On your imaginary forces work. It is the 26th March 1124, exactly 888 years ago. The place is the small town of Bourgtheroulde, about ten miles southwest of Rouen, the key city of Normandy.
A rebel force of about 40 knights, led by Waleran (Count of Meulan) schemed to consolidate their authority at Vatteville (roughly 20 miles due west of Rouen). Their strategy, if successful, would strike a blow against King Henry I’s power in Normandy. Yet, King Henry’s loyal Norman forces had not been idle. Their scouts had located Waleran’s rebel force, and so the Norman loyalists prepared to intercept the rebels. One of the loyalist leaders was Odo Borleng, Castellan of Bernay (about 20 miles due south of Rouen). In contrast to Waleran, Odo Borleng was “only” a Knight of lesser nobility; but he displayed heroic leadership qualities. His loyalist force contained archers, mounted knights and foot soldiers. Odo himself dismounted and elected to fight on foot, thereby signifying to his forces that whatever the outcome of the impending battle, he would not flee. Odo’s heroic example heartened his men. In contrast, Waleran was too headstrong: he pitched in too early, leading his 40 knights against the loyalist archers. The result was disaster for the rebels. In just over half an hour the rebels were routed. Waleran and most of the other rebel knights were captured. Henry himself was not at the battle, he was then in Caen, where he received news of the defeat of his enemies.
Perhaps the battle at Bourgtheroulde was little more than a glorified skirmish; but its impact was profound. King Henry I had faced a serious threat to his authority from rebel forces between 1123 and 1124. The victory at Bourgtheroulde was decisive: it marked the end of the rebellion, and therefore confirmed Henry’s authority, both in Normandy, and in England.
Let us now press the re-wind Button and travel back five years to 1119
In August 1100, Henry had acceded to the throne of England in peculiar circumstances: his brother, King William II, had died in a hunting accident. Henry’s other brother, Robert, was Duke of Normandy. Henry had the political sagacity to realise that his newly won royal authority in England required him to reunite Normandy and England. He thus focussed all his energy on reuniting England with Normandy, which he achieved with his stunning military success at Tinchebrai in 1106; in the process, capturing Duke Robert. Even so, Henry still faced major challenges to his authority in Normandy. Henry may have eliminated the threat from Duke Robert; but Robert’s only legitimate son, William Clito, born in 1102, became increasingly the pivot of baronial opposition to Henry in Normandy. Even worse, King Louis VI of France, crowned two years after Tinchebrai, was determined to weaken Henry’s authority in Normandy. As Henry’s nominal overlord in France, Louis VI was a continual thorn in Henry’s side after 1108.
The Battle of Bremule, 20th August 1119
The tensions between Henry and Louis finally erupted in 1119, at the Battle of Bremule, fifteen miles south-east of Rouen. Pitched battles were rare in the Middle Ages, mainly because they were too much of a gamble. A monarch could lose everything in a battle (including his life). At stake in Bremeule was the prize of Normandy.
King Louis had assembled a force of 400 knights, including William Clito and William Crispin (whom Henry I had pardoned after Tinchebrai and again in 1113). King Louis’s force also included some important French magnates. In opposition, King Henry had assembled a force of 500 knights, including three of his sons: Richard and Robert (both illegitimate) and Henry’s heir, William the Atheling. Bremeule therefore saw a clash ‘of sons and heirs’. William Clito, son and heir of Duke Robert, had been born in October 1102. He was thus nearly seventeen years old when he fought at Bremeule. Henry’s heir, William the Atheling, sixteen years old when he fought at Bremeule, was therefore only a year younger than William Clito. The two heirs’ close proximity in age, added an undoubted sense of ‘needle’ to the battle.
