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Robert, 1st Earl of Gloucester (c. 1090 - 31 October 1147) was an illegitimate son of King Henry I of England, and one of the dominant figures of the period of English history sometimes called The Anarchy. He is also known as Robert of Caen, and Robert "the Consul", though both names are used by later historians and have little contemporary justification, other than the fact that Robert's clerks made a practice of using the Latin word consul rather than the more common comes for his title of 'Earl'.
Robert was the eldest of Henry's many illegitimate children. He was born well before his father's accession to the English throne, probably in the late 1080s, as he had himself had a son by 1104. There are numerous references noting him to have been the son of Sybil Corbet, heiress to Robert Corbet, Lord of Alcester, whose family had land in both England and Normandy. However, David Crouch (Historical Research, 1999), identifies her as a member of the Gay or Gayt family of north Oxfordshire, possibly a daughter of Rainald Gay (fl. 1086) of Hampton Gay and Northbrook Gay in Oxfordshire. Rainald had known issue Robert Gaay of Hampton (died c. 1138) and Stephen Gay of Northbrook (died after 1154. Both men had male-line issue surviving to 1240. Crouch notes that a number of Oxfordshire women feature as the mothers of Robert's siblings. 
Robert was acknowledged at birth, though in view of the vicissitudes of his father's career between 1087 and 1096 it is unlikely he was raised in his household. He was educated to a high standard, was literate in Latin and had a serious interest in both history and philosophy, which indicates that he was at least partly raised in a clerical household, a suggestion made all the more likely as his first known child, born around 1104, was born to a daughter of Samson, Bishop of Worcester (died 1112) who up till 1096 had been a Royal Chaplain and Treasurer of Bayeux. It may be significant that his next brother Richard was brought up in an episcopal household, that of Robert Bloet, bishop of Lincoln. Robert later received dedications from both Geoffrey of Monmouth and William of Malmesbury. William's "Historia Novella" contains a flattering portrait of the Earl.
Robert appears at court in Normandy in 1113, and in 1107 he had married Mabel, eldest daughter and heir of Robert Fitzhamon, who brought him the substantial honour of Gloucester in England, Glamorgan in Wales and the honours of Sainte-Scholasse-sur-Sarthe and Évrecy in Normandy, as well as Creully. In 1121 or 1122 his father created him Earl of Gloucester. Through his marriage to Mabel he became second Lord of Glamorgan, and gained possession of Cardiff Castle, and was responsible for the building of the stone keep there, which remains as the best preserved Norman shell keep in Wales, and one of the best in the British Isles. Robert had considerable authority and autonomy, to the extent that he even minted his own coinage, today preserved in the British Museum.
Career at court
Robert developed a role as one of his father's principal aides and Captains. In 1119, he fought at the Battle of Bremule, and in 1123–24 he was one of the King's chief commanders during the Norman rebellion. Following the drowning of the King's only legitimate son, William Adelin, in 1120, Robert became increasingly caught up in his father's attempts to ensure the succession of the Empress Matilda, Robert's half-sister. It was to Robert's custody in his castle of Cardiff that his uncle, the deposed Duke Robert Curthose was eventually confined in 1126 until his death there in 1134. On 1 January 1127 it was Robert who was one of the first to swear to accept Matilda as Queen after Henry's death. His father at some point gave him the keeping of the castles of Dover and Canterbury, and thus control of Kent and the cross-Channel route. When King Henry fell mortally ill at Lyons-la-Forêt in Normandy on 25 November 1135, Earl Robert was at his side and was one of the magnates who swore to stay with the King's body until it was buried. The King died a week after falling ill, on 1 December 1135.
