The House of Normandy
One bright summer’s morning, while birds dived playfully through dappled light filtering through the trees, Duke Robert of Normandy was riding towards his capital, Falaise, when he saw Herleve, daughter of a tanner, washing linen in a stream and he fell in love instantly. He forgot all about his wife sitting at home waiting for him and he forgot his vows to always love and support her, and only her. Instead, he carried Herleve off to his castle and lived with her for the rest of his life. Such a romantic story, and out of that love came William the Conqueror, hailed as one of the greatest and ferocious warriors of all time.
But despite this dreamy story, their little boy, though adored by both his parents, would have to live with the stigma of being illegitimate for the rest of his life. As a child, his life was in constant danger from kinsmen who thought they had a more legitimate right to rule Normandy.
But his father had other ideas. When William’s father died, he left everything to his illegitimate son, despite what the relatives thought. On that day, the little seven-year-old boy became William Duke of Normandy.
William the Conqueror
1066 - 1087
Even at the age of fifty-nine, William the Conqueror had not found peace. He’d lived his whole life fighting battles until one unfortunate accident put an end to it all. He’d just seized Nantes near Paris and was in the process of burning it to the ground when he fell off his horse and suffered abdominal injuries.
Through the heat of summer, he lay in agony fighting his wounds but injuries on the battlefield in medieval times were disastrous and almost always led to gangrene. As he lay dying, all three of his sons stood over his bed squabbling endlessly over each one’s share of their father’s kingdom. His eventual death made the bickering even worse.
Splitting his kingdom as evenly as he could was what William had intended but neither Robert Curthose nor William Rufus thought they had inherited as much as they should have. Especially since their younger brother Henry had been left all the money and none of the responsibilities. Henry however seemed quite happy with the arrangements.
Days passed in the sweltering summer heat and still they hadn't buried their father. This time the argument was over who was going to pay for the funeral and the delay was disastrous. Finally, realising they had to do something quickly, it was his youngest son Henry who finally gave in and paid the full amount since he was the only one flush with cash. By then, William’s rotund body would not fit in the stone sarcophagus because it had bloated incredibly due to the warm weather and the length of time that had passed since his death. A group of bishops applied pressure on to William’s abdomen to force the body downwards and as they did, the abdominal wall burst, releasing putrefaction gases and the smell of decayed body organs into the church.
Watching as the bishops worked, his son William Rufus stood clenching and unclenching his fists, eager for a chance to sit on the throne. Standing by his side, slyly watching his brother and equally as eager, stood his younger brother Henry. Robert did not even bother to attend the funeral.
1087 - 1100
Not all historians believe King William Rufus's death was an accident, regardless of what his younger brother Henry said. There are many who do not believe in coincidences. And perhaps they have a point, especially when you look at the unfortunate bad luck that seems to have followed a lot of royals who've died ‘unexpectedly’ at the exact same time as family members were queueing up impatiently waiting for their turn to sit on the throne. The story goes like this.
It was a beautiful warm summer’s day in August 1100. The sun was shining brightly and a warm breeze rustled softly through the trees as William Rufus and his hunting party entered the New Forest. As the hunters spread out to chase their prey, an arrow, perhaps grazing a stag first, entered the king’s breast. He fell forward, driving it through his lung, and he died on the spot.
It seems Walter Tyrell, Lord of Poix, had let loose a wild shot, but instead of hitting the stag he’d aimed for, the arrow struck William in the chest. Walter apparently tried to help him, but there was nothing he could do. Fearing that he would be charged with murder, Walter panicked. He left William's body lying at the exact place where he fell and leapt onto his horse, and fled. Other nobles in the hunting party, perhaps with a little insight on what could happen to them as well, followed suit and fled, possibly with the thought of securing their personal estates before the bad news circulated.
There were two questions being asked. The first one was ‘How could Walter Tyrell make such a reckless and dangerous shot when his reputation as an excellent archer was well known? The second question was ‘Where was his younger brother Henry when this happened?’
Everyone knew that the brothers fought incessantly and Henry was definitely among the hunting party. Except no one could find him. So … where was he?
If Henry was not guilty of the murder of his brother, he certainly wasted no time mourning him either. Henry had made straight for the royal treasury at Winchester with lightning speed and demanded entry after a loud argument with the caretakers. Apparently in his haste, he’d left his brother’s body lying in the forest and it wasn’t until two days later that a local charcoal-burner found it and took it to Winchester Cathedral in the back of his cart. By then, Henry was fully funded and crowned in London before an archbishop could even arrive on the scene. With his elder brother Robert Curthose away on a crusade, the way was left open for Henry to simply step forward and take the crown for himself.
One year later, his brother Robert heard the news and all hell broke loose. He was going to teach his little brother a thing or two.
1100 - 1135
To everyone, Henry looked like he had the Midas touch. He owned Normandy, he was the King of England and he had a daughter plus an heir, William Atheling aged sixteen, who was his indisputable successor. There was nothing else that Henry could want for.
And then the winter of 1120 arrived.
