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Robert, count of Mortainlocked

(d. 1095)
  • Brian Golding

Robert, count of Mortain (d. 1095), magnate, was the half-brother of King William I, being the second son of Herleva, former concubine of Robert (II), duke of Normandy, and her husband, Herluin de Conteville. Herluin, who is of obscure origin, was created a vicomte shortly after his marriage, c.1030.

Count of Mortain

Robert was probably brought up in the company of Duke William, of whom he was always to be a loyal supporter. His reward was the county of Mortain, close to the Norman frontier with Brittany and Maine, a region both strategically vital for Normandy's interests and politically sensitive. Indeed some lands technically in Maine were later held of Robert. Moreover, Mortain's eastern frontier was adjacent to Domfront, the most westerly outpost of the volatile Bellême territories. The county had been held by Guillaume Werlenc (son of Mauger, count of Corbeil, and a grandson of Duke Richard (I) of Normandy), who was appointed some time before 1026 when the first count of Mortain, Richard, son of Robert, count of Avranches, was exiled from Normandy. Guillaume himself was removed from office some time between 1055 and 1063, 'on some trivial pretexts' according to Orderic Vitalis (Ordericus Vitalis, Eccl. hist., 2.312), though in his interpolations to William of Jumièges's Gesta Normannorum ducum Orderic expands this with a story of how Guillaume responded to a knight who complained of a lack of available booty by saying that he would soon be rich, since within eighty days he would receive all the plunder he could wish within the duchy. When Duke William heard of this he summoned Guillaume, accused him of rebellion, and ordered his exile; whereupon Guillaume left for Apulia. It is certainly likely that Guillaume Werlenc was involved in the rebellions of the magnates of western Normandy; by forcing his exile Duke William was reinforcing his authority in the west of the duchy, and the promotion of his own loyal half-brother was a natural step. Although it is unclear precisely when Robert received the county, it cannot have been much before 1063, the same year as Duke William was campaigning in Maine, and Guillaume Werlenc may have witnessed charters until 1064. Robert's own first attestation as count occurs in 1063 in a charter of Duke William to St Julien of Tours.

Herluin died and was buried c.1066 at Grestain, the monastery he had established c.1050, according to an account now lost, as a result of a vision in which he was promised a cure of his leprosy in return for the foundation. Prayers for him (and for Robert and Robert's first wife, Matilda) were requested by the abbey on its entries in the mortuary rolls for Matilda, daughter of the Conqueror, and for Vital de Savigny.

Landed power in Normandy

Following his father's death, Robert succeeded to the patrimony. His lands were concentrated around the comital castle at Mortain, but there was another grouping further north in the Cotentin, perhaps administered from la Haye-du-Puits, where the count had a castle, and also around Conteville, the core of the family lands and not originally part of the county of Mortain. Although Mortain was relatively poor in agricultural resources, it lay on a number of important trade routes which Robert exploited by establishing ten fairs. At least four of these were associated with castles: at Mortain and at St Hilaire-du-Harcouët, le Tilleuil, and Tinchebray. These last were grouped around Mortain, establishing a formidable defensive line along the south-western Norman frontier; and by 1082 Robert had also gained the castle of Gorron further south as a powerful forward base against Foulques Rechin, count of Anjou. Robert's marriage (probably before 1066) to Matilda, daughter of Roger de Montgomery and Mabel de Bellême, represented a further strengthening of the Norman frontier. Matilda's mother's ties with the counts of Toulouse and Barcelona were later to prove of value in establishing Mortain connections in southern France, through the marriage of Robert's daughter to the count of Toulouse. On her marriage, Roger de Montgomery gave Matilda 32 hides of land in England, concentrated in Northamptonshire and Buckinghamshire, perhaps as a dowry; and after her death, some time between 1082 and 1084, these lands were granted by Robert to Grestain, where she was buried.

Anglo-Norman affairs, 1066–1088

Little is known of Robert's activities before the conquest: he witnessed only ten ducal acta, considerably fewer than either Roger de Montgomery or William fitz Osbern; and he only once appears as a ducal judge, when he was ordered, with Maurilius, archbishop of Rouen, and the bishops of Lisieux and Évreux, to hear a case brought by the abbey of St Magloire-de-Lehon. However, in 1066 the Brevis relatio records that he provided 120 ships for his brother's invasion fleet, more than any other magnate, and both Orderic Vitalis and William of Poitiers (though not William of Jumièges) attest his importance and refer to his presence at his brother's invasion councils. He is depicted in the Bayeux tapestry seated with his brothers at dinner, and according to a suspect charter in favour of Mont-St Michel, he carried St Michael's standard at the battle of Hastings.

