1066 is more than the most memorable military date in British history: it is the moment when life changed forever for the islanders. We all know about William the Conqueror but, behind the scene and thrusting forward, was a man without whom it might not have happened: William fitzOsbern.
He was one of the first to urge Duke William to invade, kept to this firm opinion when there were doubts amongst other advisers, pledged 60 ships and, according to Wace, commanded the right wing at Hastings. Wace also states that he tricked sceptical subjects into offering additional service. At that time he was Lord of Breteuil in Normandy.
The invasion was a risky and dangerous project for Duke William to "claim his inheritance through force of arms" (William of Poitiers) and he reinforced his pitch with a successful appeal to the Pope who sent back a banner that could be carried into battle. According to Wace there were two consultative assemblies and, at the wider second meeting, many felt that the enterprise was "too arduous and far beyond the resources of Normandy". It seems that the Channel crossing was fearful to them as was the superior naval force of the English and they saw little reason to undertake it. They claimed that their loyalty did not extend overseas.
In these circumstances it is possible to see how a strong voice in favour could sway opinion: fitzOsbern was one of the Duke's most trusted officials.
William fitzOsbern was the son of a steward (a very important position) of Duke Robert I, Osbern the Seneschal, who guarded the child, the future king of England, at night, sleeping in the same room at Vaudreuil Castle. He was murdered (as were previous guardians) by having his throat cut in the course of this duty, creating a bond between the 2 young Williams, accentuated by the fact they were cousins. They fled to safety together and all this formed a lasting alliance.
What is strange is that, by the 1040's, fitzOsbern was connected in the witness-lists of Duke William's charters to Roger II of Montgomery, since his father has been the assassin. It seems that, despite this, they worked together and had, by 1051, been selected by the Duke for his special confidence. They were, according to Marc Morris, "men of a similar stamp to the duke himself - young, ambitious and warlike - and together they would serve him faithfully for the rest of their lives." The pledge of 60 ships compares with the 100 and 120 provided by Odo and Robert, the duke's half-brothers. As everyone knows, the advisers for attack were victorious and left us all struggling with the French subjunctive for centuries.
William fitzOsbern soon started construction on Chepstow Castle, the oblong keep being built in stone from the start with bonding courses of Roman tiles taken from Caerwent. The Conqueror passed through on his return in 1081 from Wales, where he had freed slaves, and ordered a huge hall to be added. This seems to have been intended as an audience chamber as it has no domestic features such as kitchens or latrines and little defensive value. It could have been planned as a meeting place for the Norman rulers and the newly subjugated leaders of Wales.
FitzOsbern (now Earl of Hereford amongst other honours and massive gifts of lands in recognition of service rendered) helped the project to advance into Wales by crossing the Wye to establish towns and castles. He then seems to have slowed down, possibly because of huge responsibilities elsewhere, and found some accord with the local Welsh rulers, each side recognising the rights and powers of the other. (This policy was continued by his son, Roger of Breteuil, who formed an alliance with Caradog ap Gruffudd.) There was a background of rebellion with the aptly named Eadric the Wild in alliance with the Welsh. FitzOsbern also helped with the harsh suppression of the Northern revolt in 1069.
The Earl of Hereford also established a priory in Chepstow as a daughter house to Cormeilles (to which Chepstow paid £3 13s 4d) but such an act was not necessarily a deed of piety as political influence could be gained by such means. He seems to have been the instigator in 1070 of a venture to rob the monasteries of their secular and sacred wealth and transfer it to the treasury to pay mercenaries who did not want to be rewarded with land so far from home but who accepted "lavish rewards" in goods. It was hardly a demonstration of religious fervour to promote the stealing of "a wealth of gold and silver, vestments, books, and vessels of diverse types". By now he was immensely powerful.
The Domesday book shows that fitzOsbern even had some power to redistribute land and settle disputes alone and certainly he had been left in charge, along with Odo of Bayeux, whilst the king returned to Normandy in 1067 quite soon after his victory: reports differ but Orderic Vitalis complained that they were "swollen with pride" and allowed plunder and rape. He relied on paid troops rather than a feudal levy. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records that under Bishop Odo and fitzOsbern the "unhappy people" were oppressed and "things went ever from bad to worse."
His death and character
FitzOsbern had incurred "the king's severe displeasure" by the liberality with which he exhausted his wealth by over-paying his soldiers, according to William of Malmesbury. Possibly in order to regain favour, he accepted a mission to go into Flanders in 1071 to the aid of Richildis, the regent and widow of Baldwin, and her son, Arnulf, King William's nephew, although William of Malmesbury claims he was "desperately in love" with her. She had offered herself to him in marriage to help to deal with her rival claimant, Robert "le Frison." A contemporary observed that he went "as if in a game" with too few supporters, merely 10 knights, and was killed at Cassel.
It is a tale of chivalry and foolhardiness in defence of a widow and orphan: in fact, his character is hard to summarise as he combined ruthlessness with extreme loyalty; material success with unscrupulous methods but was clearly charismatic with great personal distinction, of international fame for his fighting prowess and very much a man of his time. He was mainly responsible for establishing Norman rule on the Welsh border and for conquering Gwent although many were allowed to retain their lands on the favourable terms granted by Gruffudd ap Llewelyn and the Welsh reeves (meiri) were not displaced. The jury is still out but, in my more frivolous moments, I thank the Normans for forcing the English language into a temporary lowly position as oral only and thereby allowing it to shed grammatical nuisances such as the gender of inanimate objects. Our tables are no longer female.
Chepstow Castle makes a great outing by bus from Newport or Monmouth - for opening times click here. Details of bus transport are on my original post about Chepstow Castle. It is easy to combine this with a visit to Caldicot Castle on the no 74 or Caerwent Roman Town on the no 75. You can pop up to Tintern Abbey on the no 69 to Monmouth, birthplace of King Henry V. How William fitzOsbern fitted into the background of Marcher Lordships can be seen on my blog post about the Welsh Marches.