1st Earl of Hereford 1067-1071
Lord of the Isle of Wight 1067-1071
Born c1030 Died 1071

William Fitz Osbern was one of the leading Norman supporters of William the Bastard, later king William I of England and one of a handful of key figures such as Odo of Bayeux, Robert of Mortain and Richard Fitz Gilbert who were largely responsible for the Norman Conquest of England.

The Conquest and Subjugation of England

William was the son of Osbern de Crépon and was born around the year 1030 most likely in Poitiers in Aquitaine. His father Osbern1 was the dapifer or steward to the Dukes of Normandy and who later became one of the legal guardians of the young William the Bastard after the death of his father Robert the Devil, Duke of Normandy, in 1035.

Fitz Osbern later succeeded his father as steward and was therefore one chief officers of the ducal household of Normandy. But other than that, almost nothing is known of Fitz Osbern's early life and the role he played within the early struggles of the young William the Bastard to gain control of his inheritance in Normandy. But it does seems certain that Fitz Osbern was present at the Council of Lillebonne, called by William the Bastard to consider the question of the succession to the English crown and was apparently instrumental in persuading the assembled barons to support the Duke's grand plan of invading England.

William Fitz Osbern was therefore present at the Hastings, where he commanded the men of Boulogne and Poix and was later rewarded for his service by being created both Earl of Hereford and Lord of the Isle of Wight; he was undoubtedly granted a considerable number of manors as well but since he was to die well before the compilation of the Domesday Book, no record survives of their location or number.

In the aftermath of his victory at Hastings king William was satisfied that England was now his and he needed to return to Normandy to take care of matters there. He left his newly acquired kingdom in the hands of his two most trusted men, his half-brother Odo of Bayeux and William Fitz Osbern; Odo having charge of south of the kingdom and Fitz Osbern the entire area of Norman control north of the Thames.

Fitz Osbern was additionally appointed governor of William I's newly built castle at Winchester2, as well as being entrusted with the castle built at Norwich to defend against the anticipated Danish attack. Little survives in the way of records to show precisely how Fitz Osbern discharged his duties but the historian Orderic Vitalis was to call him "the first and greatest oppressor of the English" and to accuse him of using overly harsh methods. The implication appears to be that Fitz Osbern was somewhat over-enthusiastic in his suppression of native dissent, and that it was this very suppression that prompted continued rebellions against the Normans. 3

It was to require all of king William's efforts to quash these rebellions, including his (in)famous Harrowing of the North and perhaps it is no surprise that resistance was strongest in that very area, north of the Thames that had initially been placed under Fitz Osbern's jurisdiction.

Herefordshire and the Welsh Frontier

Of course as Earl of Hereford, Fitz Osbern's primary responsibility was establishing Norman control of that county and in particular in pacifying the frontier with the troublesome kingdoms of Wales.

Hereford itself had been burned by Gruffudd ap Llywelyn earlier in 1055 and the county was suffering again under the depredations of Eadric the Wild and his Welsh allies. Large areas of the county had therefore been abandoned and needed to be retenanted. Fitz Osbern made great efforts to attract 'suitably qualified military men' into Herefordshire to resettle the county and re-establish order. He did this by offering large rewards to those who agreed to become his followers and also through such incidentals such as significantly reducing the fines payable for minor infringements of the law.

By this means Fitz Osbern established for himself what was in effect, a large private army which was utilised in establishing his control of the county and in manning a series of castles at strategic locations such as Wigmore, Clifford and Ewyas Harold in order to strengthen the defenses of Hereford. Once the county of Hereford had been secured, Fitz Osbern used these defensive positions as a launching pad for a move down the Wye Valley into the Welsh kingdom of Gwent. There he established a castle at Monmouth where the river Monnow met the Wye, and another at Striguil where the old Roman road crossed the river Wye close to where that river flowed into the Severn Estuary.

Naturally this move was not unopposed and in 1070 he fought and defeated a Welsh army led by Cadwgan ap Meurig, king of Morgannwg and Maredudd ab Owain ab Edwin, king of Deheubarth. But there are indications that soon afterwards Fitz Osbern granted land in Herefordshire to Maredudd in return for a free hand in Gwent.4

Once Fitz Osbern had established his control of Gwent he followed with the policy of founding small boroughs around each of his castles of Monmouth and Striguil. Here William Fitz Osbern used as a template the charter he had previously granted to the town of Breteuil, a settlement which was in a similar frontier location. The charters granted to the new boroughs of Monmouth and Striguil (quite probably the first towns to be established in Wales since the departure of the Romans) were themselves later used as a model for all the other town charters for settlements within Wales, and later again for Ireland as well.

In the short period between the years 1067 and 1070 Fitz Osbern was able to conquer the ancient kingdom of Gwent and expel its native rulers; Gwent was to remain thereafter a bastion of Norman power in Wales from which they were never dislodged. It became the first step in what was to prove to be the long process of the Norman conquest of Wales.

The End of Fitz Osbern

Towards the end of 1070 William Fitz Osbern returned to Normandy to provide further assistance to Matilda. At the time, Baldwin VI the Count of Flanders had recently died and his eldest son and heir, Ernulph had not yet come of age. Although Baldwin had appointed his brother Robert the Frison as regent in his will, neither the Count's widow Richildis or indeed young Ernulph seemed happy with this arrangement.

As Matilda was herself Flemish and Ernulph's aunt, she naturally involved herself in the affair. The recently widowed William Fitz Osbern was persuaded, either from love or ambition, to marry Richildis and support her in the civil war that was now looming in Flanders. Philip I, the king of France, also threw his weight behind the plan, and so a joint Franco-Norman force proceeded against Robert the Frison.

Unfortunately at the battle of Cassel, fought on the 22nd of February, 1071, both William Fitz Osbern and the young Count Ernulph were killed (treachery was suspected) as Robert the Frison carried the day. Fitz Osbern's body was returned for burial at Cormeilles Abbey in Normandy, which naturally enough Fitz Osbern had earlier founded.

His Norman holdings were given to his eldest son, William, while Roger his younger son, received most of his father's English lands, including the title of Earl of Hereford.

Like many of his contemporaries little is known of the character of William Fitz Osbern; little is recorded of his life other than the chief actions of his career between the years 1066 and 1071. He is remembered as one of the chief architects of the Norman Conquest of England, the Norman conqueror of Gwent and the builder of Chepstow Castle, the oldest surviving stone castle of its type in Britain.


NOTES

1 Osbern de Crépon was later killed by one William de Montgomeri, ancestor of Roger of Montogomery, who ironically later became William's near neighbours as Earl of Shrewsbury.

2 Winchester, the old capital of Wessex, being at the time the second city of the kingdom as well as the location of the king's treasury.

3 Indeed one of the first signs of such resistance was the revolt of Eadric the Wild, a Shropshire landowner who objected to the activities of Fitz Osbern's Herefordshire Normans and continued a dogged opposition until his final submission to King William in the summer of 1070.

4 Domesday recorded a series of land grants William made to a Welsh king named 'Mariadoth', presumed to be the very same Maredudd ab Owain ab Edwin who he had fought and defeated in 1070.


SOURCES

  • J.R. Planché The Conqueror and His Companions (Tinsley Brothers, 1874)
  • Lynn H. Nelson The Normans in South Wales 1070-1171 (University of Texas Press, 1966)
  • William Fitz Osbern at
    www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk/NORosbern.htm
    www.castlewales.com/osbern.html

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