The attack that Eustace launched in 1067 on Dover Castle is one of the most curious episodes of the Norman Conquest. It is described in some detail by William of Jumieges, William of Poitiers and Orderic Vitalis, and all these sources are in agreement on the essentials. King William had returned to his business in Normandy in March 1067, and the country had been left under the harsh rule of his regents, Bishop Odo of Bayeux and Earl William Fitz-Osbern. Odo had been granted Dover Castle with responsibility for guarding the southeastern coast and pacifying Kent; he held it with the assistance of Hugh of Montfort, another important Norman noble. For some obscure reason, however, Count Eustace had fallen out with William. When a group of envoys representing the men of Kent crossed in secret to Boulogne and urged him to join them in attacking Dover Castle, Eustace readily agreed. In theory the Kentish men should have considered Eustace as their enemy, given what had happened at Dover in 1051, not to mention at Hastings the year before. However, William of Poitiers tells us that they hated the Normans even more than they disliked Eustace and, he continues, ‘they thought that if they were not to serve one of their own countrymen, they would rather serve a neighbour whom they knew’. Eustace’s motive in all this remains mysterious.
The moment to attack was chosen well. Both Odo and Hugh of Montfort were absent from Dover, together with most of their knights, having been called away to deal with a disturbance to the north of the Thames. Dover Castle was thus sorely undermanned. The English of the ‘whole district’ were under arms and ready to join, says William of Poitiers, and if Eustace was able to maintain a siege of two days, more men from the surrounding areas are said to have been ready to augment the rebel forces. During the early part of the night Eustace slipped across the Straits of Dover in a small fleet of ships. He was accompanied by many knights but they took only a few horses with them, hoping to seize the undermanned castle quickly by surprise. It is not known where, or how, the rebels launched their assault, whether by force or by ruse, but they certainly found the Norman garrison much better prepared than they had expected. Several hours of intense fighting ensued; and suffering setback after setback, the morale of the attackers began to flag. Eustace must finally have become exasperated, for he ordered a withdrawal. Aware of this, the defending Norman knights, though few in number, threw open the gates and launched their own sally on horseback. The cry went up that Odo had returned at the head of a mighty army. It was not true; but in the general panic of the situation the return of the dreaded Bishop Odo was widely believed.
Eustace’s troops at the rear were quickly scattered in confusion. The Norman horsemen pursued them, and amid cries of alarm and much slashing of swords, they killed many and took others captive. More lives are said to have been lost as, in their hurry and ignorance of the local paths, the Boulonnais soldiers fell over precipices and were dashed to death on the rocks below. Of those that made it down to the English shore, many crowded on to frail ships, which sank, and they were drowned under the weight of their chain mail. Eustace himself was better prepared. A fleet horse had been always at the ready for him; and knowing the way back to his ship, he made fast for it. Now with the remnant of his forces the humiliated count sailed back to Boulogne. A large part of the English contingent was also able to escape across land by using local knowledge. But Eustace’s young nepos (a word traditionally translated as ‘nephew’), apparently taking part in his first battle, was captured by Odo’s knights. The chronicles do not name this youngster, evidently a close kinsman of Eustace, but they stress that he was of the highest nobility (‘nobilissimus’). The Anglo-Boulonnais attack on Dover Castle thus ended in utter disaster for Count Eustace. That Christmas, at the king’s traditional gathering of his court, William condemned Eustace to exile from England and confiscated the English lands that he had been given as his share of the spoils of victory only a year earlier. His poor nepos, in all likelihood, remained Odo’s prisoner.
Eustace’s purpose in attacking Dover remains deeply mysterious. It has been suggested that he was hoping to take Dover and the surrounding countryside so that he could control both sides of the straits of Dover, something that would have given him enormous political benefits as well as substantial economic gains. Alternatively, he may have been disappointed at his share of the spoils of conquest and, in particular, at not regaining the lands of his former English wife Godgifu. Having taken Dover Castle, he may have hoped to renegotiate his share of the victory with William from a position of strength. Another possibility, though rather speculative, is that the son he had given to William as a hostage had not been released despite, perhaps, an agreement to the contrary. It is possible that Odo was given charge of the hostage prior to the invasion when Eustace and he met in the summer of 1066, and just possible that the hostage was at that very moment being held in Dover Castle.
