By James Turner
Family was of the utmost importance in shaping the identity, political affinity and horizons of twelfth century aristocrats. This was no less true for royals with the Norman and Angevin kings of England finding both their greatest supporters and ardent foes emerging from the ranks of their own family throughout the 12th century. This series looks at the lives and relationships of a category of people who due to the circumstances of their birth sat on the periphery of this vast and interconnected dynastic systems – the royal bastards.
Henry I was a man of noted extramarital fecundity fathering at least eighteen acknowledged illegitimate children. This is was an impressive number of children even when compared to his dynastically minded contemporaries within the Anglo-Norman aristocracy. His daughter Juliana was, as far as history records, the only one who ever tried to kill the king having shot a crossbow at him in 1119.
Juliana was born sometime around the early 1090s the third eldest of the seven daughters identified by the Abbot of Mont Saint-Michel Robert of Torigni in his chronicle. The identity of her mother as with many royal bastards is sadly unknown although her apparent similarity in age to another of Henry’s bastards Robert of Lincoln suggests that they may have shared a mother in the king’s third known mistress Ansfride. However, the itinerant nature of the Norman court as well as the prominent rift between England and Normandy, meant that even before his accession to the throne, Henry was like a teenager with a dating app able to maintain multiple liaisons across different localities.
While Henry I sheer number of offspring is an interesting enough fact on its own, reality tv shows have been made about far less after all, its perhaps useful to examine Henry’s extensive extramarital activities though the prism of his early limited political and economic prospects. The landless third son of William the Conqueror Henry experienced a complex and often confrontational relationship with his two elder brothers Robert and William who respectively occupied the positions of Duke of Normandy and King of England. As a result, he was compelled through a lack of resources and meaningful prospects to eschew marriage until later life.
Instead he adopted a largely transitory lifestyle through the Anglo-Norman aristocratic networks, often engaging in service to one or the other of his competing siblings. His orchestration of a series of strategic marriages for his illegitimate daughters Matilda and Juliana in the early years of his eventual reign clearly indicate that they were born during Henry’s extended stay in the political wilderness. Similarly, both Robert the future Earl of Gloucester, who is specifically identified as the King’s eldest illegitimate child, and Juliana’s possible full sibling Richard of Lincoln were both born prior to the King’s accession.
It is perhaps less than surprising that Henry I continued elements of this lifestyle and continued to father illegitimate children long after his coronation and subsequent marriage to the Anglo-Scottish royal descendent, Matilda of Scotland. Robert of Torigni describes three of Henry’s illegitimate children, Reginald de Dunstanville, the future Earl of Cornwall, Robert the future Lord of Oakhampton, and Gilbert as being too young to hold territory of their own in the mid 1130’s, indicating that they were born during their father’s reign. It’s possible that Henry’s relative paucity of legitimate heirs was perhaps a deliberate strategy adopted to avoid the internecine warfare which had characterised the King’s relationships with his brothers.
Indeed, Queen Matilda, while an active partner in royal identity and administration seems to have, after the initial years of their marriage, operated primarily within the English royal administrative centres rather travelling with the court. As a result, while many of Henry’s illegitimate children persisted primarily within the context of their maternal connections, other were integrated into the royal court and broader aristocratic society as part of a royal dynastic strategy. The inclusion of his illegitimate children by Henry within a familial identity as well as the fostering of a shared political and personal affinity was therefore a deliberate strategy intended to reinforce royal authority and influence throughout aristocratic networks. With only two legitimate children a son William, his chosen heir, and a daughter Matilda, who made a prestigious marriage to the Holy Roman Emperor, it was advantageous for the king to draft his numerous bastards to positions within a dynastic and political strategy which would otherwise have been filled by legitimate family members.
Juliana marries Eustace de Pacy
As a result, Juliana shortly after her father’s accession to the throne in 1100 Juliana was married to Eustace de Pacy, the illegitimate son of William of Breteuil. Breteuil was a strategically important and heavily fortified lordship within Normandy which Henry was eager to gain influence over. William’s death had sparked a conflict over inheritance amongst his relatives which had begun to draw in neighbouring lords and magnates, destabilising the region. Orderic Vitalis, who would be well informed on the matter given Breteuil’s proximity to the Abbey of St Evroult, states that William’s preferred heir was his nephew William de Gael, the son of his favourite sister Emma and Ralph de Gael, the Earl of East Anglia but that he was opposed by another nephew of William’s from Burgundy, Reynold de Grancei. The matter was further muddled by Eustace who upon his father’s death promptly seized and fortified all of his castles refusing to relinquish them.
