3rd Earl of Shrewsbury (1098-1102)
Born c 1054 Died Sometime after 1131
Robert of Belleme
His father was Roger of Montgomery, one of king William I's most trusted supporters who had been rewarded with the earldom of Shrewsbury in addition to extensive estates elsewhere in the country including estates in Sussex and the Arundel castle.
When Roger died in 1094, his inheritance was divided between two of his sons; his English lands went to his second son Hugh whilst his eldest son, Robert of Belleme succeeded in Normandy where in inherited a number of lordships, amongst which was naturally that of Bellême. 1
Brother Hugh was however killed in 1098, during an invasion of Anglesey as a consequence of the unexpected intervention of Magnus Bareleg and Robert of Belleme therefore came into possession of both the family’s Norman and English lands. There is a suggestion that he bribed William Rufus to ensure that the earldom of Shrewsbury etc passed into his hands as opposed to brother Arnulf.
Whatever the truth of that particular matter, Robert thereby became one of the richest and most powerful magnates within the Anglo-Norman world, controlling extensive estates in France, the county of Shropshire, the rape of Arundel in Sussex as well as chunks of central Powys in Wales such as the cantrefi of Arwystli and Cedewain.
The Rebellion of Robert
In the year 1100 William Rufus died in hunting "accident" in the New Forest and the throne of England passed into the hands of younger brother Henry rather than older brother Robert Curthose who happened to be on his way back from the First Crusade at the time. The unhappy Robert Curthose duly launched an invasion of England in 1101 seeking to secure what he regarded as rightfully his, but the two surviving brothers avoided bloodshed and reached an amicable agreement. Robert Curthose was mollified by the promise of an annuity and returned to Normandy reasonably content with his lot.
His namesake from Belleme was seemingly not so easily put off and appears to have continued to conspire against Henry, as in the following year Henry summoned Robert to court and "accused him of committing forty-five offenses in deed or word against him and his brother the duke of Normandy, and ordered him to respond publicly concerning each."
Henry had it seems, long suspected Robert of disloyalty and had placed him under watch for the past year, so that "All his evil deeds had been carefully investigated by private spies and fully described in writing."
Having been accused, Robert asked for permission to consult with his advisors, but simply fled back to the safety of Shropshire much to Henry's annoyance. Henry threatened Robert with outlawry unless he returned, but Robert refused all summons and "Instead he strengthened the ramparts and walls of all his castles and called on his Norman kinsmen, the alien Welsh, and all his allies to assist him."
Robert was therefore now in open rebellion against Henry I, a rebellion which is often said to have been conducted in support of Robert Curthose and his claim to England. However, it should be remembered that his father Roger of Montgomery, had similarly rebelled against William Rufus in 1087, again ostensibly in support of Robert Curthose, but had been very rapidly brought off by the promise of a free hand in Wales and become a faithful supporter of William II thereafter. It is therefore likely that Robert of Belleme had the same thing in mind, that is; obtaining concessions from Henry I in return for his unequivocal support.
Unfortunately for Robert, Henry I was of an entirely different character than his brother William.
The conduct of the rebellion
Whilst Robert was busy in Shropshire fortifying and enlarging Bridgnorth castle, Henry called out his forces and laid siege to Arundel castle. After three months the garrison at Arundel was ready to surrender. Henry gave the garrison permission to send a message to Robert; Robert reluctantly allowed the garrison to surrender (he was in no position to relieve the siege at the time). Honour this satisfied, Arundel castle was duly surrendered to Henry who then led his army to the castle at Blyth, which surrendered almost immediately.
Arundel and Blyth castles together commanded one of the key land routes in England linking with the sea-crossing to Normandy.2 By depriving Robert of these castles Henry prevented Robert from reinforcing his rebellion from Normandy.
Henry therefore now sent word to his brother Robert Curthose in Normandy reminding him that he was obliged to take action against Robert of Belleme as well. However duke Robert's attempts to take control of Robert of Belleme's holdings in France were singularly unsuccessful. Irrespective of the apparent lack of success that his brother was having in Normandy, in the autumn of 1102 Henry gathered an army and moved against Bridgnorth. In the meantime, Robert had withdrawn to Shrewsbury and entrusted Bridgnorth castle to the care of certain trusted supporters.3
Robert's Alliance with the Welsh
According to Orderic Vitalis, Robert "had also made a treaty with the Welsh, and entered into alliance with their kings, Cadwgan and Iorwerth" who apparently made "frequent raids to harass the king's army with their forces"4.
