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Robert of Gloucester: The Almost-King of England

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.

William the Conqueror was, not to put too fine a point on it, a bastard. While this assessment would have likely met with enthusiastic agreement from quite a few Anglo-Saxons, it’s also true in a more formalised legal sense. It is readily acknowledged, most candidly by later sources influenced by advancing cultural mores and prejudices, that William was illegitimate; born outside of a licit and church sanctioned union.

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Born at a time of changing attitudes amongst the aristocracy towards the precepts and status of marriage, the young William was nevertheless acknowledged by his father as heir and considered eligible for inheritance by his nominal feudal overlord, King Henry of France. Perhaps more importantly, despite his illegitimacy and less than illustrious maternal heritage, William was viewed as an acceptable candidate within the networks of Norman familial affinities from which Ducal authority had to be cultivated and transmitted. The Duke’s campaign to subjugate England benefited from the explicit endorsement of Pope Alexander II and there exists no contemporary indication of clerical or secular unease with William claiming the throne of England and the mantle of sacral kingship, despite the profound theological nature and connotations of the anointment.  Indeed, perhaps the Church’s most stringent censure and criticism of William came not in regard to his illegitimacy but rather to his consanguineous marriage with Matilda of Flanders.

The King’s most intimate and qualified biographers, William of Jumieges and William of Poitiers, eschew the subject of his legitimacy entirely while Orderic Vitalis engages far more with the issue, commenting on its supposed influence in William’s early career.  Writing in the twelfth century, Orderic Vitalis formulated his chronicle in the reigns of Henry I and Stephen, at a time in which the Church’s conceptions of marriage and its connotations were increasingly gaining traction in lay society. The extent to which Orderic characterised elements of aristocratic resistance to William’s primacy and the exercise of his ducal prerogatives as a result of familial circumstances are possibly exaggerated. After all, zealously resisting the imposition of all outside authority while simultaneously expanding your own family’s power and influence was practically part of a Norman nobles job description. It is interesting to note, when considering Anglo-Norman conceptions of illegitimacy and familial structure, that when describing such opposition, Orderic couches aristocratic opposition specifically in terms of the low social standing of William’s mother, Herleva, rather than focusing on the informal, illicit nature of her relationship with Duke Robert.

King William I mounted, with sword and shield, accompanied by knights and soldiers. The arms of England appear on his surcoat, shield, and the trappings on his horse – British Library Cotton MS Claudius D. II, fol.33

Two generations later in 1135, the situation was very different. While an illegitimate William had been able to successfully inherit his father’s Dukedom with relatively minimal resistance and claim his conquered throne and the trappings of kingship with nary a whisper of dissent based on the circumstances of his birth, for his grandson, Robert of Gloucester, the eldest illegitimate son of Henry I, illegitimacy represented a formidable impediment to any aspirations for the throne and the evidence that his candidacy was ever seriously considered is shadowy and scant. On the face of it the idea that Robert could have been a viable candidate to succeed his father seems eminently plausible with much to recommend it. Henry I’s only legitimate son, William the Aetheling, had died in 1120 and in many ways, it had been Robert who stepped into the breach that the tragedy had opened in contemporary politics and royal governance.

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While the king had a legitimate daughter, the Empress Matilda, whose title derived from her former marriage to the Holy Roman Emperor Henry V, her gender represented a potential complication with the Anglo-Norman magnates for whom the prospect of a reigning queen was a contentious issue. Further Matilda’s father had in 1128 married her to Geoffrey le Bel, the heir of the powerful neighbouring county of Anjou. The marriage made good strategic sense precluding further Angevin aggression towards Normandy and providing them with a strong continental ally in their ongoing struggle with the kings of France. For members of the medieval aristocracy politics often necessitated rather tangled family situations, with Matilda’s union effectively replacing the alliance and dynastic connection that had previously been created by the marriage of her now deceased brother to Geoffrey’s eldest sister.

The one possible drawback to the marriage was that much of the Norman aristocracy loathed the Angevins with whom they shared a long running rival. The horror that many of the power-brokers of the Anglo-Norman world felt at the prospect of an Angevin Count ruling them, through his wife, was one of the great impediments to the acceptance of Matilda’s claim, a potential boon to Robert’s own prospects and as it happened an important factor in the rise of the half-sibling’s cousin, Stephen, to the throne. Robert while illegitimate was widely and publicly acknowledged as the eldest child of Henry I from whom he had received a great deal of personal attention and favour.