Relationship with King Stephen
After his father's death, Robert attended a series of conferences in Normandy and eventually accepted as King Theobald IV, Count of Blois and King Henry's oldest nephew by his sister Adela. However, during the meeting with Theobald, news reach the Norman magnates that Theobald's younger brother, Stephen of Mortain and Boulogne, had been accepted and crowned as King in England. Robert eventually accepted this and at Easter 1136 attended the new King's ceremonial court. He does not seem to have seriously considered supporting the Empress Matilda, and did not assist her invasion of southern Normandy. There is evidence in the contemporary source, the Gesta Stephani, that Robert was proposed by some as a candidate for the throne, but his illegitimacy ruled him out:
- "Among others came Robert, Earl of Gloucester, son of King Henry, but a bastard, a man of proved talent and admirable wisdom. When he was advised, as the story went, to claim the throne on his father's death, deterred by sounder advice he by no means assented, saying it was fairer to yield it to his sister's son (the future Henry II of England), than presumptuously to arrogate it to himself."
This suggestion cannot have led to any idea that he and Stephen were rivals for the Crown, as Geoffrey of Monmouth in 1136 referred to Robert as one of the 'pillars' of the new King's rule.
Robert of Gloucester had other distractions in 1136 which put the succession question out of his mind. The Welsh princes of south east Wales rose against the Anglo-Norman settlers of the Welsh Marches in April and Robert spent much of the year stabilising the situation in that region. He reached peace treaties with the Welsh and recognised the gains of Morgan ab Owain (died 1158), who called himself King of Glamorgan. In England, Robert of Gloucester soon became disenchanted with King Stephen, and by the end of 1137 had withdrawn from his Court. It is clear that he was disgruntled that he did not occupy the central place in politics that he had in the last reign. He was also alarmed at the favour with which the King regarded his Flemish mercenary general, William of Ypres, and the rising power of the Beaumont twins, Waleran de Beaumont, 1st Earl of Worcester, and Robert de Beaumont, 2nd Earl of Leicester. In 1138, Robert declared his support for the Empress Matilda, but he was defeated in Normandy by Waleran and his English allies were crushed by Stephen and driven back on his fortress of Bristol.
The Civil War, 1139–1147
Earl Robert took a great gamble and sailed for England with his half-sister, the Empress, his wife and a company of knights. They landed at Arundel on 30 September 1139, and were welcomed into Arundel Castle there, the possession of Queen Adeliza, Matilda's stepmother. Robert left for Bristol immediately. In his absence the castle was blockaded by King Stephen, opening the possibility that he might seize his dynastic rival. The King in the end let the Empress and Countess depart, under escort, to Bristol.
With Earl Robert and the Empress in England and based in the West Country and Severn valley, the civil war had begun. The Earl's first moves are revealing. He commanded raids against Wareham in Dorset and Worcester. Both were possessions of the Beaumonts. He took Robert of Leicester's lands in Dorset for his own. He did much the same to other royalists within his area, mass deprivations which were at the heart of what is called the Anarchy. Although secure in a heartland of support, Earl Robert did not find it easy to recruit wider support and break out. The King succeeded in containing him along the line of the Cotswold Hills, with such effect that both sides were willing to send representatives to a peace conference held at Bath in August 1140, though nothing came of it.
Earl Robert's big opportunity came at Christmas 1140, when King Stephen fell out with Earl Ranulf II of Chester. Ranulf's failed negotiations with the King to secure Lincoln Castle led him to ally with Robert, his father-in-law. They united their forces at Castle Donington in January 1141, including a host of Welsh mercenaries allied to Earl Robert. On 2 February 1141 the Earls met and defeated King Stephen at the Battle of Lincoln. With the King captive, Empress Matilda should have secured the throne, but a combination of stubborn royalist support, the Empress's miscalculation and military misjudgement led to her failure. On 14 September 1141 Earl Robert and the Empress were trapped by a royalist army in an ill-judged attempt to seize control of Winchester. Earl Robert was captured fighting a rearguard action against the forces of Matilda of Boulogne, Stephen's wife, at the river crossing of Stockbridge to allow his sister to escape. Earl Robert was imprisoned for two months at Rochester Castle before he was released in an exchange with King Stephen. The cross-over point in the joint release was on 1 November 1141 at Winchester, where the two men had a chance to exchange friendly remarks, and the Earl apparently assured the King that there was nothing personal in the fight as far as he was concerned.
