Saying No to Medieval Fratricide: Why it wasn’t Ok to kill your Brother

By James Turner

A look into the lack of royal fratricide in twelfth-century England.

A.J.P Taylor, the so-called bad boy revisionist of modern British history, once bemoaned the corrosive and stifling effect of historians becoming too defensive and proprietary of their academic specialisations. Needless to say, this note of caution has to be placed within the context of a rich career spent ruminating upon the methodology and above all else the purpose of writing history. There are numerous practical and logistical considerations that justify, frankly even necessitate, historians specialising to one extent or another within a certain field and chronology.

As an academic discipline History is a broad church that cannot help but benefit from a plurality of ideas and approaches. Of course, that was precisely Taylor’s point. To avoid becoming hidebound or crystalising into a potentially obstructive orthodoxy, history must be freely debated, constantly tested by fresh perspectives and comparisons. With this in mind I thought it might be an interesting and instructive exercise to examine one of the foundational social tenants of my own research into twelfth-century England which I have previously accepted more or less uncritically, the paramount importance and insolvability of familial relationships.


Henry I and Robert Curthose

In 1106 King Henry I of England captured his elder brother Duke Robert Curthose of Normandy during their decisive clash at the Battle of Tinchebray. While Robert’s capture provided Henry with the necessary leverage and military prestige to annex Normandy and usurp the title of duke, the king was now presented with the serious dilemma of what to do with his deposed sibling. Even captured and momentarily humbled, Robert presented a serious threat to the continuity of Henry’s rule and a potential figurehead for resistance.

As the eldest son of King William the Conqueror, the now deposed Duke arguably possessed a superior claim not only to Normandy but England itself. Upon his death in 1087 the Conqueror’s will had stipulated that his patrimony, those lands he had inherited from his own father, be inherited by his eldest son while entrusting the throne of England, which he had nominally inherited from his cousin, Edward the Confessor, and secured through military enterprise, to his second eldest surviving son William Rufus.


Historians and contemporaries alike have speculated that this decision had been informed by Robert’s adoption of armed rebellion and resistance against his father. At the time of the Conqueror’s death, inheritance practices were in a state of considerable flux with what trends there were being far from proscriptive. While aristocrats during this period had significant leeway in the manner in which they disposed of and allotted their landed interests, in reality they had to contend with the practical considerations of what their various relatives and those relatives’ supporters would be willing to accept. In the absence of a strong legal tradition or singularly recognised convention, the distribution of inheritance was ultimately a matter of negotiation and compromise.

The result of this division was that a number of the Anglo-Norman realm’s leading magnates, including the Conqueror’s half-brothers, felt that Robert Curthose had been cheated of his inheritance and rose up in defence of his claim. William Rufus succeeded in quashing this uprising but his relationship with Robert remained at its core strained and was characterized by intermittent outbreaks of violence, as one or the other attempted to consolidate the family’s holdings under their rule and displace their rival.

When William Rufus died childless in 1100, there was no legal provision or custom that stipulated that Robert’ Curthose’s earlier relegation from the throne of England was necessarily permanent. Indeed, as the eldest of the king’s surviving brothers and the Duke of Normandy, there was a strong case to be made by those seeking the political reunification of the Anglo-Norman domains, that Robert’s claim to the throne was superior to Henry’s. In fact, Henry was well aware of the weakness of his position and the fact that any extended process of arbitration would almost certainly result in Robert taking the throne.

It was for that very reason that he moved with such alacrity and boldness, taking control of the treasury, securing himself a bride of valuable royal pedigree and rushing ahead with his coronation in London within a few scant weeks of first hearing of William Rufus’ death. Once again, significant portions of the Anglo-Norman aristocracy came out in support of Robert Curthose. Rebellion and armed conflict were widespread, if poorly coordinated, and Henry retained his grip on power in England only by the narrowest of margins.


By 1106, Henry was able to capitalise upon England’s greater financial resources and the plethora of royal powers available to him as king to win the support of significant numbers of the Anglo-Norman cross-channel magnates and lesser aristocrats, allowing him to triumph decisively over Robert following the escalation of their latest territorial dispute.

However, partially unanchored from a tradition of clearly delineated royal authority, the exercise of hegemonic power in the twelfth century could be fickle and hard to direct dependent as it was on the cooperation of various aristocratic supporters and local proxies. Neither Henry nor Robert had to look too deeply into their family’s history or too far afield geographically to find examples of nobles whose ambitions had been dashed upon the wheel of fortune, only to make remarkable and unexpected recoveries. The personal and often mediated nature of political and military power during this period meant that even the most powerful rulers were susceptible to the vagaries of fate as their rotating cast of subjects and allies continually repositioned themselves in the search for advantage.

