The prank that tore apart the family of William the Conqueror

It is not surprising to hear of brothers playing pranks on each other. However, when your father is King of England, the ramifications could lead to more trouble than anyone would realize.

APRIL 1, 2017 BY  

By the year 1077 William I would largely be pleased with how his rule was going. The Duke of Normandy had eleven years earlier won the Battle of Hastings and gained the Kingdom of England. His rule had since solidified into what historians call the Anglo-Norman Empire.

At this time he had three sons – Robert, who was in his mid-twenties, William Rufus, about five years younger, and Henry, who was only nine years of age. The king had delegated part of his power over Normandy to his eldest son, and he may have named him Duke, but tensions existed between William and Robert.

The chronicler Orderic Vitalis was no fan of Robert, describing how he had been “urged
on by youthful ambition and the imprudent suggestions of those about him” to seek more power. However, his father refused these requests.

According to Orderic, Robert’s younger brothers took the side of their father, and during one day while they all were in staying in the same house, they decided to play a prank on their elder sibling. William Rufus and Henry grabbed a chamber pot and went to second floor of the building. The chronicler explains that Robert and his friends had “began to play at dice in the gallery, as the custom of military men is. They then made a great noise, and threw water on the heads of Robert and his hangers-on who were underneath.”

The act of mischief was not appreciated. A couple of Robert’s friends said to him, “Why do you put up with this insult? See your brothers have mounted above you, and shower their filth upon you and us, in contempt. Do not you perceive what they mean? If you do not instantly resent this insult, you are a lost man, and can never lift up your head again.”

The angry Robert rushed to the banquet hall to confront his brothers, but the noise had also brought King William to the scene “and by interposing his royal authority he put an end,
for the time, to his sons’ quarrels.”

However, the peace only lasted until the following night. Robert and his friends decided to take revenge by seizing the castle of Rouen, but their plot was foiled by the king’s butler. Once King William found out about this impulsive rebellion, he quickly moved to crush it and his son had to flee Normandy. It would be at least a year before the situation had calmed down, and afterwards William and Robert remained bitter towards each other, leading to more rebellions.

The dispute did not end with William’s death in 1087, as the kingdom was passed to William Rufus, while Robert remained as Duke of Normandy. There would be more wars within the family, ending with Robert being captured by Henry at the Battle of Tinchebrai in 1106. Henry would then go on to rule both England and Normandy, while his elder brother was kept imprisoned for the the rest of his life.

While Orderic Vitalis and other chroniclers of this time usually portrayed Duke Robert as a weak ruler, historians have been re-evaluating his life and career. If you want to know more about him, look for these articles:
George Garnett, “Robert Curthose: The Duke who lost his trousers,” Anglo-Norman Studies, Vol.35 (2013) pp. 213-243.

Judith A. Green, “Robert Curthose Reassessed,” Anglo-Norman Studies, Vol.22 (2000) pp.95-116.

Katherine Lack, “Robert Curthose: Ineffectual Duke or Victim of Spin?,” The Haskins Society Journal, Vol.20 (2008) pp. 110-140.

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