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The Death of Robert, Earl of Gloucester

In writing Stephen and Matilda: Cousins of Anarchy, I was keen to apply the same narrow-eyed pursuit of solid facts that I hope comes across in my books on the Wars of the Roses. More than being about battles and, well, anarchy, I wanted to discover the real personalities behind the stories, the people who are sometimes lost in the moralising and misogyny of chroniclers. Few characters are as fascinating and worthy of admiration as Robert, Earl of Gloucester.

RobertConsul_TewkesburyAbbey_FoundersBook Monks of Tewkesbury Abbey, c. 1500-1525 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Robert, Earl of Gloucester and his wife Mabel FitzHamon from the Founders’ Book of the Monks of Tewkesbury Abbey

The first person to hold a peerage title centred on Gloucester was the oldest, and favourite, illegitimate son of Henry I; a man who might have been king. Henry I holds the record for the most known illegitimate children fathered by an English or British monarch. He had at least twenty-two, and possibly more, illegitimate sons and daughters. Robert was his oldest, born around 1090, either his grandfather William the Conqueror or his uncle William Rufus were on the throne and his father was the king’s third son, unlikely to inherit anything more than a hefty lump of cash.

The identity of Robert’s mother is not known for certain. Once conjectured to have been Nest, a daughter of Rhys ap Tewdwr, the last King of Deheubarth, it is more likely that she was a member of an Oxfordshire family, like the mothers of many of Henry’s other illegitimate children. She was possibly a daughter of Rainald Gay of Hampton Gay, but she remains lost in mystery. Her son, however, would be propelled into the political limelight, feted as the favourite son of a father who took the throne as Henry I.

Robert’s importance solidified after The White Ship Disaster of 1120, when Henry lost his only legitimate son. Shortly afterwards, Robert was created Earl of Gloucester, probably reflecting the amount of land and the number of honours his wife, Mabel FitzHamon, brought to him within the area. He also held extensive lands in Wales and Normandy. When Henry appointed his only other legitimate child, his daughter Empress Matilda, as his heir, he extracted oaths from his barons that they would support her. More than most, though, Henry would have been aware of the fragility of such pledges: he had not been his brother’s heir but had snatched the throne on William Rufus’s sudden death.

Robert was promoted further, given lands that made him one of the most wealthy and powerful men on both sides of the Channel. The plan was clear: Robert was to be a crutch for his half-sister as she tried to exercise power as a woman in a strictly man’s world. Crutches come in pairs, and the other one readied for Empress Matilda was her cousin, Stephen of Blois, Count of Boulogne. Stephen was the son of Henry’s sister Adela of Normandy and was another of Henry’s favourites, made powerful to help support Matilda.

Henry’s plans, however well laid, ultimately fell to pieces on his death in 1135. It is possible the king changed his mind on his deathbed, since he was at odds with Matilda and her husband Geoffrey of Anjou, but whatever really happened behind closed doors, it was Stephen who rushed to have himself crowned in place of Empress Matilda. Robert trod a difficult and strained line. He eventually submitted to Stephen, but the king was never quite sure of his cousin. Whether Robert had planned to remain loyal to his half-sister all along or Stephen’s suspicion drove him away is unclear – chroniclers have their ideas based on their prejudices, but Robert alone knew the secrets of his heart.

When Empress Matilda landed at Arundel Castle to formally launch her bid to take the crown in 1139, she was accompanied by her half-brother Robert. While she remained inside the castle until Stephen arrived, Robert sped west to his stronghold at Bristol, a castle deemed impenetrable and which would form the beating heart of Matilda’s bid for power for years. Robert became the military arm of his half-sister’s efforts, allowing her to overcome the problems of putting an army into the field. In 1141, it was Robert who led the army against Stephen at the Battle of Lincoln that resulted in the king’s capture. Later the same year, when Matilda was driven out of Winchester, it was Robert who fought a rear guard action to allow Matilda to escape safely, but which led to his own seizure by forces loyal to Stephen.