The threat the imprisoned Robert Curthose potentially posed to Henry was further compounded by Robert’s formidable reputation and concerns regarding succession. While Normandy had suffered from a degree of mismanagement under Curthose, who appears to have had both a modest taste for luxury and a propensity to engage in people-pleasing, he was a renowned soldier. In 1076, Robert unhorsed and wounded his father, who was himself a famed warrior, while in the midst of an uprising in Rouen. In 1096, Robert departed on the first Crusade with a considerable army, eventually establishing himself as one of the Crusader host’s foremost military commanders. The cache of Robert’s reputation as a warrior and the prestige granted to him by his central role in the Crusades, an era-defining phenomenon, would have had a substantial appeal to the martially inclined Anglo-Norman aristocracy.


At the time of Robert’s capture in 1106, he was perhaps Henry’s most plausible successor as king of England. Henry’s only legitimate son, William, was still an infant while his only other legitimate child, Matilda was scarcely older than her brother. Henry had an expansive crop of illegitimate children, the eldest of whom, Robert, was probably in his mid-teens by 1106. While the stigma towards illegitimate children was not as well entrenched or universally accepted as it would become later in the twelfth century, it was certainly a mark against Robert who was also a landless youth without title or meaningful connection outside of his father. All of this meant that were Henry to die suddenly, there was a very good chance that Robert would be freed and placed on the throne of England, displacing Henry’s own children.

Despite the manifest threat that Robert’s continued survival posed to Henry and his children, the king chose to imprison his defeated brother. As it transpired, the unusually long-lived Duke would remain in prison for twenty-eight years until his death in 1134. He was confined securely but in relative comfort, first by Henry’s Lord Chancellor, Bishop Roger of Salisbury at Devizes. In 1126, Robert was remanded into the custody of his illegitimate nephew and possible namesake whom the king had raised to the Earldom of Gloucester in 1122 and transferred to Cardiff Castle, deep within the earl’s powerbase. King Henry’s decision to entrust his brother’s ongoing imprisonment to two of the most important members of his inner circle in turn is a testament to his acute awareness of the ongoing threat posed by the duke.

A 15th-century depiction of Henry capturing Robert – Bibliothèque nationale de France. MS Français 230

Robert’s transfer to the custody of Henry’s illegitimate son and trusted righthand man in 1126 is possibly part of the king’s attempts to draw a line under the tumult that broke out following the death of his heir, William, in 1122. One of the central figures in this drama was Duke Robert’s own son and heir the displaced and disinherited, William Clito. While only four at the time of his father’s imprisonment, William had been placed in the care of his illegitimate half-sister and her husband, Count Helias of Arques, who had been one of the duke’s leading supporters. Henry who had something of a dark reputation amongst his peers, had previously signalled his contentment that the boy remain where he was, likely in an attempt to signal to Robert’s remaining followers that he was willing to treat them fairly and with mercy. When a few years down the road Henry tried to take custody of the boy, the young Clito was whisked away and raised in exile amongst the courts of the king’s numerous rivals.

Acting as a figurehead of dissent against Henry’s rule and displaying considerable energy and savvy, William Clito had already made several attempts to reclaim Normandy in conjunction with important allies, such as the King of France, the Count of Anjou and the Duke of Flanders. While William Clito, who never stopped trying to reclaim his rightful inheritance, was destined to die of a gangrenous wound he had received in a siege in 1128, in 1126 he appeared to be one of the most dangerous threats to Henry I’s reign and the successful succession of his daughter and chosen heir, Matilda.


By placing Robert Curthose in the hands of his trusted illegitimate son and right-hand man, King Henry was ensuring that the now elderly duke was beyond the reach of William Clito or his sympathisers. At the same time, keeping Robert in custody and very much alive complicated Clito’s own claims and ongoing attempts to be recognised as duke in his own right.  On his death bed, Clito wrote to his uncle, the king, asking him to pardon all of his followers which Henry duly did; another example of the powerful obligations exerted by family on men of their time and class. William may have been a political threat to Henry and his children, but he was still family, and his last wishes could not be ignored.

