Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Bellême, Robert of

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BELLÊME, ROBERT of (fl. 1098), Earl of Shrewsbury, sometimes called Talvas, was the eldest son of Roger, lord of Montgomery in Normandy, of Arundel and Chichester, earl of Shrewsbury, and founder and lord of Montgomery in Wales, and of Mabel, daughter and heiress of William Talvas, lord of Bellême, Séez, Alençon, and many other castles in Normandy and Maine. He was knighted by the Conqueror before the walls of Fresnay in 1073. In the revolt of Robert, the king's eldest son, in 1077, he and many other young Norman nobles upheld his cause against the king. After the battle of Gerberoi, Roger of Shrewsbury and the other lords who had sons or relations among the rebels begged the king to pardon them. William at length agreed to do so, and received Robert of Belleme and the rest of the rebel party in peace. On the death of his mother, the Countess Mabel, who was slain in 1082, Robert succeeded to the wide estates she inherited from her father. As long as the Conqueror lived he and other Norman lords were compelled to receive garrisons from into their castles. This disabled them from disturbing the peace of the duchy. Robert in 1087 was on his way to visit the king, and had gone as far as Brionne when he heard of the Conqueror's death. He at once turned back, and turned the ducal garrisons out of his castles. He forced as many of his neighbours as were weaker than he was to receive garrisons from him, and if any refused to do so he destroyed their castles (Oderic, Eccles. Hist., 664 B). When, in 1088, Robert of Normandy heard that the larger part of the barons of England had rebelled against Rufus, and that his uncle, Bishop Odo, was holding Rochester on his behalf against the king, he sent over Robert and Eustace of Boulogne to reinforce the rebels, Robert joined in the defence of Rochester, When the castle fell, he and his companions were allowed to come forth with their horses and arms. They were, however, exposed to the jeers of the English who composed the greater part of the king's host, and whose loyalty had given him the victory (ib. 669 A). The surrender of Rochester probably took place in May 1088. In the course of the summer Robert and William II were fully reconciled. During the visit of Henry, the king's brother, to England, Robert made alliance with him, and returned with him to Normandy in the autumn. Duke Robert thought their friendship boded him no good. Accordingly he sent an armed force to the coast, and had both Robert and Henry taken prisoners as soon as they landed. Robert he sent to be kept by Bishop Odo, at Neuilly. When the Earl of Shrewsbury heard of his son's imprisonment, he came over to Normandy and garrisoned his castles against the duke. The fortresses and towns held by Shrewsbury and his son were many and strong, and some were of special importance, because they were situated on the borders of Normandy. Bishop Odo urged the duke, now that he had Robert in prison, to drive the whole of the accursed race of Talvas out of his duchy. He dwelt on the strength of the house, and the evil its members would bring upon him. For a while the duke obeyed his counsel; he made war on Robert's castles, and forced Saint Cenery, Alençon, and Bellême to surrender. Then he disbanded his army, made peace with Bellême's father, Earl Roger of Shrewsbury, and let Bellême out of prison. As long as Duke Robert held his duchy he had cause to repent his weakness. Tall and strong, a daring oldier, ever coveting the lands of others, and ever striving to make them his own, a false, restless, and cruel man, Bellême was mighty to do evil. From his mother he inherited not merely the savage and greedy temper for which she was famed, but a remarkable readiness of speech. He was noted too for his skill as a military engineer. Unlike his father, and, indeed, his countrymen generally, he had no religious feelings. But that which most impressed men about him was his extraordinary cruelty. If the stories of his evil deeds rested only on the authority of Orderic, it would be necessary to remember that he was the hereditary foe of the house of Geroy, to whom the chronicler's monastery of St. Evroul was deeply indebted. But Orderic's account receives the strongest confirmation in the record of the horror with which Robert's memory was regarded by the next generation. Greedy of gain as he was, he would refuse to allow his captives to be ransomed that he might have the pleasure of torturing them (ib, 707 D). He is said by Henry of Huntingdon, a writer of the time of Henry II, to have impaled both men and women (De Mundi Contemptu ap. wharton, Anglia Sacra, ii. 698). William of Malmesbury says that once when he held a little boy, his own godson, as a hostage, he tore out his eyes with his own nails, because the child's father did something that displeased him (Gesta Regum v. 398). The 'Wonders of Robert of Bellême' became a common saying (De Mundi Contemptu p. 699). In Maine 'his abiding works are pointed to as the works of Robert the Devil,' a surname that has been transferred from him to the father of the Conqueror (freesman, William Rufus, i. 181-3). William II, for the love he bore Earl Roger of Shrewsbury and his countess, Mabel, showed favour to their son, in spite of the part he took in the war against him in England, and procured him to wife Agnes, the daughter and heiress of Guy, count of Ponthieu, who bore him a son, named William Talvas after his great grandfather. Robert treated her cruelly, and long kept her a prisoner in his castle of Bellême, until she escaped by the help of a chamberlain, and fled for refuge to the Countess Adela of Chartres.

