April 19, 2009

Robert Curthose, Duke of Normandy

Robert Curthose is not someone that naturally evokes Medieval England. The eldest son of William the Conqueror, he was elbowed aside by his brothers William II and Henry I in the quest for the English crown and eventually lost even the Dukedom of Normandy bequeathed to him by his father. Despite being historically forgotten (even in some part to historians- there have been two biographies of Curthose since the signing of the Treaty of Versailles), Curthose was an important figure within his own times- he carried the banner of Christendom in the crusades and became Duke of Normandy for a substantial time, from his father's death (1087) to his own deposal in 1106. He eventually died after twenty years of captivity, possibly in his eighties, in 1134.

David Crouch provides in his review of William Aid's new biography (the second of the two since Versailles) an important account of why Aid's work is necessary and yet not sufficient. Curthose was an important figure- this is partly because his father and brothers were important. The date 1066 should be etched in every English historian's mind and interpretations of what happened then had a significance right up until the seventeenth, eighteenth and even nineteenth centuries. William I and II and Henry I all were important administrative kings, undertaking great and important reforms to the structure of the English monarchy and bedding in an Anglo-Norman polity which shortly after their reigns was to turn itself into a great empire. Curthose was often their opponent- he fought his father in the early 1080s, his brother William in the late 1080s and of course his brother Henry in the early 1100s. Furthermore Robert's loss of Normandy to Henry brought the duchy to the English crown as a base and sources of rivalry with the French crown which lasted all the way through the reigns of Stephen, Henry II and Richard- such a base became a central feature of the Angevin Empire- one of the most powerful states of the mid-middle ages.

Curthose's career should remind us of some important facts as well. Firstly there is the fact that the Conqueror split his lands- bequeathing the kingdom of England to William Rufus and the duchy of Normandy to his eldest son Robert. Robert's career throughout Europe and his candidacy for the throne in the Kingdom of Jerusalem reminds us that domestic politics, dynastic politics and international politics were often the same thing in medieval Europe. It also reminds us of the importance of Normandy on that diplomatic chessboard- we should never hold to the idea that because England evolved into a great state and Normandy did not, that England was the prize worth having and Normandy a mere chattel in comparison. The Duchy was an important and vital part of French politics and English politics for centuries- Robert definitely used its resources to advance his own political ambitions on both sides of the channel and though he was ultimately unsuccessful, that may have more to do with the ubiquities of chance and the uncertainties of character and warfare than with the inherent weakness of his own Duchy. Robert's career also prompts us to recognise the instability of the new Anglo-Norman state- a division between Normandy and England, divided the aristocracy, many of whose families owned estates on both sides of the channel. Furthermore the presence of an heir often provided barons unhappy with extortionate taxes- such as the scheming Ranulf Flambard- with the opportunity to instigate revolt.

Crouch is right to state that Dr Aid is possibly being over charitable to Duke Robert in his interpretation of the sources- what is perhaps more important than this and what Crouch's review reveals is how little we can know about Robert. All the sources that we have were written by historians under the patronage of men with a direct stake in the outcome of the various political activities that Robert carried out. Like the historians of the Norman Conquest who wrote from within the patronage of the new regime, these historians had no incentive to slander the winner and laud the defeated. Robert's historical reputation is made more precarious by the fact that he signed few charters- traditionally medieval historians rely on charters to place a medieval king or isolate a patronage method- with Robert that is impossible. This veil of ignorance is a constant feature of medieval history- it is what makes it fascinating and frustrating- often there isn't an answer to a good question because there simply isn't the evidence. Curthose's reign for all I know may be one of those periods for which we lack the evidence to say anything- which may form part of the reason that historians have hitherto neglected it. Crouch's review definitely implies that is the case.

Crouch's review of Aid's biography of Curthose flings into relief some important features of the world of medieval Europe- it demonstrates the way that medieval Europe is difficult to study (every statement includes a proviso) and it demonstrates some important features of its landscape. Leaving Curthose out of an account of medieval England leaves out the contingency of her history- he could have won, he could have been King of England had battles gone in a different direction- furthermore it leaves out an important continental dimension, if one of Duke of Normandy could conquer England, why not another? It makes us forget that the state created by the Conqueror was new and precarious. Robert Curthose is one of those figures in English history that doesn't quite fit, because of a lack of evidence and the concerns mentioned above, into the grand narrative of English history: for that reason he is a warning to us about our over confidence both in understanding the past and assuming it follows a direct line to the present.


edmund said...

good stuff i'd say though that Cuthouse wouldn't have been a threat to the post conquest state but a fufillent of it.

Any indications on the Jersualem chroniclers- he had a better press there presumably given he was I think offered the throne (though I read that in an old enough history book it may be wrong).