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Medieval knights riding into battle from wall paintings at Claverley Church, Shropshire

It is a mark of the importance to Matilda’s cause of Earl Robert that he was part of a prisoner exchange, his release secured with that of Stephen in a complex arrangement of hostages and releases. The chronicler William of Malmesbury, who knew Earl Robert and is unfalteringly positive about his patron, believed that Robert demonstrated his courage, guile and humility when he initially refused to be exchanged for the king, since he was a mere earl and worth less than Stephen. Even when he was offered control of the government, he still refused. It was Matilda who blinked first. Robert was perhaps not as clever as William of Malmesbury believed (if the earl didn’t exaggerate his role in the negotiations for his writer friend!). Matilda’s case was largely based on the illegitimacy of Stephen’s rule; he was not the rightful king and had broken his own oaths to support her. Robert, in recognising Stephen as a king and as one of higher worth than an earl, undid that pretence and handed Stephen all of the religious authority and infallibility that went with being king.

Robert died on 31 October 1147, aged around fifty-seven, at Bristol Castle, still trying to lift his half-sister onto the throne. He was buried at his own foundation of St James’s Priory in Bristol. The hammer blow to Matilda’s cause is amply demonstrated by her decision to leave England in the early months of 1148, abandoning her own claim to the throne but bequeathing the effort to her son, Henry FitzEmpress, the future Henry II. Robert had been a paragon of chivalry, and shared many attributed with his rival King Stephen. William of Malmesbury is full of gushing praise for the brave, chivalrous, unflappable earl, and it is clear that he was the strong core of his half-sisters efforts.

Many urged Robert to make his own claim to the throne in 1135 and afterwards. This presented problems, not the least of which was his illegitimacy. His grandfather, William the Conqueror had been a bastard, but becoming a duke was different from becoming a king, and William took England by conquest, not by right. Illegitimacy was always much more of a bar to becoming a king, with all of the associated religious aspects of being chosen by God. On the other hand, he was the favourite son of the old king, Henry I, and solved all of the problems of female rule that Matilda relentlessly encountered. Capable, both militarily and politically, he was more acceptable to some despite his illegitimacy than any woman would ever be.

Robert refused at every turn, and at every request, to even consider trying to make himself a king. It is perhaps unkind to suggest that he lacked confidence that he would succeed, because he relentlessly spearheaded his half-sister’s efforts to unseat Stephen. William of Malmesbury may not have been far wide of the mark when he admiringly assured his reader that Robert would not consider such a step because he accepted Matilda as the rightful heir to their father’s throne. He swore oaths to her and, once Matilda launched her bid for the throne and turned away from Stephen, he spent the remainder of his life trying to keep those promises.

Robert died without seeing the eventual success of their cause, but he never gave up. He managed to be the military arm of an attempt to implement female rule in England more than four centuries before it would finally be accepted. That he did so without blurring the lines of his half-sister’s claim to the throne or allowing himself to become embroiled in efforts to make him king speaks volumes for the man and his abilities. There is an awful lot to admire in this dedicated, honourable and capable first holder of a peerage based on the city of Gloucester.

Stephen and Matilda: Cousins of Anarchy is released by Pen and Sword on 30 October 2019.

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Stephen-Matildas-Civil-War-Cousins/dp/1526718332

What do Matilda and Margaret, Eleanor and Elizabeth, plus two Henrys, add up to…?

To my mind, it adds up to two very similar situations that are two centuries apart.

Henry I deathbed - stand-in pic

Let us begin in the 12th century. On his deathbed, Henry I of England named as his successor his only surviving child, his daughter, the Empress Matilda. He obliged the nobility to agree. They reneged, of course. A woman as queen in her own right? Cue mass hysteria among the male upper classes and uncontrollable fits of the vapours in the Church. And cue a sharp move by her cousin, Stephen, who promptly had himself crowned before she could even return to England.

To cut a long story short, Matilda fought first for herself, supported by her powerful half-brother, Robert of Gloucester. When it became clear she would never be accepted because she was a woman, Matilda fought on behalf of her eldest son. He, thanks to her tireless efforts, eventually became Henry II—and yes, he is one of the two Henrys.

There was nothing Matilda would not have done to see her son on the throne, and her aim came to fruition. And when he was crowned, she became the highest woman in the realm. She wasn’t monarch in the own right, but came darned close!

