Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Robert (d.1147)
ROBERT, Earl of Gloucester (d. 1147), was a natural son of Henry I, king of England. A statement in one version of the ‘Brut y Tywysogion’ (a. 1110) that his mother was Nest [q. v.] is absent from the earlier text; and as Nest's own grandson, Giraldus Cambrensis, has left a minute account of her family (De Rebus, &c., l. i. c. 9; Itin. Kambr. l. ii. c. 7), which contains no mention of the Earl of Gloucester, it seems to be erroneous (cf. Freeman, Norman Conquest, v. 852, 853). The mention made by William of Malmesbury of Robert's ancestors, Norman, Flemish, and French (Will. Malm. Gesta Reg. l. v. c. 446), may possibly allude to his mother, but more probably refers to Henry's grandmother, Adela of France. Robert was a native of Caen (Ord. Vit. 920 B). He was born before his father's accession to the throne (Will. Malm. Hist. Nov. l. i. c. 452), and was the eldest of all Henry's sons (Cont. Will. of Jumièges, l. viii. c. 39).
Henry laid the foundation of Robert's fortunes by bestowing on him the hand of Mabel (called Matilda by Orderic, and Sybil by the Cont. of Will. of Jumièges), daughter of Robert FitzHamon (d. 1107) [q. v.], and with it the whole heritage of her father and her uncle, comprising the honour of Torigny and other property in Normandy, the lordship of Glamorgan in Wales, and considerable estates in England. Chief among these was the honour of Gloucester, which Henry formed into an earldom for his son. The rhyming chronicler called Robert of Gloucester (fl. 1260–1300) [q. v.] dates both these transactions in 1109 (vv. 8910–13); but recent criticism has shown that Robert did not become an earl till some time between April 1121 and June 1123 (J. J. Round, ‘The Creation of the Earldom of Gloucester,’ Genealogist, new ser. iv. 129–40; and Geoffrey de Mandeville, pp. 420 et seq.). In 1119 he was present with his father at the battle of Brémule against Louis VI of France, and in 1123, when a revolt broke out among the Norman barons, he brought up a force to assist in the reduction of the rebel castle of Brionne. In 1126 he was charged with the custody of the captive duke, Robert of Normandy, whom he kept in ward for a while in his castle at Bristol, and afterwards transferred to another stronghold at Cardiff, the capital of his Welsh lordship. On 1 Jan. 1127 he was called upon by his father to join the other barons assembled at Westminster in doing homage to Henry's only surviving lawful child, the widowed Empress Matilda, as heiress of England and Normandy. On this occasion a dispute arose between Robert and the king's nephew, Stephen, count of Boulogne, as to which was entitled to precedence in taking the oath; it was decided in favour of Stephen. Some six months later Robert shared with Brian FitzCount the duty of escorting Matilda over sea for her marriage with Geoffrey of Anjou. He was by his father's deathbed at Lions-la-Forêt at the opening of December 1135.
Whether or not Henry really did, as was afterwards asserted, revoke at the last moment his nomination of Matilda as his heiress, the bulk of the nobles, both in England and Normandy, now treated the succession as an open question, and while Stephen hurried off to seize the English crown Robert himself is said to have been urged by his friends to put in a counter-claim. This, however, he prudently refused to do (Gesta Steph. p. 10). For the moment, however, the chances of the legitimate heir seemed no better than his own, and when the Norman barons invited Stephen's brother, Count Theobald of Blois, to take possession of Normandy, Robert so far concurred in their scheme as to join them in a conference with Theobald at Lisieux on 21 Dec. The tidings of Stephen's election as king in England caused them to abandon their project and accept the new king as their duke, and to this also Robert assented, giving up Falaise to Stephen's representatives as soon as he had safely removed the late king's treasures. It was, however, not till after Easter 1136 that, in answer to Stephen's repeated invitations, he at length crossed over to England, and did homage for his estates there; and even then he did it on the express condition that it should be binding only so long as Stephen's own promises to him were kept, and he himself was left in undisturbed possession of all his honours and dignities.
Next year (1137) Robert accompanied the king on a visit to Normandy; there they quarrelled, and in spite of a nominal reconciliation Stephen, early in 1138, declared Robert's English and Welsh estates forfeited, and razed some of his castles. Soon after Whitsuntide the earl sent to the king a formal renunciation of his allegiance, and to his under-tenants in England orders to prepare for war. This message proved the signal for a general rising of the barons, in which, however, Robert took no personal share, although the garrison of his chief fortress, Bristol, played a considerable part in it under the command of his eldest son. He was himself occupied in furthering the interests of his halfsister Matilda in Normandy, where he procured the surrender of Caen and Bayeux to her husband in June 1138. On 30 Sept. 1139 he landed at Arundel with 140 knights and the Empress Matilda herself. Leaving her in Arundel Castle he set off with only twelve followers, and rode hurriedly across southern England to Bristol, where the empress soon rejoined him. There he set up his headquarters as commander-in-chief of her forces in the civil war which followed, and as her chief assistant in the government of the western shires, which his influence and his valour quickly brought to acknowledge Matilda as their lady.