Indeed, Robert was quick to reinforce this connection and stress his royal heritage, habitually referring to himself as the son of the king and used grander stylised forms of address and type than his fellow earls and barons which utilised imperial, almost vice-regal, connotations. In the preceding decades, illegitimate children had inherited in tumultuous political circumstances with the backing of a prominent patron. For instance, Eustace of Bretuil, the husband of Juliane, another of Henry I’s bastards, was himself illegitimate but was able to inherit his father’s lands over the claims of his two legitimate cousins as a result of his pre-existing personal connections with the lordship’s chief tenants and his strong military position.

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As the Earl of Gloucester and one of the primary architects of the expansion of Anglo-Norman power into Wales, Robert was the centre and patron of a vast conglomeration of lands and dynastic interests. His personal wealth and his wide array of dedicated allies and followers made Robert a power to be reckoned with whose support was crucial for any candidate. Surely then the Earl’s contemporary importance and temporal might could be considered as a point in favour of his candidacy. Furthermore, Robert was intimately associated and intricately linked with the exaction of and mechanism of the royal government. As a member of the king’s inner circle of councillors and his father’s right hand man, Robert was not only exceptionally well connected but afforded a tremendous amount of prestige and was increasingly, as the reign progressed, awarded the position of primacy in the witness lists of his father’s charters. After all you could reason, when faced with an uncertain future and the prospect of a troubled succession why not support the person who was already involved in carrying out so many of the position’s duties regardless of his illegitimacy?

It is perhaps strange then, that only one chronicle, the anonymously authored Gesta Stephani, gives any real indication of contemporary discussion of Robert’s claim to the throne. The chronicle records that Robert was urged by certain influential but unidentified persons amongst the Anglo-Norman community to put forward his claim as his father’s successor. The chronicle which is generally pro-royalist and supportive of Robert’s eventual rival, King Stephen, depicts Robert demurring these offers of support, instead favouring the candidacy of Matilda’s infant son, the future Henry II. In his own chronicle, William of Malmesbury, who wrote under Robert’s patronage, emphasises Robert’s royal heritage and noble characteristics but makes no mention of the Earl’s candidacy for the throne.  Perhaps William decided to exclude the topic as potentially embarrassing or a divisive factor, given that having vacillated in the early months of the succession crisis, Robert had soon emerged a formidable ally of his half-sister’s claim. Likewise, the Gesta Stephani’s account of Robert’s conspicuous support for his nephew’s rights is, depending upon the date of its compilation which is unclear, likely an example of revisionism created in light of Robert’s later supervision of the young Henry during his first forays into England.

The powerful but somewhat nebulous Church reform movement’s definition of the necessary prerequisites and binary nature of marriage, that had been developing over the eleventh and twelfth centuries, coincided with the already paramount importance within the aristocratic world for a potential partner to possess high status, wealth, and familial connections which would enrich and enhance the prestige of her adopted family and any children she had. Increasingly during this period, a clerical model of marriage was accepted by the aristocracy, formalising and regulating a pre-existing pattern of inheritance which selected heirs based on the material and political advantages that could be derived from their maternal lineage; a trend with strong roots in the tradition of the Carolingian court. The importance of those connections and access to expanded landed interests afforded by potential heirs can be seen in Henry I’s eventual nomination of his daughter.

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It is usually assumed, with some justification, that Henry selected Matilda over Robert for this role solely on the grounds that she was his only surviving legitimate child. Yet Henry, was clearly, and it transpired rightly, wary of the difficulties surrounding the likelihood of widespread acceptance of a female heir. When it became clear that his marriage to his second wife, Adeliza of Louvain, was unlikely to produce children, the king expended considerable energy and influence in extracting an oath, ratified by the Church, of loyalty to Matilda from the Anglo-Norman magnates.

Matilda’s original acceptance and recognition by the Anglo-Norman magnates during her father’s lifetime demonstrates that she was viewed, at least by the majority, as a valid, if not necessarily desirable, heir. Nevertheless, it’s interesting to note the validity of her parent’s marriage and her own legitimacy was not entirely free from ambiguity.  Her mother, Matilda of Scotland, had spent much of her life in a nunnery and it appears that there existed some degree of uncertainty amongst contemporaries about whether she had taken vows prior to Henry’s proposal to her.

Henry I secured Matilda, and the heightened legitimacy inherent in her valuable lineage, in much the same way he moved to secure the royal treasury as an asset that would enhance his position in the transition of power and authority.  Indeed, during the protracted warfare and inheritance dispute that gradually took hold following Stephen’s succession to the English throne and the Duchy of Normandy, the King’s faction seized upon the potential ambiguity of the Empress’ mother’s status as a nun for propaganda purposes. The Papal Curia, however, equivocated on the matter, possibly recognising the dangers of becoming entangled in such a fundamentally politically and divisive issue with only limited means of enforcement.