Once again, the battle did not last very long, perhaps just over an hour. Once again, Henry’s opponents lost the initiative by pitching into Henry’s forces too recklessly, though there was a fierce struggle between both armies before Henry’s force finally won the day. In particular, William Crispin made a direct attack on King Henry I. Crispin struck a blow against Henry’s head (Henry having dismounted). The blow could have been fatal; but luckily for Henry, Crispin’s blow was deflected by his hauberk. Crispin was then immediately hacked to death by Henry’s bodyguard. Bremeule was a triumph for King Henry I. As just described, Henry himself led by example, being in the thick of the battle. Henry’s force also captured 140 French knights. Finally, Bremeule helped to consolidate Henry’s authority in Normandy, symbolised by the investing of William the Atheling with the Duchy of Normandy in 1120.
King Henry’s Treatment of his Captives.
A mark of a successful (and esteemed) medieval monarch was magnanimity towards the monarch’s former enemies. King Henry II certainly displayed such magnanimity towards his former enemies. For example, in 1175, Henry II restored the Earldom of Norfolk to Hugh Bigod, who had rebelled against Henry between 1173 and 1174. This was a particularly lenient gesture by Henry II, as Hugh Bigod was a ‘Serial Rebel’ – he had also rebelled against King Stephen in 1141. For good measure, Hugh Bigod had also rebelled against the Church, having being excommunicated by Archbishop Becket in 1169. In 1177, Henry II also restored the Earls of Leicester and Chester to their estates, both magnates having rebelled against him between 1173 and 1174.
King Henry I evidently bequeathed such monarchical benevolence to his grandson, King Henry II. Almost immediately after becoming king in 1100, Henry I had faced a formidable baronial rebellion led by William Warenne (Earl of Surrey). Henry therefore dispossessed Warenne of the Earldom; but, having asserted his royal authority, Henry then restored Warenne to the Earldom of Surrey two years later, in 1103. Such monarchical leniency had the effect of increasing baronial respect for Henry’s newly established regime. Henry displayed similar indulgence to his former enemies after the Battle of Bremeule. Henry chivalrously returned King Louis’s warhorse to the French King. This was a particularly altruistic act, because warhorses were very highly esteemed in Medieval Europe.
However, King Henry I drew the line at those captives who, having sworn personal loyalty him, then subsequently betrayed their oaths. Three such rebels had fought with Count Waleran at Bourgtheroulde. They were: Geoffrey of Tourville, Odard of Le Pin, and Luke of La Barre. Despite their treachery, King Henry I still showed mercy by not having the first two miscreants executed – though they were blinded. The third mutineer, Luke of La Barre, was different. He had compounded his disloyalty by singing obscene songs about Henry I. Perhaps Luke knew what his fatewould be, so he ended his own life in dramatic fashion, by beating his head against the stone wall of his prison cell, until he fell, dead.
The ultimate Fates of William the Atheling & Wiliam Clito
On one level, the Battle of Bremeule was a sort of Medieval Boxing Championship, with the winner receiving Normandy, rather than a Lonsdale Belt. Seen in this light, King Henry I’s son, William the Atheling, was clearly the victor, as he was invested with the Duchy of Normandy several months after Bremeule, in 1120. Yet in reality, neither of these youthful protagonists emerged victorious at the Battle of Bremeule.
In November 1120, fairly soon after his investiture, William the Atheling, died tragically in the ‘White Ship’ Disaster. William was then only 17.5 years old (see my previous blog in November 2011). William Clito similarly had an untimely death. He died of a gangrenous wound sustained in battle, in July 1128. He was then 25 years. Neither William the Atheling nor William Clito left any legitimate heirs. Their premature deaths therefore meant that the direct male line from William the Conqueror was now extinguished. The result was political and military upheaval in England after King Henry I’s death in 1135; but that is another story.
(1) As you will probably have gathered, I began this Blog with a quotation from Shakespeare. Which of his plays is the origin of this quotation?
(2) The rebels who were ambushed by Henry’s forces at Bourgtheroulde on 26th March 1124 actually began their incursion against Henry the previous night, 25th March 1124. For much of English History, 25th March was effectively New Year’s Day. When did England (and the rest of Britain) adopt 1st January as New Year’s Day?
(3) The battles of Bourgtheroulde and Bremeule were both located near to Rouen the chief city in Normandy. If the political link between England and Normandy had somehow survived the Middle Ages, then today Rouen would possibly have been as important as Paris. Think about it!