Medieval Dynastic Fail: The Normans

A while back, I jumped off an article about one of the world’s remaining functional monarchies, that of Morocco, to an argument that survival was the key to success for a monarch. I used the Capetians as an example.

Today I’m going to unsay a little of that, and use as an example a dynasty contemporary to the Capetians, who, though they made about as big a mark on history as can be imagined, they survived less than 100 years: The Normans.

William the Conqueror is one of history’s more interesting characters: the illegitimate son of the Duke of Normandy and a tanner’s daughter, William overcame his bastardy (a serious mark against him in those days) to not only succeed to his father’s dukedom, but maintain it’s independence against all the other lords of France. Whereupon he took an almost pitiable claim to the English throne and, in a turn of events that would be laughable in fiction, conquered England almost at one blow. And unlike other fearsome warrior kings, he did not maintain a bevy of courtesans, but remained almost touchingly devoted to his wife. Having worn the title “Bastard” for much of his life, he seems to have made a conscious decision not to bring any into the world. He died a magnificent success, in his saddle (according to one source, by his saddle) as he had lived.

Greater than the romantic color of this life is the significance of it. The Norman Conquest of England changed forever the culture of the conquered land. The English language, hitherto but one of many Germanic tongues of the North Sea, took on a French/Latin tinge that gave it the size and flexibility it enjoys today as the world’s first diplomatic language. England ceased to be a peripheral power and became one of the chief realms of Medieval Europe. Politically, the personal union of Normandy and other French territories to the English throne led to 500 years of conflict with French kings, culminating in the bloodshed of the Hundred Years War. Few men of the Middle Ages made as great a mark on the times as did this illegitimate orphan, who lost his father at the age of seven.

Yet his dynasty was gone almost within a century of his birth. Why?

Longevity wasn’t the problem. William lived almost to be sixty, and ruled as King of England for 21 years. Two of his sons, Robert Curthose and Henry I, lived to be 80 and 67, respectively. Those are numbers that even the continuous Capetians could envy. No, the problem lay in that main goal for which any dynasty must labor: the production of legitimate offspring. The Normals failed at that, and so failed as a dynasty.

The Conqueror did his part. His marriage to Matilda of Flanders produced 10 children, four of them boys:

  1. Robert, known as Curthose
  2. Richard
  3. William, known as Rufus
  4. Henry, known as Beauclerc

Richard died in a hunting accident as a teenager. That left three. The Conqueror divided his lands at his death: Robert got Normandy, William got England, and Henry got 5000 lb. in silver.

Robert Curthose left behind a mixed reputation. Despite a reputation for battlefield courage that extended all the way to the First Crusade, Robert always seemed at a disadvantage to his brothers. He pawned Normandy to William Rufus for the money to go on Crusade, and when he returned launched into a war with Henry (William having died in the interim), ending with him as his brother’s prisoner, a role he spent the remaining 38 years of his life in. He had a handful of bastards, but only one legitimate son:

  • William, known as Clito

William Rufus, aka William II of England, reigned only 13 years, leaving behind a reputation for bellicosity and caeseropapism. He had no children of any kind, despite presiding over a reportedly dissolute court. This discrepancy between sexual liscence and lack of offspring has led to the suggestion that William was homosexual, but nothing in contemporary record points to that. It’s entirely possible he was simply sterile. In any case, when he died in a hunting accident in the New Forest on 2 Aug 1100, he had no heirs of his body, so with Robert away on Crusade, England passed to his younger brother.

Henry Beauclerc, aka Henry I of England, was the most successful of his generation of his dynasty. After having himself crowned king three days after William II’s death, he fought against Robert Curthose for control of Normandy and won. He reigned for 29 years as the sole posesser of his father’s territories. He had as fearsome a repuation as his father, and unlike William Rufus maintained good relations with the church: his Concordat of London settled the lay investiture controversy in England (or would have, but for Henry II’s attempts otherwise). His only failure as a monarch was to provide adequately for the future. Despite having as many as 24 bastards (nine sons and fifteen daughters), he had a single legitimate heir:

  • William, known as Athling

I should point out that Athling  and Clito both mean essentially the same thing- “prince” in in the sense of “heir to the throne” – in Saxon and Norman, respectively. Both the younger Williams were known as heirs, and never became anything else, so you know how the story ends.

I’m King of the World! Or at Least England!

William Athling famously died in the Wreck of the White Ship in 1120. William was on his way to Normandy to take control of that duchy as his appanage, having married the daughter of the Duke of Anjou. He seems to have left behind a promising reputation, but no children proceeded from his marriage. His father Henry I madly scrambled to secure the succession, marrying a new queen and frustrating the attempt of William Clito to marry into the House of Anjou. But in his old age, Henry’s virility left him: no children came.

William Clito was only four years old when his father Robert Curthose was captured by Henry I. He was brought up under his uncle’s direction until 1110, when he escaped and hid with his father’s supporters in Normandy. Later he fled to the court of the Count of Flanders. He led two rebellions against Henry I to recover Normandy, but despite French and Flemish support he got nowhere (after one battle, William Athling sent his cousin back the horse he had lost). In 1127 he made a play for the County of Flanders, but despite initial success, he died of a wound recieved during a siege at the age of 25. His marriage to Joanna of Montferrat was childless, but his imprisoned father was to live another six years.

Clito’s death extinguished the male succession to the House of Normandy. Henry I opted to name his daughter Matilda as heir to the throne, only to change his mind at the last minute and nominate his nephew Stephen, Count of Blois, the son of Henry’s sister Adela. The reign of Stephen was a nineteen-year civil war with Matilda, known as the Anarchy. When it was over, Stephen was granted the crown for his lifetime, but accepted Matilda’s son Henry as successor. So the Plantagenets came to the English throne.

We therefore see a quick reproductive collapse. Of the second generation of the Norman dynasty, only two had legitimate offspring, far behind their number of bastards. The third generation, as represented by William Clito, and William Athling, both died young, and produced no children.

So it seems that the fruits of success were too much for the Conqueror’s sons, all of whom in some respect failed to follow their father’s example. Robert was a poor politician an indifferent soldier. William Rufus frittered away his time. And Henry I, the most successful of his brothers, failed the most elementary dynastic duty, thereby handing the kingdom over to civil war.

It’s good to be the King, until it isn’t.


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