Eustace was able to do this in part because unlike his two legitimate cousins he was an established participant within the aristocratic networks of Breteuil winning over the support of his father’s most powerful tenants and vassals, such as William Alis and Ralph the Red Lord of Pont-Echanfre. With Eustace already effectively in control of the region and probably wary of the possibility of a strategically important area falling under the auspices of a family primarily operating outside of the Anglo-Norman hegemony Henry elected to support Eustace’s claim despite his illegitimacy. Juliana and Eustace’s marriage and the creation of such a powerful link of royal affinity and support put a swift end to any competing claims securing Eustace’s position and nominally securing his loyalty. However, the canny and opportunistic king took the opportunity to install his own garrison at Ivry Castle, further entrenching himself in the area, his grip on the strategically important region maintained through both a direct military presence and the fostering of strong familial ties.
Finding husbands for his illegitimate daughters
Henry continued this dynastic strategy of strengthening his support amongst the turbulent Anglo-Norman aristocracy and the internal coherency of his diverse realms through the carefully arranged marriages of his other illegitimate daughters. Around the same time as Juliana’s marriage to Eustace her half-sister Matilda married Count Rotrou of Perche. Rotrou was a relative and rival of one of the principle architects of the Anglo-Norman aristocratic resistance to Henry’s claims in England and Normandy, Robert of Belleme with whom he disputed the lordships of Domfort and Belleme. Matilda brought to her marriage two valuable manors in Wiltshire, Aldbourne and Wanborough; the wealth this land represented both a further incentive to her husband to form an alignment with Henry while also providing the Count with domains in England to ensure that he, like Henry, had a vested interest in maintaining the integrity of the union between England and Normandy.
In a similar vein Henry also arranged the marriage, sometime around the early 1110s, of one of his illegitimate daughters, Mabel, to another of Robert of Belleme’s enemies located within Normandy, William Gouet III of Montmirail. Robert was at this time fomenting rebellion in southern Normandy aided by the ambitious and expansionist Count Fulk of Anjou; an alliance with a powerful and well connected lord within that region, whose family were perennial rivals of Robert’s family was a natural and sensible advancement of Henry I’s dynastic strategy to retain and expand his authority on the peripheries of the Anglo-Norman hegemony. Henry’s illegitimate daughters were employed in defense of the Norman periphery and the expansion of his influence by forming a system of political and familial alliances in the surrounding territories throughout his reign. Another daughter, Constance, married Roscelin de Beaumont, the Viscount of Beaumont-sur-Sarth. Roscelin had a strong hereditary claim to the Angevin dominated county of Maine and was valuable asset in curtailing the impact of Angevin aggression until Henry I’s own rapprochement with Fulk in 1125.
In addition to the marriage of Juliana and several half siblings into the fractious and difficult to control Norman aristocracy Henry I also brokered dynastic marriages between yet more of his illegitimate children and independent or semi-autonomous neighbours. These relationships and the establishment of familial affinities helped Henry exert overlordship and cultivate a perception of personal and political pre-eminence. The most prestigious of these unions was between the King’s daughter, Sybil, and King Alexander of Scotland. Given the application of a shared family name, Sybil is often identified as the daughter of Sybil Corbert, the mother of another royal bastard Reginald of Cornwall. There is some dispute over the exact date of the marriage – which may have occurred as early as 1107 when Alexander first came to the throne or as late as 1114 resulting either from or in Alexander’s personal participation in Henry I’s campaign in Wales that year. Interestingly, Henry and Alexander were already connected dynastically through Henry’s marriage to Alexander’s sister Matilda of Scotland. Alexander’s marriage to Sybil could have been intended by Henry to strengthen the ties between the two monarchs with perhaps the transition from brother-in-law to father-in-law meant to emphasise Henry’s seniority and self-appointed role as arbitrator in the matter of the parameters of the monarchs’ relationship.
Sometime before 1113, another daughter, bizarrely also called Matilda, was married to Duke Conan III of Brittany, a union which forced King Louis VI to give formal, if begrudging, recognition of the long sought-after Anglo-Norman dominance and hegemony over Brittany. The marriage of one of Henry’s illegitimate daughters to the Duke was likely intended by Henry to reinforce his influence over the duchy and to draw Conan into participating in the Anglo-Norman royal family affinity and aristocratic networks. Although Duke Conan seems to have been anxious to minimise this influence and perpetuate his own autonomy within Brittany itself.