Then came the time when Henry II chose a queen. Not just any queen, but beautiful, spirited Eleanor of Aquitaine, who was not only a powerful, troublesome lady with a mind very much of her own, but was also prepared to scheme and manipulate on behalf of her sons by Henry. Against Henry.

Eleanor’s reputation was not squeaky clean. She had been married to the King of France, only for the marriage to be annulled and custody of their two daughters given to Louis. She had been on a Crusade with her husband, and halted at Antioch, where she encountered her uncle, Raymond of Poitiers, who was described by William of Tyre as “a lord of noble descent, of tall and elegant figure, the handsomest of the princes of the earth, a man of charming affability and conversation, open-handed and magnificent beyond measure“. There were whispers because Raymond and Eleanor spent such a great deal of time together and seemed so very intimate. She quite clearly found her uncle preferable to her husband. The whispers increased when she declined to leave Antioch with said husband, who eventually took her away by force. She was a lady to whom scandal seemed drawn, but it is only her ‘acquaintance’ with Raymond that is of interest for this article.

Raymond of Poitiers

Raymond of Poitiers

The difficulties between Henry and Eleanor commenced when the latter came up against Matilda, who was not about to surrender the position of First Lady. As far as Matilda was concerned, Eleanor was simply Henry’s wife, with no claim to any power. A baby-making machine, no more or less. Open warfare threatened.

fighting women

Was Henry caught in the middle? Well, in a way, but he loved his mother because of all she had done to put him on the throne. Then (so the story goes) he fell for one of his many mistresses, a lady known as Fair Rosamund Clifford. It was too much for Eleanor. Already furious about playing second fiddle to Matilda, she now had to endure his immense infatuation for younger  woman. Eleanor stormed off to her lands in Europe, there to plot with her sons against their father.

the lion in winter

If you have seen the film The Lion in Winter, you will know that Eleanor and Henry were played by Katherine Hepburn and Peter O’Toole. Oh, how the sparks and flames flew when they were on screen together. Eleanor was indeed very beautiful, but I don’t think Henry resembled O’Toole. According to Gerald of Wales [he had} “a reddish complexion, rather dark, and a large, round head. His eyes were grey, bloodshot, and flashed in anger. He had a fiery countenance, his voice was tremulous, and his neck a little bent forward; but his chest was broad, and his arms were muscular. His body was fleshy, and he had an enormous paunch, rather by the fault of nature than from gross feeding.” Definitely not the gorgeous Peter.

* * *

Now we must fast forward to the fifteenth century, and Lady Margaret Beaufort, yet another mother who would stop at nothing to see her son on the throne. Meet that son, Henry VII, the second Henry concerned in this article. Unlike Henry II, who was a direct blood heir, Henry VII’s forebears descended through a rather convoluted and weak line that included the bastard strain of the Beauforts (illegitimate offspring of John of Gaunt and his mistress, Katherine de Roët.

When Henry, taking for himself the role of legitimate heir of the House of Lancaster, was helped to Richard III’s throne by traitors, his formidable mother became First Lady—she was known as the King’s Lady Mother. Like Matilda, Margaret also had a helpful half-brother, John Welles, Viscount Welles, but he was hardly in the same class as the mighty Robert of Gloucester.

I could not find an illustration of John Welles, but this is his father, Lionel, Lord Welles, who died at Towton.

Henry always supported whatever Margaret did. She was, perhaps, the only person he ever trusted completely. His was a suspicious, secretive, paranoid character. He was not a mother’s boy, but came pretty close.

Then he too took a wife. He had to, he’d promised it in order to win the support of discontented supporters of the House of York (to which his defeated predecessor, Richard III, had belonged). If Henry had tried to wriggle out of it, there would have been uproar, because the promise entailed marrying the eldest Yorkist princess, Richard III’s niece, Elizabeth. Henry VII did not like having to do as he was told, but wasn’t given much of a choice.

Elizabeth of York - for WordPress

It is hard to imagine anyone less like Eleanor of Aquitaine. Elizabeth of York was reportedly lovely, but was mostly so quiet and apparently inactive that she barely offered a defiant squeak when Henry and his mother belittled her. She must have loathed Margaret, who swanned around almost as if she were the king, not Henry.