After Robert was set free he made war upon his neighbours, on Hugh of Novant, Geoffrey, count of Perche, and others, maiming and blinding his captives, and bringing many to poverty. Jealous at hearing that Gilbert of L'Aigle had received Exmes from the duke, he besieged the castle in January 1090, hoping to take the place by surprise. Gilbert, however, made a stout resistance, and at the end of four days was reinforced by one of his house. A long siege would have given Robert's enemies time to gather, and he gave up the attempt. A full record of his wars in Normandy will be found in Orderic's 'Ecclesiastica Historia.' If he found that the lord he designed to plunder was able to withstand his first attack, he wasted no time in a siege, and turned aside to seek some easier prey. This method of warfare explains the passage in which Orderic speaks of his frequent failures (Orderic, 708 A). When the citizens of Rouen revolted against the duke, and were about to deliver their city to Rufus in the autumn of 1090, Robert joined Henry of Coutances (Henry I) in putting down the rebellion. The duke wished to pardon the citizens, but Bellême and William of Breteuil robbed many of their goods, and carried many off to tlioir dungeons. Early in the next year Robert was in turn helped by the duke in his private wars. The burghers who dwelt round Robert's castles suffered much evil from their lord. One of his towns, Domfront, dared to rebel against him. The citizens chose Henry of Coutances as their lord, and he successfully defended them against Robert's attacks. In the summer of 1094 Robert harried the lands of Robert, son of Geroy, the owner of Saint Cenery. Robert of Geroy, or rather his ally Henry, was the aggressor on this occasion. Robert found Saint Cenery undefended ; he burnt the castle and carried off his enemy's little son. The child died shortly afterwards, and the friends of the house of Geroy believed that he was poisoned by his captor's orders (ib, 707 A). In 1094 Earl Roger of Shrewsbury died. His English earldom and estates passed, according to custom, to his second son, Hugh, and Robert took all his possessions in Normandy. While the inheritance of his father was his by right, it was held that he dealt hardly with his brothers in making no provision for them (ib, 808 D) probably out of the estates of their mother. When Rufus made his abortive invasion of France in 1097, he secured Normandy, which the duke had handed over to him the year before, by employing Robert to fortify Gisors. In this expedition Robert acted as captain of the king's forces. Early in the next year he engaged in war with Helias of Maine, and invited the king to come over and help him. Rufus did little worthy of notice, and soon left his ally to carry on the war alone. Robert strengthened the castles he held in Maine and built new ones; he oppressed the people and violated the lands of the church. Indignant at the wrongs done him, Helias, though with an inferior force, met him in the open field at Saônes, and, calling on God and St. Julian, beat off the invaders. In spite of this check Robert carried on the war. A fearful story is told of his starving three hundred prisoners to death during the season of Lent. After another victorious engagement Helias was taken prisoner by Robert's men and delivered to Rufus. The war was now again taken up by the king, and Robert went on ravaging the land until the submission of Le Mans to Rufus (ib, 768, 772; William Rufus, ii. 213–41).