In fact, in keeping with this paradoxical pattern of conflict within the royal family and revealing the strict standards of conduct that had to be maintained regarding family, Robert was not the only close member of the Anglo-Norman family imprisoned by Henry. Robert had been supported in his struggle against Henry by their cousin, Count William of Mortain, the son of the Conqueror’s half-brother, Robert of Mortain, who had also been captured at the Battle of Tinchebray. Cousin William and Henry seem to have shared a deep enmity and had a long history of conflict with one another. William had previously clashed with the king on a matter of inheritance, namely the vast Kentish domains of their deceased uncle, Bishop Odo, which William viewed as rightfully his. He then compounded the issue by publicly and rudely rejecting the King’s proposed compromise, marriage to his sister-in-law, Princess Mary of Scotland.

Henry then had William exiled from England while simultaneously manufacturing a legal pretext to confiscate William’s lands in Cornwall. In retaliation, William threw his lot in with Duke Robert and ravaged many of the king’s personal holdings in Normandy. William was held prisoner in the Tower of London for thirty-six years, only being released in 1140, well after Henry’s death at which stage, he was allowed to enter a monastery. While imprisoning someone virtually indefinitely can not really be described as a merciful act, the majority of Robert’s followers were granted pardons or suffered minor confiscations of land, William’s unhappy fate does further demonstrate that imprisonment was very much the ceiling when it came to punitive actions against family members.

In a sense, as cautious as Henry was with the imprisonment of his elder brother, he really had very little choice. Allowing Robert to remain at large within the Anglo-Norman realm or exile him would only have invited further warfare and strife, as the former duke would have allied with dissident Anglo-Norman aristocrats and neighbouring princes in exactly the same way his son did. On the other hand, the political and social conventions of the early twelfth century meant that the alternative, executing or assassinating Robert, was simply not an option. Fratricide ran too deeply against the grain of contemporary society for a twelfth-century Anglo-Norman king to openly indulge in it.

Did Henry kill his brother William Rufus?

It is probably worth discussing at this stage that several historians and modern commentators have suggested that Henry may have been involved in the death of William Rufus, who was shot by one of their party while out hunting in the New Forest. While it’s true Henry moved to seize the throne with alacrity and clarity of purpose in the aftermath of his brother’s death, this does not necessarily imply foreknowledge, merely that he had the wherewithal and courage to leap when he saw an opportunity.

Hunting was an inherently dangerous activity. It was precisely this strenuous nature and element of unpredictability that made it so popular with Norman aristocrats and so valuable in honing their martial skills. This risk would have further been exacerbated by the scale of any hunt undertaken by the royal court which would have involved many dozens of nobles and courtiers, all in competition with one another, to say nothing of the court’s servants and huntsmen. Just earlier that year, the king’s nephew, Richard, an illegitimate son of Duke Robert and a highly popular figure within the royal court, had been killed in a very similar accident while hunting. Further, it is telling that none of the contemporary chroniclers suggest even a whiff of foul play in William Rufus’ death, much less pointing the finger at Henry. Hunting was an inherently dangerous activity while fratricide was virtually alien to the cultural and political vocabulary of the day.

The death of William Rufus in a 14th-century manuscript. British Library MS Royal 16 G VI f. 272r

The twelfth century was throughout Europe and beyond a time of great demographic and structural change. Some would even characterize it as upheaval. Yet even at the highest and most cutthroat level of contemporary politics, with the fate of crowns and the shape of empires at stake, kings of England and royal claimants consistently refrained from harming or outright disposing of their relatives. What makes this reticence and the overwhelming stigma attached to the slaying of kin so interesting is that internecine conflicts were far from uncommon. In fact every king of England in the twelfth century faced armed resistance from close family members.

We have covered the wars and skirmishes fought between the Conqueror’s heirs in an attempt to consolidate the Anglo-Norman realm under a single ruler. However, this period of internecine fighting includes another earlier incident from which much can be gleaned about contemporary attitudes regarding the sacrosanct nature of family and the seemingly contradictory ruthlessness with which aristocrats would occasionally attempt to monopolise familial landed interests. While Robert had received Normandy from their father and William Rufus England, Henry had inherited a considerable sum of money. Henry had previously used the lion’s share of this inheritance to purchase the Contentin in Normandy from his perpetually cash-strapped brother, essentially creating a new Countship from scratch. In 1088, however, Robert imprisoned Henry and confiscated his lands and title in the apparent belief that he had been conspiring against him with William Rufus, possibly at the instigation of their uncle, Bishop Odo of Bayuex.