William Atheling was a privileged youth pandered to on both sides of the channel. Nothing was deprived him from richly embroidered silk garments stitched in gold to attendants and titles. William was to be the next king in a brilliantly planned peace and he'd been in Normandy for a celebration marking the end of his childhood and the beginning of his manhood...his coming out party. He'd been crowned Duke of Normandy and he was the heir to the English throne. The world was his oyster.
Just before Christmas, along with 200 young members of the Anglo-Saxon nobility elite, friends and cousins, William boarded a ship called the White Ship to journey home. On board as well was his half-brother and half sister, both illegitimate children from a brood of twenty-two from various mothers. Together this group were the golden generation of the nobility and they only ever travelled in style.
William had chosen this ship because the reputation was that it was the fastest, safest and most luxurious ship there was. It was packed to the rafters with happy, inebriated teenagers hell-bent on celebrating and William had good reason to celebrate along with his friends, family and crew.
A succession established on such disputable and questionable grounds could only be maintained with great skill and in the early years of his reign, it became apparent that Stephen lacked quite a few of those necessary fundamentals. He did not find the job of being a king as easy as it had been to acquire it in the first place. He lacked the ruthlessness and intelligence that Henry had possessed and began relying on advice from some of his of his baronial friends while ignoring others who ought to have been his greatest supporters. He was lavish with Henry’s accumulated treasure to friends but he was not even-handed with it.
All of a sudden, Stephen found himself surrounded by enemies and facing attacks from everywhere. In Normandy, Geoffrey Plantagenet had taken up the fight for his son Henry, soon to be named the Duke of Normandy, and began waging war on Stephen. Almost at the same time, Matilda’s uncle King David I Scotland crossed the border and advanced to Northumbria in support of his niece.
Matilda watched all of this delightedly from Normandy. She had not believed that her uncle would back her so strenuously. She must have been wondering if perhaps there was a chance after all. In 1139, she finally took action. She appealed her cause to Rome and set up her headquarters in Bristol, ready to invade England with her half-brother Robert of Gloucester. War had begun.
Stephen had known an attack was coming. He just hadn’t imagined it would be in Malmsbury. Belatedly, he gathered his massive army together and headed off to meet the Plantagenets, despite the bitter winds and freezing rain.
In hindsight, a well-lubricated crew was probably not the best choice to bring the young prince back home to England. His cousin, Stephen of Blois, was also due to leave on the same ship bound for England but it was the excuse of an upset stomach that excluded him from the festivities and forced him to wait it out for the next one the following day.
The White Ship may have been fast but she didn’t even make it out of the Benfleur harbour. Whether it was a simple navigational error or a result of over indulging, no one will ever know. Within minutes of leaving the shore, the White Ship crashed on sharp rocks and a hole was punched in the prow of the ship. Freezing water flooded in.
A vision of terrified passengers, screaming as they were hurled into the water, comes to mind and the brocaded clothes would have become heavy very soon, making it impossible to swim or even tread water.
The immediate priority had been to save the prince. A lifeboat was found for William Atherling and he was already on his way to safety when he heard the cries of his half-sister behind him. It was a fatal decision that made him turn back to rescue her.
His sister wasn’t alone. As the boat approached her, other passengers in the water scrambled to clamber aboard William’s boat to gain safety as well. The result was the boat capsized.
She had not been rescued and neither had William. There was only one survivor. He was a butcher from Rouen who had boarded at Benfleur to collect money owed him and he was accidently carried away when the White Ship sailed. He had sprung over the ship’s side and finally clung to the wreckage during the night grateful to be on land in the morning along with the bodies washed in with the tide.
The news was slow to reach England. Another ship, crewed by a sober captain this time, had sailed and reached England unscathed while Henry and his household were preparing for Christmas.
That left two claimants for the throne, each with a good chance: Henry’s only surviving daughter Matilda and his lucky nephew Stephen of Blois, who had watched silently from the harbour as his friends and family drowned.
1135 - 1154
Matilda's young son Henry knew all about his cousin Stephen’s snapping-up-the-thrown efficiency. He and his brothers had listened intently to his mother Matilda as she told them stories of her escape across the eight miles of snow to Wallingford Castle with Stephen’s vast number of soldiers pounding the earth behind her. He’d watched her crying as she remembered the constant throbbing on the ground that had panicked her horse as the earth fairly shook. Even then, she had managed to clutch tightly to the reins in the driving snow. In the distance, she’d heard the soldiers’ frenzied shouts and she imagined their mighty swords glistening threateningly in the sun. Dressing in ghostly white as camouflage was the only thing that had saved her. From Wallingford Castle, she had managed to secretly escape to the safety of France and her family.
Matilda wasn’t stupid. She knew that once Stephen was on the throne, all of their lives would have been in danger. Escaping had been the only option available to her. It wasn’t that she had abandoned England. It was more that they had abandoned her. After only eight months of trying, she had no energy left to fight. England had made it more than abundantly clear that they didn’t want her. Tired, exhausted and disheartened, she knew she was finished.
But Henry wasn’t tired and he was far from finished. He was fifteen-years-old, and like his father Geoffrey Plantagenet, he had the wild blood of Planagenets coursing through his veins as well as their violent temper. He was about to show Stephen the reason why Plantagenets had a reputation for savagery and cruelty.