On the death of his brother Hugh, earl of Shrewsbury, in 1098, Robert claimed to succeed to his earldom and estates in England. Before Rufus allowed him to do so he made him pay 3,000l. as a relief, the exact sum in which his brother had been fined less than two years before. Robert was now earl of Shrewsbury, lord of Arundel and Chichester, and of many other estates in England, and of Montgomery and the lands conquered in Wales by his father and brother, the Earls Roger and Hugh. Before long he succeeded, after another payment to the king, to the estates of Roger of Bully, lord of Tickhill and Blythe. He was now by far the most powerful lord that owed homage to the English king. The earl at once began to strengthen himself in his newly acquired lands. Leaving his father's castle at Quatford, he took up his abode at Bridgenorth, and raised fortifications there, of which the remains are still to be seen. His castle at Bridgenorth completed the group of fortresses that defended Shrewsbury, the capital of his earldom, by commanding the valley of the Severn. Against the Welsh he raised a stronghold at Careghova, in Denbigh (Flor. Wig.. ii. 49; William Rufus, ii. 147–64). On his Welsh lands he bred horses from stallions imported from Spain, and in the reign of Henry II, Powys was still famous for his breed (Giraldus Cambrensis, Itin. Cambriæ, op. vi. 143). In 1099 Earl Robert was again at war with Helias, who was trying to reconquer Maine from William. The story that in this war he ordered villeins to be thrown into the ditch of Mayet to fill it up (Wace, 16038) is, Mr. Freeman observes,' a bit of local Cenomannian romance' (W. Rufus, ii. 292). Robert was in Normandy in 1100 when he heard of the death of William II. He hastened to England, did homage to Henry, and received from him the confirmation of his honours and estates. Nevertheless, on the return of Duke Robert in the next year, he and his brothers Arnulf and Roger began to conspire together in Normandy against the king. To reward him and to secure his help, the duke granted him the patronage of the bishopric of Séez, the castle of Argentan and the forest of Goufflers. When the duke then landed in England, Bellême must have been foremost among the discontented nobles who upheld his claims (Flor. Wig. ii. 49; Eadmer, Hist. Nov. p. 430). His power was still further increased in 1101, when,by the death of his father-in-law, he succeeded to the county of Ponthieu, the inheritance of his son. By the acquisition of this fief he became a member of a higher political rank than he had hitherto reached; he was 'entitled to deal with princes as one of their own order' (W. Rufus ii. 423), while the geographical position of his new territory made his alliance of peculiar value to the rulers of England, France, and Normandy. Henry knew that he was unfaithful to him; spies were set to watch him, and all his evil deeds were reported and written down. In 1102 he was summoned to appear in the king's Easter court, there to answer forty-five charges brought against him. He set out for Winchester, taking men with him to be his compurgators. On his way he changed his mind and turned back to his own castles. When the king found that he did not come, he declared that if he failed to appear he would be outlawed. Again he caused the earl to be summoned, and this time Robert flatly refused to obey. He made alliances with the Welsh and Irish. Henry persuaded Duke Robert to attack his Norman possessions. The duke's attack was easily beaten off, and only brought fresh desolation on the land. In England Henry called out the force of the kingdom, and laid siege to Arundel. Robert, who was busy in Shropshire, urging on the still unfinished works of fortification, could give no help to his men in Arundel, and allowed them to surrender the place to the king. As a condition of their surrender they obtained a promise from Henry that their lord should be allowed to leave the kingdom in safety (Will. Malm. ii. 896). The fall of Arundel cut Robert off from his possessions and allies on the continent. Henry next sent Bloet, bishop of Lincoln, against Tickhill, which was also surrendered, and lastly, in the autumn, led his army against the earl's strong places in Shropshire. Robert took up his quarters in Shrewsbury, and the king laid siege to Bridgenorth which he had entrusted to three of his captains. During the siege the nobles in the royal host held a set meeting with the king, and pressed him to make peace with the earl. This meeting took place in the open field. Three thousand troops posted on a hill hard by guessed the subject of the debate, and shouted to the king not to spare the traitor, for they would stand by him. Henry knew that the men of Robert's own order were not to be trusted. He continued the siege and succeeded in drawing away the earl's Welsh allies from him. Robert sent his brother Arnulf to hasten the coming of succour from Ireland, and lastly appealed for help to Magnus of Norway, who was now for the second time in Man (Brut y Tyuysogion, p. 73, 1100; Laing, Sturleson's Heimskringla iii. 143; W. Rufus, ii. 618). No help came to him, and his captains in Bridgenorth and the people of the town, much to the anger of his mercenaries, insisted on the surrender of the place. Henry then advanced on Shrewsbury at the head of an overwhelming force, the armed host of England which came at the king's bidding to help him against the worst of the Norman oppressors. Robert was forced to Burrender ; he and his brothers left England with their arms and horses, and he swore that he would return no more. The gladness of the people was loudly expressed. 'Rejoice, King Henry,' we are told they said, and the words doubtless preserved a fragment of some popular song, 'and give thanks to the Lord God ; for thou wast first a free king on the day that thou overcamest Robert of Bellême, and dravest him from the borders of thy kingdom' (Orderic, 808 B).

