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, Count of Anjou, and Eudon I of Brittany both sent contingents to accompany Duke William II of Normandy (William the Conqueror).

Geoffrey III’s Angevin troops fought in the west wing of the army, beside the Bretons, Poitevins and men of Maine.  “Geoffrey of Anjou” is named three times during the chanson, an indication that the provenance of the “Norman” Song of Roland was through Anjou, a county explicitly proud of its loyalty to the Carolingians.

“Richard of Normandy” might refer to Duke Richard II, but more likely his father Duke Richard I, an ancestor of both Eudon and the Conqueror.


Some backstory: after Richard’s father Count William I  “Longsword”, Count of Rouen, was assassinated on 17 December 942 during a peace conference with Arnulf, Count of Flanders, the ten-year-old Richard was imprisoned by Louis IV and Normandy was seized by the French.  Richard was however released by sympathetic nobles. Long story short, over the succeeding decades he painstakingly rebuilt Normandy, strengthened its military and forged diplomatic and marital alliances.

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 13,000 to 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 (some French websites say in 1060), Alan donated two churches in Rouen (Saint-Sauveur and Sainte-Croix-des-Pelletiers) to the abbey of St Ouen; this was attested by Duke William, who had previously gifted Sainte-Croix-des-Pelletiers 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. (I intend to expand on this in a post about the Bayeux Tapestry.)

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 (William, Ralph, Walter), why her eldest son 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 Princess Matilda as a (double-second) cousin of her father William I and, according to the Register of the Honour of Richmond, he owed her mother Queen Matilda for persuading the King to grant Earl Edwin’s lands in North Yorkshire to him. The grant occurred sometime between 1068 and 1071: my best estimate is early 1069 when Edwin’s brother Earl Morcar lost his lands – the northernmost going to Alan – for a rebellion they had led.

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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