Cadwgan ap Bleddyn was the ruler of Powys, Robert's immediate neighbour to the west, who had reasons of his own for seeking to discomfort who ever happened to be the king of England at the time; Iorwerth ap Bleddyn was his younger brother and partner in the business of running Powys.
Henry naturally sought to brake up this little alliance, as Orderic Vitalis tells us; "Henry then sent for the Welsh kings through William Pantulf 5 and, by disarming them with gifts and promises, cautiously won them and their forces from the enemy's side to his own".
Welsh sources provide much more detail regarding this episode; the Brut y Tywysogion states that Henry sent "messengers to the Britons" and "in particular to Iorwerth ap Bleddyn, and to invite him and his host into his presence and to promise him more than he would obtain from the earl".
It seems that Iorwerth ap Bleddyn was persuaded to change sides in return for a promise of receiving various territories in Wales and therefore broke away from his brothers and turned to harassing Robert's forced instead as well as challenging his brother Cadwgan.6
The end of the rebellion
Having neutralised Robert's Welsh allies, Henry then sent word to the defenders of Bridgnorth castle that he would see them all hang unless they surrendered to him within the next three days. With the prospect of imminent death concentrating their minds the garrison at the castle sought a way out of their predicament.
Once again William Pantulf 5 acted as the intermediary and the local garrison was persuaded to surrender. (It seems that the promise of augmenting their estates with a hundred pounds' worth of land may well have helped sway their loyalty.) Robert's mercenary troops were apparently less pleased with this turn of events, but were prevented from causing any trouble and having so demonstrated the correct amount fidelity to their paymaster, they where allowed to leave with both their horses and arms.
Once Bridgnorth had surrendered the way was free to advance against Shrewsbury itself. Orderic Vitalis claims that there were "sixty thousand foot-soldiers in the expedition" that set out towards Shrewsbury, which is undoubtedly an exaggeration, but it is clear that the size of the advancing army was sufficient to intimidate Robert.
Attempts to open negotiations with the king failed, so Robert simply rode out from Shrewsbury, handed over the keys of the town and submitted to the king. Henry contented himself with confiscating Robert's lands in England whilst allowing him safe conduct through England to the coast from where he naturally returned to his lands in Normandy.
Despite this apparent display of magnanimity, Henry decided that Robert's family simply could not be trusted and "decided to root them all out of the kingdom". Both of Robert's brothers, Roger known as Roger the Poitevin who had effective control of Lancashire, and Arnulf who had became established in Pembroke in Dyfed, were wealthy landowners, but as Orderic Vitalis explained Henry "looked for reasons to complain about the two brothers and, when he found them, exploited them as fully as possible. Eventually he managed to disinherit them and drive them out of Britain".
Robert in Normandy
Despite being deprived of his lands in Britain, Robert remained in control of his estates in northern France including "thirty-four powerful castles that he had built to support his rebellion". He therefore remained a force to be reckoned with and he was now suitably annoyed due to the ignominious failure of attempt to best Henry I, and "vented his anger on the Normans".
Robert "pillaged and then burned their estates, subjecting all the knights and other persons whom he could capture to death or mutilation." That is, Robert took to a life of raiding sundry villages, burning and looting as he went along and wasn't prevented from burning down churches by the fact that they happened to be full of frightened villagers at the time.
Neither of his brothers joined him in this life of crime, mainly because Robert was disinclined to share any of his paternal inheritance with his two brothers who were now sharing in his fate of disinheritance and expulsion. Roger the Poitevin chose a life of relative peace and quiet and retired to his wife's castle at Charroux "until he grew old and died, leaving honourable sons to succeed him", whilst Arnulf took more positive steps against his brother, managing to seize one of his castles and surrendering it to the duke Robert Curthose.
Unfortunately, despite the assistance provided by Arnulf the Duke Robert Curthose wasn't up to the job of dealing with his namesake and Robert was allowed to proceed relatively unchecked; the duke's attempts to quash Belleme's activities met with failure and he was left free to rampage at will.