Blinding your grandchildren
The seemingly mutually beneficial alignment of interests achieved through Juliana’s marriage to Eustace lasted until 1119 when the king and his son-in-law, who was abetted and supported by Juliana, came into conflict over the ownership of the border castle of Ivry which Henry was reluctant to part with, as well as Eustace’s feuding with the king’s castellan. Orderic recounts that over the course of a decade Eustace made multiple entreaties to his father-in-law portioning for the recovery of the castle. As a result of these ongoing negotiations the couple was given the son of the castle’s royal castellan Ralph-Harenec as a hostage in 1118.
For reasons unknown and perhaps confident in his intimate connection to the royal family to escape reprisals, Eustace eventually had the boys eyes put out blinding him. Orderic interestingly cites the pernicious influence of his hangers on and intimates for both this act and Eustace’s original grievance in a possible attempt to remit the extent of the transgressions committed by the king’s son-in-law and daughter. An attack on the kings castellan was however an attack on the king himself and a direct challenge to royal authority, something that Henry I was unwilling to overlook. Never a serious contender for grandfather of the year the king slipped further in the rankings when he had Eustace and Juliana’s two daughters delivered up for similar mutilation at the hands of the sorely aggrieved Ralph.
Such harsh treatment of Henry I’s own grandchildren clearly represents a severe breakdown of royal familial affinity and probably led to a rather awkward Christmas. The conflict’s origins in a territorial dispute and the resistance of the imposition of royal authority displays the limitations of the links of family affinity created by through marriage. While such connections could be mutually beneficial for both royal bastards and their spouses’ family, the equilibrium of such affinities was heavily weighted in favour of the royal bastard’s legitimate relatives. That Henry had guardianship or at least ready access to two of his grandchildren through an illegitimate child is interesting although given the context of tension with their father, it seems likely they were given to him as part of an exchange of hostages and there are no other known examples of the children of Henry’s royal bastards being placed in the King’s care in this way. These spiralling outrages pushed Eustace into open rebellion fortifying his holdings and mustering his allies Eustace left Juliana who he seems to have viewed as a trusted confederate and partner in control of his principal castle.
Probably as a result of the personal nature of his familial connection to the rebels Henry intervened personally in the matter, travelling to Breteuil he entered into negotiations with his daughter directly. That Juliana’s sense of familial affinity and good will towards her father was severely depleted can be seen when she tried to kill her father with a crossbow from the battlements. When her assassination attempt failed and with the castle now coming under siege she was forced to sneak out by being lowered down from atop the castles walls a process which Orderic rather salaciously for a monk reports caused her to indecently expose a portion of her leg, perhaps as much as a full ankle.
Juliana and Eustace’s conflict with Henry I exposes the limitations of familial links between royal bastards and their legitimate family members and its potential weakness in the face of political and personal conflict. The rebellion was crushed by the king in short order however while not exactly known for his sunny disposition Henry I was no Henry VIII. Moreover, the political landscape of the twelfth century than that of the sixteenth and rebellion did not necessarily or even often mean the death of the perpetrators. Indeed rebellion, often limited in scope, was in some ways just another method to signal discontent and there was a well-established pattern of reconciliation and compromise often accompanied by limited punitive action with rebellious or truculent Norman aristocrats.
As a result, the seemingly repentant couple were eventually reconciled with Henry through the intervention of another royal bastards, Juliana’s brother, Richard of Lincoln. Richard and his fellow petitioners succeeded in mollifying the kings’ anger and while the majority of the Breteuil lands was given to a cousin Ralph de Gael Eustace retained the lordship of Pacy. The couple were even compensated somewhat for the loss by the granting of a yearly stipend of three hundred silver marks. This intercession by one of Henry I’s illegitimate children on behalf of another displays a recognition of a mutual identity and the existence of an active and networked familial affinity despite their diaspora and disparate levels of political engagement.
This is the first in a series of articles known as A Bastard’s Lot: The Illegitimate Royal Children of 12th Century England, by James Turner.
James Turner has recently completed his doctoral studies at Durham University before which he attended the University of Glasgow. Deeply afraid of numbers and distrustful of counting, his main research interests surround medieval aristocratic culture and identity.
Top Image: A crossbow shown in a twelfth-century manuscript – BBB Cod. 120.II fol. 109r