In 1069 Robert, with Robert, count of Eu, destroyed the Danish forces in Lindsey. In the following few years he witnessed a number of royal acta and also heard three cases in the royal curia, including the Ely land pleas. His itinerary, however, is uncertain, though he was certainly in England for at least part of 1068 and 1069, and perhaps also in the early 1070s; and he may have acted as justiciar for his brother in 1071. Thereafter charter evidence suggests that he spent most of his time in Normandy. At Easter 1080 he was present at William's Rouen council, at which a temporary reconciliation between the king and his son, Robert, was achieved. According to the annals attributed to Rainald, archdeacon of Anjou, Robert, count of Mortain, was given as a hostage, together with his son, in 1081 to Foulques of Anjou following the agreement between King William and the count of Anjou at 'Blancalanda' in 1081. He perhaps returned to England some time between then and 1082, when he was back in Normandy, but he is only known for certain to have been in England in 1086. He was present at the king's deathbed at Rouen in 1087, when he is reported by Orderic to have led those who asked the king to release Odo, earl of Kent and bishop of Bayeux (and Count Robert's brother), from perpetual imprisonment. The De obitu Willelmi states that it was Robert whom the dying king, who trusted him 'in everything as befitted their close kinship' (Gesta Normannorum, 2.187), ordered to summon the royal servants to itemize the king's treasures to be distributed in pious bequests and to his sons. Shortly afterwards Robert witnessed one of the charters of his half-nephew, Duke Robert; and the following year he joined the baronial rebellion against William Rufus and held his castle of Pevensey against the king. Here his brother Odo took refuge after the capture of Tonbridge, and when Duke Robert's attempt to lift the siege failed the garrison surrendered. Odo (whom Orderic Vitalis regarded as the chief instigator of rebellion, persuading a reluctant Robert) was forced into exile, while his brother was soon pardoned and thereafter witnessed several royal acta.

Involvement in Brittany

Following the agreement at Rouen of 1091 between William Rufus and Robert of Normandy, Count Robert was active in Brittany during the two brothers' campaign against their younger brother, Henry. If the life of St William Firmatus is to be believed, Count Robert held Baudouin de Boulogne (who was perhaps aiding his brother, Count Eustache of Boulogne) captive at Mortain until Baudouin's miraculous deliverance through the saint. Some further evidence, though clearly garbled and of dubious value, of Robert's activity is provided by the fifteenth-century, and unreliable, author of Les chroniques de Vitré. This describes how, following William I's death, Duke Alain of Brittany supported Henry, the king's third son, against William Rufus and Robert of Normandy. Because of this, Normans often raided the land of Fougères near the Vendelais pays. On one occasion André de Vitré came upon Count Robert's forces who were plundering the region. Most were killed, the remainder taken prisoner to Vitré where they were hanged before the gates. Robert then negotiated with André and offered him his eldest daughter in marriage. While André was considering and discussing the matter, Guillaume (IV), count of Poitiers, asked for the same woman and she was given to him. Robert then offered his second daughter, Agnes, to André who married her and took her to Vitré; the third daughter was married to Gui de Laval. So peace was made. With Agnes, Robert gave the Cornish manors of Alverton, Tresquel, Tybesta, Brannel, and Helstone in Trigg as dowry. Later André performed homage to William Rufus during the latter's siege of his brother Henry at Mont-St Michel. Following the lifting of the siege and the conclusion of peace, further agreements were made between Robert and André de Vitré. They swore an agreement of mutual aid, which they reinforced with the offering of twenty men as pledges on each side. André gave Agnes all he had in the city of Rennes, and all the dowry of Ynoguen de Fougères, his grandmother.

The Vitré chronicle records that André and Agnes had four sons and four daughters. The eldest son was allegedly raised from the font by Count Robert, his grandfather, and given his name, Robert, as well as all his property in Rié, Trunge, Tuxe, and Verquerel. This is possible; but it is clearly not chronologically possible that, as the chronicle goes on, Robert commanded his grandson to go to the court of Guillaume, count of Poitiers, who made him a knight in the hall at Poitiers. On his return the young knight allegedly did homage to Robert for all his land and for the men he had with him when he went to the battle of Tinchebray in 1106. Here there is seemingly confusion with William de Mortain, who was captured at Tinchebray.

Yet some of the chronicle's statements can be corroborated. According to Robert de Torigni, one of Count Robert's daughters was married to André de Vitré and the eldest daughter, Emma, was married to Guillaume (IV), count of Toulouse. Robert certainly had considerable interests around Fougères and a number of local Breton tenants held of him in both England and Normandy. Moreover, an André de Vitré certainly held land in Trigg in the early twelfth century and the family had not inconsiderable interests in Cornwall until the fall of Normandy in 1204.

