Bishop of Coutances 1048-1093
Companion of the Conqueror
Born c1030 Died 1093
Geoffrey was born sometime around the year 1030 to a noble Norman family who held the fief of Montbrai in Normandy. It was his elder brother Roger who inherited the family estates and so Geoffrey undertook a career in the church and in 1048 obtained (mainly thanks to his brothers influence it is believed) the see of Coutances. After which he was busy raising funds to finance the building of a new cathedral at Coutances, which was consecrated in 1056 in the presence of Duke William of Normandy.
Like many senior ecclesiasts of the time, he did not restrict his activities to the spiritual realm and was active in the realm of the temporal as well. As William Dugdale remarked (echoing the contemporary sentiments of Orderic Vitalis), "This Geoffroi being of noble Norman extraction and more skilful in arms than divinity, knowing better to train up soldiers than to instruct clergy, did good service at the battle of Hastings."
The exact nature of the 'good service' provided by the bishop at Hastings is uncertain. Although he was certainly present at the battle, Orderic Vitalis was unspecific regarding the exact nature of Geoffrey's activities and according to Wace these were limited to the business of receiving confessions and giving benedictions on the evening before the battle. Although given the rather pugnacious nature of Geoffrey many have doubted that the good bishop could have resisted the temptations of a good fight.
Geoffrey was also present at the coronation of William I in Westminster Abbey on Christmas Day later that year, and it was he, as a representative of the Norman church who joined with Ealdred, the Archbishop of York (and acting head of the English Church) in calling on those present to indicate their assent to the crowning of William as king. (It is worth mentioning that the affirmative shout of those assembled at Westminster Abbey surprised a troop of Norman soldiers waiting outside to set fire to the surrounding houses, which brought the coronation ceremony to a rather ignominious and confusing conclusion.)
In any event for his 'good service at the battle of Hastings' Geoffrey was granted some 280 English manors scattered, as was the custom of the time, across twelve counties but with a concentration in the Somerset and Gloucestershire area where Geoffrey based himself at Bristol and built himself a substantial castle. He was therefore the ideal candidate to be placed in charge of an army raised from London, Winchester, and Salisbury in order to suppress a rebellion that had broken out in Dorset and Somerset in 1069. Geoffrey did not disappoint in this endeavour and surprising the rebels as they were busy laying siege to Montacute in September of that year and driving them away with heavy losses and was also responsible for mutilating those rebels that had the misfortune of being captured.
Once again in 1075 he was called on to exercise his military capabilities and joined with Odo of Bayeux in leading another army against Ralph Guader the Earl of Norfolk, who had joined with his brother-in-law the Earl of Hereford in an attempt to overthrow William I. The attempt failed, due in no small part to the efforts of Geoffrey and Odo who laid siege to Ralph's stronghold which surrendered after three weeks.
Geoffrey was also entrusted by the king with an important judicial role, being asked in 1072 to preside over a number of important disputes including that between Lanfranc, the Archbishop of Canterbury and Odo of Bayeux, and between the Bishop of Worcester and the Abbot of Ely.
There are good reasons to believe that he acted as a Domesday commissioner in 1086 and some indications that at around the same time he was placed in charge of Northumbria, although whether he was actually appointed Earl of Northumbria as some have suggested seems uncertain. (Although his nephew, Robert who became his heir certainly did later become Earl of Northumbria.)
In 1088 William I, the conqueror of England died and as befitted a senior Norman ecclesiast Geoffrey attended the Conquerors funeral. With the death of the elder William, he was succeeded as king of England by his second son William Rufus, whilst his eldest son Robert Curthose inherited Normandy only. There were many that believed that Robert should have succeeded in England as well as Normandy, amongst whom was Geoffrey, who therefore joined with others such as Odo of Bayeaux and Robert of Mortain in rebellion against William II.
Together with his nephew Robert de Montbray, Geoffrey marched from Bristol Castle, burned Bath before proceeding to raid across Somerset and Wiltshire before being stopped at Ilchester by the shire levies raised by William in his defence. The revolt against William Rufus soon collapsed and so Geoffrey was obliged to make his peace with the king but escaped any specific punishment.
Thereafter there is a record of Geoffrey appearing with William Rufus at Dover in January 1090, after which he retired to Normandy, where he lived quietly until his death at Coutances in 1093, where he is commemorated by the presence of a street named 'Rue Geoffroi de Montbray' in that town.
Montbrai is a commune in the canton of Perci, within the arrondissement of St. Lô. The name Montbrai was later corrupted in England into Mowbray, which was the surname adopted by a branch of the Albini/d'Aubigny family who were ultimately granted the Montbray inheritance. Thus the Bishop Geoffrey sometimes appears under the guise of Geoffrey de Mowbray rather than Montbray, although Geoffrey himself preferred to designate himself as being from St. Lô and is therefore sometimes described as Geoffrey De Sancto Laudo and Geoffrey St. Loth.
- The 1911 Encyclopedia Brittanica entry for GEOFFREY DE MONTBRAY
- Extracts from Crispin and Macary, Falaise Rolls (1938)
Vol II File 2: The Paternal Ancestry of Homer Beers James, see
- GEOFFREY DE MOWBRAY, BISHOP OF COUTANCES from
J.R. Planché The Conqueror and His Companions (London: Tinsley Brothers, 1874)