ROBERT, COMTE DE MORTAIN AND EARL OF CORNWALL
Robert, Comte de Mortain and Earl of Cornwall, the exact date of whose birth is as much a question as that of Odo, who, if his age at the time of his death be correctly stated, must have been the elder of the two; but, whether or not, there was probably not more than a year or so's difference between them. Our first knowledge of him is obained from the fact of his being made Comte de Mortain in the Cotentin (not to be confounded with Mortagne in La Manche), by his uterine brother, Duke William, on the banishment of William the Warling, son of Malger, and grandson of Duke Richard the First, on suspicion of treason — for it really amounted to nothing more — the wily tyrant availing himself of an opportunity to advance, under a pretence of justice, another of his mother's family. This was just previous to Duke William's visit to England in 1051, and Robert, I conclude, might at that period have been nearly of full age, being born, as I take it, circa 1031.
In 1054, on the invasion of Normandy by Henry, King of France, we find him joining the army of William, with his knights and retainers; but he was not in the battle of Mortemer, being in the Duke's division, and consequently had no opportunity of distinguishing himself.
We next hear of him at the council called by William on receiving the tidings of Harold's assumption of the crown of England, and subsequently at the great meeting at Lillebonne, when he promised to contribute to the invading fleet no less than one hundred and twenty vessels, according to the curious Latin record published by Taylor; [A Roberto de Mortoleio, c. et xx.] an enormous number, but the size has to be taken into consideration, and the list may be held to include boats of every description.
In the great battle of Senlac, Wace tells us he never went far from the Duke, and commanded the chivalry of the Cotentin, but he is not conspicuously delineated in that portion of the Bayeux Tapestry. His share of the spoil is said to have been the greatest. He was created Earl of Cornwall, in which county alone he possessed two hundred and forty-eight manors at the time of the compilation of Domesday; fifty-four in Sussex, besides the borough of Pevensey; seventy-five in Devonshire, forty-nine in Dorsetshire, twenty-nine in Buckinghamshire, thirteen in Hertfordshire, ten in Suffolk, ninety-nine in Northumberland, one hundred and ninety-six in Yorkshire, and twenty-four in other counties, amounting altogether to seven hundred and ninety-seven, with two castles in his county of Cornwall, one at Dunhever and the other af Tremeton.
In 1069, the Earl of Cornwall and Robert Comte d'Eu were left by King William in Lindsey to watch the Danes who had landed at the mouth of the Humber and invested York, but alarmed at the approach of the Royal forces retreated to the opposite shore, and took shelter in the fens. Availing themselves of the opportunity afforded them by a festival at which the disaffected inhabitants liad invited the invaders to be present, the two Earls fell upon them unexpectedly, and pursued them with great slaughter to their very ships. We hear little of him from that period till we find him beside the death-bed of the elder William, supplicating for the pardon and release of his brother Odo, which the King, with great reluctance, at length conceded to the urgent and incessant entreaties of the Earl and his friends. "My brother Odo," said the dying monarch, " is a man not to be trusted—ambitious, given to fleshly desires, and of enormous cruelty. There is no doubt that if he is released he will disturb the whole country, and be the ruin of thousands." The petitioners pledging themselves for the Bishop's reformation, the King yielded from mere weariness, observing, " It is against my own judgment that I permit my brother to be liberated, for be assured that he will cause the death or the grievous injury of many persons."
He was too true a prophet. His son Rufus had scarcely ascended the throne when the pestilent priest
commenced, as we have seen, to sow dissensions amongst his subjects, and succeeded in involving the generous brother, to whom he was indebted for his freedom, in a conspiracy to depose the nephew who had restored him the possessions he had deservedly forfeited. Imposing on the duller nature, and working on the affection of Robert, he beguiled him into a rash attempt to hold his Castle of Pevensey against the King, which failing might have cost the Earl his life or liberty, and the confiscation of all his estates. The Red King, however, made a judicious distinction between his uncles, banishing for ever the arch-traitor Odo, and accepting the submission of Robert, allowed him to return to his allegiance. This event occurred in 1088, and after that time his name disappears from the pages of our historians.
Brooke, in his Catalogue of Nobility, says, witliout citing any earlier writers, " This Robert was slain in Northumberland in the year 1087." Vincent, in his "Discoverie," points out the error of the date, but is silent respecting the account of the death, which he certainly would not have been if he could have contradicted it. Dugdale was equally ignorant on the subject. "When he departed this world, I do not find," he tell us; "but if he lived after King William Rufus so fatally lost his life by the glance of an arrow in New Forest from the bow of Walter Tyrrell, then was it," he continues, "unto him that this strange apparition happened, which I shall here speak of;" and then he relates the story told by Matthew Paris, how that, at the very hour the King was killed, the Earl of Cornwall, being hunting in a wood at some distance, and left alone by his attendants, was met by a huge black goat bearing Rufus all black and naked with a wound in his breast. The Earl adjured the goat by the Holy Trinity to tell him whom it was he carried, and was answered, "I am carrying your King to judgment. Yea, that tyrant William Rufus, for I am an evil spirit, and the revenger of his malice which he bore to the Church of God, and it was I that did cause his slaughter, the proto-martyr of England, St. Alban, commanding me so-to-do, who complained to God of him for his grievous oppressions in this Isle of Britain which he first hallowed — all which the Earl related soon after to his followers." What a pity the goat did not reveal the name of the individual he had caused to do the slaughter!