Orderic Vitalis tell us that Robert of Belleme "held the duke in contempt and attempted to subject all of Normandy to himself." It may well have been the prospect of Robert actually succeeding in this aim that prompted Henry I to act.
The end of Robert
As Orderic Vitalis puts it "for three years innumerable atrocities were committed" as Robert of Belleme spread terror throughout Normandy. Viewing the anarchy and lawlessness in the duchy with increasing distaste, in 1105 Henry I decided to take matters into his own hands landed in Normandy with an army and rapidly took territory under his own control.
The appearance of Henry in Normandy caused Robert of Belleme to change tack and he now threw his weight behind Robert Curthose and fought at his side at the battle of Tinchebrai in 1106 in an effort to prevent Henry taking control of the duchy.
Henry was of course victorious at Tinchebrai; Robert Curthose was hauled off to prison, but Robert of Belleme escaped Henry's clutches and fled to the safety of the court of the French king, whose support he now needed to retain any chance of retaining his lands.
There he stayed until the November of 1112 when Louis VI of France sent him on a diplomatic mission to Henry. Unfortunately for Robert, Henry had by now had second thoughts regarding his treatment of him and promptly arrested him and imprisoned at Wareham Castle. Which is where Robert spent the rest of his life; he is known to have been alive in the May of 1131 and is presumed to have died sometime after.
According to Orderic Vitalis Robert of Belleme was "so cruel that he would rather torture his prisoners than get rich on the ransoms offered for their release". Which is to say that he was a cruel and sadistic bastard even by Norman standards. (Which is saying a great deal.)
He attracted a fairly fearsome reputation whilst he was earl of Shrewsbury, even compared to some of his contemporaries such as the vicious Hugh the Fat, when it was said, again by Orderic that "he harried the Welsh brutally for four years".
It was however his activities whilst in Normandy during the years 1102 to 1106 that attracted the most odium. (If only because he was now venting his cruelty on nice Normans as opposed to the alien Welsh.) Robert gained the reputation for inventing new tortures, in mutilating those who fell into his power, including, it is said, roasting his victims alive over slow fires purely for his own amusement. He was also famously charged with the crime of personally blinding his own godson simply because the father had broken an agreement.
His cruel nature was supposedly inherited from his mother, Mabel Talvas who attracted a similar reputation for wanton cruelty. So much so, that some local knights eager for revenge, stole into her castle and surprised her coming out of the bath and promptly decapitated her, sometime around the year 1076.
Robert was to escape the violent end of his mother but given his general behavious it was perhaps no surprise that Henry felt that the best place for him was a secure cell in the dungeon of Wareham Castle.
1 Bellême is located in the French département of Orne, and was part of Robert's inheritance from his mother Mabel Talvas.
2 Arundel Castle was the caput of the Sussex rape of Arundel, originally placed under the command of Roger of Montogomery
3 Named by Orderic Vitalis as Roger, son of Corbet, Robert of Neuville, and Ulger the huntsman, together with eighty mercenary knights under them.
4 Orderic Vitalis actually calls them "the sons of Rhys" which they were not, they were the sons of Bleddyn, as well as neglecting to mention Maredudd ap Bleddyn. Orderic presumably got his Welsh kings confused and presumed that they were the sons of Rhys ap Twedwr.
5 William Pantulf was originally one of Robert's vassal knights, but despite offering his services to Robert he was rejected and disinherited for some reason. Naturally, he went over to Henry's side, His local knowledge and contacts proved very useful; as Orderic remarked "He did more harm to Robert than anyone else, and resolutely supplied both counsel and arms until Robert had been brought low."
6 Not that Iorwerth ap Bleddyn ever profited from this change of heart. Not all. Henry I clapped him in prison the minute he ceased to be useful.
Orderic Vitalis Ecclesiastical History
(Translated by David Burr, History Department, Virginia Tech, Blacksburg, VA.) see http://www.saosnois.com/orderic_vital.htm from which various quotations attributed to Orderic Vitalis are derived.
David C Douglas The Normans (Folio, 2002)
Brut y Tywysogion
John Davies A History of Wales (Allen Lane, 1993)
Kari Mundi The Welsh Kings (Tempus, 2000)