King William Rufus’ Constructive Strategy Against Earl Robert Of Northumberland

Robert de Mowbray became the Earl of Northumberland shortly before the death of William the Conqueror in 1087. After the death of the conqueror, the Norman dominion descended into chaos. The sons of the late king divided up their father’s assets. William II Rufus (“the Red”) became the new king of England; his brother Robert II Curthose was left in control of Normandy, and a third brother, Henry, had to make do with only money as his inheritance…for now. This partition of lands ensured a succession crisis, with each brother coveting the lands of the other—and the civil war that soon ensued between William II and Robert II gave hope to the Scots and Welsh, who wanted to resist Norman rule in Britain. Yet, for King William II, threats existed just as much within his realm as without. If Robert II, the Welsh, and the Scots were not attacking King William II, then it was his own vassals who were stirring up trouble. As early as 1088, a pro-Robert II faction in England took up arms in an attempt to dislodge William II from his throne. This political mutiny was quickly crushed, however, by the formidable William Rufus, who then counter-invaded Normandy. The Earl of Northumberland had evidently not joined this early scheme against King William II, but the idea that the king of England was vulnerable infested the earl’s mind.

Robert de Mowbray, earl of Northumberland, was still loyal to King William II in 1093, when he led the force that defeated and killed King Malcolm III of Scotland, who invaded England that year. This momentous battle, however, seemed to be the turning point in the relationship between the earl and his king. What exactly transpired is difficult to pinpoint—perhaps Robert de Mowbray felt that he did not receive enough praise and credit from William II after his victory, or maybe Earl Robert thought that if he could beat one king then why not another. Whatever the case, a mutual dislike between the earl and the king quickly formed after the slaying of King Malcolm.

A pinnacle to the feud came in 1095. As the story goes, the proverbial final straw occurred when Earl Robert began refusing any and all calls for him to appear before King William II. This insubordination outraged the king, and as medieval despots were wont to do, William Rufus mustered his troops to re-impose dominance on the stubborn earl. It was an impromptu campaign, and a large amount of resources were still being devoted to the king’s efforts to defeat his brother in Normandy, yet the William II only really needed to target two fortifications in his struggle against the earl of Northumberland—these were Tynemouth and Bamborough. The troops that William II had on hand were enough to capture Tynemouth, but Bamborough was evidently another story. Nonetheless, William II had a long-term plan in mind that he hoped would defeat the rebellious earl.  This campaign and the king’s solution for Bamborough were mentioned in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, which stated, “And the castle at Tynemouth he besieged until he won it, and the earl’s brother therein, and all those who were with him; and afterwards went to Bamborough, and besieged the earl therein. But when the king saw that he could not win it, he ordered a castle to be made before Bamborough, and called it in his speech ‘Malveisin,’ that is in English, ‘Evil Neighbor’…” (Anglo Saxon Chronicle, entry for 1095). After installing this well-garrisoned Evil Neighbor across from the earl of Northumberland, King William II returned to his capital, confidant that the earl would soon be captured. Sure enough, Earl Robert eventually attempted to escape at night and was caught by the king’s men.

Although Earl Robert was apprehended, the castle of Bamborough did not immediately surrender. As told by the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, William II “commanded earl Robert of Northumberland to be taken and led to Bamborough, and both his eyes to be put out, unless those who were within would give up the castle” (entry for 1095). As the earl’s family was inside Bamborough, this proclamation convinced them to submit. Unfortunately, William II might have carried out this threat anyway. Henry of Huntingdon (c. 1080-1160), in his Historia Anglorum, wrote, “The castle of Bamborough was surrendered to the king, and those who had joined the earl were severely treated…” (Book VII, entry for AD 1095). Whatever the case, Robert de Mowbray was stripped of his title, but allowed to live on. He died sometime between 1115 and 1125.

Written by C. Keith Hansley

Picture Attribution: (Assault On City And Castle from BL Royal 20 E III, f. 30v (Chroniques de France ou de Saint Denis), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons and The British Library).



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