The war was great and the anger great ... between King Henry and his brother,
born of one father and one mother.
The Roman de Rou
The battle of Tinchebrai was fought on the 28th September 1106 near the town and castle of Tinchebrai in Normandy between the forces of Henry I king of England and Robert Curthose, Duke of Normandy.
The background to the battle
With the death of William Rufus in 1100 in a hunting 'accident' in the New Forest, the crown of England was seized by his younger brother Henry, who rapidly took advantage if the situation and secured his coronation as king on the 5th August, a mere three days after his brother's death.
Henry's seizure of power was sudden and effective but his position remained somewhat insecure. In an attempt to cement his authority he thus issued a Charter of Liberties and married Matilda of Scotland, symbolically uniting the new Norman dynasty with the old Anglo-Saxon line of Wessex; both projects that were designed to curry favour with his English subjects.
There remained the issue of his elder brother Robert Curthose, who had been denied England after his father William's death in 1088 and had been forced to be content with Normandy alone. Absent on the First Crusade since 1096 he returned home to Normandy in the September of 1100 to be faced with a fait accompli by Henry.
In the summer of 1101 Robert Curthose invaded England with a view to winning the throne for himself and drew support from a number of powerful Norman barons such as Robert of Belleme, Earl of Shrewsbury and William of Mortain, Earl of Cornwall. In the end no fighting took place and Robert was persuaded to sign the Treaty of Alton under which he renounced all rights to the English throne in return for a pension of £3,000 a year.
Henry I and Normandy
Despite the agreement reached at the Treaty of Alton it would appear that Henry had already formed the intention of conquering Normandy in due course. In this enterprise he was greatly assisted by the fact that his brother Robert Curthose had proved an ineffective ruler of the Duchy. Long absent on the First Crusade, the duke had been unable to prevent Normandy from slowly sliding into anarchy. A number of refugees were therefore to be found at the court of Henry urging him to take action to restore order in the duchy.
As eager as he was to follow this advice, first of all Henry had to secure his own backyard and remove those who might support his brother. His spies began preparing a long list of charges against those whose loyalty was suspect, which induced Robert of Belleme to break out in rebellion in 1102. Robert was rapidly defeated and expelled from England and the same fate befell William of Mortain in 1104.1
Having secured England prepared his ground thoroughly and ensured that treaties were in place with both France and Flanders and made agreements with the neighbouring territories of Maine, Anjou and Brittany, so that Robert Curthose was prevented from enlisting any outside assistance in the coming conflict. With Normandy now isolated Henry felt ready to act.
In 1104 Henry visited Dumfont (the only Norman stronghold allotted to him under the Treaty of Alton) and took possession of the county of Evreaux2, and began undermining the authority of Duke Robert in Normandy. As the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle explained; "the king sent his men across the sea into Normandy, and the head men there in the land received them and, in betrayal of their lord the duke, lodged them in their castles, from where they caused the duke many troubles in raiding and burning"3.
In 1105 he returned to the Cotentin, and by judicous use of bribery he was soon able to seduce all the leading barons of that district to his side, before directing his attention to Bayeux which was attacked and burned to the ground. Henry then proceeded to invest Caen, which no doubt wishing to avoid the fate of Bayeux, rapidly surrendered. Further progress in that year was hindred by the withdrawal of Henry's allies from Maine and so Henry returned to England. There followed a number of attempts by Duke Robert to reach an agreement with his brother. There was a conference between the two sides at Falaise and the duke even visited England before the spring of 1106, but all to no avail as Henry "would not give him back what he had taken from him in Normandy"4.
Affairs in England occupied Henry during the beginning of 1106 and it was not until August of that year that Henry returned to the field in Normandy, where according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle "almost all who were there in the land submitted to his will". Supported by Ranulf Flambard5, as well as William de Warenne, 2nd Earl of Surrey and Robert de Beaumont, the Count of Meulan, Henry then proceeded to lay siege to Tinchebrai Castle, some thirty five miles east of Avranches, which was held by William of Mortain.