Undoubtedly the most intriguing possibility, however, is that Count Eustace was attempting to pursue his own claim to the English throne. This idea has been proposed by many historians. Eustace stood in the same relation to the former English king, Edward the Confessor, as Harold had done in January 1066: both were brothers-in-law of King Edward. Eustace had the prized blood of Charlemagne running in his veins and beyond that contemporaries traced his maternal ancestry to the earlier Merovingian kings of France and through them on more dubious grounds to Priam of Tory. This was a bloodline that gave Count Eustace greater prestige than perhaps any of his contemporaries and yet here was a man who was not a king; he was merely the count of a relatively small region. It is not hard to imagine that he hoped one day to raise himself and his family to a position more worthy of such an illustrious lineage.
What is more, Eustace could also trace a distant line of descent from the greatest of all the insular kings, Alfred the Great, through the marriage of one of Alfred’s daughters to Count Baldwin II of Flanders. This connection, albeit distant, would have certainly recommended him in the eyes of the English, assuming it was known. William the Conqueror’s kinship with Edward the Confessor was entirely based upon the fact that Edward had a Norman mother; William was not in any way descended from the ancient line of Wessex kings. The young Edgar Ætheling had been taken as a hostage by William to Normandy when he returned there in March 1067. In these circumstances, without further hope or choice, the Kentish rebels might well have turned to Eustace as the leader of a potential rebellion against the absent William. The statement by William of Poitiers that the inhabitants of Kent wished ‘to serve’ someone that they knew hints, perhaps, at this larger ambition.
The identity of the nepos is also obscure. Nor is it known when, if ever, the nepos was released. As used in medieval Latin, the term nepos is often translated as ‘nephew’, but it could also mean ‘grandson’, ‘bastard’ and even ‘cousin’ generally. Much ink has been spilt on who the nepos might have been; but the question remains unanswered. Whether Eustace had any nephews is disputed; he certainly had a bastard son called Geoffrey. The most intriguing possibility again turns on a Boulonnais claim to the English throne. Professor Barlow has suggested that Eustace’s marriage with Godgifu, Edward the Confessor’s sister, may not have been childless after all. A daughter of theirs might well have had a son, a grandson of Eustace, who could have been just about fighting age in 1067. Such a grandson, another great-nephew of the Confessor, would have been a prime candidate around whom English opposition to William could have gathered. In this scenario Eustace was bringing with him, on that mysterious assault on Dover Castle, a young pretender to the English throne, a grandson who, however, was promptly captured and perhaps never heard of again.
Although the identity of the nepos remains a mystery, what matters for our purpose is the known set of facts. In the latter part of 1067 Eustace attacked Odo’s castle at Dover, suffered a humiliating defeat and a young kinsman of his, of the highest birth, was captured by Odo’s men. In accordance with contemporary practice the young man was probably held by Odo for a large ransom. What became of him is not known. Realistically the Bayeux Tapestry can only have been made after Eustace’s attack, in other words after Odo and Eustace came into such public conflict in the autumn of 1067. It is scarcely believable that the tapestry could have been conceived, organised, designed, approved and embroidered in the interim between William’s coronation at Christmas 1066 and Eustace’s attack on Dover in the latter half of 1067. With this in mind, the orthodox idea that Bishop Odo of Bayeux commissioned the Bayeux Tapestry, a work that is shot through with the English viewpoint and that makes Count Eustace into a hero at Hastings, is becoming even more unlikely.
William the Conqueror was not a man to flail about wildly at his enemies. His actions, if often crude, were cold and calculating, and if his interests required it he was quite capable of coming to terms with a former foe. So it was that in the 1070s Eustace and King William became reconciled again.5 A motivating factor, from William’s point of view, may have been his deteriorating relations with Flanders. When William’s father-in-law Count Baldwin V died in 1067, Flanders was inherited by his son Baldwin VI. Baldwin VI died only three years later, and the county descended into a civil war. William and Eustace took the same side in this conflict, supporting Baldwin’s young son Arnulf III and his mother Richilde against the opposing claims to the county made by Arnulf’s uncle, Robert the Frisian. Robert the Frisian, however, emerged victorious in 1071 and a new alliance then emerged between Robert, as the new Count of Flanders, and Philip I of France, now an adult, and both of them were hostile to Normandy. With his resources stretched in England, and Flanders now hostile, the Norman king would have been in need of a strong ally in Boulogne in order to protect the northern border of his duchy.
