Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/William of Ypres

WILLIAM of Ypres (d. 1165?), erroneously styled Earl of Kent, was son of Philip, count or viscount of Ypres, younger son of Robert I, count of Flanders. Suger (Vita Ludov. Grossi, chap. xxix.) calls him ‘Guillelmus Bastardus,’ and later writers mostly say that he was illegitimate, but there seems to be no other contemporary authority for the assertion, unless it be one document quoted by Galbert of Bruges, which describes him as ‘spurius, to wit, born of a noble father and a mother of low degree, who carded wool all her life;’ and Kervyn de Lettenhove (Hist. de Flandre, i. 358) thinks that this refers to a lawful union, only vitiated by the disparity in the condition of the parties. William had a brother, or half-brother, named Theobald Sorel. William is called by contemporary writers ‘William of Ypres’ and ‘William of Loo.’ Loo (near Furnes, in West Flanders) was a place of which Philip had been lord, but in which he had in 1093 ceded most of his seignorial rights to a convent of canons regular dwelling there in a monastery dedicated to St. Peter. His son appears to have inherited his estates at Loo, but not his rank and title; in a charter dated 1118 he calls himself simply ‘William, son of Count Philip.’ He was married to a niece of Clementia, widow of Count Robert II of Flanders, and mother of the reigning Count Baldwin VII. In 1119 Clementia, seeing that her son was about to die childless, wished him to be succeeded by her niece's husband; Baldwin, however, nominated as his successor another cousin, Charles of Denmark. On Baldwin's death on 17 June 1119 Charles became Count of Flanders; and in 1123 the privileges of the minster at Loo were confirmed jointly by Charles and William, whom Charles oddly calls ‘my nephew;’ they were really first cousins. On 2 March 1127 Charles was murdered at Bruges. William at once claimed the county of Flanders, forcibly occupied Ypres and the neighbouring towns, and extorted homage from their inhabitants, and from the merchants who were assembled at the fair of Ypres. On 6 March he sent a message to Bertulf, the provost of Bruges, who was known to have instigated the murder of Charles, greeting him openly as his ‘intimate friend,’ and requesting his support. On 9 March a party bent on avenging Charles entered Bruges and besieged the provost in the citadel. On the 16th two knights endeavoured to make this party acknowledge William as count, by telling them that Flanders had been granted to him by its overlord, King Louis of France. William meanwhile had ‘unfurled his banners, as lord and count of the land, against all who refused to pay him the revenues due to its sovereign;’ and hearing that one of Charles's murderers had been captured at Térouanne, he claimed the right of punishing him, and caused him to be hanged at Aire on 20 or 23 March.

On 20 March Louis came to Arras to examine the claims of the competitors for the Flemish succession, of whom there were already two besides William of Ypres; and on the 23rd he adjudged the fief, not to any one of these three, but to William Clito, son of Robert, duke of Normandy [q. v.] This was against the interest of Clito's uncle, King Henry I of England [q. v.], who therefore sent to Flanders another of his nephews, Stephen [see Stephen, King of England], to form a league with the nobles against Clito. This league was joined by William of Ypres. As early as 24 March, indeed, it had been reported at Bruges that King Henry had furnished William with three hundred knights and ‘no end of money’ to help him in mastering Flanders; but the truth seems to be that William had received from Bertulf's family five hundred pounds in English coin, stolen from the late count's treasury, and he represented this as a gift from the English king in order to conceal his dealings with the traitors. On 9 April Louis met William at Winendale, and endeavoured to bring him to agreement with Clito; ‘but the unlawful count disdained to agree with the true count, or to make any terms of peace with him, for he despised him.’ Next day William learned that Bertulf was hidden near St. Omer in the house of one Alard. He first vainly searched and then burned the house of Alard and that of his daughter, and carried the daughter off to Ypres, threatening to mutilate her and seize all Alard's possessions unless Bertulf were given up to him on the morrow. Next morning Alard sent Bertulf in custody to Ypres. William was just going to preside at the trial of one of Bertulf's accomplices, Guy of Steenword. Guy and Bertulf were hanged the same day in William's presence. Bertulf's last words were an insinuation that William had been privy to the plot for which he sent them to the gallows. On 26 April Louis and Clito attacked Ypres. William marched out with three hundred knights to meet them; after a three hours' fight, the citizens, according to a secret agreement which they had made with Louis, opened one of their gates to the French; William fled, but was overtaken, captured, and imprisoned, first at Lille, then at Bruges, and then at Lille again. In spring 1128 Clito was expelled from Bruges and Ghent by a new rival, Thierry of Alsace; and in March he released William and proposed that they should make common cause against Thierry. On 27 July Clito fell in battle; and on 22 Aug. a charter of Thierry, count of Flanders, was witnessed by ‘William of Loo’ (Duchesne, Hist. de Guines, preuves, p. 209). In 1130 ‘William, son of Count Philip,’ witnessed a grant made to the monastery at Loo by Thierry and his wife Swanhild. William and Swanhild were somehow akin (possibly half-brother and sister); ‘many evils befell through Swanhild's kinsfolk,’ and William ‘was secretly of her party, because of their relationship.’ After her death, which occurred in 1130, he was compelled to give up the castle of Sluys, which he had held for some time in defiance of Thierry. In 1133 Thierry drove him out of Flanders, and he took refuge in England, seemingly in the household of Stephen.

