The Song of Roland: the Norman/Breton/Angevin rendition

Assuredly the most famous chanson de geste, the “Norman” version of the Song of Roland adds three people connected with the Battle of Hastings: Duke Richard of Normandy, Count Geoffrey of Anjou, and Eudon, Lord of Brittany.

Geoffrey III of Anjou and Eudon I of Brittany both sent contingents to accompany Duke William II of Normandy (William the Conqueror). Richard might refer to Duke Richard II, but more likely Duke Richard I, who rebuilt Normandy after its destruction by the French and the Bretons at the end of the rule of his father Count William I “Longsword” of Rouen.

Richard I was an ancestor of both Eudon and the Conqueror, and Geoffrey III’s troops fought in the west wing of the army, beside the Bretons, Poitevins and men of Maine.

Eudon sent an especially large assortment of troops, some say over a third of the total, allegedly comprising 4000 professionals (archers, crossbowmen, heavy and light cavalry, axemen) and 1000 levied spearmen.  He sent these in 100 ships (omitted from the Ship List) carrying some 50 men each (which is consistent with other numbers for Breton troop carrying vessels).  William’s army therefore would have had about 14,000 men in total.

The Bretons weren’t all in the west wing: an indeterminate number were in the Norman centre, where Eudon’s son Count Alan Rufus was a cavalry commander. In 1066×1067, Alan donated two churches in Rouen to the abbey of St Ouen; this was attested by Duke William, who had previously gifted one of those churches to Alan.

Gaimar claimed that Alan was instrumental in the victory that day, dealing the English “great damage”, while Wace wrote that “he [Alan] and the others struck so well that the battle was won”.

Domesday records that of Earl Gyrth’s manors, 29 went to the new King, and another 29 to Alan. One recalls the story of William losing his horse from under him and falling prone onto the ground, Gyrth seizing the opportunity to end the battle by slaying him, only to be stopped at the last moment.

To Alan went most of the estates (including all but one in Cambridgeshire) of the wealthy Eadgifu the Fair, thought by scholars to be identical with Edith Swannesha (“Gentle Swan”), Harold Godwinson’s first and Danish-law wife. Of interest is that Harold and she married about 1045, the year when King Edward the Confessor married Harold’s sister Edith of Wessex and Harold was made Earl of East Anglia, in the region where Eadgifu’s properties lay. The name Eadgifu occurs in Edward’s family tree, and he had a sister named Godgifu. So, if Eadgifu were a relative, perhaps a niece, of Edward’s, then the situation resembles a dynastic double marriage.

Now, Alan’s father Eudon was Edward’s eldest surviving maternal first cousin, so Alan may have received Eadgifu’s lands as a relative of hers among the victorious army. Certainly he took great care of her daughter Gunhild, who, after Alan’s death, wrote to Archbishop Anselm of Canterbury that she had loved Alan, and he had loved her. Anselm took this to mean a romantic affair, and Richard Sharpe has taken up this interpretation and run with it in his paper asserting that Matilda d’Aincourt was the daughter of Alan and Gunhild.

However, I favour Trevor Foulds’ suggestion that she was Princess “Matilda, daughter of the King”, so described in Domesday and a couple of other contemporary documents, as this would explain her sons’ names and why her eldest, William, has an epitaph stating that he was of royal descent, the naming patterns of the d’Aincourt descendants (no Alan, Eudon, Harold or Gunhild, but multitudes of Williams and Matildas) and why her husband Walter was entrusted with a royal writ of William II, in whose royal court William d’Aincourt was raised. As to why Matilda d’Aincourt was enabled by Alan to donate properties on his behalf, Walter was a close commercial and diplomatic associate of Alan’s, and Alan was of course related to Matilda as a (double-second) cousin of her father William I and he owed her mother Queen Matilda for persuading the King to grant Earl Edwin’s lands in North Yorkshire to him (some time between 1068 and 1071).

Orderic Vitalis wrote that the studious could write a long and pleasing history from true accounts of the singular and variable fortunes of Eudon’s sons; unfortunately, it seems that no-one has made the effort, and much evidence has since been lost or forgotten. Fortunately, much evidence still remains of Alan’s career, which, pieced together from various documentary and local anecdotal sources, is exceptionally interesting.

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