The Rouen Riot and Conan’s Leap
By Warren Hollister
Peritia, Vol.10 (1996)
Introduction: In the course of the eleventh century, and more commonly in the twelfth, many of the growing towns of Western Europe were disrupted by communal riots. The objective of rebellious townspeople was usually to win privileges from their lay or ecclesiastical lords, but this was not always the case. One of the earliest occurred in Rouen in 1090. Its participants included wealthy merchants, evidently organised into rival factions or parties, but the chief instigators were contending members of the upper Anglo-Norman nobilityin particular, the three warring sons of the recently deceased William the Conqueror. Of these three, the middle brother, William II, ‘Rufus’, was king of England, the youngest, Henry, would in time become king of England, and the eldest, Robert Curthose duke of Normandy (nicknamed ‘short stockings’), had always wanted to be king of England but never quite managed it.
The three brothers were, on the whole, distinctly unfraternal. William Rufus campaigned to wrest Normandy from Robert Curthose, who had earlier sought unsuccessfully to take England from Rufus. Henry, being the youngest and least powerful (perhaps eighteen at his father’s death), was victimised by both. When, shortly after the Conqueror’s death, Robert Curthose needed money to make war on William Rufus, he sold much of Western Normandy along with a comital title to Henry (who had inherited some £5000 from his father), but not long afterward Robert tried unsuccessfully to reclaim the region without repaying the money. When Henry sailed to England to claim the lands his mother had bequeathed him, Rufus refused to give them to him. On Henry’s return to Normandy, in the company of the powerful magnate Robert of Belleme, Robert Curthose, without apparent cause, seized both of them by surprise and imprisoned them for a number of months.
Once he was freed, Henry returned to Western Normandy where he was welcomed by friends and supporters. There he remained, keeping a low profile while Rufus and Curthose battled for Eastern and Central Normandy. By 1090, the year of the Rouen riot, Rufus had won over to his cause, largely through bribery, much of the nobility of north-eastern Normandy. Henry was strong in the West – in the vicomtes of the Cotentin, the Avranchin, and the Bessin. And Curthose had the fragile support of various great landholding vassals of central Normandy. He also enjoyed the prestige of being the Conqueror’s eldest son, and the legitimacy stemming from possession of the ducal title. His chief strength however, both political and economic, was in the ducal capital of Rouen, a flourishing centre of commerce and Normandy’s largest city, guarded by substantial walls and a formidable castle at their south-eastern corner.