Also known as 'Hugh Vras' or 'Fras', 'Hugh le Gros' aka 'Hugh the Fat'
and 'Hugh Lupus' aka 'The Wolf'
1st Earl of Chester 1071-1101
Born circa 1048 Died 1101
The young Hugh
His father was Richard Goz, the Viscount of Avranches in Normandy and his mother Emma of Conteville. Since Emma's mother was none other than Herleva of Falaise this made Emma half-sister to William the Bastard, Duke of Normandy, and Hugh the nephew of the man that was to become king of England.
It as an open question whether Hugh actually accompanied William in his initial invasion of England; it is most likely that he did not and that he first arrived in England in the winter of 1067, in the company of Roger of Montgomery.
At the time Hugh was in his early twenties at most (and possibly younger, his date of birth being uncertain) but displayed an early enthusiasm for violence and was soon active in assisting his uncle William in surpressing the various rebellions that broke out during the first few years of his reign. The fact that Hugh was given Whitby in Yorkshire seems to suggest that he had been employed in putting down the revolt in the north in 1069, which was a particularly bloody and brutal affair.
Earl of Chester
The earldom of Chester had in fact earlier been given to one Gherbod the Fleming. However in 1071 Gherbod returned to Flanders to attend to business there and was promptly captured and imprisoned by his enemies.
This left a vacancy in Chester and so having proved his abilities to the satisfaction of uncle William, Hugh found himself elevated to the ranks of the nobility. In fact he became what was known as a Count Palatine, effectively king of Chester in all but name, with his own court, and barons, and officers. The purpose of granting such powers to one individual was to allow the freedom to take the necessary military countermeasures to ensure the stability of the border with Wales.1
It seems that Hugh made good use of the autonomy granted to him and spent much of his first decade in office establishing his control over north-east Wales.2 He and his cousin Robert of Rhuddlan worked their way along the coastline, built a castle at Rhuddlan3 and subjugated both Rhos and Rhufoniog.
It was on his orders that Gruffudd ap Cynan was seized and imprisoned in 1081 after the victory at Mynydd Carn. With Gruffudd under lock and key, Hugh and Robert carved up Gwynedd between them, with Hugh extending the reach of Chester across the Perfeddwlad whilst Robert commandeered Anglesey and the north west and agreed to pay William £40 a year for the privilege of holding these territories.
It was notable that he remained loyal to William Rufus during the revolt of 1088, and dealt with any rebels that crossed his path with his customary ruthlessness, which presumably did his standing at court no harm whatsoever. When Robert was killed fighting against the Welsh in the same year this left Hugh as the effective ruler of the whole of north Wales.
The Revolt of 1094
Of course Hugh was not a popular ruler in Wales and the Norman grip on power was a lot more fragile than it looked. Whilst the Normans might had their castles in the lowlands, the uplands remained in the hands of the Welsh and provided a base from which counterattacks could be launched.
In 1094 Cadwgan ap Bleddyn4 and his brothers led a revolt against the hated 'French' and the Norman forces were soon in retreat all across Wales. In early 1098, Gruffudd ap Cynan escaped captivity and joined the rebellion as well.5
William himself came and led expeditions into Wales in both 1095 and 1097 but with little effect, but in 1098 Hugh together with his neighbour Hugh of Montgomery, the earl of Shrewsbury, led their own invasion of north Wales. Inititally the two Hughs met with a great deal of success, forcing the leaders of the rebellion fled to Ireland and they soon moved to occupy Anglesey. Unfortunately they also managed to get into a fight with Magnus Bareleg the king of Norway, who providentially happened to be passing by and Hugh of Montgomery was killed in the ensuing battle.
Encouraged by the death of one of their tormentors the Welsh rose up again and Hugh was soon retreating back to Chester. The next year he brokered a peace deal on behalf of William II that effectively surrendered most of his territorial gains in Wales, but by then his health was failing and possibly his interest in matters temporal was waning.
Faced with two Norman Hughs the Welsh, in time honoured fashion, christened the earl of Shrewsbury as Hugh Goch, or 'Hugh the Red' and the earl of Chester as Hugh Fras or 'Hugh the Fat'. The former because he had red hair and the latter because, well he was very fat indeed. As Orderic Vitalis rather bluntly put it "He indulged in gluttony to such a degree that he could scarcely walk."
His alternative nickname of 'the Wolf' however does not seem to have been used by his contemporaries, but was rather a name bestowed on him after his death in honour of his notorious cruelty. He blinded and mutilated his brother-in-law William the Comte d'Eu for the crime of being on the wrong side of the revolt of 1088 and persecuted his wars in Wales with a savage ferocity. His passion for violence was such that "He continually wasted even his own domains" according to Orderic Vitalis.
Despite or because of all this generally dissolute behaviour, he maintained the outward forms of Christian devotion and was a generous benefactor to various religous institutions. He founded the St. Sever Abbey in Normandy, made numerous gifts to Whitby Abbey in Yorkshire and in 1092 founded a Benedictine abbey on the restored site of the Anglo-Saxon church of St.Werburgh in his own Chester.
This last piece of philanthropy might well have been a bit of forward planning on Hugh's part as when he fell seriously ill in the year 1101 and aware of his impending demise, he became a monk at the very Abbey of St. Werburgh in Chester which he himself had established. Which is where he died three days after taking his monastic vows on the 27th July.
Hugh had one legitimate son named Richard who succeded him in the earldom, although he was only seven at the time of his father's death. Richard later made a good marriage to Matilda of Blois, daughter of Stephen and Adela, daughter of William I. Unfortunately there the line of Hugh the Fat came to an end, as both Richard and Matilda were fated to be aboard the White Ship that set sail from Barfleur in November 1120, and they both drowned in the ensuing shipwreck.
1 Similar powers were conferred upon the earls of both Shrewsbury and Hereford for much the same reasons.
2 The Domesday Book of 1086 certainly records most of the Perfeddwlad east of the river Clwyd in Norman hands.
3 Rhuddlan, formerly a seat of Gruffudd ap Llywelyn and from which Robert its castellan got his name.
4 Cadwgan ap Bleddyn son of Bleddyn ap Cynfyn former king of Gwynedd who succeeded Gruffudd ap Llywelyn.
5 Some suggest that Hugh might have even have let Gruffudd escape in the hopes that he might destabilise the rebellion, since Gruffudd represented a rival line to Cadwgan.
David C Douglas The Normans (Folio, 2002)
J.R. Planché The Conqueror and His Companions (Tinsley Brothers, 1874)
John Davies A History of Wales (Allen Lane, 1993)
Kari Mundi The Welsh Kings (Tempus, 2000)