GEOFFREY DE MOWBRAY, BISHOP OF COUTANCES

The Conqueror and His Companions

by J.R. Planché, Somerset Herald. London: Tinsley Brothers, 1874.

Of this unquestioned companion of the Conqueror we have already heard, in conjunction with his ecclesiastical brother-in-arms, Odo, Bishop of Bayeux, by whose side he fought, if not at Senlac, at least on other occasions, and at whose trial he presided when that rapacious primate was impleaded by Lanfranc for despoiling the see of Canterbury of much of its property.

Dugdale, apparently quoting Orderic Vital, says that Geoffrey, being of a noble Norman extraction, and more skilful in arms than divinity, knowing better how to train up soldiers than to instruct his clergy, was an eminent commander in that signal battle near Hastings, in Sussex.

The words of Orderic are not quite so precise as respects the battle; he says that the Bishop rendered essential service and support at it, but neither by him nor by any other writer is it indicated that he was intrusted with a command in it. Wace describes him as receiving confessions, giving benedictions, and imposing penalties on the night before the battle, but not as taking active part in the battle itself, though, with the prelate's pugnacious propensities, it is almost impossible to believe he could withstand the temptation. "The Sire de Moubrai," however, mentioned as a combatant by the Norman poet, was Roger de Moubrai, brother of the Bishop, and father of Robert de Mowbray, Earl of Northumberland.

Montbrai (Moubrai) is a commune in the canton of Percy, arrondissement of St. Lô. Its name was corrupted in England into Mowbray, which, after its assumption by the family of Albini, I need scarcely observe, became one of the noblest in England. Bishop Geoffrey appears to have preferred the name of St. Lô to that of Montbrai, and we find him therefore described as De Sancto Laudo and St. Loth.

The first time we hear of him after the battle is at the coronation of William in Westminster Abbey, when, "at the instigation of the Devil," says the pious Orderic, an unforeseen occurrence, pregnant with mischief to both nations and an omen of future calamities, suddenly occurred. For when Aldred, the Archbishop, demanded of the English, and Geoffrey, Bishop of Coutances, of the Normans, whether they consented to have William for their King, and the whole assembly with one voice, though not in one language, shouted assent, the men-at-arms on guard outside the Abbey, hearing the joyful acclamations of the people within in a language they did not understand, suspected some treachery, and rashly set fire to the neighbouring houses.

The flames spreading, the congregation, seized with a panic, rushed to the doors in order to make their escape, and a scene of the utmost confusion ensued, during which the ceremony of the coronation was with difficulty completed by the trembling clergy, the mighty Conqueror himself being seriously alarmed, not so much for his life as for the evil effects of this untoward event upon his new subjects.

In 1069, when the West Saxons of Dorset and Somerset made an attack on Montacute, Bishop Geoffrey, at the head of the men of London, Winchester, and Salisbury, fell upon them by surprise and routed them, putting many to the sword and miserably mutilating the prisoners.

In 1071 he was appointed to represent the King at the trial of Bishop Odo, on the complaint of the Archbishop of Canterbury, as already mentioned; and three years later we find him again in arms beside that same Odo, marching to suppress the rebellion of the Earls of Hereford and Norfolk, and for these and other services he was rewarded by the Conqueror with "two hundred and eighty vills, which are commonly called manors."

An assistant at the coronation of the Conqueror, he was in attendant at his funeral, and died on the 2nd of February, 1093-4, leaving his large domains in England to his nephew, Robert, Earl of Northumberland, son of his brother, Roger de Moubrai, who fought at Senlac, but of whom, strange to say, there appears no trace whatever of any benefit accruing to him for his services in that important action. His son, Robert de Mowbray, Earl of Northumberland, having joined in the conspiracy against William Rufus in 1095, was taken prisoner, and languished, we are told, thirty years in a dungeon at Windsor. Orderic describes him as distinguished for his great power and wealth, his bold spirit and military daring causing him to hold his fellow nobles in contempt, and being inflated with empty pride, he disdained obedience to his superiors. In person he was of great stature, size, and strength, of a dark complexion, and covered with hair. He was bold, but at the same time crafty. His features were melancholy and harsh. He reflected more than he tallied, and scarcely ever smiled when he was speaking.