At the opening of 1141 he headed, in conjunction with his son-in-law, Earl Ranulf of Chester, the whole forces of her party in an expedition for the relief of Lincoln Castle, which Stephen was besieging, and he received the surrender of Stephen himself at the close of the battle which took place under the walls of Lincoln on Candlemas day. He afterwards accompanied the empress in her triumphal progress to Winchester and London, as also in her flight to Oxford when driven out of London. Later in the same year he was with her during the double siege at Winchester, when she besieged the bishop in his fortified house of Wolvesey, and was in her turn blockaded in the city by ‘the king's queen with all her strength.’ On 14 Sept. Robert succeeded in covering his half-sister's retreat from Winchester, and in cutting his own way out afterwards; but he was overtaken and made prisoner at Stockbridge. The queen sent him into honourable confinement in Rochester Castle till arrangements could be made for his release in exchange for Stephen, who was in prison at Bristol under the charge of Countess Mabel. A project for Stephen's restoration as titular king, with Robert as acting ruler of England under him, was foiled by the earl's refusal to join in any such compromise without his sister's consent; and a simple exchange of the captives, though long opposed by Robert on the ground that an earl was no equivalent for a king, was carried into effect at the beginning of November.
Shortly before midsummer in the next year, 1142, Robert was sent by the empress to Anjou to persuade her (second) husband (Geoffrey of Anjou) to come to her assistance in England. Finding, however, that Geoffrey would not stir till he had completed his conquest of Normandy, Robert was forced to join him in a campaign which lasted till the close of the autumn. Robert was apparently recalled by tidings that Stephen was blockading Matilda in Oxford Castle. He hurried back to England, taking with him his little nephew, the future King Henry II, and three or four hundred Norman men-at-arms. His force being too small to effect Matilda's relief directly, he sought to draw Stephen away from Oxford by laying siege to Wareham, a castle of his own which Stephen had seized during his absence. The king, however, did not move; Robert, after receiving the surrender of Wareham, took Portland and Lulworth, and then summoned all his sister's partisans to meet him at Cirencester. She had meanwhile made her escape, and before Christmas Robert was able to bring her child to meet her at Wallingford. All three seem to have shortly afterwards returned to Bristol, and to have remained chiefly there throughout the next four years. In July 1143 Robert won another great victory over Stephen near Wilton. In 1144 he again led all his forces in person against the king, who was endeavouring to raise the blockade which Robert had formed round Malmesbury; Stephen, however, retreated without giving battle.
Next year Robert planned an attack upon Oxford (which had surrendered to Stephen after Matilda's escape), and for that purpose raised a great fortification at Farringdon. This new fortress, however, soon fell into the hands of the king; and from that moment Robert struggled in vain against the rapid disintegration of the Angevin party. What remained of it seems to have been held together for two more years solely by his tact and his energy, for as soon as he was gone it fell utterly to pieces. In the spring of 1147 he escorted young Henry from Bristol to Wareham on his way back to Anjou; in the autumn he fell sick of a fever, and on 31 Oct. he died at Bristol. There, in the choir of the church of a Benedictine priory which he had founded in honour of St. James, outside the city wall, he was buried beneath a tomb of green jasper stone (Chron. Tewkesb., Monast. ii. 61), which in Leland's day had been replaced by ‘a sepulchre of gray marble set up upon six pillers of a smaull hethe’ (Itin. vii. 85, ed. 1744).
Robert appears to have been a happy compound of warrior, statesman, and scholar. His love of letters made him the chosen patron, and, as it seems, the familiar friend, of William of Malmesbury, who dedicated his ‘Gesta Regum Anglorum’ and ‘Historia Novella’ to him in terms of affectionate admiration; the ‘Historia Novella,’ indeed, was written at Robert's own special desire. For his capacity as a statesman it may be said that his sister's cause almost invariably prospered when she allowed him to direct her counsels, and declined as soon as she neglected his advice; while to the character of his rule in the west of England during the civil war we have the testimony of a member of the opposite party that he ‘restored peace and tranquillity throughout his dominions, and greatly improved their condition, save only that he burdened all his people with taxes for the building of his castles, and required all to assist him either with men or with money whenever he marched against the foe’ (Gesta Steph. p. 97). The most important of these castles was that of Bristol, which he so greatly enlarged and strengthened that he is usually said to have been its founder, though it is plain that a fortress existed there before his day. His priory of St. James at Bristol was a cell to the abbey of Tewkesbury, which looked upon his father-in-law as its second founder, and to which he was himself a distinguished benefactor. The Cistercian abbey of Neath was founded in 1130 by Richard de Granville, chief baron of the honour of Glamorgan, under the special patronage and protection of Earl Robert, Countess Mabel, and their eldest son. Another Cistercian house, Margam, was founded by Robert only a few months before his death, in 1147. His widow survived him ten years; she was the mother of six children. The eldest son, William, second earl of Gloucester, died in 1183, leaving only three daughters, and by the marriage of one of these, Amicia, to Richard, sixth earl of Clare, the earldom of Gloucester ultimately passed to the family of Clare [see Clare, Family of].
[William of Malmesbury's Gesta Regum and Historia Novella, ed. Stubbs, Gesta Stephani, ed. Howlett (Chronicles of Stephen and Henry II, vol. iii.), English Chronicle, ed. Thorpe, Annals of Margam and Tewkesbury, ed. Luard (Annales Monastici, vol. i.), Gervase of Canterbury, ed. Stubbs, Robert of Gloucester, ed. Wright, Giraldus Cambrensis's De Rebus a se Gestis and Itinerarium Kambriæ (Opera, ed. Dimock and Brewer, vols. i. and vi.), all in Rolls Series; Continuator of Florence of Worcester, ed. Thorpe (Engl. Hist. Soc.); Ordericus Vitalis and Continuator of William of Jumièges, ed. Duchesne (Hist. Norm. Scriptt.); Brut y Tywysogion, or Gwentian Chronicle of Caradoc of Llancarvan (Cambrian Archæol. Assoc. 1863); Dugdale's Baronage, and Monasticon, vols. ii. and v., ed. Caley, &c.; Freeman's Norman Conquest, vol. v. appendix BB.; Clark's Land of Morgan (Archæol. Journ. vols. xxxiv. xxxv.).]