Stephen, on his accession to the crown (December 1135), engaged a force of Flemish mercenaries, set William at their head, and took him for his chief confidant, much to the disgust of the barons. In 1137 William accompanied the king to Normandy, and while there plotted with him to capture Robert, earl of Gloucester [q. v.] When Geoffrey of Anjou invaded the duchy in May, William endeavoured to intercept him at Le Gué-Béranger, but failed because the Normans would not act with him. In May 1138 he went to Normandy again with Count Waleran of Meulan, and they attempted to restore Stephen's authority there by force. In July they gathered a great host to meet another Angevin invasion, and when Geoffrey retired without fighting, they turned their arms against Earl Robert at Caen, but without success. When Stephen besieged Devizes in June 1139, he sent William before him with a threatening message to its garrison. At the battle of Lincoln on 2 Feb. 1141, William shared with the Count of Aumale the command of the second division of Stephen's forces, which, after repelling a flank attack of the empress's Welsh auxiliaries, was routed by her English troops. Like all the other leaders on Stephen's side, William fled; ‘being highly skilled in war, and seeing the impossibility of helping the king, he reserved his aid for a better opportunity.’ The king was made prisoner; William joined the queen in Kent, and helped her to raise fresh forces, with which in July they besieged the empress at Winchester. In September he and his Flemings surprised and captured two hundred of the empress's partisans near Wherwell Abbey (John of Hexham, p. 310, Rolls ed.) In the battle near Winchester on 14 Sept. he captured Humphrey de Bohun (d. 1187) [q. v.], and led the Flemings in pursuit of Robert of Gloucester till they surrounded and made him prisoner at Stockbridge. In November Robert was exchanged for Stephen, who therefore considered himself indebted to William for his liberation. Later Flemish historians assert that he rewarded his liberator with the earldom of Kent, and many English writers have accepted the statement, but it is incorrect. The contemporary ‘Genealogia Comitum Flandriæ’ says that ‘the king granted to his deliverer the whole province of Kent in possession,’ while Gervase of Canterbury speaks of him as being already ‘in unjust occupation of Kent’ when Robert was imprisoned in his keeping in Rochester Castle, and even as having had ‘all Kent committed to his charge’ early in Stephen's reign; and it is certain that Stephen did, at some time between 1136 and 1154, provide him with large revenues from crown lands in Kent; but in no document of the period does he bear the title of earl, and there is sure evidence that in 1150 or later he was still merely ‘William of Ypres’ (Round, Anc. Charters, p. 53; Ducarel, Hist. of St. Katherine's Hospital, pp. 100–2).

For a few years after Stephen's restoration William was ‘a fear and a terror to all England.’ It may have been in 1143 that he and three other distinguished bandits threatened to burn St. Albans Abbey, and were bought off by a valuable gift from its treasury (Gesta Abbatum S. Albani, i. 94; cf. Round, Geoffrey de Mandeville, p. 206). On another occasion Stephen sent him to demand a contribution from the monks of Abingdon; William broke open their treasure chest with a hatchet and seized the required sum (Hist. Abingdon, ii. 292). At the height of his power William became blind; and then ‘God enlightened his heart,’ and he set himself to distribute in good works the wealth which he had acquired by plunder and bloodshed. In 1144 or 1146 he founded a Cistercian abbey at Boxley in Kent (Tanner, Not. Monast., Kent, vii.; Monast. Angl. v. 460, 461). In 1148 he joined with Queen Matilda in endeavouring to reconcile Stephen and Archbishop Theobald [q. v.] When the abbey of St. Bertin (Flanders) was burnt down in 1152, he covered nearly the whole expense of its rebuilding. Henry II on his accession in December 1154 banished Stephen's foreign troops from England; but he suffered their blind old leader to receive his Kentish revenues up to Easter 1157 (Pipe Roll 2 Hen. II p. 65, 3 Hen. II pp. 101, 102). It was probably not till then that William went back to Loo. There he seems to have retained some property even during his exile, for a grant made by him to the abbey of Clairmarais of ‘some land in the parish of Loo which Erembald Stratin formerly rented of the same William’ is witnessed by Queen Matilda and her son Eustace. This grant was confirmed, at William's request, by Countess Sibyl of Flanders and her son, as regents for the count who was absent on crusade, in 1157 (Gallia Christiana, vol. iii., instrumenta, col. 121, where ‘Balduinus’ is evidently a scribe's error for ‘Philippus.’ For the date cf. ib. cols. 539–540, and vol. v. col. 242). William's last seven years were spent in the monastery of St. Peter at Loo, which he benefited so largely that he came to be regarded (erroneously, see above) as its founder. A comparison of the dates indicated in the pipe roll of 1157 (pp. 101–2), the ‘Genealogia Comitum Flandriæ’ (p. 388), and John of Ypres (p. 646), points to 1165 as the year of his death. He was buried on 25 Jan. in the conventual church.

[Walter of Terouanne and Galbert of Bruges (Acta Sanctorum, 2 March; Pertz, vol. xii.; Migne, vol. cxlvi.); Genealogia Comitum Flandriæ and John of Ypres (Martène and Durand's Thesaurus Novus Anecdotorum, vol. iii.); Le Mire's (Miræus) Notitia Ecclesiarum Belgii, cc. 114, 130, 134, 141; Ordericus Vitalis, vol. v. (Soc. de l'Hist. de France); William of Malmesbury's Historia Novella; Henry of Huntingdon; Gervase of Canterbury.]

K. N.