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Bridgnorth Castle

Robert de Bellême was the builder of the Norman castle.

He was the oldest son of Roger of Montgomery, 1st Earl of Shrewsbury, who had him earmarked to control the family’s Normandy assets whilst the younger Hugh was assigned the assets in England and Wales. Bellême had already inherited his late (murdered) mother’s considerable Normandy assets. He now also inherits those Norman lands not previously owned by his mother (although both sons kept some land in the other’s counties). 

Bellême is sometimes remembered as de Belesme as well as, notoriously after laying waste large areas in 1098, Bellême the Devil. By all accounts, he is painted as ruthless, over-ambitious and uncompassionate as well as a cruel sadist. All, and more of which all was most probably accurate. But two caveats need to be said about the most significant personage in Bridgnorth’s history. One, most of what we know of his history is dominated by the chronicler Orderic, who seems to have a particular dislike for him. Orderic’s family hailed from Shropshire so perhaps an historical family slight or prejudice?  Whatever, he refers to him as a tyrant no less than 20 times – somewhat excessively? For just once comparison, Richard III is commonly ill-renowned as a ruthless, cruel, child murdering king but that picture is the one painted by Sir Thomas More, who was only aged 7 years at the time of Richard’s death at Bosworth. That embellished and far from 100% factual account was then used by Shakespeare and became definitive in the popular mind. Medieval epitaphs are often not contemporaneous: Spanish, and 1960s film medieval hero (and contemporary of Bellême) Rodrigo Diaz de Vivar is popularly known by his epithet ‘El Cid’ but recent studies have indicated that this was given to him posthumously some 50 years after his death. Secondly, we need to put him in the context of his compatriots in these medieval times. Both the two main players in this part of our story, Henry I and Robert, Duke of Normandy, thought nothing of mutilations, blinding, torture and, needless to say, murder, to get their way. When Henry discovered a group debasing the Crown’s coinage, he had them castrated and their right hands cut off. There is nothing to say that others would not act in similar ways, all somehow equating such acts as not prohibiting access to Heaven. At least King John, he with a penchant for other men’s wives, reportedly the personal murderer of his own nephew and a man with a trail of death and destruction behind him, had so much guilt on his shoulders that he wrote to the Pope begging for forgiveness. And his natural death was reinvented 50 years later as a murder by a monk. Another instance is the adverse picture painted by the Anglo-Normans of the Welsh being cruel and uncivilised but nothing they quoted was not duplicated in England and elsewhere.

Nonetheless, Bellême was a renowned soldier and engineer as well as an able administrator. He had been knighted by William in 1073. With two of his brothers, he had already actively participated in the ‘second’ Norman invasion of England in 1088 when Bellême accompanied Robert, the new Duke of Normandy, in an attempted but failed bid  to seize the English throne from the latter’s brother, William II.  Bellême was holed up Rochester Castle and it had only been because of Roger de Montgomerie’s intervention that William II spared the lives of both the garrison and his son. Although ostensibly with the King, it would appear Roger was somewhat duplicitous with strong sympathy for the Duke’s cause. The brothers received a royal pardon in exchange for substantial payments from their father to the King. However, any English property held by the brothers was confiscated.

Bellême is imprisoned on his return to Normandy and thus absent when the Duke of Normandy turned, in late 1088, on his old allies as well as the lands still held by Roger. He successfully besieged two Montgomerie-Bellême castles, Ballon and Saint-Céneri. The Duke then holds talks with the Roger. The peace terms include his son’s release but at the cost of forfeiting any claim on Saint-Céneri. But soon after, Bellême starts to build two new castles at Fourches and Goutier, bringing the Bellême tally to 40 on modern French soil.  1090 sees him reconciled with the Duke of Normandy, and becomes, according to Orderic Vitalis, a "principal councillor" and helps put down a rebellion in RouenIn in 1091 before laying siege to Couici castle. He carries further favour with the Duke by accompanying him on the First Crusade. He designs “most ingenious invention” siege equipment at the siege of Castle Brêval in 1092 that was apparently the clincher for the siege’s success. Orderic says he built machines that were wheeled up against the walls and then hurled stones. Stone throwing machines were then not mounted on wheels so more likely they were mounted on siege towers. It was common in the 1100s (e.g., Henry I at Pontaudemer, 1123) to have siege towers built taller than the opposing walls so as to be able to bring stones and arrows down upon the enemy ramparts. Bellême was now well established as an experienced castle builder & medieval engineer (e.g. he designs Castle Gisors in 1097) as well as being well versed in siege techniques. 

After some years spent fighting in France and the Holy Land as well as languishing in a Norman prison, Bellême’s English providence started to change from about 1094 and again makes himself invaluable to William II. In 1098 he was a major military cog in Williams II’s entourage, and they embark on a Maine campaign against Count Helias of La Fleche. Bellême captures the Count in April, handing him over to William.

Now firmly in William’s good books, things change even more for the better later that year. Bellême’s brother Hugh is killed on Anglesey, and he inherits all his lands & wealth, although a substantial sum of money (£3,000) had to be paid to the King whose memory of the events of 1088 remain with him despite their more recent military campaigning together. As a consequence, he becomes the wealthiest baron/earl in both Normandy and England.