It does not appear clearly by whom Robert de Mowbray was made Earl of Northumberland.

After the beheading of Waltheof, -- one of the worst of the many infamous acts of William the Conqueror, -- in 1075, the government of the province appears to have been confided to Walcher, Bishop of Durham, who was murdered during a popular commotion in 1079. The earldom was then, it would seem, conferred on one Alberic, a Norman by birth, of whom a strange story is told. Being a person of great authority, and not satisfied with his own condition, he consulted the Devil, and was told that he should possess Greece. Whereupon he made a voyage into that country; but when the Greeks understood that his object was to reign over them, they despoiled him of all that he had with him, and expelled him the realm. Wearied with travel he returned to Normandy, where King Henry gave him a noble widow in marriage, and the priest at the altar asking the woman, whose name was Gracia, "Wilt thou have this man?" the bridegroom was suddenly made aware of the illusion of the Evil one, --

"Keeping the word of promise to the ear
To break it to the hope."

If there be any truth in the fact of the marriage in the reign of Henry I, apart from the legendary portion of the story, how could Robert de Mowbray be Earl of Northumberland in the time of William the Conqueror, or even of his son Rufus?

As late as 1088 (1st of Rufus), Geoffrey, Bishop of Coutances, witnesses the charter of foundation of St. Mary's at York as Governor of the earldom: "Eo tempore Northymbrorum Consulatum regebat," -- an office which we have seen stated to have been held by Walcher, Bishop of Durham, after the judicial murder of Waltheof, and previous to the gift of the earldom to Alberic. The latter may have either resigned or forfeited the earldom when he left England on his Grecian expedition, and Bishop Geoffrey held the government of the county until his death in 1093, when his nephew Robert, succeeding to all his vast estates, was probably advanced to the dignity of Earl of Northumberland by Rufus. At any rate, I have not been able to arrive at any nearer approach to the fact.

The wife of this Robert was Matilda, daughter of Richer de l'Aigle, by his wife Judith, sister of Hugh, Earl of Chester. Orderic informs us that their union took place only three months before his insurrection, and that she was therefore early deprived of her husband, and long exposed to deep suffering, as during his life she could not, according to the law of God, marry again. At length by licence of Pope Paschal, before whom the case was laid by learned persons, after a long period Nigel de Albini took her to wife. Of her treatment by him we shall discourse hereafter. I have only mentioned the fact here as affecting the date of the dissolution of the marriage, Paschal II having succeeded to the chair of St. Peter, 15th June 1099, and dying 21st June 1118.

Orderic Vital says in his 7th Book, that Robert de Mowbray was detained in captivity by Rufus and his brother Henry for nearly thirty-four years, living to an advanced age, without having any children. In his 8th Book, he reduces the term to thirty years, adding that "he grew old while paying the penalty of his crimes." Admitting the shortest period, his death could not have occurred before 1125. Dugdale, who gives the earlier date of 1106, with the addition of the statement of his being shorn a monk at St. Albans, takes not the slightest notice of these contradictions. His reference is to Vincent's "Discoverie of Brooke's Errors;" but if it be an error of Brooke, who quotes no authority for his statement, Vincent has not corrected him, which he would have been too happy to do had it been in his power. The difference between eleven years and thirty, or four-and-thirty, is rather an important one; but I have been unable as yet to light upon any fact which would decide the question, which is only important in this inquiry as bearing upon another -- was he old enough in 1066 to be present at Hastings with his father Roger, "the Sire de Molbrai" of Wace, and therefore entitled to be included amongst the companions of the Conqueror? If so, he must have been close upon fifty at the time of his marriage, and, according to Orderic, an octogenarian at that of his death.