Second marriage and children

Robert had married his second wife, Almodis, by 1088, when she witnessed her husband's charter in favour of St Mary's Priory, Mortain. Almodis was most probably a daughter of Almodis of La Marche and her husband, Pons, count of Toulouse. She was associated with Robert in grants to the abbeys of Mont-St Michel and St Albans. Their son, Robert, died young. In addition to a son, William, there were at least three daughters from the first marriage, to Matilda. Emma married Guillaume (IV), count of Toulouse (who died, perhaps in 1093, in the Holy Land) and their young daughter, Phillippa, married Sanchez-Ramiro, king of Aragon, in 1086. Agnes married André de Vitré; and the third daughter married Gui (II) fitz Haimon de Laval. These last two marriages were clearly intended to reinforce Robert's interests in the south-west of Normandy. Another daughter, Sybil, became abbess of Notre Dame de Saintes. According to an uncorroborated statement of Wace, Robert had a sister, Muriel, who married Eudo, vicomte of the Cotentin; there were no heirs.

English landholdings

The assessed Domesday value of Robert's English estates was over £2000, making him second only to Roger de Montgomery among the lay magnates of post-conquest England. Although he held lands in twenty shires, they were concentrated in five areas. In the south-west he was by far the largest landholder in Cornwall and had extensive estates in Somerset, Devon, and Dorset. While his lands in Dorset and Somerset were acquired by 1068, when the castle of Montacute was besieged by English rebels, it remains unclear when he gained his Cornish lands, though it may have been soon afterwards. Cornwall had apparently been granted to the Breton, Brian, after the conquest, but Brian seems to have returned home shortly afterwards, to be replaced by Robert, who also received all of Brian's manors in Suffolk. The south-western lands were probably administered from Montacute and Launceston, where there was a castle and market (which Robert transferred from a nearby site held by the canons of St Stephen) by 1086. Elsewhere in the county, Robert had a market at Liskeard and another near St Michael's Mount; and another castle was built at Trematon, which later became the caput of the Vautort barony. A market was established to the detriment of a pre-existing local market at St German's; and in Devon Robert appropriated a fair held at Methleigh by the bishop of Exeter.

Robert was probably granted the rape of Pevensey by the winter of 1067–8. This honour was both strategically important and a former heartland of the Godwine family. Here Robert's demesne estates were grouped around the small town of Pevensey, where he constructed a castle within the defences of the Roman fort of the Saxon Shore and developed a borough which was by 1086 a flourishing local commercial centre and market for the salt industry. It is likely that he acquired the lordship of Berkhamsted at about the same time. Berkhamsted controlled a number of strategic routes to London: here too Robert established a castle and promoted urban growth.

Some, at any rate, of Robert's Yorkshire estates may have been gained shortly after 1069, others were probably not under effective control until the 1080s. Only a minority were retained in demesne; and by 1086 the value of most had fallen since 1066 and there is little evidence of agricultural exploitation, their control being left to two tenants, Nigel Fossard and Richard de Sourdeval. In Northamptonshire likewise only a small number of Robert's hundred manors were in demesne and his interests here were represented by his leading tenant, William de Cahaignes, the sheriff.

Religious patronage

Robert was a generous patron of religious houses in Normandy. Land at St Clair was given to Préaux; and to his brother Duke William's foundation of St Étienne, Caen, he granted land in Houtteville. Following the conquest he gave the manor of Laleham, taken from Westminster, to Fécamp, and lands in west Cornwall to St Michael's Mount, a dependency of Mont-St Michel. But he was particularly generous to the family foundation at Grestain, close to Conteville. Indeed, Robert de Torigni styles Robert the founder of Grestain, and here both he and his first wife were buried. Most of the abbey's endowments were concentrated close by, but there were other clusters elsewhere, including the Bessin and near the Sarthe on the southern frontier of the duchy. Additionally, Robert granted Grestain extensive property in England, primarily in the rape of Pevensey, where the abbey maintained its largest English cell at Wilmington; and he also granted the advowsons of Berkhamsted church and castle chapel, together with the tithes and church lands there, as well as lands in Northamptonshire formerly held as dower by his first wife, Matilda.

