Who Were William the Conqueror’s Sons?

Jeffrey James

Middle Ages Norman Conquest
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William the Conqueror sired 4 sons, three of whom were alive at the time of his death in 1087.

Two became kings, another was a crusading duke; all three fought for the right to rule over the Anglo-Norman realm their father created.

Robert II, Duke of Normandy (c. 1501-1134)

The eldest was Robert, dubbed with the sobriquet ‘Curthose’ (colloquially, ‘shorty’).

Given his prowess as a knight – he was a hero of the First Crusade – the nickname could never have been used to his face without blows being exchanged.

He had once rebelled and defeated his father in combat, wounding and unhorsing him at the Battle of Gerberoy in the winter of 1078-9.

William for a time afterwards had wanted to disown Robert entirely, but was unable to: his son’s claim to the dukedom of Normandy had in the past been underwritten by the great and good of the duchy, who remained politically and morally invested in Robert as their duke-in-waiting.

William the Conqueror and Robert
William the Conqueror and his son Robert, 1865 (Credit: John Cassell).

Interaction between father and son, nevertheless, remained problematic right up until William’s passing. Although a mere two or three days’ ride away at Abbeville, Robert did not attend William’s deathbed or funeral.

The snub may not have been deliberate: he might have been unaware of his father’s plight, kept in the dark by his younger brothers so that they could better progress their own agendas.

William II, King of England (c. 1056-1100)

In accordance to Norman tradition, Robert’s younger brother William Rufus gained the kingdom of England in its entirety.

Great Seal of William Rufus
Great Seal of William Rufus, King of England (1087-1100) (Credit: George Lillie Craik).

12th century Orderic Vitalis claimed William felt a deep unwillingness to bequeath land acquired through the shedding of blood: the intimation being that if his sons wanted England badly enough they would have to fight for it.

Had William’s affairs on the Continent been more settled and had he trusted his three sons to work together, he might have looked to unite his lands under the eldest and made provision for the younger two to gain sizeable fiefdoms (known in France as appanages).

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William enjoyed a much better relationship with his second surviving son, William Rufus.

Rufus is characterised for his loyalty to his father. He shared William’s uncompromising fighting spirit; the first to issue a challenge or to hit back when opposed. He fought at his father’s side at Gerberoy and was wounded there.

William II Rufus
William II sculpture on Canterbury Cathedral (Credit: Saforrest / CC).

Rufus was markedly chivalrous and scrupulously correct in his dealings with social equals. His fair treatment of captives became something of a hallmark.

He was also an innovative, naturally gifted and practical man, full of good ideas, with a down-to-earth, get-things-done persona.

Already at the coast when news of his father’s passing reached him, Rufus hurried across the Channel to England to secure the royal treasury at Winchester and to garrison a number of key southern coastal sites, before being crowned king of England on 26 September 1087.

He might well have gained the throne of England on his father’s nod, but, equally possibly, had orchestrated a bloodless coup.

Henry I, King of England (c. 1068-1135)

Henry I
Henry I depicted in a 14th century manuscript (Credit: British Library manuscripts).

William’s third surviving son Henry was still a teenager at the time of his father’s death. He gained no land, just money, even though his late mother’s lands in England had once been set aside for him.

By all accounts more circumspect than his elder brothers, his reserve has since been taken to mask considerable shrewdness.

His nickname ‘Beauclerc’ (‘fine scholar’) indicates he could perhaps both read and write at a time when the secular nobility could at best sometimes read.

Dubbed a knight by his father at Whitsuntide in 1086, the year before William’s death, Henry was then a 17-year-old, dark-haired, dark-eyed youth of medium height.

His dubbing had preceded a bout of crown-wearing at Salisbury on the part of his father, a highly symbolic and formalised ceremonial which at the time attracted widespread interest.

Henry I
Henry I from Matthew Paris’s Historia Anglorum, c. 1253 (Credit: British Library).

It seems William sought to place Henry centre stage when seeking to enforce the allegiance of all his important English subjects.

This begs the question: did he already foresee Henry as one day ruling over England and Normandy, as both king and duke?

Henry had been the only one of the Conqueror’s sons to be born in the purple – in other words, born after William became anointed King of England.

He  was also the only son reared in England and may have considered himself to have a better pedigree for the kingship than either of his brothers.

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After his father’s death, Henry busied himself organising transport for the mass of pre-weighed coinage left to him.

His father may have recommended him use the money to purchase a fiefdom in Normandy from Robert. If so, Henry drove a hard bargain, gaining comital oversight over the greater part of western Normandy.

He subsequently witnessed Duke Robert’s charters as Henrici comitis, a designation assessed by Orderic to represent a lordship spanning a full third of the duchy.

The struggle for power

The Battle of Tinchebray by Rohan Master (Credit: Bibliothèque nationale de France).

Relations between the Bastard’s sons deteriorated almost immediately after their father’s death and remained constantly on a knife-edge, sometimes flaring into open warfare.

Barons who owned land on both sides of the English Channel became caught up in a long-running, sometimes vicious power struggle, forced to choose which son to back.

To complicate matters, the Scots sought to take advantage of the instability engendered – a time-honoured response to English weakness.

Noblemen at Le Mans also rebelled, turning the southern marches of the duchy into Maine into a war-zone.

Meanwhile, Philip ‘the Amorous’, king of the Franks, struggled to pick sides, sometimes backing one brother over another.

Death of William Rufus
The death of William Rufus by Alphonse de Neuville, 1895 (Credit: Ridpath’s Universal History).

When Rufus later died in suspicious circumstances in Hampshire’s New Forest in 1100, Robert might have reunited the Anglo-Norman realm but Henry interposed.

The issue would only be settled by war, its denouement, the epochal Battle of Tinchebrai in 1107.

Jeffrey James is the author of several books: An Onslaught of Spears, the Danish Conquest of England; Edward IV, Glorious Son of York; Ireland, the Struggle for Power from the Dark Ages to the Jacobites; and, most recently, The Bastard’s Sons, Robert, William and Henry of Normandy published by Amberley Publishing. He is married, with two grown up children, and lives in Southsea, Hampshire.

Tags: William the Conqueror

Jeffrey James