The Background to the Revolt

On the 9th September 1087 William the Bastard, Duke of Normandy and Conqueror of England died a painful and unpleasant death after an injury received in battle outside the town of Mantes. After his death the succession to the Conqueror's domains was divided between his eldest son Robert Curthose, already recognised as heir to Normandy and his favourite son William known as William Rufus who received the kingdom of England.

Exactly whether this disposition was in accordance with or in opposition to the former king's wishes is a matter of debate, but with the support of Lanfranc, Archbishop of Canterbury (whose influence was paramount at the time) William Rufus was soon crowned king of England on the 29th September 1087.

Initially there was little opposition to the younger William's assumption of the throne but it soon became clear that something was amiss when a significant number of barons refused to obey the summons to attend the Easter court on the 14th April 1088. It was soon evident that there was a conspiracy afoot and that a number of Norman barons had offered the English throne to Robert Curthose, that he had accepted and that trouble was on its way.

The Reasons for the Revolt

The prime instigator of the revolt was one Odo of Bayeux, only recently released from captivity by the Conqueror on his death bed and restored to the earldom of Kent by the younger William. Odo appears to have persuaded his brother Robert of Mortain to join in the conspiracy together with other prominent barons such as Geoffrey de Montbray, Bishop of Coutances, Roger of Montgomery, the Earl of Shrewsbury, Richard Fitz Gilbert of Clare and many others. Indeed it seemed as if the entire Norman aristocracy had decided to rise up in England against William Rufus and the only Norman barons of note who remained loyal to the king were notably Hugh of Avranches, Earl of Chester, William de Warenne and Robert Fitz Hamon. In short, the revolt was an extremely serious affair as "nearly all the Normans" who were in England rose in opposition to William Rufus.

Quite what prompted the decision of so many to revolt has never been entirely clear. Orderic Vitalis was to suggest that the rebels were motivated by the difficulties in serving two masters, since as most Norman barons held estates in both Normandy and England, they would be at risk of losing one or the other if they obeyed the commands one lord to the detriment of the interests of the other. Whereas this was no doubt placed them in a somewhat awkward position, it was hardly a unique position at the time and scarcely sufficient reason to run the risk of rebellion.

Much of the answer probably lies within the character of Odo of Bayeux, a born troublemaker as his half brother William had already recognised, always eager to advance his own interest at the expense of everyone else. Despite being restored to his earldom of Kent by William Rufus, Odo was annoyed that the king had chosen William of St Calais the Bishop of Durham as his principal advisor rather than Odo himself, and thus Odo resolved that a change of ruler was in order. Of course the other barons were primarily motivated by self interest and it would seem that they followed Odo's lead in recognising that William Rufus, despite his many faults was a man capable of much purposeful violence, whilst his brother Robert was of a more tractable disposition.

The conduct of the revolt

The basic tactics of the rebels appeared to be one of ravaging whatever part of the country was within reach whilst they awaited the decisive intervention of Robert Curthose from Normandy. In Norfolk Roger Bigod raised the standard of revolt, whilst in Leicestershire and Northamptonshire it was Hugh de Grentmesnil; William of Eu ravaged Gloucestershire as Geoffrey de Montbray and his nephew Roger raided Somerset and Wiltshire, burnt Bath and laid siege to Ilchester.

These were however comparatively isolated out breaks of disorder, the real threat came from firstly the Welsh Marches where Roger of Montgomery, Earl of Shrewsbury acting in alliance with others such as Roger de Lacy gathered an army at Hereford and attacked Worcestershire; and secondly in the south east where Odo of Bayeux held Rochester and Robert of Mortain garrisoned Pevensey Castle to secure the communication route with the continent and the anticipated invasion of Robert Curthose.

Fortunately for William Rufus things were not quite as black as they seemed. He was able to rely on the almost total support of the English church, with the only bishop against him being the very William of St Calais who he had selected as his foremost advisor, and whilst the Norman aristocracy might be against him the native English answered his call to defend their anointed king. William's success in raising the shire levies to counteract the tide of opposition was to be a major factor in his survival, a success which can be attributed to the generous promises that William made; promises of lower taxation, of a relaxation of the forest laws, of good laws and good government.