However, like Eleanor before her, Elizabeth had also been caught up in a scandal. It too involved an uncle, Richard III. There were strong rumours that something went on between uncle and niece—so strong that Richard was forced to deny it all in public. Whether there was any truth in it all will never be known, although I doubt very much that Richard returned any incestuous affection. That falls into the realm of fiction. He was intent upon arranging a foreign match for her. But the story clings to Elizabeth’s memory. Maybe she did love Richard, who, unlike his Shakespearean namesake, was actually a handsome young widower at the time in question.

Richard III for WordPress

Henry VII may have come to feel affection for his queen (perhaps because she was so unlike his domineering mother!) but she always took second place to Margaret. There is no known equivalent of Fair Rosamund in Henry’s life, so Elizabeth was never challenged on that score. Even if she had been, I doubt if she would have flounced off in a fury as Eleanor did. Perhaps Henry’s problem with his marriage was that he could not forget the rumours about Richard.

Maybe Elizabeth was one of those people who work quietly in the background, getting her own way when she wanted, but never openly defying either Henry or Margaret. Well, she did once, and Henry was so startled at the unexpected stamping of her Yorkist foot, that he backed down. I’d love to have been there, just for the joy of seeing his face.

So, there we have it. Two grimly determined mothers-in-law, two daughters-in law touched by rumours of incest and consigned to second place. And two Henrys who were loath to take on their mothers. Two M’s, two E’s and two H’s!

Matilda and Margaret could not have the throne in their own right, but were prepared to fight tooth and nail to put their sons there. Eleanor was another in the same mould, but Elizabeth of York was not. Neither daughter-in-law was afforded proper prominence in the eyes of her husband.

As for the Henrys, well, while their mothers could not rule alone as the true monarch (heaven forfend!) these sons were quite happy to lay claim the throne through the female line. So, a woman’s blood was good enough pass on to a son who would be crowned, but was next to worthless if she tried to assert herself by becoming “king”.

 

Empress Matilda-Should She Be Listed as an English Monarch?

One of the most fascinating (and bloody) periods of English history is The Anarchy, when Empress Matilda, daughter of Henry I (he who might well be found sometime soon in the ruins of Reading Abbey) fought her cousin Stephen of Blois (thought to be in Faversham Abbey) for the English throne. Battles raged across the land and barons, without permission, threw up adulterine castles everywhere and lived lawlessly. The times were so turbulent that it was said ‘Christ and His Saints slept.’

Matilda’s forces captured Stephen in 1141 and she came very close to being crowned, but violent crowds of Stephen’s supporters on the way to London stopped the Coronation from taking place. Then her biggest supporter, her half-brother Robert of Gloucester was captured at Winchester, and the only way to free him was to trade Stephen’s freedom for Robert’s.

In 1148, Matilda retreated from England for good and left the fighting to her son, Henry FitzEmpress, the son of Geoffrey Plantagenet–the future Henry II. In 1153 Henry and Stephen came to an agreement after the Siege of Wallingford, in which Henry was declared Stephen’s heir as the latter’s eldest son Eustace had died. The next year, Stephen died and Henry took the throne.

Matilda is generally not listed as one of the rulers of England but some believe that she should be. Although never crowned, she was Henry I’s heir and before the High Altar of All Saints, Northampton, Henry rallied his barons to swear loyalty to her and to support her claim to the throne. They swore at the time, but as often happened in the Middle Ages, the oaths were quickly broken once Henry died. The idea of a female ruler was not a popular one, although there was no legal impediment to it, as England, unlike France, did not have a Salic Law.

Many sources list Edward V, Jane and Edward VIII as monarchs of England, despite the fact that they were never crowned and their legitimacy to the position was disputed–so, if that is considered correct, why then is the Empress Matilda excluded from the list, as designated heir to Henry I?

Matilda is, of course ancestor to the line of Plantagenet kings that followed on from her son, and through her maternal side, they also have a line of descent from both King Malcolm of Scotland and the royal House of Wessex via St Margaret. Both claimants were, therefore, among Richard III’s ancestors.parents_of_henry_ii

 

An interesting post on the subject of Matilda from the FB page ‘House of Plantagenet History & Geneology’ :https://www.facebook.com/groups/41546823396/permalink/10154937093853397/

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