Having secured his release in 1089, Henry spent the next few years attempting to piece his power base in the Contentin back together, even aiding Robert by putting down an uprising by the burghers of Rouen. In 1091, in an act of naked opportunism, William Rufus and Robert entered into an alliance with the aim of displacing Henry from his rather modest holdings.

Henry and his followers took refuge at the island monastery of Mont-Saint-Michels which soon fell under siege. According to the chronicler, William of Malmesbury, when during the tail end of the siege Robert received the word that the defenders had run out of fresh water, he sent them some, a chivalric gesture which earned the ire of William Rufus, undermining as it did the whole point of the siege. Evidently Robert, while eminently comfortable with the idea of stripping Henry of his lands and power, balked at the idea of endangering his life. Indeed, following Henry’s surrender, even the comparatively stern William Rufus was content to allow Henry to go free and later lending him military and financial aid as a ploy to disrupt Robert’s control of Normandy.

Stephen and Matilda, Henry and his sons

Following Henry I’s death in 1135, the throne was seized by the king’s nephew, Stephen of Blois, a usurpation which was thoroughly contested by Henry’s daughter Matilda. It is notable that throughout this lengthy struggle, both claimants displayed an awareness of the obligations imposed by their mutual kinship and limitations that these placed upon their behaviour. When Matilda became trapped in Arundel castle by besieging royalist forces shortly after her initial invasion, King Stephen, acutely aware of his chivalric and familial duties towards Matilda, arranged for her to be safely escorted to territory held by her followers in England, rather than attempt to detain her.

In turn, when King Stephen was captured at the Battle of Lincoln in 1141, he was protected by both his status as an anointed king and as Matilda’s first cousin. Unable to outrightly dispose of Stephen, Matilda had no choice but to keep him imprisoned and push for a negotiated settlement. She was eventually compelled to release the king as part of a prisoner exchange after her half-brother and primary supporter, Robert of Gloucester, was captured by Stephen’s wife who had rallied royalist forces in his absence.

Likewise, Matilda’s son, the eventual victor of this extended dynastic conflict, Henry II, was forced to contend with repeated armed uprisings by his own sons which were often supported by the neighbouring kings of France and Scotland, as well as dissidents from within Henry’s large but patchwork hegemonic domains. The root cause of these intermittent uprisings was Henry’s unwillingness to meaningfully devolve power to his sons as they entered adulthood which stoked and exacerbated disputes between the brothers regarding the administration and eventual delineation of the family’s territory.  In 1175, angered by the king’s attempts to reshuffle the ownership of several of the family’s castles in order to provide for his youngest son, John, Henry’s elder sons rose in rebellion against him alongside their mother Queen Eleanor.

This uprising known as the Great Revolt which was strongly supported by the brothers’ foreign allies and fought across the entirety of Henry’s domain, posed a major threat to Henry’s rule and was only put down after the most vigorous effort on the part of the king and his remaining allies. In 1183, a dispute over the ownership of the Duchy of Aquitaine between Henry’s eldest sons Henry the Younger and Richard saw the king once again enter into open conflict with his heir. Yet despite these conflicts and Henry’s refusal to address their root cause, the king was destined to die in 1189 in the aftermath of yet another uprising by his son Richard, he never sought to punish his rebellious sons.

Despite the carnage unleashed by his rebellious children and the very real threat they had posed to his reign, Henry neither attempted to detain them or outright deprive them of their inheritance, let alone have them executed for their treasonous endeavours. With plans for the division of Henry’s vast amalgamation of lands between his surviving sons in a state of near-constant flux, his heir’s aggressive self-advocacy and persistent remonstrations need to be seen within the context of the twelfth-century aristocracies’ preoccupation with the control of inheritable interests.

Even armed rebellion was not regarded as wholly beyond the pale if it was undertaken in defence of hereditary rights. The integrity of a family’s portfolio of lands and inheritable interests was irrevocably tangled in the minds of the twelfth-century aristocracy with the importance of family identity and the near sacrosanct nature of family itself. Within this code of conduct, fighting to secure an increased proportion of the family’s inheritance was broadly acceptable, while the outright killing of a member of this stem family was an inherently self-destructive act. Indeed, it is worth noting that while there were several incidences of aristocratic families ruining themselves through participation in ill-advised revolts, others were able to survive more or less intact. Rebellion was, at least within certain parameters, viewed as just another form of lobbying and a means of placing pressure upon a superior in the hope of reaching some compromise. In the aftermath of rebellion as in war, aristocratic casualties were relatively rare during the twelfth century.