Given the events of 1067, the settlement that Count Eustace renegotiated with King William in the 1070s was remarkable. Eustace was granted lands so extensive that by the time of the Domesday Book in 1086 the Count of Boulogne appears as the tenth largest landholder in England. Most of his vast estates were concentrated in Essex and Hertfordshire, but he also held lands in many other counties as well. It is noteworthy, however, that in this second settlement he took nothing in Wiltshire or Gloucestershire, and very little in Surrey, counties where his initial reward in the wake of Hastings may have been concentrated. It is not known when Eustace died, although his eldest son, Eustace III, appears to have inherited the county and the English lands before 1088. If Eustace II ever hoped to be a king, he had failed in this grander ambition, but he had overcome the disaster of 1067 and he left the comital house of Boulogne much more powerful and considerably richer than it had ever been. On the foundations he laid his sons were able to raise the blood of Boulogne to the highest ranks in Christendom.
The most famous of the sons of Eustace and Ida was Godfrey of Bouillon, the leading Crusader who, when Jerusalem fell in 1099, modestly refused the name ‘King of Jerusalem’ but took the title of ‘Defender of the Holy Sepulchre’. Godfrey’s reputation was soon mythologised and he was shortly to become one of the most celebrated figures in the whole of Christendom. When Godfrey died in 1100, his brother Baldwin of Boulogne was crowned, this time without demur, with the resonant title of King of Jerusalem. When Baldwin died in 1118, the third and eldest son, Count Eustace III of Boulogne, was also invited to be King of Jerusalem but he learnt, en route, that the crown had been given to his cousin Baldwin of Le Bourg and he returned to France. The daughter and heiress of Eustace III was Matilda of Boulogne. She married Stephen of Blois. When in 1135 Stephen became King of England Matilda of Boulogne became his active and capable Queen. Their son, Count Eustace IV of Boulogne, was named by Stephen as his heir. Count Eustace IV of Boulogne stood for a while on the threshold of becoming King Eustace I of England. But Eustace IV died in 1153, a year before his father, and the throne passed on Stephen’s death to the rival house of Plantagenet.
In the eyes of medieval posterity Countess Ida herself seems to have eclipsed the fame of her late husband, Eustace II. After her death in 1113, miracles were reported, a cult of sainthood developed around her and she was popularly recognised as a saint. The bones of St Ida have undergone a most curious journey through the ages. First buried at Wast, in the county of Boulogne, they were taken in the seventeenth century to Paris by a nun named Catherine of Bar, who had founded the order of the Benedictine nuns of the Saint-Sacrement. In 1808, in the wake of the French Revolution, St Ida’s bones were removed again and this time they were placed in the care of the Benedictine nuns of Bayeux, where they still reside, hundreds of miles from Boulogne but only a few hundred yards from where Ida’s husband is portrayed in all his glory on the Bayeux Tapestry. The curious thing about all this is that it was only ten years later, with the work of Charles Stothard, that it actually became known that Eustace was depicted on the tapestry.
By the second half of the twelfth century, new legends were circulating about Countess Ida and the ancestry of Godfrey of Bouillon. In these strange stories Ida is the daughter, not of Godfrey of Lorraine, but of the fabulous and romantic Swan Knight, the scion of swans, and her destiny is to marry Count Eustace of Boulogne and raise a trio of famous Crusaders. According to these stories the Swan Knight must never be questioned about his true origin; and when one day Ida’s mother, overcome by curiosity, asks him the forbidden question he suffers a violent reaction and departs at dawn for ever. Once again, in these fantastical tales a century after his death, Eustace II, son-in-law of the Swan Knight, appears only as a shadowy character with a secondary role in a story dominated by others. It is in the famous battle scene of the Bayeux Tapestry that we truly see him take centre stage.