Eater
After each battle the captured Moors were bought before him. One prisoner would be pushed forward and before them all, cut in two. The bisected body was then boiled slowly and offered to the prisoners to eat. Roger would to take half of this human stew to his tent to apparently enjoy with his warriors.
The wily Roger instructed the guards to allow a small number of prisoners to escape so that word of this awful deed would get back to the enemy. Of course news of these horrific dinners quickly spread. The marauding Moors and their King Musetus were not long in negotiating a peace with Ermensinde, countess of Barcelona.
By 1024 Roger and his father, considerably richer for their exile, had been welcomed back to Normandy by Richard II. Raoul died, a good age for a medieval knight, soon afterwards.
Roger I de Tosny was now a very rich and powerful man and he built a fort on lands gifted to him (at Vieux Conches, just west of Conches-en-Ouche today). But life for even the very wealthy and well-connected does not always run smoothly.
History is vague about Roger’s Iberian wife; she is thought to have died around 1018. He returned to Normandy a single man and quickly married Gotelina, the well-connected daughter of a friend.
The miracle of Saint Foy
There were many ways to die in medieval Normandy and tragically after a just a few years of wedded bliss (and quite a few children) Gotelina became seriously ill.
It was clear to all those around her that Gotelina could not survive. Her illustrious family travelled from across Normandy to pay their respects, and to plan a funeral. The castle was hushed.
Among Gotelina’s visitors was a Bishop with news from Aquitaine he knew he must share with Roger. The Bishop told of a holy virgin and martyr named Foy who worked wondrous miracles. The Bishop was sure that if Roger pledged his wife to Foy’s powerful mercy with vows, she would be saved from death’s eternal grip.
The problem of promises
Desperate, God fearing and rich, Roger arranged for a Saint Foy holy relic to be sent from Aquitaine. As soon as it arrived he rushed to his young wife, who lay grey and silent as the Bishop prayed beside her. Roger placed the relic in the Bishop’s hands and solemnly vowed that if Gotelina survived, he would take her to the Abbey Saint Foy with a generous gift for the saint.
Suddenly Gotelina groaned, the first sound she had made in weeks, and opened her eyes as if from a deep sleep. Her first words were to ask why her family were standing all around her, weeping. Word spread quickly through the castle and there were cheers, soon followed by celebrations and quite a lot of local cider (we expect).
But there was a problem with Roger’s promise. Roger had many foes; in Normandy, in the land of the Franks (now France) and of course in Iberia, enemies who would be delighted to see him dead. If he left the safe haven of his lands at Conches, Roger and Gotelina would be in danger of ambush and capture. How could he keep his promise to Saint Foy?
He very sensibly built a church for Saint Foy on his own land. The promise kept, Gotelina lived a rather longer life and produced many more children.
Trouble, of course
Roger and Gotelina went on to found the Abbey of Saint-Pierre-de-Castillon at Conches, inviting monks from the grand abbey at Fecamp to run it. As well as ensuring a place in heaven, having one’s own Abbey conferred great status on earth for the Lord whose patronage built it.
There were a few unremarkable years while Roger built his abbey, grumbled at neighbours and took part in the occasional paid soldiering in Spain, but, probably to Roger de Tosny’s relief, they came to a sudden end.
In 1035, Robert I of Normandy died travelling back from a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, leaving a bastard son the heir to his Dukedom. Roger de Tosny was horrified to learn Robert had named illegitimate William his heir. He refused to serve the 8 year old Duke, or bow down to those charged with protecting William until he came of age to rule.
Bloody civil war
Roger was not alone in his rejection of William, and for the next few years Normandy was plunged into bloody civil war. Weakened, the Dukedom was also under attack from neighbouring Brittany.
These bloody days of uncertainty suited Roger quite well. While William’s supporters protected him, Roger set about extending his own domain by ravaging his neighbour’s lands. Roger led a plot to kill William while he was out hunting but it was foiled. As William’s power grew, the rebellious de Tosny family were in increasing danger.
There was one particular rival whose lands Roger was particularly keen to make his own. Onfray de Vieilles, count of Pont-Audemer was powerful and distantly related to William, whose claim to the Normandy Dukedom he fully supported. Onfray’s vast domains were dotted across Normandy.
The last battle
Roger started attacking and taking the de Vieilles properties. Onfray, thoroughly fed up with Roger’s continual aggression and intrigues, sent two of his sons and a large troop to stop Roger for good. They attacked on 17 June 1060.
Roger, still strong but an older veteran of many battles, was surprised by the assault. He defended himself with courage, fighting alongside his two eldest sons Helbert and Helinant. The de Tosny did not win the battle that day. Roger was savagely cut down, dying as he may have wished with his sword still in his hand. Both sons were injured and died shortly afterwards from their wounds.
While Roger’s death ensured a more peaceful time for the de Tosny neighbours, William’s powerful supporters were leaving nothing to chance. The well connected and still young Gotelina was forced to marry Richard, Count of Evreux, and a close relation to the Duke of Normandy.
A family tradition
Of course this was not the end of the de Tosny family. Roger and Gotelina’s son Raoul II carried on the de Tosny battling tradition. In 1054 age just 17 he fought for William at the battle of Mortimer, was exiled for quarrelling in 1063 then sufficiently back in favour to accompany the Duke on his invasion of England in 1066.
Raoul’s efforts were well rewarded but he continued to be a battling, troublesome Normandy Knight until his death in 1102.
It was Raoul II who built the castle whose remains still stand at Conches-en-Ouche. He also played a leading role in the Guerre das Belles Dames, the Battle of the Beautiful Women… But more about Raoul’s incredible career and the troublesome de Tosny another time.
The church of Saint Foy in Conches-en-Ouche was completely rebuilt in the 16th century. The Abbey of Saint-Pierre-de-Castillon suffered badly during the 100 Years’ War. Just a few remaining flying buttresses can be seen against the old Hôtellerie.
A less romantic version of the creation of the church and abbey at Conches has Roger bringing back a relic from the monastery of St Foy at Conques, on his return from Iberia. He then founded the monastery, which acquired the name Conche, as in turn did his son Raoul de Tosny, Lord of Conches.
The date of Roger’s death comes from Guillaume of Jumièges who recorded that “Robertus de Grentesmaisnil” died in the same battle as “Rogerius [de Toenia]“, The necrology of the monastery of Ouche records the death “17 Jun” of “Robertus de Grentemesnil” .
Proceedings of the Battle Conference on Anglo-Norman Studies: 1979
The Normans in Europe edited by Elizabeth Van Houts