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Conquest - 30: William's Kindred, Alan 'Rufus', Breton Lord of Richmond

Alan 'Rufus' was born around AD 1040 in Britanny

His father was Eudon or Odo, a Count of Brittany, an older maternal first cousin of Eadward, King of England. Grandmother Hawise of Normandy was daughter to Duke Richard I of Normandy who wedded Geoffrey I, Duke of Brittany, great-grandparents included Richard I, Duke of Normandy and Conan I of Rennes. During his reign Eadward gave Alan land in Suffolk including Wyken Farm. He would be awarded further lands around England by William.

The paramount Breton leaders such as Alan 'Rufus' were of the House of Vannes (known as the House of Rennes). Vannes (Morbihan) was the Gallic-speaking county of Brittany. Alan's father Eudon called himself 'Penteur', meaning clan chief in modern standard Breton.

The first castellan of Richmond Castle was Enisant Musard, husband to the half-sister of Alan 'Rufus'. Enisant was also Lord of Cheveley in Cambridgeshire. Downriver on the River Swale near Richmond Catterick was already an important military base in the days of Alan 'Rufus', and before him for the Romans when it was also a supply base for the garrisons on Hadrian's Wall. It is thought Count Alan had an important manor at Catterick, 'acquired' from predecessor Earl Eadwin of Mercia. The site of Richmond's castle overlooked the site of baptisms on the River Swale in the days when Northumbria was a kingdom, the Yorkshire side (south of the River Tees) being the northern boundary of Deira (see also the second and third part of the series: NORTHUMBRIA).

Nearby Middleham Castle, another of Alan's demesne, was rebuilt lower down the dale from its original site on a bluff near the approach to Coverdale. The original castle had been given by Alan 'Rufus' to his half-brother Ribald.

Much of the estate of Eadgifu, widow of Earl Gyrth, was awarded to Alan by William. As earl of East Anglia, his lands also ranged across Cambridgeshire, Norfolk and Suffolk. For his forbearing on Caldbec Hill, inland from Hastings, he earned the loyalty and respect of one of Gyrth's leading men, Almaer of Bourne. Alan had taken Almaer and a number of Gyrth's men captive, thus keeping them from being slain by William's Normans at the height of the slaughter.

It is unclear from primary sources what role - if any - he had in the 'Harrying of the North' in AD 1069-70. His name is not mentioned in connection with it. If we credit the Register of the Honour of Richmond* it seems Eadwin forfeited his lands in the region at the same time, a year earlier, as his younger brother Morkere who had been made Earl of Northumbria by the old king Eadward to replace Harold's younger brother Tostig.

The Register thanks William's queen, Matthilde or Matilda for the recommendation that Alan be granted those estates in the North Riding of Yorkshire (not long after giving birth to son Henry 'Beauclerc' at Selby). It would not have been in Alan's interests to devastate prosperous estates he had only recently been granted. Ruthless barons who had no land in the region, such as Geoffrey of Coutances and Eudo of Bayeux (or Odo, Earl of Kent) have been named as responsible, and again in AD 1080. This may have been the cause of animosity between Alan and Eudo, leading eventually to cross-channel conflict in AD 1088-91. Alan won, although he did not exult in his victory, and it would have remained unknown but for the witness of William de St Calais' unknown biographer, who ranked Alan with Prince Henry at the head of the barons in charters of William II. Alan's epitaph stated that he was 'second to the king'.

Alan 'Rufus' and Alan 'Fergant', which was which?

Henry I 'Beauclerc' was astute, and lucky to begin with. He inherited the crown of England despite being the fourth son born to the then King William I to reach manhood. Comprehensive royal victory over many powerful barons in AD 1088 greatly strengthened his authority. Henry completed the re-conquest of Normandy from England [that was] begun vigorously by William II and Alan - both known also as 'Rufus. Henry was known to promote his followers on merit, not by birth status which prompted a professional administration. The Exchequer gives a classic example of (an) emergent and effective government department.

Some confusion between Alan 'Rufus' and Alan 'Fergant' is persistent and dates back to the Norman chronicler known to us as 'Wace'. Most historians get it right, although the error has filtered into popular genealogy - much like Hereward 'the Wake' in romances such as Jean Plaidy;s Norman Conquest trilogy.

The exact relationship between the two is that Alan 'Rufus'', maternal uncle Hoel of Cornouaille was father to 'Fergant', whose mother Duchess Hawise of Brittany was maternal first cousin to 'Rufus'. They were therefore first cousins on one side and first cousins once removed on the other. Both were russet-haired and formidable military leaders. William I had no success against 'Fergant', so he gave the Breton his daughter Constance in appeasement.

Where does the name 'Fergant' come from? Most knights in those days wore gloves of natural fibres which wore out regularly with heavy riding and fighting. Whilst under siege for rebelling against the young Duke William, Roger of Montgomerie had a pair of replacement gloves poisoned in order to kill Alan III of Brittany, great grandfather of 'Fergant' and former guardian to William. The poison may - or not - have been Gallium, that enters the bloodstream through the pores of the skin, or it may be ingested when the wearer wipes his mouth after removing the glove.

