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Robert Curthose

Where was Robert Curthose, the rightful claimant to the throne? Well, he was, of course, Duke of Normandy, and it so happened that at this time he was away on a crusade. Robert had been absent for four years and had been an extremely successful crusader. The Christian leaders had even offered to make him King of Jerusalem, but this he had turned down. Instead, he had decided to return home to his Dukedom of Normandy and was actually on his way back just as his young brother Henry was having himself crowned King of England.

Henry knew that he would inevitably have to face a showdown with Robert, so he did everything possible to settle himself firmly on the throne before Robert could turn up. Within just three months he married Princess Matilda of Scotland, who was descended from Alfred the Great. This was a brilliantly clever political marriage, as it pleased both the Scots and the Saxon English. He re-established the laws of the Conqueror; repealed the unpopular laws of Rufus; got rid of undesirable nobles; and recalled Anselm, Archbishop of Canterbury, back from France, where he had been hiding from Rufus.

Robert finally arrived in England the following year, landing at Portsmouth with his invading army and then marching purposefully inland to meet Henry and his defending army at Alton in Hampshire. There was a tense moment when the opposing armies formed a huge circle and the two brothers walked towards each other in the middle. It speaks much for Henry's very considerable negotiating skills that within minutes he and Robert were hugging each other in an astonishing display of reconciliation.

Sadly, the friendship did not last. A few years later Robert was making such a nuisance of himself that Henry invaded Normandy to settle his brother once and for all. In a resounding victory at Tinchebray, about 40 miles west of Avranches, Henry captured Robert and established himself as Duke of Normandy. History had come full circle, for Henry was now both King of England and Duke of Normandy, just as his father the Conqueror had been.

Robert, who might easily have been King Robert I of England if only Henry had not been so ruthless and determined, was captured at the Battle ofTinchebray in 1106. It is astonishing to remember that after this battle Henry kept his elder brother captive for the rest of his life, holding him in a succession of castles: in Wareham, Dorset; Bristol; and finally Cardiff. Robert survived the Battle of Tinchebray by almost twenty-eight years and died in 1134, aged eighty, only a few months before Henry himself. Robert is buried in Gloucester Cathedral, where there is a fine wooden effigy of him in crusader's armour.

How sad it is to think that this once-powerful warrior, eldest son of the Conqueror and once the wealthy Duke of Normandy who actually turned down the honour of becoming King of Jerusalem, should have spent his long final years trying to learn Welsh in Cardiff Castle. Passing the tedious days there he wrote a gentle little poem in Welsh about a tree which he could just see from the draughty window of his cell. Visitors to Cardiff Castle can go into the old castle keep where Robert was imprisoned, and a small picture of him is painted among the fanciful nineteenth-century decorations of the rebuilt banqueting hall.

One of the fascinating 'ifs' of history is the question of how the English monarchy would have developed after Rufus, if only Robert had taken over.

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