Empress Matilda

Despite this potential liability, Matilda’s maternal connections and dynastic associations were of the upmost importance in Henry I’s decision to recognise her as his successor. Matilda, her husband, and their children not only gained a close familial association with the Scottish royal house but also a connection to the ancient royal dynasty of Wessex and England which the Norman Dukes themselves had displaced but from whom Matilda’s maternal grandmother, the later-canonised Margret, was descended.  The appearance of continuity with the old Anglo-Saxon regime within the administration and running of England was of particular interest to Henry I. This may have stemmed from the not inconsiderable Anglo-Norman opposition to his succession and the series of uprisings launched by the cross-channel magnates in favour of his elder brother, Duke Robert. Indeed, upon his coronation, Henry released a declaration strongly emphasising a commitment to rule according to the laws and customs of his predecessor, Edward the Confessor. In doing so, he renounced many of the newly developed or Norman-derived regal and ducal rights. Of course, as is the case with politicians and manifestos throughout time, he later made great use of these royal prerogatives throughout his reign both rewarding and exerting his authority over the nobility.  In addition then to Matilda’s status as Henry’s last living legitimate child, her viability as an heir was significantly enhanced by her royal heritage and status as the only remaining issue from his union with Matilda of Scotland and the ancient dynasty of Wessex.

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Familial identity and affinity were crucial factors in the establishment of an aristocrat’s social and political contexts, defining to a significant extent their place and interactions within the networks of power in which they existed. These factors derived from the family’s role as a receptacle of wealth. While personal disputes were far from uncommon, this sense of identity and inclusivity in a shared dynastic enterprise necessarily required, and was incentivised by, a stake within the collective fortunes and inheritance portfolio of that family.  Marriage was not only the principal mechanism through which these family networks could maintain themselves but also the means through which they could cultivate and grow other connections and so expand their political and landed interests within wider networks of aristocratic power through a process of consolidation and synthesis. The perpetuation and relative inclusivity of the eleventh and twelfth century aristocratic family benefited from the adoption of regulated and legally recognised lines of inheritance formed in reaction to Church reforms which promoted the importance of maternal lineage as a point of connectivity within aristocratic familial networks. This emphasis and its enthusiastic adoption by elements of the nobility worked to further clarify and delineate the differences between legitimate and illicit unions and through this distinction contributed to the social and legal relegation of illegitimate children.

Following Henry I’s death much of the Anglo-Norman nobility ended up defaulting on their oaths to Matilda and instead transferred their support to her cousin, Stephen. Like Robert, Stephen was a well established and connected member of Anglo-Norman royal family who had long been associated with royal governance through his engagement in service to and close affinity with the king. However, unlike Robert, Stephen was unburdened by the impediment of illegitimacy and actively and energetically campaigned for the throne, aided in no small part by the efforts and influence of his brother, Bishop Henry of Winchester. The extent, duration and sincerity of Robert’s cooperation with his cousin is a matter of some historiographical debate. Robert’s provocation and eventual declaration of support for Stephen should not necessarily be viewed as an abandonment or repudiation by Robert of his commitment to or affinity with royal family identity, Stephen was after all his cousin.  While Robert’s seeming desertion of Matilda, following their father’s death, may have been a reaction to the conflict that had erupted between Henry I and his Angevins son-in-law. Count Geoffrey’s invasion of Normandy, following Henry’s death may well have complicated the question of Robert’s loyalty and placed him in a difficult position, contributing to the apparent ambiguity of his position in the immediate aftermath of Stephen’s accession to the throne.

Whatever the case, Stephen’s ongoing difficulties in the opening years of his reign and failure to mollifying the Earl and incorporate him into his inner circle provided Robert and other sympathisers with Matilda’s claim with the motive and opportunity to commit, or recommit, to supporting the Empress. For the twelfth century Anglo-Norman aristocrat, particularly one with Robert’s wealth, status and abundance of connections and affinities, the distinction and delineation between private and familial interests were blurred to the extent that a family’s landed interests and position within the aristocratic web of affinities and obligations provided a framework for, and heavily informed, the political position and orientation of its members as well as the direction of their ambitions.

This is the fourth 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: 19th century relief of Robert, 1st earl of Gloucester. Photo by Wolfgang Sauber / Wikipedia Commons

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