The death of a medieval ruler was always an invitation to chaos, but Richard had made excellent preparations for his succession. There was no shortage of available heirs to choose from since the late duke had two brothers and five sons. The eldest son, Richard III, was the obvious choice, and was groomed from the start. When his father died, he was thirty years old, popular, battle-tested, and, most importantly, he already had a son to ensure the next generation of dukes. The various other uncles and siblings were bought off with extensive states around Normandy, and everybody was perfectly content to settle down and enjoy their new arrangements.
The only one unhappy with the new situation was Richard III’s younger brother, Robert, who, at seventeen was cocky, energetic, and absolutely convinced that he should be the one in charge. His share of the inheritance was an estate in central Normandy focused around a castle in Falaise, and from the security of these walls he loudly announced his fitness to rule to anyone that would listen. When neither of his uncles showed the slightest interest in backing him, he decided to revolt anyway, and started ravaging his way through the countryside.
Richard III was in no mood to take any abuse from his little brother and he swept into Falaise at the head of his army, forcing Robert to go scampering back to his castle. To the latter’s horror, Richard then produced siege engines and methodically reduced its defenses. Robert was forced to make a humiliating public act of submission, and returned chastened to Falaise to rebuild his favorite castle.
Richard’s triumph over his brother set the stage for an even greater diplomatic coup. The king of France had an infant daughter, and as a mark of Richard’s preeminent status, she was betrothed to him, but just as the young duke was making preparations for his wedding, he fell ill and died. Poison was immediately suspected as the cause of his death, and, although no one was foolish enough to say it to his face, everyone suspected Robert. His aspirations were well known, and his behavior hardly broadcast innocence. Almost before his brother’s body was cold, Robert had moved into the palace and shipped Richard’s young son off to a monastery to keep him safely out of the way.
The incident (not altogether fairly) earned the new duke the nickname Robert the Devil. Medieval society was notoriously susceptible to diseases, any number of which could strike without warning, but to the medieval mind, sudden death was among the most terrifying of fates. A sudden death meant that there was no time for preparations, confession, or ritual, leaving the victim unprepared for the terrible Day of Judgment. So awful was this demise that a particularly vicious medieval curse was ‘May you die without warning!’ When one of the powerful met their end unexpectedly, the suspicion was that such a thing couldn’t have occurred naturally. The explanation usually depended on an individual’s popularity. Corrupt or wicked rulers were struck low by the divine hand, while the promising were invariably poisoned.
Robert may have stood to benefit the most from his brother’s death, perhaps he even wanted him dead, but that’s hardly an airtight case for poisoning. His actions in seizing the duchy could be attributed to ambition and pragmatism as much as guilt, and by moving quickly and firmly he had undoubtedly prevented further bloodshed. Furthermore, although his reputation was certainly damaged, and rumors of his use of poison dogged him for the rest of his life, no one – not even Richard III’s cloistered son Nicholas – seemed to have a problem with Robert taking control. As a later Norman historian blandly summed it up ‘Robert was given the duchy by hereditary right’.
It was one thing to gain power, however, and quite another to rule. Robert had taken every opportunity he could to encourage the aristocracy to stir up trouble against his brother, and now he was plagued by rebellious nobles. Unauthorized castles started popping up and church lands were confiscated, but he was too busy punishing those who had failed to support him from the start to do anything about it. His uncle, who also happened to be the archbishop of Rouen, had failed to rush to his side in his first revolt and now the time had come for a little payback. Marching into his protesting uncle’s territory, the duke unceremoniously expelled him from Normandy, and confiscated his property. Encouraged by this easy victory, Robert next turned on his cousin, the Bishop of Bayeux, sending another hapless relative into exile.
This seizure of Church property didn’t go unnoticed by the pope in Rome, where Robert’s banished uncle, the archbishop, was arguing for all of Normandy to be put under interdict, a case that was strengthened by the duke’s behavior. Protesting clergy were continually ignored and sent packing, and word of their suffering eventually trickled down to Rome. Finally the pope acted and Robert was excommunicated.
The duke was cut off from the sacrament, forbidden from receiving remission of his sins. If he died under the sentence he would be prohibited from being buried in consecrated land, and his bones would be doomed to molder outside the blessings of the church. The excommunicate was an outcast from society; all feudal bonds of loyalty were dissolved. Nobles no longer needed to obey the command of an outcast duke, and any that gave him shelter ran the risk of bringing the church’s condemnation upon themselves.
News of the dreadful sentence was brought to the duke in Falaise where he was staying in his favorite castle, but he was too distracted to pay much attention. He had just met an extraordinary woman named Herlève.
The daughter of a tanner, Herlève was spotted by Robert while he was walking on the roof of his castle. Legend has it that she was assisting her father by walking barefoot on the garments that were being dyed, holding her dress up to keep it clean. When she noticed the duke’s attention she coyly lifted her skirts a bit higher, dazzling Robert with a view of her legs. Smitten, the duke ordered one of his men to quietly fetch her, instructing him to bring her through the back door directly to his chambers. Herlève, however, announced that she would either come proudly through the front gate or not at all. The obsessed duke caved in and Herlève rode proudly up to the castle on a white horse, dressed in her finest clothes. If she was going to be the duke’s mistress, then she would be his only one, and make sure that everyone knew it. Nine months later she presented Robert with a son, and the pleased father named him William after the second duke of Normandy.
The difference in their social status made a marriage impossible, and Robert soon found himself under enormous pressure to marry her off to someone else and cease his association with her. A century earlier, a mistress wouldn’t have been a problem, but the slow reform of the Church that his father and grandfather had encouraged had begun to reshape the morals of Normandy. Even more serious than this, however, was Robert’s excommunication. Every day that passed endangered his mortal soul and even the hotheaded duke couldn’t shrug off such pressure forever. Swallowing his pride, he recalled his uncle, the archbishop, and restored his property and land.