Roger II of Montgomerie did the same to Conan II, son of Alan III. William was blamed for this although he was in England at the time. 'Fergant' probably realised this ruse, so he wore fine chain mail gloves that did not wear out. Alan 'Rufus' was smart enough not to fall for the ruse when Roger II rebelled AD 1088 against William II, (also 'Rufus'). He may have also worn fine chain gloves. Wace may have been right in a way, although he has succeeded in confusing others down the years.

Battle honours

Stephen Morillo (editor of the Battle Conference) has an interesting analysis of the turning point of the battle on Caldbec Hill.

According to several items of documentary evidence, Gyrth Godwinson - Harold's next younger brother and Earl of East Anglia - led an unmounted frontal assault on William's position. William's horse was cut from under him and he landed face downward in the mud. Seeing this, Gyrth sought to kill him but someone stopped him and Gyrth fell instead. Without his brother's experienced leadership at the front of the shieldwall Harold lost momentum (the next younger brother Leofric, Earl of Essex and North Kent had already fallen by this time).

William's chroniclers say he cut Gyrth down but Domesday evidence tells us that one of William's Breton allies rode to his rescue - either Ralph 'the Staller' or Alan 'Rufus'. Alan led William's household knights whilst Alan's brother Brian/Breon led the left wing with Haimo, Viscomte of Thouars. This put Alan in the perfect position to co-ordinate feints with Brian. The one would draw the inexperienced South Saxon fyrdmen forward, the other would follow in behind and isolate them. This was a modification of tactics used by the Bretons for centuries. A spectacular example of this comes in the Battle of Jengland, AD 851.

Alan 'Rufus' went on to fight many of William's battles (William owned up later to only leading his armies into battle twice in his life).

Richmond - certainly worth anyone's money

Richmond Castle and town in its setting at the crown of the hill, overlooking the Swale and backed by the Dales scenery

Richmond Castle and town in its setting at the crown of the hill, overlooking the Swale and backed by the Dales scenery

View from the castle keep over the Market Square of Richmond, the town that grew around the castle. The oldest part of town is closest to the castle

View from the castle keep over the Market Square of Richmond, the town that grew around the castle. The oldest part of town is closest to the castle


Due to his uniquely magnanimous approach and treatment of the beaten, he won the respect and admiration of the English.

He also somehow won the affection of Harold's younger daughter Gunnhild, who according to one account ran away from the nunnery at Wilton to which she had been taken for her safety, in order to be with him. Another version tells it differently, that in AD 1093 he had her abducted namely to secure his lands, formerly belonging to Gunnhild's mother Eadgytha 'Swan-neck' and left to her daughter.

His winsome ways also made enemies amongst the Normans. In AD 1088 Alan led a force that included Englishmen loyal to him, that defeated Odo and barons allied to him. This was followed AD 1091 with the annexation of half of Normandy on behalf of Henry I.

The year of his death varies in different sources, some saying he died August 4th, AD 1089, others AD 1093. The year AD 1093 has some basis, as he is considered to have died in the London blaze of that year and been interred at Bury St. Edmunds by the king's physician Baldwin. At the age of 53 he would still have been in a position to abduct or have Gunnhild abducted. She mourned his death deeply, although she did not mourn for long. She took up with namesake and cousin Count Alan 'the Black', who assumed control over his estate after his death.

© 2016 Alan R Lancaster


Alan R Lancaster (author) from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire) on January 15, 2018:

Zoetropo, a very detailed and informative comment from you deserves a vote of thanks from anyone who visits this page. History is a sort of 'jigsaw' puzzle, where pieces come from different sources. Between us, Geoffrey Tobin, you and me we've put together a 'tapestry' of our own in connection with my namesake (it's how the name Alan came to the UK and beyond)

zoetropo on January 15, 2018:

Perhaps of interest is that the name "Enisant Musard" is Occitan. The surname Musard occurs across southern France: in Bordeaux, and north, south and east of there. "Enisant" ("Enisandus" in Latin) is a classic south-west Occitan (i.e. Gascon) name-form. This is consistent with his eldest daughter's name "Garsiana", which is as Basque as a slightly Latinised feminine name can be.

Curiously, a little way south of Bordeaux is the land of Albret. The lords of this area are accounted as the third most important royal family in French history (since AD 1000, I imagine), after the Capets and Plantagenets.

The Albrets were sovereigns of the Basque country of Navarre. The mother of Henry IV, the first Bourbon king of France, was an Albret.

"Albret" is alternatively written as "Lebrit". This hints at an early British settlement in the region, perhaps yet another relic of Magnus Maximus's military strategy.

The placenames Albret and Lebrit occur across southern France, parallel to the Pyrenees.

Plotting all the places with "Bret" elements in their names, creates a pattern which is concentrated especially along the entire Atlantic coast of France (including the English Channel) and some way inland from there.

Britons also settled in Magnus's homeland of Galicia (Gallaecia) in northwest Spain, forming the dicoese of Britonia. Whether they also settled between there and Navarre, I don't yet know.

The Britons, Armoricans and Basques traded heavily by sea since pre-Roman times, across the Bay of Biscay and the Celtic Sea, so Enisant Musard's family may have had British connections of that nature for many centuries.

