FitzOsbern, William (DNB00)

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FITZOSBERN, WILLIAM, Earl of Hereford (d. 1071), was the son and heir of Osbern the seneschal, who was connected with the ducal house of Normandy, and was murdered while guardian to the future Conqueror. His son became an intimate friend of the duke, and was, after him, in Mr. Freeman's words, ‘the prime agent in the conquest of England.’ On the accession of Harold he was the first to urge the duke to action, and at the council of Lillebonne (1066) he took the lead in pressing the scheme upon the Norman barons. He himself offered the duke a contribution of sixty ships. At the battle of Hastings he is mentioned by Wace as fighting in the right wing of the invading host. He received vast estates in the conquered land, chiefly in the west, and became Earl of Hereford. Florence of Worcester (ii. 1) states that he had already received the earldom when the Conqueror left England in March 1067. His English career may be dealt with under two heads: first in his capacity as Earl of Hereford (1067–71); secondly in his special character as joint viceroy during William's absence in 1067. In the first of these, his function as earl was to defend the English border against the South Welsh. For this purpose his earldom was invested with a quasi-palatine character, and was essentially of the nature of a military settlement. William of Malmesbury (Gesta Regum, iii. 256) asserts that he attracted a large number of warriors to his standard by liberal rewards, and made a special ordinance reducing the penalties to which they would be liable by crime. During his brief tenure of the earldom he was almost always engaged in border warfare with the Welsh, and Meredith, son of Owen, was among the princes of South Wales whom he fought and overthrew. In Heming's ‘Cartulary of Worcester’ are several references to his doings, in which he usually figures as a despoiler of the church. Several of the knights who followed him to the west, or joined him when established there, are mentioned afterwards (1086) in ‘Domesday.’

As viceroy in William's absence he played an important part. To Bishop Odo was entrusted the guard of Kent and of the south coast, while Earl William was left to guard the northern and western borders, with Hereford and Norwich as his bases of operation. He is accused by Ordericus and by the English chronicler of great severity, and especially of building castles by forced labour, but in the then precarious state of the Norman rule a stern policy was doubtless necessary. There were, however, outbursts of revolt, especially in his own Herefordshire, where Eadric ‘the Wild’ successfully defied him. We do not find that he lost favour in consequence of this with the Conqueror, for in January 1069 he was entrusted with the new castle which William built at York on the suppression of the local revolt, and shortly after he successfully crushed an attempt to renew the insurrection. From a somewhat obscure passage in Ordericus it would seem that he was despatched the following September to retake Shrewsbury, which had been captured by Eadric ‘the Wild,’ who retired before his advance. The last deed assigned to him in England is the searching of the monasteries by William, at his advice, early in 1070, and the confiscation of all the treasures of the English found therein (Flor. Wig.)

It was about Christmas 1070 that the earl was sent by William to Normandy to assist his queen in administering the duchy. But at the same time Baldwin, count of Flanders, died, leaving him one of the guardians to his son Arnulf. The count's widow, Richildis, attacked by her brother-in-law, offered her hand to the earl if he would come to her assistance. He did so, and was slain at the battle of Cassel, where her forces were defeated early in 1071. He was buried at Cormeilles, one of the two monasteries which he had founded in Normandy.

His estates, according to the practice of the time, were divided between his two sons; William, the elder, succeeding to the Norman fief, and Roger, the younger [see Fitzwilliam, Roger], to the English one. Some seventy years after his death Herefordshire was granted to the Earl of Leicester as the husband of his heir, to be held as fully and freely as it had been by himself (Duchy of Lancaster, Royal Charters).

[Freeman's Hist. of the Norman Conquest gives all that is known of William Fitzosbern's life, together with the authorities, of which Ordericus Vitalis is the chief.]

J. H. R.