The war continued and it rapidly became evident that it was a stalemate. The Empress's husband refused to commit the resources to tip the balance in England, only agreeing to discuss matters with the Earl. In June 1142 Robert crossed from Wareham to Normandy and stayed there till the end of October. He came back with no reinforcements, but with his nephew Henry, the son of the Empress. In the meantime the Empress had been trapped in Oxford. Nothing could be done to release her, and she had to manage her own escape from the castle.
Robert continued the struggle but with less and less hope of ultimate victory. The King also had limited resources, but managed slowly to push towards Robert's centres of Bristol and Gloucester. At the end of 1145 Philip, Earl Robert's son and military Captain, defected to Stephen, taking with him the strategic castles of Cricklade and Cirencester. With Gloucester and Bristol under threat, the Earl opened negotiations in the autumn of 1146. The pressure continued in 1147, and it was in a desperate attack on Farnham in Surrey in the late summer of that year that Earl Robert fought his last unsuccessful action of the war. He retired to Bristol to gather new forces, but became feverish. He died on 31 October 1147 and was buried in the priory of St James he had founded outside the castle.
Robert's illustrious life and career is colourfully illustrated on the walls of the Banqueting Hall at Cardiff Castle, in a series of neo-Gothic murals created by HW Lonsdale in the 19th Century, as part of the transformation of the castle undertaken by William Burges for his patron John, 3rd Marquess of Bute.
Family and children
- William Fitz Robert, 2nd Earl of Gloucester, died 1183. He married Hawise, (died 1197), daughter of Robert II, Earl of Leicester.
- Roger, Bishop of Worcester, (died 9 August 1179, Tours).
- Hamon, killed at the siege of Toulouse in 1159.
- Robert (died before 1157). Also called Robert of Ilchester in documents. He married Hawise, (died after 1210) daughter of Baldwin de Redvers and Adeliz. Their daughter, Mabel, married Jordan de Cambernon.
- Maud, (died 1190), wife of Ranulph de Gernon, 2nd Earl of Chester.
- Philip, Castellan of Cricklade, (died after 1147). He took part in the Second Crusade.
In popular culture
Robert is mentioned frequently in the historical mystery novels of The Cadfael Chronicles by Ellis Peters. His son Philip is a major character, and Robert himself makes a brief appearance, in the final book of the series, Brother Cadfael's Penance. He is also mentioned in the novel "The Pillars of the Earth" by Ken Follett.
- ^ C. Given-Wilson & A. Curteis. The Royal Bastards of Medieval England (London, 1984) (isbn=0-415-02826-4), page 74
- J. Bradbury, Stephen and Matilda: The Civil War of 1139–53 (Stroud, 1996)
- D. Crouch, "Robert of Gloucester's Mother and Sexual Politics in Norman Oxfordshire", Historical Research, 72 (1999) 323–332.
- D. Crouch, 'Robert, earl of Gloucester and the daughter of Zelophehad,' Journal of Medieval History, 11 (1985), 227–43.
- D. Crouch, The Reign of King Stephen, 1135–1154 (London, 2000).
- C. Given-Wilson & A. Curteis. The Royal Bastards of Medieval England (London, 1984)
- The Personnel of the Norman Cathedrals during the Ducal Period, 911–1204, ed. David S. Spear (London, 2006)
- Earldom of Gloucester Charters, ed. R.B. Patterson (Oxford, 1973)
- R.B. Patterson, 'William of Malmesbury's Robert of Gloucester: a re-evaluation of the Historia Novella,' American Historical Review, 70 (1965), 983–97.
- K. Thompson, 'Affairs of State: the illegitimate children of Henry I,' Journal of Medieval History, 29 (2003), 129–151.
- W.M.M. Picken, 'The Descent of the Devon Family of Willington from Robert Earl of Gloucester' in 'A Medieval Cornish Miscellany', Ed. O.J. Padel. (Phillimore, 2000)
| Earl of Gloucester|
| Succeeded by|
William Fitz Robert, 2nd Earl of Gloucester
|Offspring of Robert Earl of Gloucester and Isabel de Douvres (c1090-)|
|Richard, Bishop of Bayeux (c1104-1142)|
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