Enisant had two other daughters, Adeline and Emma, which are definitely not Gascon names, so one may have borne the name of his wife, who was Alan Rufus's otherwise unnamed half-sister.

Alan R Lancaster (author) from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire) on January 31, 2017:

Geoffrey, your comment is very detailed, thanks. There will be a few who benefit from that extra detail. He was ahead of his time, and was well respected by his English tenants for his fairness.

I restricted myself to Alan's own time in order to align the theme more directly to his overlord in England, and events linked to the 'Harrying of the North' in 1069-70. William's half-brother Odo did his level best to upset everyone by attacking Alan Rufus' land in 1069 after the rising. William tried to keep certain individuals onside - including Waltheof, who wedded the king's niece Judith but was implicated in the Revolt of the Earls and paid with his life outside the burh wall at Winchester.

Geoffrey Tobin on January 30, 2017:

Robert Sacchi is right about Alan Rufus: he was far ahead of his time.

William I granted all of Alan's tenants and employees the privilege of trading free of tolls, portage, cartage, customs fees, etc (the list of exemptions is long) across all of England. Court records show that this remained Law until the English Civil War of the mid-1600s.

The Honour of Richmond still existed when the English settled America, as reflected by the names of Boston and its suburb Cambridge where Harvard and MIT are. The surrounding counties are named after the counties in the Earldom of East Anglia.

Soon after Hastings, a commoner named Orwen, who had been wet-nurse to the infant Alan Rufus, sailed across the Channel to boldly petition him for a reward. He gave her the manor of Sibton in Suffolk.

After the Revolt of the Earls in 1075, Ralph de Gael's former soldier Mainard joined Alan's staff and became his Chamberlain. Orwen and Mainard met and fell in love, and Alan gave them his blessing to marry. Although Orwen was advanced in years, she bore two daughters; the elder, Gemma, inherited and her descendants held Sibton manor into the 1200s. Henry V had charters from Sibton Abbey concerning them and their serfs, the Dere family, copied into his royal records near the start of his reign, a couple of years before Agincourt.

Alan R Lancaster (author) from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire) on December 09, 2016:

Bill, with readers such as you it's a pleasure presenting history.

That's what it's all about, presentation. Trouble with most profs is they can see it but the art's in putting it across to them as can't. There's a Northern Irish comedian called Frank Carson, whose catchphrase is, "It's the way I tell 'em(arf-arf)!"

Now I'm no comedian - although some might argue that point - but p-r-e-s-e-n-t-a-t-i-o-n has to be the key to getting the message across, eh?

Sleep on that, enjoy your weekend too.

Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on December 09, 2016:

I'm thinking, Alan, that I wasted my time taking European History in college. I didn't like the prof anyway, and nothing stuck in my gray matter. Now, with you, everything sticks, and I get it for free.

Lesson learned, albeit a bit late in life. :)

Happy Weekend, friend.

Robert Sacchi on December 08, 2016:

Yes, one of the worst combinations is good soldiers with bad leaders.

Alan R Lancaster (author) from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire) on December 08, 2016:

Cost a lot of lives, though. Earl Haig (WWI) who took over from Sir John French had connections at court through his wife, who was a Lady-in-Waiting to George V's queen Mary. That's how he came to be Field Marshal on the Western Front. He single-handedly emptied half the towns in England of their menfolk (the 'Pals' Battalions' were drawn from industrial towns and villages, who knew one another from work or football teams). The Durham Light Infantry lost 80% of its men in one battle on the Somme. In subsequent wars the general staff have been more mindful of losing men, if not the ministers.

The Germans in WWI put it this way: "Lions led by donkeys"

Robert Sacchi on December 08, 2016:

That seems about the same in Europe and U.S. history. There are variations of course.

Alan R Lancaster (author) from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire) on December 08, 2016:

In Normandy, Flanders and Frankia (early France), if your surname was prefixed by 'De' chances were men listened to you and did what they were told. In times of war, though they had to prove themselves. By and large they were aggressive after years of training, but there were always those behind them, hungry for what their lords had. A common man-at-arms expected to "do or die, not to reason why".

After seven hundred years the De Montgomeries, the De Grays and FitzWalters were colonels, majors and captains in Cornwallis' army in New England, fighting the irregulars and Washington's troops. Their fathers bought their commissions. In Wellington's army that was on the way out, although even in WWI, even with colleges such as Sandhurst turning out professional officers, if you'd been to Eton, Harrow or Marlborough College you were instantly 'officer material'.

By WWII promotion came with outstanding performance, but unusual for men (or women by that time) who'd come up through the ranks. A private might hope at best to be Regimental Sergeant Major after years in the army, very few were 'booted up the ladder' to officer status. You had to have been at University or college (such as Eton or Harrow) and then Sandhurst to climb the ladder to Generalship.

Even now if 'Daddy' was a General chances are you might be... one day, if the terrorists don't get you first. If Dad was sergeant major you might aspire to get that far.

Robert Sacchi on December 08, 2016:

Alan 'Rufus' was an interesting person. Was promotion by merit unusual in that time?