In 1082 Robert and Matilda established a cell of Marmoutier at Mortain, outside the castle, dedicated to the Virgin, and endowed it with properties in both Normandy and England. Most of these were situated close to Mortain, with a few also in Robert's northern Cotentin estates. But Ste Marie was also granted lands in the rape of Pevensey and in Dorset, where the monks acquired the manor of Piddle Hinton following the death of Matilda, when all her possessions were distributed to the poor or to monasteries. Also in 1082 Robert and his wife founded the collegiate church of St Evroult within the castle at Mortain. Most of its property, too, was located around Mortain, with other estates near Coutances and in the northern Cotentin. Robert was also perhaps responsible for the grant to the canons of his manor of Hanging Langford, Wiltshire, and of £10 annual rent in Pevensey rape, later confirmed by his son, William.

The community of St Evroult was joined by Robert's chaplain, Vital, later the founder of Savigny. According to Vital's life, his great reputation as a preacher and scholar came to Robert's attention and he evidently had some influence with the count, on one occasion intervening to prevent the beating of his wife, and on another leaving the household until humbly begged by a contrite Robert to return. After the count's death, Vital remained in his son's household until he left for the eremitical life. Robert may also have been a patron of another local holy man and hermit, William Firmatus, whose life records that, though he abhorred entering towns, he often came to Mortain to pray. Following William's death c.1095 at Mantilly, his body was disputed by the people of Domfront and Mayenne, but through Robert's intervention it was removed and brought to the collegiate church of St Evroult.

Reputation and death

There are few contemporary assessments of Robert, though William of Malmesbury notoriously described him, by contrast with his brother, Odo, as 'of a stupid, dull disposition' (Malmesbury, De gestis regum, 2.334). Such a characterization hardly tallies with the trust William I placed in him by granting him such extensive and strategically important territories on both sides of the channel, though it might explain why Robert seems to appear comparatively rarely in royal councils. Nor does it accord with Robert's aggressive exploitation of his commercial interests in both Normandy and England.

Although Grestain tradition records Robert's death, and his burial next to his first wife in the abbey, in 1090, he did not die until 1095, perhaps on 9 December as stated on the obit roll of St Evroult, Mortain. He was succeeded by his eldest son, William, who is not known to have married and who first appears as a witness of acta from the 1080s. William's support for Duke Robert of Normandy led to his capture at Tinchebray; all his estates were confiscated and he himself condemned to life imprisonment.


  • B. Golding, ‘Robert of Mortain’, Anglo-Norman Studies, 13 (1990), 119–44
  • D. R. Bates, ‘Notes sur l'aristocratie Normande: Herluin de Conteville et sa famille’, Annales de Normandie, 23 (1973), 21–38
  • J. Boussard, ‘Le comté de Mortain au xie siècle’, Le Moyen Âge, 58 (1952), 253–79
  • D. Bates and V. Gazeau, ‘L'Abbaye de Grestain et la famille d'Herluin de Conteville’, Annales de Normandie, 40 (1990), 5–30
  • K. S. B. Keats-Rohan, ‘The prosopography of post-conquest England: four case studies’, Medieval Prosopography, 14 (1993), 1–52, esp. 30–46
  • The Gesta Normannorum ducum of William of Jumièges, Orderic Vitalis, and Robert of Torigni, ed. and trans. E. M. C. van Houts, 2 vols., OMT (1992–5)
  • M. Fauroux, ed., Recueil des actes des ducs de Normandie de 911 à 1066 (Caen, 1961)
  • A. Farley, ed., Domesday Book, 2 vols. (1783)
  • A. Du Monstier, Neustria Pia, ed. P. Gallemant (Rouen, 1663)
  • Gallia Christiana in provincias ecclesiasticas distributa, 11, ed. P. Henri and J. Taschereau (Paris, 1759)
  • I. Soulsby, ‘The fiefs in England of the count of Mortain’, MA diss., U. Wales, 1974
  • Acta sanctorum: Aprilis, 3 (Antwerp, 1675) [life of William Firmatus]
  • J. A. Giles, ed., Scriptores rerum gestarum Willelmi Conquestoris, Caxton Society, 3 (1845)
  • L. Halphen, ed., Recueil d’annales angevines et vendômoises (Paris, 1903)
  • P. Le Baud, Histoire de Bretagne avec les chroniques des maisons de Vitré et de Laval, 2 vols. (1638)
  • Le ‘Roman de Rou’ de Wace, ed. A. J. Holden, 3 vols. (Paris, 1970–73)
  • E. P. Sauvage, ed., ‘Vitae BB. Vitalis et Gaufridi’, Analecta Bollandiana, 1 (1882), 355–410


  • embroidery (Bayeux Tapestry), Bayeux, France

Wealth at Death

very wealthy; lands valued at approx. £2100: Farley, ed., Domesday book

Oxford Medieval Texts
Orderic Vitalis, ed. and trans. M. Chibnall, 6 vols., OMT (1969–80); repr. (1990)