This absurd story, one of the many circulated at the time of the King's death, and tolerably well proving a guilty foreknowledge, is only quoted here as bearing on the question of the decease of Robert Earl of Cornwall, for the narrator does not distinguish the Earl by his baptismal name, and therefore leaves it uncertain whether he is alluding to Robert or to his son William, who had undoubtedly succeeded to the earldom of Mortain and Cornwall before 1103, as in that year he had left England for Normandy, and was in open rebellion against Henry I, whom he hated from childhood, and by whom he was consequently deprived of his titles and estates for treason.
In the absence at present of any reliable information, I am inclined to believe that Robert's death preceded that of his brother Odo, as the monk of Malmesbury tells us that, "not content with the two earldoms of Mortain in Normandy and Cornwall in England, his son William demanded from King Henry the earldom of Kent which his uncle Odo had held, and petulantly declared that he would not put on his robe or mantle till the inheritance he derived from his uncle should be restored to him," a terrible threat, which must have alarmed the King bookstoreingly.
Without presuming to fix on an exact date, I consider then that Robert Earl of Cornwall died between the years 1089 and 1097; and if there be any foundation whatever for Brooke's statement, that he was slain in Northumberland, it is possible that he was there with his nephew King William on the occasion of Robert de Mowbray's rebellion in 1095. It is not the less remarkable, however, that the death of so important and wealthy a personage should have occurred without its being recorded by a single historian.
Robert Earl of Cornwall had taken to wife previously to the Conquest, but at what period we are ignorant, Matilda, daughter of Roger de Montgomeri, Earl of Shrewsbury, and by her left one son, William, of whom I have just spoken, and three daughters — Agnes, first offered in marriage to William de Grentmesnil, but afterwards the wife of André de Vitry, Denise, married in 1078 to Guy, 3rd Sire de La Val, of whom more hereafter; and Emma, wife of William Count of Toulouse.
Of the three sons of Herleve, William, Odo, and Robert, the latter alone appears to have possessed some kindly feeling. He is described by William of Malmesbury as a man of a heavy, sluggish disposition, but no foul crimes are laid to his charge. He had evidently the courage of his race, and his conduct as a commander is unassociated with any act of cruelty. Scandal has not been busy with his name as a husband. No discords are known to have disturbed his domestic felicity. With the exception of the one occasion when ensnared by the artful representations of Odo, he had joined in the rebellion against Rufus, no trace is seen of his having been involved in any of the revolts and conspiracies which were continually convulsing both Normandy and England, and his fidelity to the elder William was never for an instant shaken. We have seen him beside the death-bed of that William, pleading urgently for the pardon of their worthless brother, and pledging himself generously but rashly to his reformation; and the distinction made by the second William between his two uncles upon their surrender at Pevensey, shows that he believed in the contrition of Robert, and thoroughly estimated the amount of dependence he could place upon the word or oath of the faithless, treacherous, turbulent Odo.
He was a great benefactor to the Abbey of Grestain in Normandy, which had been founded by bis father, Herluin de Conteville, and his appropriation of the possessions which belonged to the Priory of St. Petroc at Bodmin, in Cornwall, founded by King Ethelstan, appears to be justified by the fact that they had been taken from the Priory, and were illegally enjoyed by canons secular. By a charter to the monks of St. Michael in Peril of the Sea, on the coast of Normandy, giving to them and their successors in pure alms for ever the monastery of St. Michael on the Mount in Cornwall, and which must have been executed before 1083, as the name of Queen Matilda occurs amongst the witnesses, we learn that the standard of that saint had been carried before him in battle, and may fairly conclude that it was in the decisive one at Senlac. This charter appears to have been subsequently confirmed by him in 1085 at Pevensey. [Mr. Freeman appears to have mistaken this date for the original one of the Charter, and consequently demurs to its authenticity; but it is clear from the names of the witnesses that it must have been executed in Normandy, and the note appended to it in the Monasticon refers merely to a confirmation some years afterwards, -- "Firmata atque roboratur est hæc carta anno millesimo octagesimo quinto apud Pevensel," in Robert's own castle.]
Meagre as are the materials which we are enabled at present to scrape together for a memoir of Robert Earl of Cornwall, his character stands out in honorable distinction from those of his brothers, neither surrounded by the "guilty glory" of the King, nor blackened by the baseness of the Bishop.
Photocopy of the text was provided this site by Fred L. Curry.