Sometimes, in the course of one’s studies, one encounters a character so memorable, either for greatness or for villainy, that that character simply cannot be forgotten. The early members of the Bellême family are most definitely such figures for me. In the violent and brutal milieu of Medieval Normandy, William ‘Talvas’ and his kin somehow managed to stand out as exemplars of savagery and cruelty that appalled even their own contemporaries. That is certainly an achievement, however grim, and this series of blog posts will describe the exploits of the House of Bellême and the notoriety which they achieved.
But first, we must begin with a disclaimer. As with much of early medieval history, we have a paucity of primary sources to consult regarding any given figure or event and are as such required to rely upon a single chronicler. This is obviously sub-optimal, as the chronicler is often extremely biased, and that naturally affects the version of history they bequeath to us.
This is certainly the case with regards to the early House of Bellême. Virtually everything we know about them and their exploits comes from the writings of one Orderic Vitalis, who chronicled the deeds of the de Bellêmes both in his Ecclesiastical History and in his interpolations to William of Jumièges’ Deeds of the Dukes of the Normans. The problem is that Orderic was a monk in the Abbey of St. Evroul, which was founded and patronized by the FitzGiroie family. As we shall soon see, that makes him extremely biased against the Bellêmes, and it shows in his work. While the broad strokes of Orderic’s depiction are true, one must still take his accounts with a grain of salt.
The House of Bellême’s seat of power was their castle at Bellême, held in fiefdom to the Counts of Maine. However, at the same time as they held Bellême from the Counts of Maine, they also obtained the castle of Alençon from Duke Richard I of Normandy and constructed a castle at Domfront without the Count of Maine’s permission. Domfront and Alencon dominated the border between Maine and Normandy, and the fact that they held these borderlands from both rulers meant that the Bellêmes were able to play each side off the other, which further contributed to the instability of the region. As a general rule, the House de Bellême opposed the Counts of Maine and supported their rivals, the Counts of Anjou, but on occasion they would ride into Normandy and cause mischief there as well.
William I of Bellême
From 1005, the lordship of Bellême was held by William I de Bellême, an extremely capable and fearsome warrior. William was famous for his depredations against his neighbors, and he definitely has no admirers among our chroniclers, who paint the House of Bellême in the darkest terms. And in many senses this opprobrium was probably deserved – the House of Bellême was probably the single most destabilizing factor along the Norman frontier. For example, we are told that William’s second son, Warin, decapitated one of his knights for no reason at all, simply because the man had greeted him happily. Shortly thereafter Warin was dead, killed by either apoplexy or murder, depending on which source you consult.
The House of Bellême had been in near-constant warfare with the Counts of Maine for decades, but the first record we have of them causing trouble in Normandy comes in 1027, when William de Bellême took advantage of the instability of Duke Robert the Magnificent’s rule (1027-1035) and rose in rebellion. Duke Robert, however, easily put down the rebellion when he marched on Alençon and laid siege to the castle, forcing William to unconditionally surrender to him. As part of his surrender, William de Bellême was forced to humiliate himself by walking on foot from the city to the Duke, wearing a saddle on his back. Robert, not wishing to antagonize the powerful lords of Bellême, pardoned him and allowed him to keep his castles.
But William de Bellême was not the sort of man to just quiet down after he had been beaten. Shortly after his surrender, he was at it again, and he sent a raiding party into Normandy under the command of his eldest son, Fulk. The raiders, however, were intercepted and slaughtered, almost to a man, with Fulk among the slain as well. Reportedly, when William heard of the catastrophe, he too fell into a fit and died.
Robert de Bellême
William de Bellême had six children, Fulk, Warin, Robert, Yves, William, and Benoit. Fulk died in the raid we just mentioned, Warin was the one who beheaded his own knight and then died under mysterious circumstances, while Benoit, the youngest, became a monk. That left Robert, Yves, and William. Robert, the eldest, succeeded his father to the lordship of Bellême, but in the early 1030s he came to a sticky end.
In keeping with his family’s penchant for raiding their neighbors’ lands, Robert of Bellême led a raid into Maine. However, he was captured by a local lord, and dumped in a dungeon in the castle at Ballon. Angry at their lord’s imprisonment, a number of Robert of Bellême’s knights under the command of William fitz Giroie launched a punitive raid into Maine. When the Count of Maine met them in battle, they defeated his forces and put them to flight, capturing a prominent knight, Walter de Surdon, along with two of his sons.