When Robert returned to Normandy after the loss of his English earldom and estates, all his enemies banded together against him. Indignant, as it seems, at Robert's refusal to give nim any share of his estates, his brother Amidf surrendered one of his towns to the duke, and other towns revolted from him. After some savage warfare he showed that he was still more than a match for the inactive duke, who gave him back all his possessions. Among these was the advowson of the bishopric of Séez. This led to a quarrel between nim and Bishop Serlo, who excommunicated him and his adherents, and laid his lands under an interdict. Robert revenged himself on the monks and clergy of the diocese, and the bishop was forced to flee (Orderic,678 A, 707 D, tells this under 1089 and 1094. Freeman refers to the circumstance, W. Rufus, i. 184, 242, apparently accepting 1094. Unless there were two excommunications, the date must be about 1103). Robert laid his case before Ivo, bishop of Chartres, in 1103, who wrote to him saying that even if his brother bishop had done him wrong he could do nothing to help him (Epp. Ivonis Carnot, 75; Recueil, xii. 122). Ralph, the abbot of Séez, afterwards archbishop of Canterbury, was also forced to flee to England to escape his tyranny (Will. Malm. Gesta Pontif, i. 127). The restoration of Robert's lands threw the duchy into disorder, and when Henry made his expedition into Normandy in 1105 he charged the duke with breach of faith in the matter. At Christmas in that year Robert of Bellême visited England, probably as the ambassador of the duke, and in the hope of making his own peace, but he was sent away without any reconciliation with the king (A.-S. Chron. 1105). The peace between the king and the duke was grievous to him. lie joined William of Mortain in attacking the king's party in the duchy, and persuaded the duke to act with them. He led a division of the duke s army at Tinchebrai, 28 Sept. 1106, and saved himself by flight. After striving in vain to persuade Helias to join him in an attempt to gain the duke's freedom, he prevailed on him to make his peace with the king. Henry allowed him to keep Argentan and the lands of his capital demesne in Normandy, but this partial reconciliation did not extend to England. As far as his kingdom was concerned, Henry, after he had once rid England of his presence, never gave him a chance of disturbing its peace again. The character of the new reign in Normandy was declared by the destruction of all the castles Robert had raised without license. Robert joined Helias of St. Saen in upholding the cause of William Clito, and when Fulk of Anjou went to war with Henry, he openly declared against the king. He appears to have gone to the court of Lewis of France and to have been sent by him as his ambassador to Henry in November 1112. In spite of his privileged character Henry seized him and had him tried before his court. He imprisoned him for a little while at Cherbourg, and the next year sent him to Wareham. There he kept him so close a prisoner that the day of his death was not known (Orderic, 841 A, 8581) ; Will. Malm. v. 626; De Mundi Contemptu, ii.) {{smaller block[[Ordericus Vitalis, Ecclesiastica Historia, ap. Duchesne, Historiæ Normannorum Scriptores; William of Malmesbury, Gesta Regum, vol. ii. (Eng. Hist. Soc.), Gesta Pontificum (Rolls Ser.); Florence of Worcester, vol. ii. (Eng. Hist. Soc.); A.-S. Chronicle; Eadmer's Hist. Nov. (Migne); Henry of Huntingdon, ap. Wharton, Anglia Sacra, ii. 694; Laing's Heimskringla; Wace's Roman de Rou; Brut y Tywysogion (Rolls Ser.); Freeman's Norman Conquest iv., William Rufus i. and ii.]}}

W. H.