I’ve developed something of an addiction recently to the Penguin Monarch’s series, which provides a 100 page biography for each of the monarchs of England, and later of Britain, from Athelstan to Elizabeth II. I’ve read about five so far, and there are 45 in all, about half of which have been completed and the other half yet to be released, so this addiction could be with me for a while. Most recently I read John Gillingham’s William II – subtitled The Red King, which I read partly through curiosity, partly embarrassment at my ignorance at this king, and partly out of a mis-remembered notion I had that he had been the king who founded the city where I grew up, Newcastle upon Tyne.
Actually, strictly speaking, the Normans did not found Newcastle; they simply fortified it and renamed it. That is why it is one of the few major cities in Britain which has a name with a readily understandable meaning (Bath is the other I can think of). You had better ask an etymologist what Liverpool or Edinburgh signifies, and even he might not be sure about London, but everyone knows that Newcastle is the where place a new castle was built. For the Angles it had been Monkchester, the Romans before them, who built a fortress there, Pons Aelius. Whether the Brigantines before them had a name for it is unknown, but the name of the river, the Tyne may be older than even they were. I digress, somewhat – the man who didn’t found the city, but did rename and fortify it was Robert Curthose – that is Robert “Shorty-pants” in modern English, Gillingham helpfully tells us (does anyone say “shortypants” anymore?) – the eldest child of William the Conqueror and elder brother to kings William II and Henry I. Curthose was given the conqueror’s ancestral Dukedom of Normandy, while the England that the father had fought hard and killed thousands for was passed to his more favoured second son, with the third instead inheriting a great deal of wealth. At the time, primogeniture was not the settled custom among Norman kings – its later adoption would save (at least some of) the sort of internecine fighting that periodically rocked Norman and Plantagenet England.
William – often known as Rufus (the Red, after his red hair), to distinguish him from his father – spent most of his reign defending his inheritance against rebellious subjects who had backed his brother, and sometimes against his brother’s forces directly, occasionally making forays into his brother’s Duchy. Their rivalry was complicated by the interference of the king of France, who naturally wanted to keep them both occupied, and by the third brother, who would switch sides, and had territorial ambitions of his own. Towards the end of William’s reign (although they did not know it was near the end), Robert rather sportingly removed himself from the scene to answer the pope’s call to arms in the First Crusade. A few years later, their elder brother still away in the Holy Land, the remaining brothers were enjoying a bout of hunting in the New Forest in Hampshire when King William was shot and killed by a stray shot. Suspiciously fortuitous for Henry, who was in the right place at the right time to claim the throne. For Robert, never to become king of England, somewhat harsh.
Harsher still for William, dead and, what’s more ,with no heirs to defend the memory of his reign, so successfully trashed in his younger brother’s reign, that it wasn’t until the 20th century that it was more positively reappraised. The rap sheet against William II is that he oppressed the church, milked the country for taxes and slept around a lot, perhaps with men. Gillingham explains why many of these failings are somewhat overcooked, obviously propagandistic or, in the cases where they are true (he did sleep around, though probably with women), not nearly as bad as the depredations of later kings. He did have his troubles with the church, it is true – as all the Norman and early Plantagenet kings did, but his feud with the great churchman Anselm was not on the scale of Henry II’s feud with Becket – no blood was spilt in William Rufus’s battles with the church. Still, many in the church never forgave him for his treatment of the archbishop, and unfortunately for him, most of the historical sources of the era were ecclesiastical. It may be significant that William was probably the last illiterate king of England.
From the limited alternative sources available, Gillingham brings to lights some of the more positive aspects of the king’s reign. Early in his reign, he wisely took a conciliatory approach to nobles who had supported his brother’s claim to kinghood, which had the effect of bringing more of them to his side. He was said to be a humorous fellow whose well timed jokes and bonhomie had the effect of diffusing tense moments at court – there were plenty of those, of course, with the court of the time often referred to as ‘hell’. He can also be credited with bringing the code of chivalry into England, blunting the sharp edge of Norman ruthlessness: under his reign the practice of sparing royal and noble opponents captured in war was established. This was not extended to the lower ranks of course. Less to the peasantry, for eleventh century warfare could be savage on farmers and peasants, whose fields would be routinely ruined, and homes burned. But the chivalric code was at least a nod in the direction of mercy.
Until his untimely death, William was a great survivor. Despite William having won his father’s blessing, Robert had always been the favourite among the realm’s most powerful families. The Norman nobles wanted the same ruler either side of the channel because they owned lands on both sides, and didn’t want to lose them after wars. Why then, did Robert never press his advantage and invade England? Because Normandy and its environs was full of proud lords ever vying for advantage, even if that meant collaborating with the Duke’s enemies. One of the Conqueror’s shrewdest moves when he took the English crown was to parcel land out in such a way that no one had large territories within England from which to challenge his power, as they very much did in Normandy. And, more so than England, with the fractious Welsh Kingdoms on its western flank, and a Scotland more or less uninterested in conquering England south of the Tees, Normandy was threatened by powerful enemies on all sides. Had Robert ventured across the channel, he may well have won the crown in England only to find he had lost his hereditary duchy to proud lords and unfriendly neighbours.
Robert, who had fortified Newcastle back in his father’s reign, never set foot in the place once his brother took the throne. Still, there is one mention of Newcastle and Northumbria in the book because of the proud and bloodthirsty figure of Mowbray – a Norman Earl of Northumberland before the Percys gained a monopoly on that title. Mowbray had secured the northern border, by killing the Scottish king and his son when they had invaded his realm. Imagining, as others have before and since, that the distance of Northumbria, Mowbray rebelled, but was defeated in a great battle at Bamburgh castle, the old coastal fort of the Bernician kings. Mowbray was executed – this being one of the few times that Rufus suspended his chivalric code – although one reason may have been that Mowbray himself had shown little mercy in his dealings with the Scots, to the shock of contemporaries. There was, as Gillingham’s short book shows, much of interest that happened in Rufus’s reign, and he comes away a more sympathetic character than his brutal father, or the younger brother who succeeded him.