This, of course, was nothing unusual. But then the victorious knights went ahead and hanged Walter and his two sons as though they were common criminals. This absolutely infuriated Walter’s three surviving sons, and they burst into the cell where Robert de Bellême was being held. Well, they had axes in their hands, and suffice it to say Robert didn’t have a very pleasant day.
William II ‘Talvas’
After Robert’s death he was succeeded by his next brother, Yves. In 1035, the same year as William succeeded his father as Duke of Normandy, Yves also managed to obtain the bishopric of Sees. Yves delegated control of the Norman-Mayennois border to William, who embarked on an aggressive campaign to increase the House of Bellême’s influence in southern Normandy. So effective was William II of Bellême that he became known as William ‘Talvas’, after the shield he was always bearing.
Earlier, we mentioned that the commander of the force that hanged Walter de Surdon and his two sons in revenge for the capture of William I de Bellême (and thus inadvertently caused William I to be hacked to pieces) was William FitzGiroie. This William FitzGiroie was the lord of Echauffour and the head of the FitzGiroie family. As a general rule, William FitzGiroie fought on the Bellêmes’ side in their incessant wars against the Counts of Maine, but sometimes it got more complicated, as William FitzGiroie wasn’t only a vassal of William de Bellême. He also held estates from the Dukes of Normandy and Geoffrey, the lord of Mayenne.
In the mid-1040s, William Talvas went to war against Geoffrey of Mayenne. His chief target was a particular castle which was under the control of Geoffrey of Mayenne, but which he had granted to William FitzGiroie. Naturally, in this case William FitzGiroie resisted William Talvas’ attacks, but shortly thereafter, William Talvas succeeded in capturing Geoffrey de Mayenne himself in battle. Now that he held his enemy prisoner, William Talvas demanded that Geoffrey de Mayenne order the destruction of the castle he had granted William FitzGiroie. However, FitzGiroie went ahead and tore down his castle even before Geoffrey de Mayenne demanded it. In gratitude for his knight’s loyalty, Mayenne built FitzGiroie an entirely new castle right near Sées, at St. Cenery.
All of this chumming around between his knight and Geoffrey de Mayenne was too much for William Talvas to handle. It was one thing for William FitzGiroie to do his duty and not surrender Geoffrey de Mayenne’s castle to him, but the zeal with which FitzGiroie destroyed his own castle and the fact that Geoffrey de Mayenne just built him another one made William Talvas burn with jealousy.
So, William Talvas did what any reasonable man in his position would. Upon the occasion of his second marriage, he invited William FitzGiroie to celebrate with him. William FitzGiroie suspected that he might be imprisoned by the disgruntled William Talvas, but he went anyway. After all, what was William Talvas able to do to him? He was just keeping faith with his lord.
Well, as it turned out, a lot, since William Talvas was an absolute madman. Oh, did I mention why William Talvas was on his second wedding? Well, according to Orderic Vitalis, it was because he had two of his goons strangle his first wife to death on her way to church, since she wouldn’t participate in one of his schemes. When William FitzGiroie arrived, William Talvas had his men seize him, beat him savagely, and then horribly mutilate him. His eyes were gouged out, his ears torn out, and his nose sliced off. Somehow, William FitzGiroie managed to survive this brutal attack, and he retired to the Abbey of Le Bec to spend the rest of his life as a monk.
Anyway, the remaining brothers of William FitzGiroie were most unamused, to put it mildly. They assemble their own knights and confederates and ravaged the lands of the Bellêmes, while William Talvas, unwilling to risk meeting the infuriated FitzGiroies in the field, simply sheltered behind his castle walls. At about this time, very likely in reaction William Talvas’ highly unpopular actions, his son Arnulf spearheaded a revolt against his father, forcing him into exile, penniless.
To be continued in part two…
David Bates, Normandy Before 1066. New York: Longman Group, 1982.
Gesta Normanorum Ducum of William of Jumièges, Orderic Vitalis, and Robert of Torigni, ed. and trans. Elisabeth M. C. van Houts, 2 vols. OMT (Oxford, 1992-5).
Kathleen Thompson, ‘Family and influence to the south of Normandy in the eleventh century: the lordship of Bellême’, in Journal of Medieval History, 11:3, pp. 215-226.
Geoffrey White, ‘The First House of Belleme’, in Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, Vol 22 (1940), pp. 67-99.