King Henry II of England and his family – British Library, Royal 14 B VI

The Importance of Family

Family was an overriding concern in twelfth-century politics, utterly defining its horizons and those of individual participants. The paramount importance that family played within the still-evolving structure of twelfth-century society and in defining an individual’s seminal position within the tangled networks of inheritable interests and political affiliation meant that while conflict between relatives was not uncommon, the actual murder of one’s kin was a deeply disruptive and counter-intuitive concept. While as we have clearly seen, the royal family showed a proclivity for internecine warfare, this was in part a function of the society they inhabited, in which any royal hopeful or family member was liable to attract a coterie of ambitious followers and allies to whom they were expected to show largesse and reward for their services. As a result, royal family members often found themselves in competition with one another to control and capitalise upon the family-derived resources they had some mutual claim to.

Broadly speaking, Anglo-Norman aristocratic families actually tended towards mutual support and cooperation between members as they worked together to defend or expand their shared pool of potential inheritable interests. As previously noted, ongoing efforts by the aristocracy to better control and predict the flow and distribution of inheritance was having a profound effect on the structure of twelfth-century aristocratic society. This concern motivated aristocratic families to adopt the vision of marriage proposed by reforming elements within the Church which sought to turn the institution into a sacrament and emphasise its indissolubility and permanence.

The adoption of this new configuration of marriage meant that unions between aristocratic families could no longer simply be dropped in favour of finding a more politically advantageous alliance. This led to a strong delineation between legitimate and illegitimate children as well as an increased emphasise on the importance of maternal connections as a means of gaining access to new inheritable interests. This in turn meant that brides from wealthy families became a highly sort after and valuable commodity. Increasingly only the eldest son of a family, who was increasingly expected to inherit the lion’s share of the family’s patrimony, was able to secure such a marriage.

Indeed, even the eldest sons tended to marry relatively late in life since their role as head of a household and the attainment of the necessary lands and wealth was almost always gained through inheritance. As lines of inheritance became increasingly clear, a greater social importance was placed on the stem of the family as the principal political unit through which such interests were transmitted. This recognition of small family groups as being inextricably politically linked in turn helped to reinforce the importance of family and prohibition against fratricide which took on a cultural as well as legal and religious dimension.

Even though the expectations and potential gains of royal family members exerted pressures of their own, they were nevertheless participants within a culture in which the importance of family was deeply embedded. Society and politics had been wilfully reshaped over the previous century to uphold and protect this conceptual supremacy, inheritance customs and laws changing to protect the stem of the family and concentrate wealth and inheritable interests. This was to have far-reaching consequences as this gradual process of change saw family and hereditary connections cut across traditional territorial and cultural boundaries and gradually eclipse the importance of regional identity.

For those of you interested, the first King of England to commit fratricide was Edward IV who had his younger brother, George Duke of Clarence, executed in 1478. Legend has it that he had been executed in private so as not to impinge upon royal dignity and had been drowned in a butt of his favourite wine, although it is far more likely that he met his end during an appointment with the headsman. While you could argue that it was Parliament who had passed the bill of attainder finding him guilty, it had been Edward who initiated proceedings by accusing his brother of treason, Edward who had personally led the prosecution and Edward who ultimately confirmed the death sentence.

It is tempting to point to the bloodshed and chaos of the Wars of the Roses, waged between members of the same extended family, as eroding traditional cultural prohibitions against a generation of aristocrats who had grown numb to the killing of their own kin. But of course, as we have seen their ancestors had struggled against and fought amongst their own family in numerous wars of their own and refrained from the killing of close family members in even the direst of circumstances. The distinction, of course, is they were fighting in different wars for a different crown and dominion over a different England.

Just as changes to the structure of society in the eleventh and twelfth centuries reinforced prohibitions against fratricide, subsequent changes over the intervening three hundred years had utterly transformed the shape and social parameters of fifteenth-century aristocratic society. While attempting to trace the course of this change would be a herculean effort, far beyond the scope of this article, I think the great boon of this exercise and the cardinal point to take away is to remember that the Medieval period was far from monolithic in social structure and cultural norms.

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. You can follow James on Twitter @HistorySchmstry

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Top Image: Robert Curthose, William Rufus and Henry – the sons of William I – British Library, Royal 14 B VI