The move was the great turning point of his reign. Like Shakespeare’s young Prince Hal, his reckless days were over, and he was determined to acquit himself as a proper duke. Herlève was provided with a husband, Church property that had been seized was returned, and an attempt was made to force various lawless magnates to do likewise. The great religious houses in Normandy, especially Fécamp, were endowed at his personal expense, and placed under his protection.
The nobility resisted any attempts at centralization, but Robert kept them occupied by a vigorous foreign policy. When the Count of Flanders was exiled by his own son, Robert took advantage of the chaos to invade his neighbor, ostensibly to restore the old count, but in reality to extend his influence. The following year, Brittany threatened Mont St-Michel and Robert repeated the same tactics, forcing Brittany’s count to publicly acknowledge his vassal status. In 1033 a palace coup sent the young French king, Henry I, into exile and handed Robert a golden opportunity to extend Normandy’s reach. Henry fled to Fécamp, home of his most robust supporter, and requested the duke’s help. An army was quickly mobilized and Robert swept towards Paris, crushing the rebel forces and restoring Henry to his throne.
The same year that saw Robert play kingmaker on the continent also brought opportunities across the English Channel. The duke had close ties with the Anglo-Saxon royal family; his aunt Emma had married the English king, and her two sons, Alfred and Edward, were just slightly older than Robert. During Duke Richard II’s reign, a Viking named Cnut had seized the kingdom, sending the three royals into exile in Normandy. They weren’t together for long. Emma, ever the survivor, had returned to England to marry Cnut, abandoning her two sons to survive as best they could.
Duke Robert’s cautious father had been somewhat indifferent to his English nephew’s fate, but Robert was closer in age and moved by his cousin’s plight. With his characteristic flair he began to refer to the older sibling Edward as ‘King of the English’, and made the awkward demand that Cnut provide money for their upkeep. When Cnut laughed it off – he was hardly going to provide accommodations for a rival to his own throne – Robert followed up his threat by launching an invasion fleet.
This first attempt at a Norman conquest was more ad hoc than carefully executed. The fleet set sail in 1033 but ran into a storm and was quickly blown off course, landing further along the French coast in the middle of Brittany. Not one to waste the opportunity, Robert disembarked and led a quick raid through his neighbor’s territory.
By the winter of 1034, Robert was twenty-five-years old and the most powerful magnate in France. He had corralled his vassals, dominated his neighbors, threatened one king and placed another on his throne – quite an accomplishment for a reckless younger son. He was at the height of his powers and appeared poised to become one of Normandy’s strongest dukes. Then, at his Christmas court, he shocked everyone by naming his eight-year-old illegitimate son, William, as his heir, and announcing that he was leaving for Jerusalem.
There were the inevitable scandalized rumors, whispers that it was his guilty conscience that was spurring him to go, and that this was dramatic confirmation that he had poisoned his brother after all. In any event, whether it was guilt, adventure, or fatigue that drove Robert, he was determined to go. In a way, the destination was more astonishing than the idea of a pilgrimage itself. The more popular sites were Rome or Santiago de Compostela in Spain, and the road to Jerusalem was not only more expensive but far more dangerous, passing as it did through hostile Muslim lands. In 1027, however, a Byzantine emperor had reached an agreement with the Fatimid ruler of Jerusalem guaranteeing the pilgrim routes and access to Christian shrines. As a result, traffic to the Holy Land had boomed, crowding the roads with the faithful who wanted to arrive just in time for the thousandth anniversary of the Crucifixion.
Robert had probably been thinking about the pilgrimage for some time. Leaving the duchy in the hands of a child was hardly the most responsible thing to do, but he had decided to go nevertheless, and made what arrangements he could. He had been slowly easing his son, William, into the role of heir, granting gifts and signing documents in his name. Now, at the Christmas court in Fécamp, he required his magnates to swear an oath of loyalty, something which they all did without exception or objection. Satisfied that he had fulfilled his obligations, Robert emptied his treasury and left Normandy forever.
He crossed the Alps and first headed for Rome, distributing so much gold to churches along the way that he was soon being called Robert the Magnificent. Had he gone just a bit further south he would have come across the first Normans who were trickling into the heel of Italy, but he most likely headed for the coast instead and took a ship for the east. He arrived in Constantinople some time early in 1035, making the most of his time by taking a tour of the city and even meeting the emperor who – in a bit of vanity on the part of Norman chroniclers – was supposedly impressed with his wealth. After mingling with the imperial court, the duke continued to Jerusalem, which he reached in time to celebrate Holy Week.
The city had plenty of ways for a pilgrim to spend money, and Robert took in all the sights, praying in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and retracing the route Jesus walked on his way to the Crucifixion. His return trip was by all accounts equally pleasant. When he reached the Bosphorus in early summer, he paused at the charming little city of Nicaea. There he unexpectedly fell ill, and on July 2, 1035 he died. In a nod to his refurbished reputation a rumor started that he had been poisoned, and one Norman chronicler piously argued that God took him because he was ‘too good for this world’.
His body was buried in Nicaea, where it was left until 1085 when a Norman delegation arrived to take it back home. They had only made it as far as Apulia, however, when word reached them that their current duke had also died, so they reinterred the body in Italy where it remains to this day.
Robert’s brief reign had been a mixed success, and his wildly irresponsible departure for the east had virtually ensured civil war back home. Even worse, his failure to bring the powerful nobility to heel with anything more than a naïve oath had left his eight-year-old son William terribly alone, vulnerable to the far more experienced men around him. After nearly a decade of strong leadership, Normandy tipped back into chaos.