Of the three great names at the head of this chapter [Wm F.O., Roger de Montgomeri, Robt de Beaumont], that of William Fitz Osbern claims precedence as the nearest personal friend of the Conqueror, and the chief officer of his household. Son of that Osbern the son of Herfast, otherwise Osbern de Crépon, who was foully murdered in the bed-chamber of his young sovereign by William de Montgomeri, he succeeded him in his office of Dapifer and the favour of the Duke. No particular feat of arms is recorded of him, though he must have fought in some, if not all, of the battles in Normandy during the twenty years or more which immediately preceded the invasion of England, from that of Val-ès-Dunes in 1047 to that of Varaville in 1060, and was probably with the Duke in his expeditions against Conan in Brittany and his invasion of Maine in 1063. We have proof at least of his presence at the siege of Domfront in 1054, when he was sent with Roger de Montgomeri to demand an explanation from Geoffrey Martel of his conduct in marching into Normandy and seizing Alençon. It is not, however, till the memorable year 1066 that he becomes a prominent person in the history of Normandy and of England. He appears to have somewhat resembled his master in character, combining great valour with much readiness of wit and astuteness of policy. We have seen him entering the hall of the Palace at Rouen "humming a tune," and rousing the moody Duke from his silent and sullen consideration of the news from England by bidding him bestir himself and take vengeance on Harold, who had been so disloyal to him; to call together all that he could call, cross the sea, and wrest the crown from the perjured usurper. William followed his advice, as most people do when they have already determined on taking the course suggested, and "Osbern, of the bold heart," was very likely aware of that fact when he ventured to express his opinion. The call was made first of the Duke's relatives and most confidential friends, and then of the whole baronage of Normandy. It is at this last and large assembly at Lillebonne that the audacity and cunning of Fitz Osbern become strongly apparent.
Considerable hesitation, and in some instances direct objection, being displayed to the adoption of the project, and the council breaking up into groups to discuss it, the wily Dapifer flitted about from one influential chief to the other, suggesting the danger of driving their feudal lord to extremities; that they should rather anticipate his wishes than suffer him to ask their aid in vain, and that it would be much worse for them eventually, should the Duke have to complain that his enterprise had failed in consequence of their defection. Puzzled and irresolute they at length requested him to speak to the Duke in the name of the whole body, and say not only that they feared the sea, but also that they were not bound to serve him beyond it.
Having thus contrived to be elected their spokesman, he, with the greatest effrontery, assured the Duke that they were unanimous in their determination to support him. That to advance him they would go through fire and water. They would not only cross the sea, but double their service. He who should bring twenty knights would cheerfully bring forty; he who was bound to serve with thirty would come with sixty, and the barons who had to serve with one hundred men would join him with two hundred. As to himself, he promised to furnish sixty ships laden with fighting men. The barons were as indignant as astounded at this unwarrantable declaration. Many openly disavowed him; all was tumult and confusion. "No one could hear another speak; no one could either listen to reason or render it for himself" (Roman de Rou).
The Duke then withdrawing to one side of the hall, sent for the barons one by one, and assuring them of his love and grace, pledged himself that if they would support him, as Fitz Osbern had stated, by doubling their service on this occasion, that they should not be called on in future for service beyond what was the custom of the land, and such as their ancestors had always rendered to their feudal lord. The Duke's eloquence was successful, and, as before stated (page 51), each baron's promise was recorded by scribes ready at hand as soon as it was made.
In Taylor's List, the number of ships furnished by Fitz Osbern, whose name stands first upon it, agrees with that mentioned by Wace. "Habuit a Willielmo Dapifero, filio Osberni LX naves." No knights are mentioned.
We next hear of him on English ground. While the Duke of Normandy was haranguing his forces on the morning of the battle, "William Fitz-Osber" rode up and interrupted him, saying, "Sire, we tarry here too long, let us all arm ourselves. Allons! Allons!" Wace, who recounts this incident, says, Fitz Osbern's horse was "all covered with iron." This is one of the instances in which he has been guilty of an anachronism, no such practice existing in the days of the Conqueror (vide the Bayeux Tapestry), but at the time that he composed the Roman de Rou, the fashion had been imported from the East by the Crusaders, and the horses were often coated with chain from the tail to the nostrils. In the disposition of the army, he was selected by the Duke to be a leader of the wing composed of the men of Boulogne and Poix, but we hear of no special incident connected with his name in the course of the battle.
