Count of Mortain (1051-c1095)
Earl of Cornwall (1072?-c1095)
Born c1031 Died c1095
his character stands out in honourable distinction from those of his brothers, neither surrounded by the "guilty glory" of the King, nor blackened by the baseness of the Bishop1
Robert was the son of Herluin of Conteville and Herleva of Falaise, which is to say that he was brother to the infamous Odo of Bayeux as well as being half-brother to both Richard Fitz Gilbert and William the Bastard, Duke of Normandy and later king William I of England. The exact year of Robert's birth is unknown, although it is generally regarded that Odo was the elder of the two, and that Robert was probably not more than a year or so younger than his sibling.
His name first appears in or about the year 1049 when he was made Count of Mortain in the Cotentin, in place of one William Warlenc, who had been banished by Duke William on suspicion of treason. The suspicion being that this William Warlenc was a grandson of Duke Richard I and therefore a potential rival to William the Bastard.
Five years later Robert was to be found supporting William against the French king Henri I's invasion of Normandy, although he does not appear to have taken part in the famous victory of the battle of Mortemer. He was however present at the council of Lillebonne in 1066, held to discuss the Duke's planned conquest of England when Robert agreed to contribute 120 ships to the invasion fleet. Robert was thus one of the undoubted Companions of the Conqueror, who fought at William's side at the battle of Hastings where he commanded a company of knights from the Cotentin, although he seems to have played no heroic role at the battle.
Robert's contribution to the success of the invasion was however regarded as fairly significant by William who awarded him a large share of the consequent spoil. He was granted the rape of Pevensey in Sussex and a total of 549 manors scattered across the country; 54 in Sussex, 75 in Devon, 49 in Dorset, 29 in Buckinghamshire, 13 in Hertfordshire, 10 in Suffolk, 99 in Northumberland, 196 in Yorkshire, and 24 in other counties. However the greatest concentration of his landed wealth was in Cornwall (where he held a further 248 manors at the time of the compilation of the Domesday book, together with castles of Launceston and Tremeton) although these Cornish estates were not granted to him until after 1072 when Brian of Brittany decided to return home. His position of authority in the south west has therefore led many to consider him as the Earl of Cornwall, although it appears uncertain as to whether he was formally created as such.
His one public act after the conquest took place in 1069, when together with his cousin and namesake Robert of Eu
, he led an army against a force of Danes who had landed at the mouth of the Humber
and laid siege to York
. As the Norman forces approached the Danes decided to retreat to the Fens where they fancied they would be safe. The two Roberts however surprised the Danes whilst they were being entertained by the disaffected natives and "pursued them with great slaughter to their very ships
After that there is little mention of Robert (who may well have spent much of his time in Normandy) until he appears at the deathbed of William I in 1087 pleading for the release of his brother Odo who had been imprisoned for revolt earlier in 1082. It is said that William was reluctant to accede to the request, believing that Odo was an incorrigible rogue. As it happens William was right, for as soon as the Conqueror was dead, Odo was soon fermenting a revolt against the Conqueror's successor William Rufus, and promoting the claims of Rufus' brother and rival Robert Curthose. Odo persuaded his brother to join in the rebellion which proved a failure. But whilst Odo was exiled to Normandy by William Rufus, Robert of Mortain was excused punishment and pardoned, most probably because his extensive English estates meant that it was worthwhile for the king to gain his support.
Nothing is known of Robert's life afterwards; it seems that he died sometime between the accession of William Rufus and the year 1103, by which time his son William of Mortain had most certainly succeeded him, most probably sometime around the year 1095.
Robert was married to Matilda, daughter of Roger of Montgomery, Earl of Shrewsbury, and by her left a son, the aforementioned William of Mortain, and three daughters; Agnes who married André de Vitry, Denise, married in 1078 to Guy, 3rd Sire de La Val; and Emma, the wife of William, Count of Toulouse.
He is described by William of Malmesbury as a man of a heavy, sluggish disposition, but no foul crimes are laid to his charge. He had evidently the courage of his race, and his conduct as a commander is unassociated with any act of cruelty. Scandal has not been busy with his name as a husband. No discords are known to have disturbed his domestic felicity.3
There is a story related by Matthew of Paris that Robert of Mortain was hunting in the New Forest with William Rufus in 1095 when a huge black goat appeared before him bearing the naked corpse of the king. When challenged the goat claimed that he was responsible the death of Rufus, and explained that he had carried out this act in accordance with the wishes of Saint Alban who was appalled by the king's malicious treatment of the church. Sadly, more recent historians have tended to dismiss the tale of the talking goat who revealed the secret of the king's death to Robert.
1 J.R. Planché see below
2 The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle
3 J.R. Planché see below
- Robert, Comte De Mortain and Earl of Cornwall from The Conqueror and His Companions by J.R. Planché, Somerset Herald. London: Tinsley Brothers, 1874.
- Robert of Mortain
- Charles Arnold Baker The Companion to British History (Longcross Press, 1996)
- The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles translated and edited by Michael Swanton (Phoenix Press, 2000)
- Frank Stenton Anglo-Saxon England (OUP, 3rd Ed 1971)