Opposition in the east and the midlands were isolated and relatively easily supressed, the Montbrays were stopped at Ilchester and after being stopped by the levies under Bishop Wulfstan at Worcester the Marcher Lords such as Roger of Montgomery were persuaded to throw their weight behind the new regime on the understanding that they were would subsequently be given a free hand in Wales.

The decisive events of the revolt turned out to be in the south-east which is where William directed his military efforts; after raising troops in the city William left London and laid siege to Tonbridge Castle, which after a two days was forced to surrender before moving on to Rochester, where he hoped to seize hold of Odo of Bayeux.

However on hearing that Odo himself had left Rochester to join his brother Robert of Mortain at Pevensey, William Rufus diverted his attention there. After a siege of six weeks duration Pevensey Castle surrendered and both Robert and Odo fell into William's hands. Since Odo then swore an oath that he would now surrender Rochester to the king he was allowed to depart with a small force to pass this instruction onto the garrison. However it seems that when Odo appeared before the walls of Rochester to relay the message the defenders took the view 'that the countenance of the Bishop ill agreed with the words of the speakers', and rather than obey the command to surrender, the garrison launched a quick raid that drove off the royalist forces and freed Odo.

Naturally William Rufus was annoyed at this turn of events and thus in May 1088 was forced to renew the siege of Rochester. There Odo was supported by reinforcemets from Normandy commaded by Eustace the Younger of Boulogne and Robert of Belleme (the younger son of the Earl of Shrewsbury), but king William raised new troops to invest the town and built two siege castles to keep the rebels under constant pressure.

Although the defences of Rochester were built to withstand a siege of some duration, according to William of Malmesbury conditions within Rochester soon deteriorated and the combination of disease and want of supplies compelled the defenders to seek terms. Odo and his followers were permitted their freedom and allowed to travel unhindered to Normandy.

With the fall of Rochester and the exile of Odo of Bayeux the revolt effectively collapsed. Given the initial level of support for the rebellion this result may have seemed somewhat suprising. Part of the explanation for the ultimate failure of the revolt lies with the unwilligness of the rebels to actually challenge William in the field. As Orderic Vitalis was to remark that "The rebels, although they were so many and abundantly furnished with arms and supplies, did not dare to join battle with the king in his kingdom". It seems that the barons were waiting for Robert Curthose to appear with his promised army, but in the end Robert neither came himself nor sent any significant military assistance. The only aid the duke dispatched was a small force sent under Eustace of Boulogne and Robert of Belleme to reinforce Rochester and an attempt to relieve Pevensey that failed to land due to bad weather.

The characteristic failure of Robert Curthose to act with a sense of purpose contrasted with the determination of William Rufus to survive, and with the help of both the English church and the English people survive he did.

The aftermath of the revolt

William Rufus was suprisingly lenient with those that rebelled. A few fines and confiscations were handed out, Richard Fitz Gilbert of Clare had his castle and the town of Tonbridge burnt to the ground, and either forcibly or willingly retired to a monastery thereafter but only Odo of Bayeux was stripped of his lands and titles and banished to Normandy. The other barons all made their peace with the king and were permitted to continue in the enjoyment of their estates and titles.

Only one other individual was singled out for punishment and that was William of St Calais who was now placed on trial for treason with the Archishop of Canterbury Lanfranc presiding. The exact nature of the William of St Calais's treason are unclear and the bishop protested his innocence as well as challenging the validity of his trial. In the end he was condemned but permitted to leave the country and pursue an appeal to Rome on condition that he surrendered Durham Castle.

As it turned out the bishop never went any further south than the court of Robert Curthose and later made his peace with William Rufus and in 1091 he was restored both to royal favour and his see.

Rewards were also sparse; William de Warenne received an earldom and Roger of Montgomery and his associates were later permitted to move into Wales; although it is believed that money also changed hands and persuaded many that perhaps William was not such a bad choice after all. The English shire levies who had dutifully appeared to defend the king were to receive nothing for their trouble, as all William's promises were forgotten once the danger had passed. When Lanfranc reproached him it was said that the king dismissed his concerns with the words, "Who can be expected to keep all his promises?"


  • David C Douglas The Normans (Folio, 2002)
  • A.F. Poole Domesday Book to Magna Carta 1087-1216 (OUP, 1955)
  • Charles Arnold Baker The Companion to British History (Longcross Press, 1996)

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