The reward of his great and long-continued service was promptly bestowed upon him. The earldom of Hereford and the lordship of the Isle of Wight being the principal honours; the manor of Hanley, in Worcestershire, and several in Gloucestershire and other counties, which, in consequence of his dying before the great survey, cannot now be identified.
In addition to these substantial benefits, King William, on his return to Normandy in 1067, made him governor of his newly built Castle of Winchester: an office of great responsibility, as Winchester at that period was a city second only in importance to London. Its palace was the favourite residence of Edward the Confessor and the early Norman kings. It possessed a mint and a treasury, in which the riches and regalia of the sovereign were deposited, and was consequently to be most jealously guarded. The Conqueror also associated him with Bishop Odo, in the vicegerency (sic; viceregency) of the realm during his absence. Fitz Osbern having the chief administration of justice in the north, and Odo in the south of the kingdom.
On the defeat of Edgar Athelin and his confederates at York by the Conqueror in 1068, William Fitz Osbern was appointed governor of that city, and in the following year was hastily summoned to relieve the cities of Shrewsbury and Exeter, simultaneously attacked by the Welsh and the disaffected men of Cheshire, Devonshire, and Cornwall. He was too late to save Shrewsbury, which the insurgents, under Edric the Wild, had burned and abandoned; but reaching Exeter at the moment when a sudden sally of the garrison had driven back the besiegers and thrown them into confusion, the Earl, in conjunction with Count Brian of Brittany, fell upon them and put them nearly all to the sword.
In 1070, he was sent to Normandy by King William in order to assist Queen Matilda, the duchy being at that time in a very disturbed state. About the same period war broke out in Flanders between Richilde, widow of Count Baldwin VI -- called De Mons, and mother of his eldest son and heir, Ernulph -- and Robert, surnamed the Frison, who claimed the regency during the minority of Ernulph, in conformity with the will of his deceased brother. Matilda, taking the side of her sister-in-law, sent the Earl of Hereford with what forces she could spare to her aid. The Earl was then a widower, and either from love or ambition, became a suitor for the hand of the still fair Countess of Flanders.
Richilde, either responding to his affection, or from a desire to attach the valiant Norman more thoroughly to her interest, married him, and made him titular Count of Flanders.
He did not long, however, enjoy his dignity, for, on the 22nd of February, 1071, a sanguinary engagement took place at Ravenchoven, near Cassel, between the forces of Robert the Frison and those of the Countess Richilde and her ally, Philip I, King of France, in which both her son, young Count Ernulph, and her husband, the Earl of Hereford, who fought by his side, fell together.
According to Meier, the death-blow of William Fitz Osbern was dealt by one of his own knights, named Gerbodon, who had previously unhorsed him, but we are left in doubt as to the motive of the felon. The Earl's body was carried by his men-at-arms to the Abbey of Cormeilles, in Normandy, of which he was the founder in 1060, and buried there "amid much sorrow." His first wife, Adelina or Adeliza, was the daughter of Roger de Toeni. The date of her death is uncertain, but it probably took place some few years before the Conquest. She was buried at the Abbey of Lire, on the river Risle, in Normandy, which was also founded by Fitz Osbern as early as 1046; perchance on the occasion of his marriage, as Cormeilles may have been on that of her death. The dates are at least suggestive.
By Adelina de Toeni he had three sons and two daughters. The eldest son, William, succeeded him as Lord of Breteuil and Pacy, and in all his other possessions in Normandy. The second, Ralph, was shorn a monk, when young, in the Abbey of Cormeilles; and the third, Roger de Breteuil, had the earldom of Hereford and all the land his father held in England. The eldest daughter, Emma, married Ralph, Earl of Norfolk, of whom much hereafter. The name of the second and that of her husband are at present unknown, but she became the mother of Raynold de Cracci. (It is clear, therefore, that Dugdale and the other genealogists are in error, who give to Roger de Toeni for wife Alicia, a daughter of William Fitz Osbern, independently of the fact that in that case she would have been his own grand-daughter. Adela, by Pere Anselm called Helene, the widow of Roger de Toeni, and mother of Adeline or Alicia, wife of Will. Fitz Osbern, married secondly Richard Count of Evreux, vide chapter viii., p. 249.) A natural daughter of William de Breteuil, named Isabel, married Ascelin Goel, and was the direct ancestress of the Lovels of Tichmarsh. (Vide vol. ii, ch. vii)