William was anxious to retrain possession of Tinchebrai as the fall of this fortress would have rendered the whole of Mortain vulnerable to conquest by Henry and thus called for the assisstance of Duke Robert. As the Roman de Rou stated; "The count and the duke came together and summoned all their good neighbours; they wanted to help the castle and rescue all the equipment inside".
The Battle of Tinchenbrai
Thus Robert Curthose and William of Mortain marched with their forces against the siege of Tinchebrai. They were joined by Robert of Belleme (who despite his earlier spat with the Duke had no wish to see his old advesary king Henry in charge of affairs in Normandy) and others such as Robert d'Estoutville and William Crispin together with the enigmatic figure of Edgar Aetheling.
There appear to be no reliable guides as to the respective numbers of the two opposing forces but all sources are agreed on the "immense numerical superiority"6 of Henry's army. Not only did Henry have a large army from England but also from his newly acquired Norman possessions in the Cotentin and Evreaux and was joined by a considerable reserve force drawn from his allies in Maine and Britanny.
As it was the intention of Robert and William to break the siege, it was they who attacked first. William of Mortain charged the king's lines and drove back his opponents only to be suprised by the appearance of the reserves from Maine and Brittany who "charged in and broke the ducal army to pieces"6; the whole battle was over in less than an hour.
Robert of Belleme, who was in command of the rearguard, took one look at the unfolding battle and made his excuses and left; "he received no blow and gave no blow"7. The rest of the duke's army were either killed or captured, the most notable captives being Robert Curthose himself, William of Mortain and Edgar Aetheling.
The Roman de Rou recounted that "Those who came attacked well and the besiegers held out well; scarcely any men were killed", implying that the battle was not a particularly bloody affair. It also reported that Robert Curthose was let down by his supporters as "Many men ... abandoned their lord at this time of need" and that they later "received rewards from the king", suggesting that Henry may well have bribed them to desert his brother.
Of the three notable prisoners taken Edgar Aetheling was the most fortunate, he was "afterwards let go unmolested" and allowed to return to his estates in Hertfordshire where he spent the rest of his life in obscurity. Both Robert and William were to spend the remainder of their lives in prison, with William suffering the additional punishment of being blinded according to some accounts.
After the battle
The main consequence of the battle was that once again England and Normandy were united as they had been in the time of the Conqueror. As the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle reported "Afterwards the king conquered all that was in Normandy, and set it under his will and control" - the anarchy that had prevailed during the rule of Robert Curthose was rapidly dispelled and Normandy remained an integral part of the Anglo-Norman Empire until the reign of king John a century later.
It is worth noting, as did William of Malmesbury the strange coincidence, that the English conquest of Normandy was accomplished on the 28th September 1106, forty years to the day after William, Duke of Normandy had landed in Sussex and began the Norman conquest of England.
1 It was worth mentioning that William's mother Matilda was Robert of Belleme's sister; thus uncle and nephew conpsired together.
2 Apparently due as compensation for Robert's breach of the treaty of Alton for concluding a separate peace with Robert of Belleme
3 The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, for whatever reason consistently refers to Robert Curthose as the 'earl' of Normandy, this has been changed to 'duke' to avoid confusion in the narrative.
4 According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.
5 Ranulf Flambard was originally one of Robert Curthose's supporters and principal architect of the invasion of 1101, who thereafter changed sides and became an active supporter of Henry I.
6 A.F.Poole see Sources below
7 According to the Roman de Rou
- Warfare between Henry I and Robert Curthose, according to Wace
From the The Roman de Rou, Translated by Glyn S. Burgess,
Published by Société Jersiaise
Reproduced at http://www.deremilitari.org/RESOURCES/SOURCES/wace.htm
- A.F. Poole Domesday Book to Magna Carta 1087-1216 (OUP, 1955)
- David C Douglas The Normans (Folio, 2002)
- The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles translated and edited by Michael Swanton (Phoenix Press, 2000)