Truth, Myth & Scandal – ‘Be certain, good princes, that when you defy convention you should also write your own history – else those whom you did frighten or discomfort will gladly write it for you. Or worse, bury it.’
This is the quote which acts as foreword to Robert The Wayward Prince, Austin Hernon’s story of William the Conqueror’s eldest and lesser-known son.
Biggest assets: Robert was a sound military thinker, strategist and formidable cavalryman.
Biggest failings: He lacked his father’s ruthless addiction to power and was bored by civil governance.
Robert’s story is one of a man who never quite achieved his potential. He didn’t inherit the crown of England as would be expected of the eldest son, and his own sons never got the chance to become kings. He lost the dukedom of Normandy in 1106, nearly twenty years before his death. His name is a historical footnote.
Yet from his own viewpoint, until those last years at any rate, Robert probably had quite a nice life. He excelled at military action; bold and audacious in battle, he enjoyed the skirmishes and wars and would have enjoyed a powerful reputation as a young man, a reputation capped by his exploits in the First Crusade. He was a great strategist too, and took Norman warfare beyond Hastings.
And he proved skilled at diplomacy: Robert understood very well that persuading people to give you what you want rather than fighting them for it is less expensive, less uncomfortable and perhaps has greater hope of long-lasting success.
Moreover, a considerate and loving man, he was a huge success with women – he might not have been conventionally handsome but he was strong – and skilled at giving the ladies, too, what they wanted.
Yet Robert II, Duke of Normandy remains a footnote. Unless you visit his resting place at Gloucester Cathedral and see his effigy, or perhaps ferret out the history of Newcastle-on-Tyne – named for the new castle that Robert had built there – or find reference to him at Cardiff Castle, you’re unlikely to ever hear of the Conqueror’s first-born.
Wayward Prince author Austin Hernon firmly believes this is because of what came after the time when Robert was at liberty and a force in the world. First one brother, then the other took the crown of England. And then in a dreadful mess of inheritance, partly down to awful luck and partly Henry I’s bad management, the crown passed from his daughter Matilda to his nephew Stephen and back again in the long years of civil war of the English Anarchy, and eventually ended up in the hands of the Plantagenets.
No one had any cause to remember Robert with favour. In the blaze of glory that was William the Conqueror’s career, historians inevitably have reduced Robert to a weak, ineffectual son who cared not a jot for his inheritance and who made the big, scandalous mistake of not making it to his father’s deathbed at Rouen in 1087. We still don’t know whether this was because he wasn’t told in time or whether he decided it was best to stay away, but history has put the worst interpretation on it. Perhaps the fate of England would have been changed if Robert had been able to rush to the dying Conqueror’s side?
Perhaps William would have forgiven him utterly for not being made in his image and gifted him the English crown, as was his birthright? Who knows.